Block Size Political Economy Follow-Up 3: Differentiation from the 21-million Coin Production Schedule

Continues from Part 2.

One popular argument compares the Bitcoin block size limit to the coin production schedule that sets up a terminal maximum of 21 million bitcoins that can ever be created. Raising the block size limit, this argument continues, could set a precedent for changing the coin production schedule, and then what? Changing the block size limit opens up a slippery slope that could threaten to lead to the end of cryptocurrency standards and boundaries. Just as the coin limit is an essential value proposition of Bitcoin, so other types of limits must be conservatively protected as well.

How can this type of argument be considered?

First, note that this represents an approach opposite to the one I have taken. I have identified and discussed the block size limit as something uniquely and importantly different within Bitcoin from an economic standpoint. The above argument, in contrast, presents these different “limits” as quite similar to one another for this purpose and therefore ripe for analogizing.

Next, one might note how Bitcoin started with its production schedule already in place, whereas the block size limit was added about 20 months later and at just under 1,200 times larger than the average block size of the time. The limit’s original proponents defended it from critics as a merely temporary measure and thus of no real concern.

A common retort to such observations is, in effect, “that was then, this is now.” The project is at a more advanced stage. The current developers have more experience and a more mature view than the early pioneers. The system now carries far more value and the stakes are higher. Today, we can no longer afford to be so cavalier as to just put a supposedly temporary limit right into the protocol code where it could prove difficult to change later…

That is…we can no longer be so cavalier as to just remove such a previously cavalierly added temporary limit...That is…it is time to move on from reciting old founder tales and look to the present concerns.

And indeed, such matters of historical and technical interpretation are subject to many differing assessments. However, there is an altogether different and more enduring level on which to consider this matter. There are substantive economic distinctions between a block size limit and a coin production schedule that render the two remarkably different in kind and thus weaker objects for analogy than they could at first appear.

When “any number will do” and when it will not

This is because raising the total quantity of a monetary unit by changing its production schedule has completely different types of effects from changing the total quantity of a given service that can be provided. Producing an increased quantity of a given cryptocurrency is entirely unlike producing an increased quantity of transaction-inclusion services. This follows from a unique feature of monetary units as contrasted with all other economic goods and services. An arbitrary initial setting for the production of new coins (which operates to define an all-time maximum possible production quantity) works quite well for a cryptocurrency, but does so only for unique and distinctive reasons.

With money, barring certain divisibility issues of mainly historical interest, any given total quantity of money units across a society of users facilitates the same activities as any other such total quantity. This includes mediating indirect exchange (facilitating buying and selling), addressing uncertainty through keeping cash balances (saving; the yield from money held), and facilitating lending and legitimate commercial credit (not to be confused with “credit expansion”). The particular total number of money units across a society of money users is practically irrelevant to these functions. What is critical to a money unit’s value is users’ confidence that whatever this total number (or production schedule) is, money producers cannot arbitrarily alter it, especially upward, so as to rob money holders through devaluation.

Subject to constraints of mineral reality.

Subject to constraints of mineral reality.

A hypothetical model of physical commodity money production on a free market differs in certain important respects from both cryptocurrency and fiat money and bank-credit models. We should therefore closely consider the meaning of arbitrary with regard to these distinct cases.

With precious metal coins produced by ordinary businesses on a free market, the number of units cannot be increased arbitrarily for reasons rooted directly in physical constraints. Each additional precious metal coin to be produced requires specific scarce materials and energy combined with various manufacturing and other business costs, from mining to minting. Each such coin is much like any other good produced and exchanged on the market in that it is a product to be used in the market as money as opposed to a product to be used in the kitchen as dinner. Material scarcity itself protects money users from rouge money producers by preventing arbitrary changes to the quantity of money units. Changes in quantity supplied reflect supply and demand for such coins, including marginal production costs, as with other products.

In sharp contrast to this, a state-run system of fiat money and bank credit supports “flexible” increases in the “money supply.” These are arbitrary in that, unlike hypothetical commercial precious metal coin makers, these legally privileged money producers can generate additional money units at little to no cost to themselves. Notes can be printed and differing numbers of zeroes can be designed into printing plates as the denomination at no difference in printing cost. Likewise, cartel-member bankers can issue “loans” of nothing, filling customer accounts with what has been aptly described as “fountain pen money,” limited to a degree by the current policies and practices of those managing the banking cartel (“regulators,” etc.). Legal frameworks provide some protection for users of such money, most of the time (except when they do not), but such protections are far weaker and less reliable than those from the harder constraints of mineral reality.

Against this backdrop, some cryptocurrencies, led by Bitcoin, feature a novel and innovative third way to protect money users from arbitrary increases in new add-on supply. A production schedule can be specified within the effective definition of what a given cryptocurrency is.

Now in considering the exact number of possible units of a given cryptocurrency, consider two almost identical parallel universes, A and B, which differ in only one respect. Assuming sufficient divisibility in both cases (plentiful unit sub-division is possible), 30 widgetcoins out of a 300-trillion widgetcoin supply across a given society in Universe A carry the same purchasing power as 60 halfwidgetcoins out of a 600-trillion halfwidgetcoin supply across a given society in Universe B.

In each universe, one can buy the same kilogram of roast beef, in one case with 30 units, in the other with 60. Since the 300-trillion versus 600-trillion total money supply is the only difference between these two universes, it makes no difference whether the roast beef is bought with 30 units in Universe A or with 60 units in Universe B. Since the people in the two universes are wholly accustomed to their own respective numerical pricing conditions, their psychological and felt interpretations of the value associated with “30” in the one case and “60” in the other, are likewise indistinguishable.

Naturally, many individuals and organizations in any universe dream of having “more money.” For example, considering that 20 units of a good is worth more than 10, it is easy to equate having more units with having more wealth. Twenty good apples represent an amount of wealth (ordinally) greater than 10 such apples do. This is also the case with holding quantities of the same monetary unit. Twenty krone represents more wealth than 10.

But the crucial point now arrives: the foregoing “more is better” with regard to money applies to the number of units in a given party’s possession, but does not apply—as it does with ordinary non-money goods and services—to the wealth of the society of money users as a whole. Viewed across an entire society, intuitive associations from personal and business experience between larger numbers and greater wealth do not translate into a way to raise overall wealth. Political funny-money schemes with names such as “monetary policy” and “credit expansion” instead produce only sub-zero-sum transfers of wealth from some monetary system participants to others. Such transfers produce win/lose results in which some gain at the expense of others, not to mention the additional net losses from the transfer process itself (thus sub-zero-sum).

With Bitcoin, when the initial design was set—but not afterwards—42 million units, or other possible numbers, would have been as serviceable as 21 million. After the system launched, however, no general benefits could follow from increasing the quantity of possible bitcoins beyond their initially defined schedule. Such a later increase would instead tend to 1) reduce the purchasing power of each unit below what it would have otherwise been, 2) transfer wealth to recipients of new add-on units away from all other holders of existing units, 3) raise uncertainty about the coin’s reliability, likely depressing its market value with an uncertainty discount, 4) create demand for an analog of a “Fed watching industry” that speculates on what might happen next with the malleable production schedule, and 5) give rise to an industry of lobbyists, academics, and other experts dedicated to influencing such decisions.

While the block reward framework does indeed also “transfer wealth” in a sense to miners from existing bitcoin holders as in item (2) above, it crucially does so only in a predefined way, knowable to all participants in advance. The block reward schedule, defined before launch, provides a form of compensation for mining services in the system’s early days. This has enabled the system to evolve and succeed from its launch to the present. This follows not from any arbitrary change to the production schedule, but merely from the ongoing operation of the production schedule initially set.

One free pass only

In sum, a peculiar characteristic of money units when viewed across an entire society of money users provided a one-time and unique economic free pass for setting an arbitrary number of possible bitcoins at 21 million. This free pass could only be valid before initial launch (prior to 2009, or at the very latest, prior to the evolution of any tradable unit value). Changing the schedule later, especially in such a way as to increase unit creation, would have completely different and wholly negative effects from a systemic perspective.

Now returning to non-money goods and services the case is quite different again. The foregoing unique monetary free pass is entirely absent, whether after launch or before it. When non-money goods and services are likewise viewed at the level of a given society as a whole, “almost any number will do” does not apply. An increased total quantity of a non-monetary good or service supplied can be in the general interest, not only in special interests. It can be win/win and not win/lose. If there are more apples or cattle to go around in a given society (as opposed to just more pesos), this does tend to lower the costs of acquiring those goods in a meaningful way. This does enhance wealth in society, not just transfer it around. It represents a real increase in production, not just a “flexible” money fraud as in the case of arbitrary inflation on the part of money producers.

Miners provide one such ordinary “non-money” service when including a given transaction in a candidate block. This is a scarce service provided (or not) to a specific end user by specific miners. It does not fall under the unique category of the total number of monetary units in a society of money users. The total possible number of bitcoins, however, does fall under this unique category. The two numbers differ in kind and for that reason make poor objects for analogy. Both may, indeed, be viewed as “limits,” but it is important to recognize the contrasting economic roles and natures of these two types of limits.

The m's and b's of millibitcoin redenomination

We could change where the display shows the decimal point. Same amount of money, just different convention for where the [commas and periods] go…moving the decimal place 3 places would mean if you had 1.00000 before, now it shows it as 1,000.00.

—“Satoshi Nakamoto,” February 10, 2010

In the Kingdom of Geekdom, my €2.60 espresso this morning might have cost 0.0283 BTC (at the 90-day weighted moving average of €92/BTC), perhaps pronounced “point zero two eight three bitcoins.”

Such a string of sounds could only happily emerge from the mouths of card-carrying Geekdom denizens channeling Mr. Spock himself, but it would be most unlikely to pass the lips, or be long tolerated by the ears, of the average Katie, Hans, Taiwo, or Eijiro on the streets of this planet.

And thus a resurgence of interest in changing the standard Bitcoin denomination from a bitcoin (1 BTC) to a millibitcoin (0.001 BTC) has taken shape on the Bitcoin Forum with an informal survey. The top responses to “Should we start using mBTC as the standard denomination?” are 53% for “Yes,” and 20% for “After the price is at $1,000, dollar parity for the mBTC.”

Maybe, but what do we say at checkout?

Designed for convenience at much lower value levels, the initial standard “bitcoin” unit, which equals 100 million satoshis, the more fundamental unit within the Bitcoin system, has grown to become far too valuable for most people’s ordinary way of thinking and speaking about prices. A bitcoin has traded over the past several weeks mainly in the $110–$130 range with the 90-day weighted moving average now just shy of $120. Unlike bitcoin exchange values from earlier years—a few cents and later a few dollars—most ordinary items now have to be bit-priced entirely within the decimal point range, although the luxury houses and cars at Bitpremier could just stay priced in bitcoins. A hypothetical rise to $1,000/BTC would greatly amplify this situation.

A redenomination would only impact the way price numbers are displayed and discussed and would make no fundamental changes to values held. A person with 1 bitcoin could just as well be said instead to have 100 centibitcoins or 1,000 millibitcoins.

In contrast, when political money managers talk of devaluation, redenomination, and most recently “easing,” such machinations actually do signal an active manipulation of purchasing power (always to its detriment). This current discussion simply seeks consensus on practical and linguistic conveniences by, for, and among the wholly self-selected community of participating Bitcoin developers, service providers, merchants, consumers, traders, and even observers.

