While it is true that local communities have, in the past, generated successful communitarian currencies (that enabled them to improve welfare in their midst, especially at a time of acute economic crises), there can be no de-politicised currency capable of ‘powering’ an advanced, industrial society.
An important and crucial argument by Yanis Varoufakis:
* On “The fantasy of ‘de-politicised’, ‘honest’ money
“The Crash of 2008 has infused our societies with enormous scepticism on the role of the authorities, both government and Central Banks. It is quite natural that many dream of a currency that politicians, bankers and central bankers cannot manipulate; a currency of the people by the people for the people. Bitcoin has emerged as the great white hope of something of the sort. Alas, the hope it brings to many people’s hearts and minds is false. And the reason is simple: While it is true that local communities have, in the past, generated successful communitarian currencies (that enabled them to improve welfare in their midst, especially at a time of acute economic crises), there can be no de-politicised currency capable of ‘powering’ an advanced, industrial society.
Since the second industrial revolution made possible the emergence of large, networked oligopolistic companies (the Edisons and Fords of the 1900s, and the Googles or Apples of today), capitalism became dependent on large credit spurts for the purposes of financing these capital corporations’ needs. Such credit spurts required large boosts in the money supply, both in order to finance the creation of new capital goods and also to support the new consumption patterns that were necessary to maintain the economy’s new productive capacity. Even when capitalist economies operated under the Gold Standard, banks found ways of creating money by lending increasing quantities against the existing, stable, stock of gold.
The 1920s thus demonstrates the impossibility of an apolitical money supply. Even though the monetary authorities were insisting on a stable correspondence between the quantity of paper money and gold, the financial sector was boosting the money supply inexorably. Should the authorities stop them from so doing? If they had, the Edisons and the Fords would have never flourished, and capitalism would have failed to produce all the goodies that it did; indeed, it would have stagnated and spawned social tensions that would put its institutions under a cloud well before 1929. So, the authorities stood by, allowing the bubbles of the 1920s to inflate, leading to 1929 and to the disaster of the Great Depression.
To the extent that bitcoin attempts to emulate the Gold Standard, if a large portion of economic activity is denominated in bitcoin, the dilemmas of the 1920s will return to plague the bitcoin economy. Finance will either have to find ways of introducing bitcoin denominated securities, 1920s-style, that will cause asset bubbles to form or the bitcoin political economy will nosedive into a deflationary spiral that either causes untold hardship amongst its users or leads them, as is more likely, to abandon bitcoin altogether.
The reason that money is and can only be political is that the only way of steering a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of dangerous ponzi growth and stagnation is to exercise a degree of rational, collective control over the supply of money. And since this control is bound to be political, in the sense that different monetary policies will affect different groups of people differently, the only decent manner in which such control can be exercised is through a democratic, collective agency. In brief, while apolitical money is a dangerous illusion, a Central Bank that is democratically controlled (as opposed to the indefensible notion of an ‘independent’ Central Bank) remains our best hope for a form of money that is for the people and by the people. Bitcoin, despite its many interesting features, can never be that.
Bitcoin enthusiasts, just like believers in the Gold Standard, understand money as if it were some commodity which has spontaneously emerged as a unit of exchange – a little like cigarettes did in the POW camp ‘economy’ that R.A. Radford (1945) described so brilliantly. This is a gross misconception based on the unexamined (and dangerously false) faith that there is no substantial difference between Radford’s POW camp and a modern capitalist economy; that, like in that POW camp, output is independent of expectations and demand is always abundant enough to absorb the produced output. As for investment, it is assumed to be uni-directionally determined by savings which are, in turn, determined by the rate at which present consumption is deferred to the future. None of that holds in an economy involving not only exchange but also production and investment. It is these two activities, production and investment, that preclude the possibility of apolitical money.”
Apart from the central argument in the article we´ve excerpted, the greek economist points to two other flaws:
* On “Bitcoin’s two fundamental flaws
As with all things digital, there are a number of concerns to do with security; with the fear of hackers and e’spivs. Imagine a world that has shifted entirely to bitcoin. Would we not live in fear that some ingenious hacker will get the better of Nakamoto’s algorithm and manipulate it to his benefit? Would it be wise for humanity simply to assume that the bitcoin algorithm is un-hackable (especially so in the absence of some authority that can intervene and save the day if something horrible happens to the algorithm)? Besides, even if the algorithm is safe, there is always the danger of waking up to the realisation that one’s bitcoin stash was e’looted during the night. And if one entrusts one’s stash to some company with better firewalls and computer security, what happens (in the absence of a bitcoin Central Bank) if that company goes broke or simply disappears into the Internet’s darker crevices (with its customers’ bitcoins)?
These concerns would probably suffice to put a dent in bitcoin’s prospects. But they are not the main drawbacks of the currency. No, there are two insurmountable flaws that make bitcoin a highly problematic currency: First, the bitcoin social economy is bound to be typified by chronic deflation. Secondly, we have already seen the rise of a bitcoin aristocracy (a term ‘coined’ by Greek blogger @techiechan) which, besides the issues of distributive justice which it raises, evokes serious fears about the capacity of very few entities or persons to manipulate the currency in a manner that enriches them at the expense of financial instability. Let us look at these two problems in some detail.
First, deflation is unavoidable in the bitcoin community because the maximum supply of bitcoins is fixed to 21 million bitcoins and approximately half of them have already been ‘minted’ at a time when very, very few goods and services transactions are denominated in bitcoins. To put simply, if bitcoin succeeds in penetrating the marketplace, an increasing quantity of new goods and services will be traded in bitcoin. By definition, the rate of increase in that quantity will outpace the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins (a rate which, as explain, is severely constricted by the Nakamoto algorithm). In short, a restricted supply of bitcoins will be chasing after an increasing number of goods and services. Thus, the available quantity of bitcoins per each unit of goods and services will be falling causing deflation. And why is this a problem? For two reasons: First, because an expected fall in bitcoin prices motivates people with bitcoins to delay, as much as they can, their bitcoin expenditure (why buy something today if it will be cheaper tomorrow?). Secondly, because to the extent that bitcoins are used to buy factors of production that are used to produce goods and services, and assuming that there is some time lag between the purchase of these factors and the delivery of the final product to the bitcoin market, a steady fall in average prices will translate into a constantly shrinking price-cost margin for firms dealing in bitcoins.
Secondly, two major faultlines are developing, quite inevitably, within the bitcoin economy. The first faultline has already been mentioned. It is the one that divides the ‘bitcoin aristocracy’ from the ‘bitcoin poor’, i.e. from the latecomers who must buy into bitcoin at increasing dollar and euro prices. The second faultline separates the speculators from the users; i.e. those who see bitcoin as a means of exchange from those who see in it as a stock of value. The combination of these two faultlines, whose width and depth is increasing, is to inject a massive instability potential into the bitcoin universe. While it is true for all currencies that there is always some speculative demand for them, as opposed to transactions demand, in the case of bitcoin speculative demand outstrips transactions demand by a mile. And as long as this is so, volatility will remain huge and will deter those who might have wanted to enter the bitcoin economy as users (as opposed to speculators). Thus, just like bad money drives out good money (Gresham’s famous ‘law’), speculative demand for bitcoins drives our transactions demand for it.
Can these two flaws be corrected? Would it be possible to calibrate the long-term supply of bitcoins in such a way as to ameliorate for the deflationary effects described above while tilting the balance from speculative to transactions demand for bitcoins? To do so we would need a Bitcoin Central Bank, which will of course defeat the very purpose of having a fully decentralised digital currency like bitcoin.”