Once you get past the childish title, the recent bitcoin piece from Karl Denninger raises some issues that warrant consideration from bitcoin economists. Denninger is an intelligent student of the capital markets and his essay deserves a serious reply.
The economic contribution of his essay is that it represents the thesis advanced by German economist Georg Friedrich Knapp in The State Theory of Money (1924), an expose advocating the Chartalist approach to monetary theory claiming that money must have no intrinsic value and strictly be used as tokens issued by the government, or fiat money. Today, modern-day chartalists are from the school of thought known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
Without getting into the intrinsic value debate, this is where I strongly depart from Denninger, because if we accept the thesis that all money is a universal mass illusion, then a market-based illusion can be just as valid or more valid than a State-controlled illusion. What Denninger and Greenbackers and MMT supporters reject is the notion that monetary illusions themselves are a competitive marketplace, falsely believing that only the State is in a ‘special’ position to confer legitimacy in monetary matters.
Regarding this issue of State-sanctioned legitimacy, bitcoin as a cryptographic unit seeks and gains legitimacy through the free and open marketplace. It is not a governmental instrument of legal tender that requires regulatory legitimacy and coercion by law in order to gain acceptance.
Therefore, the path to widespread adoption of bitcoin hinges on three primary market-based developments: (a) robust and liquid global exchanges similar to national currencies that can offer risk management via futures and options, (b) more user-friendly applications that mask the complexities of cryptography from users and merchants, and (c) a paradigm shift towards “closing the loop” such as receiving source payments and wages in bitcoin to eliminate the need for conversion from or to national fiat.
Even after graciously accepting Denninger’s definition of what the ideal currency would be (which I don’t) and searching for any economic nuggets of value, his arguments can be distilled into four main criticisms of bitcoin as a monetary instrument. First, bitcoin does not provide cash-like anonymity. Second, bitcoin transactions take too long for confirmations to be useful in everyday transactions. Third, bitcoin exhibits irreversible entropy. Fourth, the decoupling of the stateless bitcoin from the obligation of monetary sovereigns is considered a fatal weakness.
Now that we identified the objections, let’s take these in order.
On the first point surrounding bitcoin anonymity, Denninger only embarrasses himself with this criticism. By default, bitcoin may not offer anonymity and untraceability like our paper cash today, but it is better described as user-defined anonymity because the decision to reveal identity and usage patterns resides solely with the bitcoin user. This is far superior to a situation where users of a currency are relegated to seeking permission for their financial privacy which is typically denied by the monetary and financial overlords. Also, his capital gains tax issue is a non-starter because it’s a byproduct of a monopoly over money.
His second criticism of a lack of utility in the ‘goods and service preference’ due to timing of sufficient block chain confirmations has some merit. However, advances have been made in the use of green addressing techniques that solve the confirmation delay problem by utilizing special-purpose bitcoin addresses from parties trusted not to double spend.
Denniger’s third criticism that bitcoin exhibits irreversible entropy is confusing. Typically, entropy refers to a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder. In the case of bitcoin, I suspect Denninger is taking it to mean the degradation of the matter in the universe because of his explicit comparison to gold. While it is true that bitcoins lost or forgotten are ultimately irretrievable, I view that as a feature not a bug because it is the prevailing trait of a digital bearer instrument. Two bitcoin digital attributes that make it superior to physical gold are its ability to create backups and its difficulty of confiscation. Furthermore, the number of spaces to the right of the decimal point (currently eight) is immaterial to bitcoin’s suitability as a monetary unit.
Now for the big and final one. Denninger asserts that monetary sovereign issuers possess not only the privilege, but the obligation, of seigniorage, which Denninger refers to as bi-directional since sovereigns have the responsibility of maintaining a stable price level during times of both economic expansion and economic contraction. As a product of Hayekian free choice in currency, market-based bitcoin is decentralized by nature and poses a false comparison to the century-old practice of central bank monetary manipulation. Fear not deflation.
Governments have appropriated the monetary unit for their own benefit by declaring it the only preferred monetary unit for payment of taxes to the State. Believing that governments have sincere and good intentions in administering the monetary system is akin to believing in fairy tales. Control of the monetary system serves one and only one interest — the unlimited expansion of the sovereign’s spending activity to the detriment of the unfortunate users of that monetary unit. Decentralized Bitcoin obliterates this sad state of affairs.
Denninger’s biased and establishment preference for a monetary sovereign serves only to harm his analysis because it undeniably closes him off from alternative, and usually superior, free-market monetary arrangements. More damaging, however, is the fact that it places him outside of the mainstream in free banking circles and squanders his remaining quasi-libertarian credibility as a champion of markets.