Yet the difficulties of finding spoken language for naming this new unit, language capable of seeing wide global adoption in everyday use, have proven a lingering challenge. To address this topic, I will draw on conventional pricing usages in several different countries and languages in search of common patterns to use as criteria. I will then apply these criteria to existing proposals for a spoken-language name for the too technical “millibitcoins,” and then offer two suggestions, the second of which I have not yet seen proposed elsewhere.

Before moving on, let us be sure to put this whole “problem” in perspective. This is a “sound-currency problem,” in the sense of the “first-world problems” meme. A rising currency and falling prices of goods and services denominated in it are the kinds of “problems” most people ought to be happy to face. The long, sad history of declining political currency values has systematically punished savers and planners and rewarded debtors and those with less effective foresight, leading to shortening time horizons and eroding senses of personal responsibility.

Falling currency values leave families struggling to meet ever-rising prices for goods and services. By several estimates, the United States dollar, for example, has lost some 97%–98% of its value since its “management” was assigned to the Federal Reserve System in 1913 (I refer those who fear falling prices, the deflation-phobic, to my 29 March 2013, A short Bitcoin commentary on “Deflation and Liberty” and the works linked from it).

Speaking of prices

Since the Bitcoin network spans this entire planet, such linguistic research ought to begin by at least attempting to reference practices in several countries and major languages. I will select examples below from the US, Germany, and Japan, based simply on my own degree of direct familiarity with each (please add other instructive usage examples in the comments). The three numerical examples below are of roughly similar purchasing power in each zone, probably enough to buy another espresso.

The first thing I notice is that it is common to use two decimal places, “cents” after a main unit. Second, in shopping language, the unit names are often omitted altogether. Thus, in the US, a spoken “two-sixty” means two dollars and sixty cents ($2.60). In Germany, “zweisechzig” likewise means two euros and sixty cents (€2.60), or more formally “zwei euro sechzig” (but still most often omitting “zent”). Omitting the unit is facilitated in both cases in the same way: two individual numbers are spoken in sequence, the first specifying the whole unit; the second, hundredths of it.

In Japanese, ¥260 is “nihyaku rokujuu-en”. Here, there is no decimal point, but in effect “hyakuen” (¥100) takes the place of the base unit in the dollar and euro examples. The “yen” (actually pronounced “en”) is not omitted in speech, but it only takes a quick syllable to say it and units are not optional in general. The “hyaku,” also lightning fast to say in Japanese, already works to create a division in ¥260 between the two hundreds and the sixty. This makes it less functionally different from the English and German examples than it might at first appear.

Generally speaking, when the names of currency units are not contextually omitted in speech altogether, they can almost always be pronounced in just two syllables: dollars, euros, pesos, kronas, rubles, rupees…bitcoins. In contrast, “millibitcoin” or “mBTC” (pronouncing each letter) each take up a hefty four syllables and are as such unlikely to survive in non-technical spoken usage.

The bit is dead; long live the bit?

So, what might that unit be called in ordinary speech? Some commentators have identified a problem with “coin.” It is by nature indivisible. On the other hand, “the coin of the realm” does give a more uncountable sense of a money in use in a particular place.

Either way, this provides an easy opportunity to cut out a syllable, and with “coin” duly exiled, proposals for spoken options for millibitcoin have included “millibits,” “embits,” “mills,” “mill,” “millies,” and “bits.” Those thinking way ahead have already termed a microbitcoin (0.000001) a “Mike,” presumably the thin, but loving partner of the much heftier Millie.

“Millibits” came out ahead in an informal naming poll for millibitcoin way back on May 14, 2011. Unfortunately, at three syllables, it is still a mouthful for everyday speech, exceeding the conventional two syllable mainstream for currency unit names.

You want change? Anybody got some tools?

“Bits,” at just one syllable, already have a long and storied history in coinage. For centuries, the Spanish silver dollar was a preferred unit of global trade due to its relative freedom from debasement of silver content and its wide international adoption. The peso de a ocho coin was worth eight reales and became known as “pieces of eight” in English, giving pirate parrots something to prattle on about. It has also been said that certain coins were physically cut into eight pieces or “bits” as a way to improvise around small-change shortages using the resulting sharp metallic pie pieces. I am not sure of the ratio of fiction to fact on that one.

The resulting related use of “two bits” to mean a quarter dollar has only recently been fading out of informal use in the US after a long run. Unfortunately, fiat inflation eventually left a quarter dollar unable to buy much of anything and the meaning of “two-bit” declined with it, coming to characterize something of poor quality. A “two-bit coffee” might thus sound rather dilute to modern ears.

Could “bit” be brought back in a decimal-based, high-tech reincarnation? A millibitcoin (0.001 BTC) is now trading at about US $0.13. Twenty of these might buy that espresso at $2.60 and “twenty millibitcoins” (20 mBTC; 0.020 BTC) might be shortened in speech to “twenty bits.”

The centibit challenge and foodie what-ifs

If such bits stood for centibitcoins (0.01 BTC) instead of millibitcoins (0.001 BTC), that espresso might cost about “two bits” after all (assuming $130/BTC). With centibitcoins, a family sushi dinner that might add up to $65.95 would come to “fifty (bits) seventy-three,” or the waiter could say, “in Bitcoin, that’s fifty seventy-three.” That’s 50.73 centibitcoins versus 507.3 millibitcoins and 0.5073 bitcoins.

A centibitcoin redenomination could thus bring things into a familiar range for dollar and euro users right away. At around $130/BTC, a centibitcoin would trade for $1.30, €1.00, and ¥100. That seems intuitively perfect, but only under approximately current rates.

Bitcoin exchange values could stay level or fall. Expecting a long, level trend or modest decline would speak in favor of centibitcoins as the standard unit. If Bitcoin does continue to climb impressively, though, how long before its dollar exchange value adds another digit?

Let us say that the bulls have it and the exchange value of a bitcoin moves to $500 and then $1,000 over the next several years. How would these two alternative redenominations then play out with some everyday examples?

At $500 per bitcoin, a $2.60 espresso would cost 0.0052 bitcoins, 0.52 centibitcoins, and 5.20 millibitcoins. Millibitcoins would win according to the balance of the above criteria (“in Bitcoin, that’ll be five twenty”). The big sushi dinner would be 0.1319 bitcoins, 13.19 centibitcoins, and 131.90 millibitcoins. In this case, either one might look okay.

At $1,000 per bitcoin, the espresso would cost 0.0026 bitcoins, 0.26 centibitcoins, and 2.60 millibitcoins. Millie would win. The sushi would then come to 0.06595 bitcoins, 6.595 centibitcoins, and 65.95 millibitcoins, and millie would win again.

While a centibitcoin transition would make sense for now, an assumption of further exchange value growth would point in favor of the proposed millibitcoin unit. Either way, a redenomination could well be positive. A key challenge for Bitcoin entrepreneurs is helping to broaden adoption into more frequent everyday payments and purchases. Making Bitcoin units easier for contemporary people to talk about in everyday language and think about closer to everyday price numbers could well be helpful.

So how about just putting “m” and “B” together?

“Embies” (mB) is another option I have proposed based on pronouncing “m” and “b”. The B can also be written with the proposed Bitcoin currency symbol when it makes its way into standard character sets. Embie matches the conventional two-syllable criteria. It strikes me as easy to pronounce on a multilingual basis. It also seems friendly and familiar; it could be a pet’s name. I find it easier to say than the two-syllable “embits” candidate. Not all sets of two syllables are equally easy to pronounce.

Still, some people seem to hate it, while others like it. It may be that the name for BTC 0.001 that will prevail in the end has not yet been coined.


For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.


Hyper-monetization: Questioning the "Bitcoin bubble" bubble

What is the opposite of this? Sweeping up in 1946 after the hyperinflation of the Hungarian pengő. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum Történeti Fényképtára, Budapest.

What is the opposite of this? Sweeping up in 1946 after the hyperinflation of the Hungarian pengő. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum Történeti Fényképtára, Budapest.

Many observers have likened the rise of Bitcoin to an asset bubble. It is so customary today to use the “bubble” word in articles about Bitcoin that there may in fact be a sort of “bubble” bubble.

Another less common word introduced in this context is hyper-deflation. Some say such a thing is horrible, others that it is great. I suggest a quite different possible interpretation of these events and a word to label them: hyper-monetization.

I first heard the term “hyper-deflation” (used in a positive sense) when Bitcoin was rising rapidly from the low thirties to the high thirties over a few days in early March (Yes, this was only a month ago). While a few specialists of a certain persuasion understand “deflation” to be a great thing for ordinary people (see, for example, my 30 March 2013 post, “A short Bitcoin commentary on Deflation and Liberty”), the word still has a public-relations problem. Along with some technical issues from its several possible definitions (price level changes versus quantity of money changes, for example), and negative interpretations in conventional economics circles, it just sounds depressing, regardless of the stated technical sense in which one attempts to use it.

The word “hyper-monetization” first occurred to me around that time as a more positive term, and perhaps a more accurate antonym for the catastrophic hyperinflations that have repeatedly killed off fiat paper monies throughout their history. A related term, “de-monetization,” denotes the process of a widely used medium of exchange ceasing to function as such.

A total hyperinflationary collapse is one way de-monetization can happen. Another type of historical example of de-monetization is “bimetallist” legal tender price-fixing schemes driving one precious metal, say silver, out of circulation in favor of another metal, say gold. Yet another historical example is when a pure fiat paper standard is created after monetary authorities permanently “suspend redemption” of their legal tender notes into the precious metals they had promised to deliver.

The opposite process of “monetization” denotes something that was not a money beginning to function as one. When euros took over the respective jobs of various European national currencies, euros monetized and the previous national currencies de-monetized. Now they are historical paper relics, but no longer function as monies.

In contrast to such a legal tender conversion/transition, however, something that gains exchange value from scratch on the open market (rather than taking up exchange value through a conversion)—and does so at a logarithmic pace—might then reasonably be described as being in a process of “hyper-monetization.”

The trouble with the “bubble” bubble

Bitcoin’s high historical and current price volatility is unquestioned. However, one problem with the “bubble” analysis is that in an asset bubble, certain fundamental matters are quite different. In a business cycle mania phase, prices of the most popular asset classes for that particular cycle are bid up as people pile their freshly printed fiat money and freshly produced fiat bank account digits into booming fields. Each party in this rush competes with all the others to acquire some of the bubbling assets. These people are misled by artificially low interest rates to bid up certain asset prices unsustainably, and this all eventually collapses, as described in Austrian business cycle theory.

However high the prices of bubble assets go, they do remain the same goods. In the case of a monetization event, though, the practical use-value of the trading unit (not only its price in terms of other goods or monies) actually does rise with the number of people using it and the depth of the market. To imagine how different this is from a classic asset bubble, it would be as if not only the price of bubble-era houses were rising, but also that their actual sought-after qualities as houses were improving spontaneously at the same time. Such houses might sprout new rooms with no one building them, with new paint jobs appearing mysteriously overnight without any painters having visited.

In this way, quite unlike the case of an asset bubble, the more people “pile into” a medium of exchange, the more valuable it actually is in its function as a medium of exchange from the point of view of its users. This is a separate matter from its price, as a few astute observers out there have so far already been noting.

This type of value has been likened to the use-value of a language rising the more people there are who can speak it. Another analogy would be to the use-value, from the point of view of each user, of a given social networking site rising the more people join it and the more they use it.

These are called network effects. In this case, the exchange value of the unit for each holder is directly related to each holder’s expectations of being able to use the unit in future exchanges (much like the value of knowing a language relates to one’s expectation of being able to communicate with it). This is in turn related to how many people accept the unit, how readily, and for what. It is important here to note, due to long-standing and common economic misconceptions, that the “future” in this sense is any future time—from five seconds from now to however many vaguely numbered years into the future a particular acting person might happen to have in mind.

When it comes to network-effect growth, the more the merrier. An analogy can be made not only to the rising stock price of a growing social networking site, but also, and more importantly, to the number of users of that site and how much it is used.

Check this box for a perspective shift

Yesterday, I saw a tweet from the insightful Bitcoin watcher Jonathan Waller. He wrote (enthusiastically, I think) that, “The bitcoin all-time chart is not even slightly sensible,” and linked to a chart [showing logorithmic growth shown on a linear scale].

This tweet got me thinking (yes, this is also a possible function of tweets). How can we make sense of this trend? Might taking some other perspective help?

This chart struck me as looking quite similar to a hyperinflation. However, instead of the exchange value of a trading unit plummeting toward the abyss as in an archetypal fiat paper-money collapse, Bitcoin has been doing the opposite.

Checking the log-scale box on the bitcoin price chart reveals a different picture. It shows a (so far) intuitively ascertainable long-term historical course with a large bump or two and some curves in the road. In this longer-term view, the exchange rate has been growing, not so much from one to two to three to four, as on a linear scale, but from 0.1 to 1 to 10 to 100. It has grown by several orders of magnitude during these couple of years.

Of course, the usual caveats must be quickly noted. “If present trends continue” can and often is infamously followed by them not doing so. But what might nevertheless be observed about this trend?

If one were somehow witnessing a phase in the first “hyper-monetization” in history, is this not more or less what one would expect to see?

Mark my words

The value of a paper money at the tail end of a hyperinflationary event is mainly the direct value of the physical paper (burning, wall-paper, etc.), but there is a more gradual build-up before the final collapse. The following chart is the price of Goldmarks in terms of Papiermarks from 1918–1923 in the Weimar Republic. This includes a steady logarithmic trend from 1918 to mid-1922. The exchange rate also moves from roughly 1 to 100 during those few years.

After that, however, the 1923 portion looks incomprehensible even on a log scale. As monetary authorities run the presses full speed and add new zeroes to denominations, a point is reached toward the end when the primary objective of market participants is to rid themselves of paper as quickly as possible before the last shred of exchange value evaporates.

The USD/BTC trend shows the price of Bitcoin against (also steadily depreciating) US dollars. This bears a certain similarity to the pre-1923 phases of the Weimar Papiermark/Goldmark chart. One difference is that the trend for Bitcoin from autumn-2010 to spring 2013 is the inverse of the trend for the ill-fated Papiermark from 1918 to mid-1922. In other words, for the years in question, the rise of Bitcoin’s relative exchange value shows a statistical pattern with similarities to the decline of the exchange value of the paper mark. Of course, the specific factors behind these events are quite different. In one case, the destruction was driven by ever increasing, arbitrary production of more units. In the other, the growth appears to be driven by voluntary adoption (with all its various motivations) and network effects.

If we were now actually witnessing early stages of an unprecedented hyper-monetization event, what might the top of such an event look like eventually? This is a fantastic and entirely speculative question and certainly invites the ever risky “if present trends continue” types of thinking. Looking toward the future should never be confused with looking into the past.

That said, during such a singularity-like event, were such a thing to be occurring, one might at some fairly early stage expect to see an Epic Rap Battles of History installment called, “Bitcoin vs. Fiat Money.” The key question would then soon become:

“Who won? You decide.”


For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.

[UPDATE: Seven months later, a new article including revised highlights of this article along with new material appeared: Hyper-monetization reloaded: Another round of bubble talk (7 November 2013).]

IN-DEPTH | The sound of one bitcoin: Tangibility, scarcity, and a "hard-money" checklist

The first purpose of a scientific terminology is to facilitate the analysis of the problems involved.

—Ludwig von Mises on the role of monetary terminology

IMPORTANT UPDATE: What follows has been substantially updated, revised, and republished in other versions. The final version appeared in The Journal of Prices and Markets as, “Commodity, scarcity, and monetary value theory in light of bitcoin” (accepted 20 Oct 2014; published 24 Feb 2015; HTML, PDF). The arguments are substantively similar, but whereas the final version is more refined and academic in tone, the following was an initial overview treatment.

* * *

Tradable bitcoin units viewed as discrete objects of human action appear to be a new type of phenomenon, unprecedented. At times, they even appear to elude trusted monetary classification schemes. If such typologies were sound, however, they should not require correction so much as some careful revisiting within a new context of knowledge.

In this second installment on Bitcoin theory (following “Bitcoins, the regression theorem, and that curious but unthreatening empirical world” (27 February 2013), we seek to further clarify the economic nature of Bitcoin by closely reexamining the concepts of scarcity, goods, and tangibility. We distinguish what we will label economic-theory and property-theory senses of the word “scarcity” and attempt to more clearly differentiate scarcity from tangibility. This distinction helps overcome difficulties that have arisen in considering Bitcoin in relation to the monetary classification scheme pioneered in Ludwig von Mises’s The Theory of Money and Credit (TMC; original German 1912).

With these proposed building blocks in place, we examine bitcoin units viewed as scarce objects of human action using a typical set of criteria for explaining the historical-evolutionary strengths of metallic coins as media of exchange. How do tradable bitcoin units stack up directly on a list of “hard-money” criteria?

We also stress that the economic analysis of empirical cases must always be comparative. States of perfection, while useful in the advancement of pure theory, cannot legitimately be smuggled in to represent real empirical possibilities and serve as standards for comparison. How something compares to an imaginary state of perfection may help the theorist reason, but it is no cause to reject or prefer any real empirical option, which, whatever it may be, can never compete with any unrealizable, imaginary state.

The focus this time remains on the perspective of individual actors and discrete objects involved in action (which includes both tangible and intangible “objects”), with a central focus on economic theory. Planned future installments will then shift toward more system-level, market-level, and legal-theory perspectives. This step-by-step procedure reflects one aspect of an integral approach to the interplay of individual and system perspectives, as well as the parallel use of multiple, discrete fields, to enhance the totality of understanding.

Part I: Money Unveiled

“I can pay you in eggs or a bunch of these specially configured nested electron-shell wrapped neutron/proton bundles. Your choice, buddy.” Image source: Pumbaa (original work by Greg Robson), Wikimedia Commons.

The thing is…

In taking a strictly subjectivist position on the nature of goods, the fact that bitcoin units might be described as “merely” the current status of accounting entries in the ubiquitously duplicated block chain (and therefore not “really” goods at all in themselves), poses less of a difficulty than it might at first appear to. Of interest for action-based economic theory is the observation that large numbers of market actors on a global scale are nevertheless treating these units as a type of scarce economic good in general and as a medium of exchange in particular. By way of illustration, quipping that silver is “really” just one particular and generally pointless arrangement of sub-atomic particles is of no avail for praxeology, which is based on a strict dualist distinction between teleological concepts and the more objective, causal concepts of the natural sciences.

If no existing category or “box” on a given monetary classification proved sufficient to contain Bitcoin, a new category might have to be appended. In investigating a new case, terms and categories should facilitate understanding rather than hinder it. In developing his terminology in Chapter 3, “The Various Kinds of Money,” in TMC  (pp. 50–67), Mises sought to employ terms that would specifically facilitate economic analysis more effectively than the conventional and positive-law terms of the time (pp. 59–60). He notes on pp. 61–62 that:

Our terminology should prove more useful than that which is generally employed. It should express more clearly the peculiarities of the processes by which the different types of money are valued. [it should also help to overcome] the naive and confused popular conception of value that sees in the precious metals something “intrinsically” valuable and in paper credit money something necessarily anomalous. Scientifically, this terminology is perfectly useless and a source of endless misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

I do not believe that Mises’s classification scheme from TMC requires any fundamental revision to account for Bitcoin. We may only need to take a further step in the direction of a strictly dualistic action theory. This is the same direction of travel that gave rise to those classifications in the first place as Mises began to carry economic theory step by step further away from its objectivized past and toward its action-based future. Mises warned sternly in 1912 (p. 62) that:

The greatest mistake that can be made in economic investigation is to fix attention on mere appearances, and so to fail to perceive the fundamental difference between things whose externals alone are similar, or to discriminate between fundamentally similar things whose externals alone are different.

A fresh mystery from Vienna

Stephansdom in Vienna. Photo by Konrad S. Graf.

Among its many other contributions, Peter Šurda’s 2012 thesis, “Economics of Bitcoin: Is Bitcoin an alternative to fiat currencies and gold?” [90-page PDF; Vienna University of Economics and Business) carefully examined Bitcoin in terms of Mises’s monetary classification scheme from TMC. Up to a certain point, Šurda interpreted the situation in largely the same way as I have.

In a procedure reminiscent of the 1939 Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, he rejected, correctly I believe, one candidate after another as a place for Bitcoin within the TMC scheme (pp. 23–28). It is not any kind of money substitute (Bitcoin is not “redeemable” for any more fundamental unit). Even within Mises’s “money in the narrower sense” (senses other than money substitutes), Bitcoin is not credit money (no creditor/debtor relationship exists) and not fiat money (it lacks any legal-tender status or any other state-sponsored privileges, stamps, or certifications whatsoever to “prop it up”).

Somewhat disquietingly perhaps, Šurda and I had each arrived independently at just one final suspect. The only candidate that is even a remote possibility is: “commodity money.”

Yet surely this could not be quite right either. At this point, one might think it would have been easier to start by rejecting commodity money, and then try to make an analogy to some of the other categories. Commentators have tried to do this variously with fiat money and token money, for example. However, I do not think such claims hold up to scrutiny.

It is certainly quite odd in this context to begin trying to imagine Bitcoin as a “commodity.” True, in certain other contexts, “commodities” can have a quite broad meaning. In its broadest theoretical usage in purchasing-power theory, “commodities” are sometimes the euphemistic label for everything that is not money—all that against which money prices are paid. Nevertheless, for the most part, and certainly in this context, “commodity” takes its narrower and much more common meaning. It is a fungible physical material or product, such as metal, oil, grain, or these days interchangeable “commodity” memory chips or other general-purpose electronic components.

The opposite perspective: Vienna from high above in Stephansdom. Photo by Konrad S. Graf. 

In the face of this apparent impasse, Šurda’s thesis next proposed several considerations. First, since he had already argued that Bitcoin is not a “money” (yet), but a secondary medium of exchange (p. 22), it need not necessarily fit on a chart of “money” in any case. Yet he also recognized that to some degree this just kicks the can down the road a few more yards. What if Bitcoin did somehow grow to eventually qualify as “money,” even by his own chosen definition? To this he proposed some alternative terminology from several existing sources (p. 26), such as “quasi-commodity money.”

He offers additional detail on this issue is in his recent post, “The classification and future of Bitcoin” (12 March 2013), where he notes perhaps the most important point of all:

The issue…is not some abstract classification for its own sake. The purpose of the classification system provided by Mises is to assist in the economic analysis of trade, money supply, price building, liquidity and so on. From this perspective, if we insist that we must keep the number of categories the same that Mises used, the economically closest category of Bitcoin would be commodity money.

I think further clarification may still be possible from some different directions. I suggested in the previous installment of this series that substituting the more subjectivist word “good” for “commodity” may already be a useful step, at least from a meaning-content point of view. This time, we venture further into language and context.

As always, meaning must come first; words have to follow along as best they can. Concepts are one thing; the words used to signify them another. To me these are not just theoretical claims, but my lived experience working as a professional translator for many years (Japanese to English as it so happens). A good translator is constantly at play with the concepts and meanings that the various words are employed, at times somewhat imperfectly, to get across from mind to mind in given times and contexts. One of the first things it occurs to my translator self to do is to check into the source text and consider what, if anything, might be noticed there that may not occur to a reader of the resulting translation. It is also often helpful to consider the background context of debates in which words were employed.

TMC is a translation of Mises’ 1912 Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel. “Commodity money” was the term used to translate Sachgeld. Although some issues have been found with the TMC translation, including most notably the title itself (see the recent centennial symposium volume,The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media(2013), “commodity money” seems a perfectly reasonable translation in this case. To be clear, I am aware of no reason to think that Mises would have objected, or did object, to this choice. In Nationalökonomie, the 1940 German precursor to Human Action, many instances of Sachgeld are accompanied by the usual examples of gold and silver, which also serve as the stock examples of “commodity money” in Human Action in 1949.

Nevertheless, our purpose is not to toy with words, but to better understand their theoretical content and meaning, and specifically to look for some assistance on the challenge of reconciling Bitcoin with Mises’s original categories. Bitcoin is a novel enough development that it forces us to revisit in a new context of knowledge fundamental concepts that were arranged and labeled as they were in a previous context of knowledge.

In this process, one language might provide hints that another withholds. A word that was unobjectionable in the past might begin to suffer now for the first time from outmoded or non-essential connotations. Moreover, this is likely to occur somewhat more strongly with regard to the particular words and senses of words used in one language than with the corresponding words and senses of words used in another. It is in this spirit that some multilingual brainstorming might lead to a missing clue.

Lt. Cdr. Data sleuthing in Star Trek: The Next Generation.And indeed, the two-part compound construction of the German word Sachgeld suggests some related connotations that “commodity money” in English does not. Die Sache is a “thing,” in either a concrete or abstract sense. Alternative senses from this word and associated compounds readily include such abstract senses as “the matter at hand,” “the facts of the situation,” and “the main or most important point or issue.” A Sachbuch is a non-fiction book (not a “commodity book,” but a book about any non-fictional topic, a “factual book” as opposed to a fictional one). Sachgeld itself in modern dictionaries comes across as any “thing” (or even animal or person) that was historically used as a medium of exchange, or simply the earliest forms that money took historically (note that historically here also implies prior to the evolution of money substitutes).

It appears that Sachgeld, in its first, most literal possible sense, looks like “thing-money” or “fact-money.”

This may already be enough of a clue to begin threading a path through the “commodity” puzzle that Bitcoin, perhaps now for the first time ever, presents. One of our central underlying themes this time will be continuing to seek ways to disentangle the concept of tangibility from various other concepts relevant to monetary theory, especially scarcity. A “thing” is usually considered tangible, but unlike “commodity” in its relevant monetary meaning (a fungible physical material), “thing” more easily also covers abstract senses such as “matters at hand,” “conditions,” and so forth, as in, “The thing is…” or “How are things going?” or “It is a curious thing, this Bitcoin.”

At this stage, rather than creating an alternative category, or turning to a sub-category such as “quasi-commodity money,” it may only be necessary to revisit the original concept of Sachgeld such that it takes on a more abstract and subjective, and less concrete and objective, sense than it has ever been asked to. This would also seem to be in keeping with the overall long-term direction of development of the Austrian school of economics in distinguishing ever more carefully between action-based teleological concepts and objective characteristics of various means employed in acting.

It appears, then, that we might interpret the central economic meaning of Mises’s monetary category of Sachgeld as something like “thing-in-itself money,” or “money in itself,” or “money in fact,” and my re-reading of Chapter 3 of TMC does not appear to exclude this possibility. Much as a silver coin in the old days functioned directly as “money in itself,” and was not “backed by anything,” a bitcoin unit is likewise not “backed by anything.” Nor is it even a perfect or imperfect substitute for anything else. From the point of view of economic actors using it, a bitcoin unit is the tradable good itself. No intermediating substitutes stand between it and its user. And the mere existence of various service providers does not automatically imply that money substitutes are in play.

Paper fiat money is “backed” by such factors as user experience from the past, legal tender laws and user expectations of their continuation, and other powers suppressing certain forms of competition. But Bitcoin enjoys no such force of either habit or law. Moreover, a study of the Bitcoin system suggests no obvious need or function for such money substitutes as have historically grown up around metallic currencies. Not that they are impossible, just that they would not appear to add value. They could even subtract value by adding superfluous risk layers. Many of the advantages that typical money substitutes had in the past, such as freedom from the weight burdens and creeping heterogeneity of precious-metal coins from gradual wear, are already provided in Bitcoin from the point of view of users of “the thing itself” (a topic also addressed in more detail below).

Some knightly context

For an initial check on how well this proposed interpretation might mesh with the greater context in which TMC appeared and its major contributions, we rely on Professor Hülsmann’s definitive intellectual biography, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (2007).

First, we find that Hülsmann noted on p. 215 (emphasis mine) that:

In dealing with the nature of money, Mises relied heavily on the work of Carl Menger. The founder of the Austrian School had shown that money is not to be defined by the physical characteristics of whatever good is used as money; rather, money is characterized by the fact that the good under consideration is (1) a commodity that is (2) used in indirect exchanges, and (3) bought and sold primarily for the purpose of such indirect exchanges.

The words “good” and “commodity” as we read this passage would normally seem to point to physical characteristics, and this was most likely also the intended meaning. But what if we try reading again with abstract senses for these words in mind? The substantive points in this paragraph are all about functional characteristics of money for actors. Look for the verbs: used as, bought, and sold. Moreover, “physical characteristics” are specifically singled out as factors on which money is “not to be defined.”

In quickly reviewing Mises’s typology of monetary objects (pp. 216–217), Hülsmann notes that:

[Mises] distinguished several types of “money in the narrower sense” from several types of “money surrogates” or substitutes. Money in the narrower sense is a good in its own right. In contrast, money substitutes were legal titles to money in the narrower sense. They were typically issued by banks and were redeemable in real money at the counters of the issuing bank.

Here we have the word “good” again. We also have “a good in its own right.” This seems reminiscent of our hyper-literal attempt at rendering Sachgeld as “thing-in-itself money,” or more simply “money in itself.” So far as I am aware, Bitcoin currently has no significant substitutes and virtually no issuers of any such substitutes. Perhaps with a few arcane or experimental exceptions, Bitcoin is so far traded directlyas itself at freely fluctuating rates against all other goods, services, and monies. While the construction of Bitcoin-denominated financial instruments is possible, most all of the actually traded forms of Bitcoin are direct instantiations of bitcoin units.

As Šurda explained (pp. 9–18), Bitcoin is already inherently “form-invariant,” much as language can come in spoken and written forms, but remains language. “Transfer of Balances (ToB)” methods convey Bitcoin units from one wallet to another, while “Transfer of Keys (ToK)” methods, suited for offline use, transfer physically instantiated wallets that contain specified Bitcoin balances (effectively denominations). The private key is physically contained inside a ToK object in the shape of a coin, smart card, etc. with structural and one-time-change physical security features such as holographic coverings and color-change chemistry. Critically, the current wallet balances on ToK objects can be verified if necessary using only the public key without the need to expose the physically concealed private key to any party. None of these ToK objects are Bitcoin substitutes; they are each native forms of Bitcoin itself.

The question of whether actual Bitcoin substitutes and associated practices entailed in the kind of “banking” we are accustomed to could evolve on top of Bitcoin is a separate and open one. Šurda has also just recently offered some further observations on this in an interview with Jon Matonis in American Banker, “How cryptocurrencies could upend Banks’ monetary role” (15 March 2013).

The key issue seems to me that Bitcoin both functions as a money in itself and delivers many of the benefits of historically evolved money substitutes, leaving little demand for them to grow up in relation to Bitcoin, at least in the same old ways. In a provocative take on the question of Bitcoin money substitutes, Pierre Rochard has suggested that this type of development might simply render the ongoing debate about banking reserve practices not so much resolved as obsolete (22 February 2013). People will of course attempt to construct all such familiar instruments, but whether they can add any value relative to native Bitcoin and attract any sustained and significant use remains to be seen.

Mises, in developing his own monetary theory in TMC, was also arguing against the assignment theory of money, which holds that money has no real value of its own to actors, but merely functions as a sort of neutral receipt that facilitates deposits and withdrawals on the “social warehouse” of goods. Money, in this view, is simply a “veil,” functioning as a sort of mere claim ticket exchangeable for other goods, but not a good in itself.

On p. 237, Hülsmann explains that:

Mises’s great achievement in his Theory of Money and Credit was in liberating us from the veil-of-money myth…Mises could even rely on Menger’s theory of cash holdings, which already contained, in nuce, the insight that money is itself an economic good and not just representative of other goods.

Böhm-Bawerk had put it this way in an early-1880s lecture (p. 235):

Money is by its nature a good like any other good; it is merely in greater demand and can circulate more widely than all other commodities. Money is no symbol or pledge; it is not the sign of a good, but bears its value in itself. It is itself really a good.

Hülsmann explains the role of Mises’s strict terminology in countering the prevailing assignment theory of money (p. 237):

To combine these elements into one coherent theory required a radical break with time-honored pillars of monetary economics, in particular, with the classical tradition of presenting money as a mere veil. Mises was fully conscious that this was the key to his theory, which is why, in an introductory chapter of his book [Chapter 3], he engaged in the somewhat tedious exercise of distinguishing various types of money proper (money in the narrower sense) from money substitutes. It was these substitutes in fact that were the sort of tokens or place holders that Wieser and the other champions of the assignment theory tacitly had in mind when they spoke of money…While it is true that the value of a money substitute corresponds exactly to the value of the underlying real good (for example, one ounce of gold), the value of the gold money itself does not correspond to anything; rather it is determined by the same general law of diminishing marginal value that determines the values of all goods.

This greater context clarifies that “money in the narrower sense” is a form of money valued directly without any intermediation of substitutes and without mere veiled representational reference to other goods. Money was not just a placeholder or accounting entry, a claim ticket for other goods. It was one good trading for other goods on the market. Moreover, Sachgeld, “money in itself,” was further differentiated from Mises’s other two monies “in the narrower sense” by not being a debt instrument (credit money) and also not depending on any official legal certification or special legal status (fiat money). The primary distinction of money in the narrower sense among all other goods was its wider relative marketability, as Böhm-Bawerk had explained.

This higher degree of marketability then gives rise to an increased value of money as a hedge against uncertainty. If no uncertainty existed, there would be no need to hold cash balances. As Hoppe explains in “‘The Yield from Money Held’ Reconsidered” (2009), in the real and always uncertain world, we do not know in advance exactly what we will want to buy and when, but we do know with much higher certainty that we will want to buy something sometime. The holding of cash balances can be understood as a forward-looking measure we take in relation to this degree of perceived uncertainty.

No coinbug likes inflation

Whatever the future brings, for today, at least, Bitcoin seems to behave very much like a “money in itself,” but one unlike any the world has ever seen. It is digital and it is apparently impossible for any party to manipulate its total supply. This is critical, because one of the central political-economic monetary issues is inflation, by which I mean specifically, the ability of money producers to manipulate the money supply for whatever reasons they might happen to have in mind or cite at a given time.

As Mises wrote in TMC (p. 428):

It is not just an accident that in our age inflation has become the accepted method of monetary management. Inflation is the fiscal complement of statism and arbitrary government.

He also explained the social-protective advantages of having precious-metal coins circulate physically (p. 450):

Gold must be in the cash holdings of everybody. Everybody must see gold coins changing hands, must be used to having gold coins in his pockets, to receiving gold coins when he cashes his pay check, and to spending gold coins when he buys in a store.

This might seem at first to be the definitive Misesian endorsement of circulating metallic coins. Yet as Hülsmann notes in this context, “Mises had not become a gold bug. He had no fetish about the yellow metal or any other metal” (Last Knight, p. 922). Hülsmann then points us to the reasons behind Mises’s proposal—to help counteract the advance of inflationary policies (TMC, pp. 451–52):

What is needed is to alarm the masses in time. The working man in cashing his pay check should learn that some foul trick has been played upon him. The President, Congress, and the Supreme Court have clearly proved their inability or unwillingness to protect the common man, the voter, from being victimized by inflationary machinations.

The function of securing a sound currency must pass into new hands, into those of the whole nation [world?]…Perpetual vigilance on the part of the citizens can achieve what a thousand laws and dozens of alphabetical bureaus with hordes of employees never have and never will achieve: the preservation of a sound currency.

At this point, much appears to hinge on the definitions of “good” and “commodity.” Must they necessarily maintain their historical associations with tangibility? It is therefore to tangibility, and in particular its relationship with scarcity, that we now turn. Against all the temptations to try to drop Bitcoin into one old basket or another, can Bitcoin nevertheless stubbornly hold out and demand recognition as something new in the world?


Part II: The Sound of One Bitcoin

That intangible sense of scarcity

In further considering Bitcoin and monetary theory, the concepts of goods, scarcity, and tangibility must be carefully differentiated. Scarcity and tangibility were long inseparable in the form of monetary metals. They remain fused in most familiar goods.

But what if factors other than tangibility, per se, such as relative stability of total supply, durability, and divisibility, were the essential factors even in evolutions of metallic media of exchange? What if tangibility was something of a monetary “inactive ingredient,” a “material carrier” for those other qualities, which had actually always been the essential ones?

Digital goods have brought the separability of goods from tangibility front and center in the modern world. To apply these concepts now to the case of Bitcoin, we revisit their various senses and definitions, including some recent refinements.

Copying is not theft

Most digital goods, such as song or text files can, in principle, be copied ad infinitum even as any earlier copy from which other copies are made remains entirely unchanged.

This was the essence of the digital-information revolution. Unlimited numbers of people could use copies at the same time without direct mutual interference or degradation of the integrity of any earlier copies. A copy could be made without the original disappearing, as would be the case with theft or any other kind of transfer. Moreover, any copy could then become a new, equally serviceable “original” from which new copies were made from there. “Originals” would not even degrade with time or use, as is the case with analog reproduction methods, with their analog “master” copies.

The difference between copying and theft has been humorously and quickly illustrated in the “Copying is not theft” one-minute meme. Since a video may be worth 10,000 words, it might repay the time to view this now to see the essence of this distinction (literally one minute) before proceeding.

The advent of mass digital replication dealt a crushing blow, at least within the abstract realm of knowledge and patterns, to an age-old enemy—inherent or natural scarcity. In response, we have been witnessing a legal and technical scramble to create artificial scarcity to replace it. The major methods have been expanding and tightening legislation and enforcement and the application of digital rights management (DRM) technologies. This combination of developments brought the dusty old issue of “intellectual property” front and center. To make any sense of this odd scene in a principled way required a fresh look at basic social-theory definitions and concepts.

As one important step in this effort, Jeffrey Tucker and Stephan Kinsella in “Goods, scarce and non-scarce” (25 August 2010), focused on distinguishing perfectly copiable goods, such as ideas, methods, and most digital goods, labeling them as “non-scarce goods.” They quoted from Kinsella’s landmark “Against Intellectual Property” (2001), which addresses the relationship between tangibility, scarcity, and the core social function of property rights. Kinsella (p. 19) asked:

What is it about tangible goods that makes them sub­jects for property rights? Why are tangible goods property? A little reflection will show that it is these goods’ scarcity—the fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors. The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce…the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources.

This sense of “scarce” is a social-relational one. It refers to the physical impossibility of a rivalrous good being used for different purposes simultaneously by more than one party. For example, one person cannot, under any imaginable scenario, drive from Rome to Vienna while another drives from Sydney to Brisbane in the same car. This specific sense of scarcity derives from the property theory reasoning of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who wrote in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (p. 235) that:

insofar as goods are superabundant (‘free’ goods), no conflict over the use of goods is possible and no action-coordination is needed…To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise.

Care must be taken, as we shall see, because scarcity is sometimes used with a different meaning in economic theory. In that usage, “scarcity” is a necessary attribute of any economic good, by definition. Moreover, in popular colloquial usage, “scarce” has yet a third meaning of “in short supply” or “not enough to go around” relative to an assumed “normal” or ideal baseline situation, which is completely distinct again from either of the two foregoing technical meanings.

Tucker and Kinsella mentioned that tangibility is not inherently necessary for scarcity, citing airspace and radio waves as examples (one transmitter can interfere with another). Yet the practical conclusion seemed to be that tangibility and scarcity do coincide in almost all cases. All of the examples in an informal and illustrative chart of “scarce” goods (and non-goods) happened to also share the attribute of tangibility, while the non-scarce examples were all intangible. And indeed, this is almost always the case. Yet they left no doubt about the key point:

The term scarcity here…means that a condition of contestable control exists for anything that cannot be simultaneously owned: my ownership and control excludes your control.

While the meaning and purpose of their argument is clear in its context, in strictly economic theory terms, one must still act to obtain even a “free” or “non-scarce” copy of a good. One must still click on one free file icon rather than another, for example, displaying choice and preference through this action, and making the clicked-on file a means in action and the runner-up file an opportunity cost. As a result, great care must be taken with the overlapping and sometimes reversed senses of these two meanings of the word scarcity. For example, in the property theory sense, even a “non-good” can be scarce, which is impossible in the economic theory sense. Yet once again, Tucker and Kinsella took care to make their meaning clear:

Something can have zero price and still be scarce: a mud pie, soup with a fly in it, a computer that won’t boot. So long as no one wants these things, they are not economic goods. And yet, in their physical nature, they are scarce because if someone did want them, and they thus became goods, there could be contests over their possession and use. They would have to be allocated by either violence or market exchange based on property rights.

This subtle difference in the meaning of scarcity in economic theory and property theory reflects the respective clarification tasks at hand. Economic theory is in the first instance concerned with the nature of economizing action as such, which can only be taken by individual actors (“Crusoe”). Property theory is first of all concerned with individual action in its capacity as occurring in a social context of other similar actors (Crusoe plus Friday on up). This latter context gives rise to the binary descriptive possibilities of either cooperative (consenting) or conflicting (violent) relationships. One sense of scarcity is used for the purpose of considering Crusoe only, while the other sense of scarcity is used for the purpose of considering the possible classes of interactions between Crusoe and Friday.

Property rights are a fundamentally social phenomenon; they are irrelevant to the consideration of Crusoe alone. And this goes for the narrower sense of the word scarcity used in property-theory reasoning. With Crusoe and Friday situations onward, however, social action theory posits binary action possibilities of either cooperation or violent conflict. These encompass a descriptively possible totality of all possible human interactions (on this, see Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State [MES, 1962] pp. 79–94, and Guido Hülsmann, “The a priori foundation of property economics(2004)). This particular set of binary classifications has been selected (either more or less consciously) by investigators as being valuable for helping to explain differential social phenomena.

Confusion in discussions of scarcity could also arise from the use of the term “free goods,” which Kinsella and Tucker also associated with non-scarce goods. In the strictly economic theory sense, “free” goods are not really “goods” at all, but the background conditions under which actions take place. They are not means in themselves within an (intentional) structure of action. Rothbard put in this way in MES (p. 8):

The means to satisfy man’s wants are called goods. These goods are all the objects of economizing action…The common distinction between “economic goods” and “free goods” (such as air) is erroneous…air is not a means, but a general condition of human welfare, and is not the object of action.

Air would not be a means for a jogger unless this particular jogger were an obsessive economist who had in mind “using” air as a “means” to go jogging. The air outside under normal circumstances is a background environmental condition, but not itself an object of action, and therefore not a good, unless its supply or quality is threatened. In strict dualist fashion, Mises emphasized how the concept of a means only arises in relation to the study of action (Human Action, pp. 92–93; my emphasis):

Means are not in the given universe; in this universe there exist only things…Parts of the external world become means only through the operation of the human mind and its offshoot, human action…It is human meaning and action which transform them into means.

Means are necessarily always limited, i.e., scarce with regard to the services for which man wants to use them. If this were not the case, there would not be any action with regard to them. Where man is not restrained by the insufficient quantity of things available, there is no need for any action.

Eugen Böhm von Bawerk’s image on 1984 “Austrian” fiat paper. Andrew Jackson sympathizes. Source: Berlin-George, Wikimedia Commons. Good for what?

A “good” is thus something that serves as a means within the structure of human action. Gael J. Campan argues that this was already explained in Eugen Böhm-Bawerk’s 1881 paper, “Whether Legal Rights and Relationships Are Economic Goods.” The first part of Campan’s article “Does Justice Qualify as an Economic Good?” (1999) explains the subjectivist conception of a “good” that Böhm-Bawerk advanced (my emphasis):

While scarcity is commonly referred to as an essential feature of an economic good, this must not be understood purely in a physical sense, i.e., a fewer number of items compared to the quantity of others. Indeed, if all means are scarce by definition, it is specifically because they are limited with respect to the actual ends that they are capable of satisfying…The characteristics of a good are not inherent in things and not a property of things, but merely a relationship between certain things and men.

The thing named a good must have useful properties, which is not to be understood in a strictly physical sense.

As quoted by Campan, p. 24, Böhm-Bawerk wrote (my emphasis; and try it once omitting “corporeal”):

Whatever importance we accord to the corporeal objects of the world of economic goods derives from the importance we attach to the satisfaction of our wants and the attainment of our purposes…It is the renditions of service rather than the goods themselves which, as a matter of principle, constitute the primary basic units of our economic transactions. And it is only from the renditions of service that the goods, secondarily, derive their own significance.

Define “scarce”

We have seen that scarcity in the property-theory sense pertains not to whether something is a good or not in this broader economic-theory sense, but rather to the native potential for rivalrousness of consumption and, specifically, to the presence or absence of the attributes of copiability and simultaneous shareability. Since the broader economic concept of scarcity is already contained within the definition of a “good,” the narrower property-theory sense appears more useful for the current explanatory tasks.

Building on this property-theory sense of scarcity from Hoppe, Kinsella, and Tucker, I propose defining a “non-scarce good” as: a good that is copiable with perfect remainder of the original and useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference.

Here the two travellers from our previous example,  each now with a car of his own, can simultaneously drive to Vienna and Brisbane, respectively, while each listens to identical digital copies of the same album by the same band (each driver incurring his own respective speeding citations). The variable cost of producing each additional playing of this same album is effectively zero (at any rate, quite unlike producing an additional “copy” of a car).

The point for right now is not to enter into the pros and cons of copyright legislation and entertainment business models (on which I recommend work done at and, but rather only to show the relevant descriptivedistinctions involved. A copy of a non-scarce good can be freely produced with no objective effect on previous copies, while a “copy” of a scarce good such as a car cannot be made in this way. Either control of the given instance of a car must be transferred (through sale, gift, or theft), or an entirely new instance of a car must be constructed from new and different scarce instances of the requisite materials and energy.

The point of Tucker and Kinsella’s article was to create a relevant binary classification along these lines (my emphasis):

One helpful way to understand this is to classify all goods as either finite and therefore normally scarce or nonfinite and therefore naturally nonscarce…It is scarce goods that serve as means for action, while nonscarce goods that can be copied without displacing the original are not means but guides for action.

…[A] recipe can be shared unto infinity. Once the information in the recipe and the techniques of making it are released, they are free goods, nonscarce goods, or nonfinite goods.

By contrast, according to my suggested definition of a non-scarce good above, the definition of a scarce good (in the property theory sense) would be the negation: a good that is not copiable with perfect remainder of the original and is not useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference. This proposed definition encompasses what most people think of colloquially as “goods” in general: groceries, clothes, and so forth.

In the modern age, such “non-scarce goods” have proliferated. As Tucker and Kinsella put it, “The range and importance of non-scarce goods has been vastly expanded by the existence of digital goods.” For the most part, non-scarce goods include all sorts of abstract goods such as ideas, text and music files, patterns, plans, recipes, methods, and so on. Specifically, it includes the meaning and content of all types of media and text, and other abstract and digital “things.”


In the case of Bitcoin, matters are different. Each bitcoin unit can exist in only one wallet at one time due to the Bitcoin protocol’s methods of ubiquitously recording transactions and preventing double-spending. It is critical to understand that these qualities of Bitcoin scarcity are not merely due to add-on “security measures.” They are not appended legal or technical “protections.” Rather they are integraland inseparable attributes of a system protocol of which a given bitcoin unit is one element.

As should be clear by now, it is not necessary to fuss over objectivistic considerations such as whether an abstract collection of digits in certain configurations can “really” be a “good” or not. Böhm-Bawerk’s insertion of the word “corporeality” into his 1881 sentence is not a separate criterion for something to serve as a means, a point we can much more easily see today than over 130 years ago. Böhm-Bawerk nevertheless clearly explained that one must observe what people are doing to understand what economic goods are, an insight that Mises would later take up and run with in his action-based reconstruction of economic theory.

Bitcoin has now brought authenticscarcity into the world of digital goods.

This is not the artificially imposed, legally constructed “scarcity” of “intellectual property” legislation, which was the target of Tucker and Kinsella’s important work. It is not even a type of tacked-on DRM system that attempts to use technical measures to create artificial scarcity out of informational objects that are in their nature not otherwise scarce. The Bitcoin system has set up a type of scarcity that is inherent to the nature of the good itself. This possibly unique achievement of an inherent scarcity within the digital realm is an essential part of the innovation that has made Bitcoin a new type of good.

A bitcoin unit viewed as an object of action also meets another essential criterion from Böhm-Bawerk—it can be controlled. As Campan explained (p. 24):

It is necessary that the thing in question be disposable or available to us. We must possess the full power of disposal over it if we are really to command its power to satisfy our wants…the possession of a good cannot simply be decreed: either you possess effective control over it or not.

The Bitcoin system achieves this through private key/public key encryption, which allows effective control of bitcoin units in a user’s wallet, provided said user maintains control of their private key and/or related passwords. Once a bitcoin unit is transferred from one wallet to another, it is no longer “in” the originating wallet, but only “in” the destination wallet.

Thus, in the property-theory sense of scarcity, a bitcoin unit qualifies, not as non-scarce like most other abstract or digital objects, but as scarce, since according to our proposed definition, it is “a good that is not copiable with perfect remainder of the original and is not useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference.”

Once a private key to a Bitcoin wallet is copied, more than one party can have the key at the same time, as with any other non-scarce good. However, even so, only one party can succeed in using this private key to make use of any given bitcoin unit associated with that wallet. Only one transaction with a given bitcoin unit can be confirmed in the block chain. Even though a private key or password can easily be copied if obtained, even in this case, only one person can end up succeeding in making use of a given bitcoin unit because of the system’s prevention of double-spending. A known compromised key pair (wallet) can be abandoned. Additional key pairs are free and plentiful.

What is the sound of one bitcoin?

Two hands clapping make a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

—Koan attributed to Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku 白隠 慧鶴 (1686–1768)

We have seen that the concept of scarcity in both economic-theory and property-theory senses is useful to understanding bitcoin units as objects of human action and that scarcity and tangibility are separable. But can the quality of tangibility, so essential to the familiar story of the evolution of precious metals as monies, just be unceremoniously dropped? It is said that an experienced examiner can distinguish the authenticity of a precious metal coin by dropping it and listening to its ring. But what is the sound of a bitcoin dropping?

It was tangibility in the monetary-evolution story that had seemingly held together all the numerous traditional monetary-commodity characteristics in the form of a nice solid coin of silver, gold, or copper. It appears that some observers steeped in that story, upon seeing that Bitcoin lacks tangibility, concluded that it must also lack the other associated monetary characteristics such as durability and relative stability of supply.

In this context, we find it insightful that Jon Matonis, a long-time observer of and writer on cryptocurrenices, recently said in a Reddit interview (19 March 2013) that one way to quickly understand Bitcoin better is that it is distinguished from gold in that “it depends on mathematical properties rather than chemical properties.”

A “hard-money” checklist check

With these considerations in mind, this paragraph from Professor Hülsmann from “How to Use Methodological Individualism” (27 July 2009) will be helpful. The essay was on a different theme, but the following paragraph from it contains a great deal of interest for our current topic all in one convenient place (my emphasis):

Media of exchange become ever more generally accepted to the extent that they are objectively more suitable than their competitors in arranging indirect exchanges. Silver is more suitable as a medium of exchange than cherry cakes because it is durable, divisible, malleable, homogeneous, and carries a great purchasing power per weight unit. Market participants are likely to recognize this relative superiority in a process of learning and imitation, and eventually most of them will use silver to carry out their transactions. Hence, one can explain why the technique of indirect exchange is adopted on an individual level; and one can explain why specific media of exchange become generally accepted and thus gradually turn into money.

There is much of relevance in that paragraph, but for now, I will only consider how bitcoins seem to fare against silver coins on those very characteristics (plus stock stability) on which silver coins beat cherry cakes:

Divisible, malleable, and scarce. Source: Mikela, Wikimedia Commons. Are bitcoin units

  1. Durable?Perfectly. Abstract digital objects do not change. However, this is subject to recording and replication, substrate non-destruction, private keys and passwords not being lost, etc.
  2. Divisible?Current theoretical maximum of 2.1 x 1015 units to be reached around 2140, with future extensions apparently also possible (finally enough tradable units for the “needs of trade”?).
  3. Malleable? Irrelevant; not tangible. However, analogs of this quality may be found in the variety of “transfer of keys” code-recording methods such as hologram- and color-change-protected code-bearing physical coins and cards.
  4. Homogeneous? Perfectly. More homogeneous than possible with any conceivable physical material because the homogeneity is mathematical (by definition) rather than physical (by empirical measurement relative to a definition).
  5. Purchasing power per weight? Infinite. Intangible code patterns lack the characteristic of weight altogether, rendering the slightest purchasing power infinite in per-weight terms.
  6. Now add: Relative stability of supply? Quantitative growth and terminal maximum quantity and timing are determined computationally; macro supply of bitcoin units (theoretically) not subject to human manipulation.

On this initial reading, it appears that Bitcoin obliterates metallic coins on factors 2–5, whereas factors 1 and 6 are open to contingencies and informed technical debates. Just as silver coins beat cherry cakes on these criteria (except malleability!), Bitcoin beats silver coins outright on four of six criteria. The other two criteria require further investigation, but Bitcoin also appears potentially competitive and possibly superior on these characteristics as well. These are questions for empirical observation, debate, prediction, and speculation about the specific course of the future, not for abstract theory as such.

This analysis of Bitcoin suggests several other points with regard to several of these characteristics.

First, purchasing power per weight was a major impetus in the evolution of paper and account entry substitutes for precious metal coin monies. Bitcoin’s purchasing power per weight is already infinite, and is therefore, quite literally, unbeatable on this factor. Another problem with metallic coins was gradual wear from circulation, which would eventually give rise to weight variations—a loss of homogeneity resulting from imperfect durability. Bitcoin does not share these particular defects with metallic coins that helped lead to market demand for substitutes.

Second, people tend to interpret the traditional hard-money characteristic of durability as a mainly material one. Tires, for example, are described as being more or less durable. On reflection, however, a temporal aspect is central to the concept of durability in that it refers to measurement of change over time in relation to use. To ask about durability is to ask the extent to which an object tends to change over time in certain of its properties under certain conditions. In the case of an abstract code relationship, the code need not change at all. Although its recording substrates might change, the code itself can be perfectly copied and copied again, and it is in this specific sense that its durability as a code sequence is theoretically infinite for any relevant purpose.

Third, regarding divisibility, whereas fiat money issuers stand ready to add as many integers (“zeroes”) to paper fiat notes as they like to facilitate the steady loss of value of fiat monetary units; the Bitcoin system is capable of supporting divisibility to as many decimal places as are demanded to facilitate a steady gain of value over time. This is a diametric contrast the further implications of which would be difficult to overstate.

Competing ways to approximate a golden spiral. Source: Silverhammermba, Wikimedia Commons. Comparative versus imaginary-perfection methods

The ultimate potential for manipulation of the total Bitcoin stock (factor 6 above) is a key question that is certainly a very technical one, possibly with philosophical aspects. Can it be established that future quantitative supply manipulation at the macro level cannot occur? Would that require “proving” a technical and empirical negative?

Whatever the factors and answers, it is important to apply the realistic comparative perspective of the true economist rather than the “imaginary-perfections” perspective of the false one. For example, with fiat monies, we know above all that large-scale, distortive, quantitative manipulation of the money supply can occur—andin all known cases actually does.

Even with metallic currencies, comparisons on hypotheticals would still have to be even-handed. The stock of precious metals adjusts slightly over time with mine output and other factors (though always with much less volatility than the stock of a fiat money). Nevertheless, at the extreme, can it be shown that cheap synthetic gold could not ever be produced (as the alchemists had forever dreamed), thereby collapsing the price of gold by inflating its supply? (as the alchemists may or may not have thought through far enough).

Gold can apparently already be synthesized in particle accelerators and nuclear reactors, just not cheaply. If one of the criteria required of a candidate for becoming a sound money is proof of a fantastically complex technical and empirical negative, then such must be required equally of all potential candidates. If, for example, it must be “proven” that no mass quantitative manipulation of Bitcoin could ever possibly take place under any imaginable conditions, then it must likewise be “proven” that no future cheap gold synthesis could ever possibly take place.

Empirical perfection never comes to pass. In all such matters, the comparative method must be recalled and put to use. Pros and cons of possible alternatives must be assessed. Critical comparisons against made-up and wholly unrealizable hypothetical states of empirical perfection must be identified and rejected.

Unfortunately, just such clouded thinking has been ingrained and normalized through the practice of assuming that state actors can successfully and perfectly accomplish whatever they like by enacting legislation and setting up a bureaucracy. This patently absurd dream is then compared (at best) to the forever imperfect efforts of the living human beings who by contrast inhabit the so-called “market” (which euphemistically seems to mean “reality”).

Human action is by nature always a choice among perceived possibilities. The Misesian tradition of economics is positioned as one part of the study of human action. The study of society is the study of acting persons joined in a grand, interacting process of trial and error writ large.

It is not the role of economic or legal theory to predict the future. However, they can and do have useful and unique contributions to make to basic understanding. These can in turn prove useful in such other fields as investing, forecasting, and business-model development that do attempt the always-speculative and risk-bearing task of peering ahead into the soon-to-become empirical future.

For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.

REVIEW | The Ethics of Money Production by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

Business ethics, or at least violating them, if the media is to be believed, is all the rage. The Ethics of Money Production is the first in-depth look (well, the second; the first, as Hülsmann points out, was written 700 years ago by a French Bishop) at the ethics of making money. Not the business of earning money, but the business of producing it.

Money production has been monopolized by the state for so long that it is difficult for us to even conceive of it is a business. The very idea sounds like science fiction. But might this not be in the good sense of science fiction, the sense in which it invites us to question fundamentals and consider what else is possible?

Money production is a business, one that happens to be a state monopoly, generating massive financial gain for the state in multiple layers. Like any business, even a state monopoly, money production ought to be viewable from the perspective of business ethics.

Is the monopolization of money production by the state really necessary, wise, or ethical, or is it simply a practice of long standing that needs to be called into serious question? The Ethics of Money Production takes on just this challenge from both ethical and economic perspectives.

For me, this book came at the end of a concentrated series of readings I did on money and banking issues. Years earlier, I had read several works in the free banking literature from Larry White, George Selgin, and Kevin Dowd, but this time my readings included The Case Against the Fed, The Mystery of Banking, Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles and a series of more recent back-and-forth academic articles on the fractional reserve vs. 100% reserve debate. Even after all this, Hülsmann's volume had a number of unique and important perspectives and insights to offer.

While it is simply stated, it covers a tremendous breadth, touching on all the key issues at just the right level of detail to make it accessible without oversimplifying. It squarely addresses the issues from both ethical and utilitarian angles while clearly distinguishing which is which. It gives priority to the ethical. If something is just plain wrong, there is no basis for excusing it on some set of utilitarian grounds. Nevertheless, the author is also in thorough command of all the utilitarian arguments made in favor of what he identifies as unethical money production, and he examines them all, finding each to also be flawed or self-contradictory on purely economic grounds.

He finds that there has been no real attempt to defend conventional statist monetary practices on ethical grounds at all, and indeed, he can uncover no non-utilitarian ethical grounds in support of such practices to even address. Moreover, he finds substantial grounds for condemning these practices as fraudulent and socially destructive on many levels, from both ethical and purely economic standpoints.

He summarizes the forms that this destruction takes. The continuous loss of value of everyone's money discourages saving, responsibility, and long-term planning and thereby even assists in the break-down of family bonds and other institutions of civil society. The sole beneficiary is the state itself and its closest friends, the banks that help finance its activities beyond what the citizens would be willing to pay in visible taxes.

Inflationary financing is essential to state power, to its wars, to its expansion, to the consolidation of its domination of its subjects. Control of money is a central, if not the central, strategic issue in the strength of the state, providing the state with a nearly limitless means of financing itself at the expense of its subjects in a way that is hidden from, and quite mysterious to, most of them.

What is new in The Ethics of Money Production?

Hülsmann goes even further than his predecessors in imagining the conditions of free market money production. A key weakness in previous formulations was a working assumption that only one type of metal would form a circulating monetary unit. However, it is quite possible that more than one could function in parallel for different purposes. There is no need to have an arbitrary, state-imposed "bimetalist" exchange rate between metals, which has historically driven one or another metal out of circulation whenever the market rate for it exceeded the official rate. In a truly free market for money, gold could end up being used for higher-end transactions and savings, and silver and/or copper coins for everyday transactions. He mentions historical precedent for such arrangements where, for brief periods, the state has not banned them. The metal rates would obviously have to float, as all state-manufactured bimetalist disasters and Gresham's Law-generated deflations in history have clearly demonstrated.

Multiple, freely floating monetary metal currencies are also defensive for the monetary order as a whole. If one metal begins to become corrupted or weakened for any reason, it is easy for consumers to switch to another at the margin. This helps preserve monetary stability, tending to mitigate and rebalance speculative value shifts, and preserves for consumers the ability to quickly and dynamically shift away from any potential problem areas. This is exactly the same consumer power that the state has always sought to take away in order to protect its sad parade of monopolistic funny-money schemes. The essential point is to have total monetary freedom, which means that people are never forced to accept money they do not wish to, and are free to use any money they do wish to.

The book also pointed out a subtle error in previous monetary standard formulations. Saying that "an ounce" of a certain grade of a metal is the monetary unit is not clear enough. Rather, it may be better for the unit to be a specified type of coin that contains this amount of metal.

It is costly to mint coins. If the monetary unit is not specified as a coin, a debt of 100 ounces could be paid, for example, with 100-oz. bar instead of 100 coins. However, the bar is quite likely to be less valuable than the coins because of liquidity differences and minting costs. The market solution would likely be to make a specified type of coin itself function as the contractual monetary unit. If someone wanted to pay in bullion, it would have to be discounted so that the value of the 100-oz. bar, for example, would be lower than the value of 100 of the minted coin units, and a balance would be due in addition to the bar.

Understanding this means taking yet another step toward the consistent application of the subjective theory of value in monetary theory. In this scenario, the bar, even though of the same metal, is not the money; it is just another commodity. This is because "money" is an economic rather than a physical concept. The coin, in this example, would be the "money," but not the bar.

As Hülsmann shows, all such problems, such as confusion as to the actual monetary unit, ultimately arise from the state arrogating to itself the right to set arbitrary "standards," which inevitably have some flaw in them that leads to problems that people operating in free markets could easily have solved and would not have generated.

But the state does this for a reason: it profits. That it profits at the expense of its subject population, should be the first point taught in any exposition of monetary theory. In state-run educational institutions, however, how much prominence is this point likely to be given?

As expected, it is hidden as well as it can be. The author shines light on it for all to see and shows a way forward that is at the same time more ethical, economically sounder, and truer.

IN-DEPTH | President Obama's inaugural address—analysis and commentary


First impression: This is an outstanding example of a speech, with many inspiring messages and positive statements. The negatives consist almost entirely of eloquent repetitions of popular fallacies of economic theory and history. We will be forced, then, to leave the overall good feelings aside and examine the content.


I will begin with a summary of key positives and negatives. When I use the words “standard” and “conventional,” below it indicates my impression that these are errors that are not particular to Mr. Obama, but rather ones he shares with a vastly misguided contemporary intellectual consensus.


  • General tone of friendship and cooperation with other nations
  • Inspiring references to values of honesty, responsibility, and hard work
  • References to positive values illustrated by standard images of US history
  • Tone and style appeared to match content; no obvious contradictions between content and presentation


  • Standard failure to understand the meaning of large sections of the Constitution
  • Confusion between values as expressed in private, voluntary, or entrepreneurial actions with the values of collective state action expressed through coercively orchestrated government programs.
  • The use of the bait-and-switch to rhetorically draw on the good name of the former, and then quickly shift to advocating the latter.
  • Standard failure to understand the inherent self-defeating effects of government programs (the hubris that government programs actually can accomplish whatever technocrats decide they want to see)
  • Implication that those who “sacrificed” in the past thereby justified all of the causes for which they killed and were killed in military adventures, the pure justice of which should in no cases be questioned.

Next, I reproduce the full text of the speech and comment on particular passages. In the course of this discussion, I offer links to relevant books.

My fellow citizens:


I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and co-operation he has shown throughout this transition.

The 10th word of the speech is "us". This subtly begins to establish the discourse of collective action orchestrated through coercive bureaucracy, and starts establishing the mythology that whatever the administration does in the future will be somehow what you and I “do” ourselves.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

While one wants to sympathize with and be inspired by the young President at this point in the speech, this last statement is almost physically painful to people who are able to understand what the Constitution actually says. The founding document has been so thoroughly violated by the Federal Government, the “interpretations” of the Supreme Court, and the outright usurpations of the Office of the President as to be in force virtually in name only.


Antidotes to such delusions include Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty and Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.


That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are all great examples of what is wrong. The solutions to these issues are clear. However, the solutions the administration plans to implement do not address the actual causes of these problems and the proposed programs are likely to make each problem worse than it otherwise might have been.


The root of the economic problem is the system of fractional reserve banking, government-orchestrated central planning of money and credit, and cartelization of the banking system. The definitive treatment of this issue is Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles. Shorter treatments include What Has Government Done to Our Money?/Case for a 100 Percent Gold Dollar and The Ethics of Money Production.

As for war, the United States has spent decades, in stark violation of the Constitution and its principles, occupying and otherwise meddling with the countries in which these networks mentioned have developed. See The Revolution: A Manifesto on this issue (as well as good comments on healthcare and many other issues). For educational issues, a good foundation is the classic Education and the State.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

This is a well-founded fear in view of the state of contemporary economic literacy and the direction of most policy trends. The only question is whether people can manage to continue to prosper in some measure even in the face of massive taxation, inflation, war, strangling regulation, and all the rest that the state does to keep us down.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.


On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Worn-out dogmas is a perfect description of the absurd and ancient economic theories underlying the entire economic program being proposed by the new administration, which is in large part a continuation of the policies of the previous administration with some tweaking. This starts with the idea that “spending” can in any way create prosperity. This is probably one of the oldest and most enduring pieces of non-sense in the history of economic thought. Incredibly, even today, you can read plenty of such material in newspapers each week from prominent "economists."

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.


In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

These are nice references. Interestingly, however, when eliciting emotional images of positive values, the speaker refers to people operating on their own initiative in the private sector. We see repeated use of such images in the bait-and-switch style rhetoric that ensues.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.


For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Notice the smooth switch from positive, private-sector, individual values and actions to government-orchestrated wars. We start with people migrating to a new country—a country where, at the time, government was far less intrusive and the tax burden far lower than in those countries from which the immigrants left. We end with instances of mass warfare and destruction by military machines that were in all cases staffed at least partly through blatantly unconstitutional programs of involuntary servitude (the draft and much more), and financed through involuntary collection of wealth through taxation, debt, and inflation.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Did they see America this way? Is that why they worked hard? The speaker makes a massive empirical historical claim about the motivations of millions of people with the apparent aim of eliciting a certain type of emotion—a collective pride. But is the actual claim true or misleading? What did great, great granddad actually think about what he was doing?


Most migrants migrate because in their opinion at the time, they expect their life and sometimes the lives of their offspring to be better than would have been the case in the country from which they depart. They can leave for any blend of reasons, including perceived income potential, greater religious freedom, ease of starting a business, more space, lower taxes, fewer regulations to hamper productive business, and even better climate. These are all personal reasons, which have little to do with the various collectivist schemes and visions of politicians. See for example the fascinating and sweeping global historical work of Thomas Sowell in Migrations and Cultures: A World View and the four other volumes by him in the series of which it is a part.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year.


Our capacity remains undiminished.

These are very nice statements, and true. The “real economy” is not, indeed, the main issue. The issue is the fractional reserve banking system with central planning of money supply and interest rates. It is this system that undermines the efforts of all of us to plan and save. Our savings are depleted by constant currency depreciation due to inflationism. Our long-term business plans are thwarted due to malinvestments made during bubble periods on the basis of false economic signals created by government manipulations of money and credit and the fractional-reserve practices of the government-cartelized banking system.


There is no cause of major recurring economic cycles of boom and bust other than artificial credit expansion unbacked by real savings. The cause is always the same and the result is always the same, even though mainstream economists, like befuddled witch doctors during a plague, seem entirely unable to explain what is happening.

But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.


For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

Here is some nice inspiration. Notice that it is based on images of personal work and dedication and metaphors of the bold business venture. But then the bait-and-switch comes through: it soon becomes clear that “we” is not you and I working productively to generate goods and services that other people may value enough to buy, but rather "we" is the coercively financed bureaucratic administration of the state and whatever it will actually do with the money it extracts from hapless citizens.

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.

I can see a positive note here, in that we are rebelling a bit against a certain primitive anti-scientific irrationalism in the previous administration. However, the negatives quickly prevail. This statement represents the classic hubris of the technocrat, which is to imagine that the state can “do things” with technology through "policy" that will prove economically advantageous for real people as a whole.


However, the only power and capability the state has is to take wealth from some people and give to others. It cannot produce anything. It can only distort and redistribute. It can only advantage some at the expense of others. The issue is always economics; technology is secondary. There is no mechanism by which the state can make economically intelligent decisions about what technologies to adopt, or how, when, where, and to what extend to employ them. This is precisely the error of central planning exposed by Ludwig von Mises most thoroughly in his classic book Socialism.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.


Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short.

For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

Yet again comes the ever more striking bait-and-switch. Just as before, this method raises positive emotive pictures of what are fundamentally private, individual and entrepreneurial values of hard work, innovation, and creation of better ways of doing things. It switches imperceptibly to the false implication that such values can somehow by applied collectively or encouraged through bureaucratically orchestrated and coercively financed activities. This is sheer delusion.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Well put. Unfortunately, in almost every case, government programs harm us, and this emphatically includes harming the very groups that the policies are advertised to help. Perhaps here would be the place to read Henry Hazlitt’s wonderfully accessible classic Economics in One Lesson. This little book demolishes in clear and simple terms one interventionist fallacy after another by showing how government interventions billed has helping people actually harm the very people targeted for “help,” while certainly also harming the rest of us at the same time.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

This is just an outstanding sentiment. If only reality were not so unforgiving. Unfortunately, such assessments of "success" are often made by the same bureaucrats and special interests who run these programs. They do not tend to produce reports advocating the termination of their own departments and pet programs. As history has repeatedly shown, this leads to no end of intellectual deception to produce indications of “policy success” and to suppress or systematically ignore evidence of “failure” or of costs outweighing benefits (to the iffy extent that costs and benefits can be calculated at all in the context of bureaucratic operations).


Humans do not tend to do well when they are institutionally the judges in their own cases. This is one reason why the most reliable mechanism for weeding out what works from what doesn’t is to allow people who want to use services to purchase them (including purchasing them voluntarily on behalf of others), and preserving for each the freedom to choose not to pay for any service or product. What kind of a system is that? The freedom to buy or not to buy things with your own money? What shall we call this most effective mechanism for promoting the truly useful and helpful and discouraging the less useful and the less helpful?

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Ah, the market. However, this "spinning out of control" is not what the market has done. It is rather precisely what the government-cartelized fractional reserve banking system with central planning of money supply and interest rates has done. It is this latter decidedly non-market system that is responsible for economic crises, and which must be eliminated. One of the few fields in which there has emphatically been no semblance of a pure market system is the field of money and banking, which kings and emperors started taking over and manipulating for their own profit centuries ago. Recurring economic booms and crises are due directly to this entire category of inherently corrupt practices and institutions. It is therefore by no means the “market” that has spun out of control; it is precisely the state’s self-financing interventions in money and banking that are the source of both economic cycles and the permanent ongoing devaluation of currencies.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.


As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Outstanding statements and messages—setting a positive and firm tone.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.


We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater co-operation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Nicely put in general. However, as for the warming planet: anthropogenic (man-made) global warming is for the most part a hoax from top to bottom. It is not coincidentally a hoax that is largely fueled by government-funded research. Any research supporting the expansion of state power is naturally quite popular with state institutions and attracts funding and fame, and research that does not support expansions of state power—not so much. Many, many climate scientists do not support the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis and argue that the evidence is much stronger for other interpretations of the evidence. This rarely makes headlines, though.


A nice solid antidote to conventional global warming theology in one book is a review of the scientific evidence regarding climate change research, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years. In a nutshell, 1) many claims of global warming are systematically exaggerated through biased selection and exclusion of evidence and other flawed data-gathering mechanisms, 2) computerized climate prediction models are largely bogus and fail repeatedly and utterly to predict reality, 3) extremely strong physical geological evidence of numerous overlapping types going back millions of years show a solar-induced warming and cooling cycle of approximately 1,500 years, the continuation of which on trend explains the modest actual global warming that has been scientifically observed, and 4) on balance, global warming is better for the environment of living organisms, including weather stability, than global cooling is.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Nice sentiments; well expressed.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.


To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

The leading changeable causes of poverty are the absence of secure property rights and legal predictability, combined with stifling economic regulations that render productive entrepreneurial activity and trade virtually impossible. Addressing these conditions is the best way to help. Creating them in the advanced countries is the best way to hobble them, as we are seeing. Extracting money from (still) rich-country citizens through taxation and shipping it to prop up corrupt regimes, helping them buy weapons with which to kill their political opponents (so-called foreign aid) is counterproductive. The most helpful policy for developed countries to take with regard to emerging and poor economies is to lift any and all tariffs and all restrictions on trade, in particular, and possibly also on migration. Free trade and interchange with all; entangling alliances with none is the foundational foreign policy of the United States (though one that was not long practiced due to the influence of Hamiltonians, et. al. See Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution--and what it Means for America Today).

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

This is an emotional and hallowed topic, rendering it virtually immune to intelligent discussion and honest historical analysis. Many of these people were inducted involuntarily into foreign military adventures that did not actually further the interests and security of the United States. The country’s deceitfully engineered and propaganda-fueled entry into World War I prolonged and worsened a classic European war that was almost over at the time of the US intervention. This widening and extension of the war set up the conditions for a dishonest one-sided post-war economic exploitation of Germany, principally by Britain, which helped set up the disastrous economic conditions and hyperinflation that formed the desperate backdrop to the democratic election of Hitler and the delayed continuation of World War I, which we call World War II.


Read, for example, the collection of essays, The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories, to get started on the long road to understanding just how deeply we are deceived by glorifying histories of the state’s wars.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Here we go again with the bait-and-switch. These inspiring images are mainly of privately conducted, voluntary actions that the state did not coerce out of its citizens. It is indeed a tribute to the people that they are able to function and succeed at all in the face of all the destruction, distortion, and unfathomably massive taxation and micromanagement that the state inflicts.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new.

The challenges are in no way new. The largest one is just the latest manifestation of ancient problems that date in protean form from the early flirting with fractional reserve banking practices in 14th century Florence. As for the "instruments" now proposed, they are merely the latest variations of policies based on ancient economic superstitions—fallacies that owe their survivability not to their truth, but to their utility in promoting the interests of the state, its favored special interests, and its lapdog “economists” and journalists, at the expense of everyone else.

But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true.

This was a nice moment of the speech in emotional terms. There was some honest recognition of real values from the past—a legacy. If we could only include on this list of values: not taking other people’s money (taxation) and not micromanaging what they can do on threat of imprisonment (regulation), we would be much further along. These latter items don’t fit with the values of fair play, tolerance, or honesty.

They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.


This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Notice the non-specificity of the “duties” now. I assume that the duties may include continuing to hand over more or less half of our incomes to the state or go to jail. Other duties may include facing additional strangling regulations on workplaces and the operation of productive enterprises, living with the criminalization of the production of incandescent light bulbs, going off to the next state-aggrandizing and new-enemy-manufacturing war of the week, or watching our sons, daughters, and friends do so. What “we” the citizens will actually do is fund a multitude of programs, transfers, and invasions, almost all of which are deeply misguided, wasteful, and blatantly unconstitutional.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.


This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

This definitely represents concrete progress. This was a cultural transformation conducted over years. It would have happened much sooner without the state and its enforcement of legally mandated discrimination, and to this day laws that enable bigoted employers to practice arbitrary discrimination without themselves suffering what would otherwise be the natural economic losses that would stem from it. See Walter Block’s new Labor Economics from a Free Market Perspective.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:


"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

The American revolutionaries fought against the imposition of various piddly taxes of a few percent on a few selected items! They fought against the arbitrary power of an unchecked executive (who was, at the time, called a "King" rather than a "President").


The modern American executive branch, headed now by Mr. Obama himself, has unimaginably vaster powers to tax, regulate, imprison, and kill than King George III would ever have begun to imagine or fathom. The Declaration of Independence provides a list of grievances that are truly small-time whining compared to the comparable modern list of the usurpations and abuses of the United States Federal government.

The only responsible course for a holder of this office who wishes to protect the Constitution and the ideals of the American revolutionaries would be to immediately begin issuing executive orders reversing virtually all assumptions of power taken by past presidents and dismantling most executive branch departments. Congressman Ron Paul laid out precisely such a course in his 2008 campaign for president.

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.



I found this speech honestly inspiring on a personal level. My role, what I can do, is contribute to economic and historical education in this world. False economic ideas lead well-meaning people to do harm that they do not understand they are doing through their fanciful reliance on the coercive instrument of the state to attempt to “manage” the rest of us.


Prices should be falling

The long-term price level should be falling due to productivity growth. The fiat money monopolists' grand concern about how far inflation is above zero is silly. Keeping the price level flat is still a massive form of theft out of the pockets of every net positive holder of the state-mandated currency (other than some of the first recipients of new infusions). This is because the price level not only should not be rising, it should not be flat either. Indeed, it should be falling, as it did in terms of gold before the replacement of real money with paper monopoly tickets issued by state cronies.

The creation and near universal spread of the image that as long as inflation is not too far above zero, everything is fine, is a massive delusion, which masks a truly mind-boggling embezzlement racket. Even if central banks did manage zero inflation, the fact that prices were not falling with ongoing economic progress would indicate the ongoing degree of currency depreciation relative to the progress of the real economy.

What is "currency depreciation?" In the case of fiat money systems, it is embezzlement of the savings of every single person all the time everywhere. Rather than steal particular pieces of money, treasuries, central banks, and their cronies steal portions of the value of all the money that exists (leaving it all where it is in cash and deposits), and divert it into their very own newly printed notes and newly infused magical deposit credits for Wall Street. No mere private bandit could ever dream of running and maintaining such a crime syndicate.

What's the defense? A couple of possibilities. Own tangible assets (buildings, metals) and minimize holdings of fiat currency. Another—commonly adopted in the US, but not necessarily recommended—is to be in debt. Currency depreciation harms those with positive net cash and benefits those with negative net cash (the devaluation of a negative creates a double-negative and therefore a positive). No wonder there are so many in debt. Saving in fiat money is punished.