Bitcoin

Motivations for New Currency Design

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Published on FEASTA on November 15, 2015

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There appear to be four main ‘flavours’ of motivations driving new currency innovation:

a) deprecatory: informed by a view that mainstream fiat money is toxic and a better form can be usefully invented
b) economic: driven by the desire to preference a given sub-economy
c) value-led: where specific social outcomes are sought through the device of a currency
d) commercial: currency invention with narrow commercial aims

The first three map (loosely admittedly) on to Kenichi Ohmae’s ‘strategic triangle’ of competitor, customer and corporation. The first identifies fiat currency as the competitor and sets out specifically to address perceived weaknesses and faults of fiat. The second defines a group of target customers/ users, usually but not always based on geography. The third seeks to build an institution founded on a specific value-set (think mission statement) – albeit that the imagined eventual institution may well be more co-operative and/or digital/ autonomous than standard corporation. (Examples: bitcoin, Brixton Pound, timebanks). Mixed motivations are of course possible.

This article is an attempt to drill down into these motivation flavours and see what insights we can extract. It is part of the Feasta Currency Group’s work programme on Intentional Currencies, and anticipates a diverse future monetary ecosystem where currencies are more under the control of their users. (Who knows? Taxes could be payable in a user’s currency of choice.) Thanks to Phoebe Bright and Ciaran Mulloy for the discussions that preceded this particular brain-dump.

The Deprecation of Fiat

Fiat money operates within and is notionally controlled by an individual state (the euro being the problematic exception). Its main success is that of total acceptance within the relevant nation state. But it is an invention of man, and the question is ‘can we do better?’. Dissatisfaction with fiat revolves around its private creation as credit by an oligopoly of banks; its subsequent rental (via interest) transferring wealth from the have-nots to the already-haves; its misallocation away from productive use to fuel the casino and asset bubbles; and its lack of democratic or strategic control.

Currency reformers are gaining some traction in the unenviable task of effecting policy change in the teeth of enormous vested-interest resistance. [1,2,3,4,5]

But the nation states (who are in theory if not in practice the custodians of money-issue privilege) are being increasingly undermined by globalisation. Multinationals spearhead a race to the regulatory bottom. Trade trumps virtually any ethical or environmental concern and the sole recognised measure of progress is increasing GDP.

Against this background, the oft-inferred libertarian ambition behind Bitcoin – taking back money-issue-control from the state – hardly seems worthwhile if that control is already being outsourced to corporations. Anyway, setting aside the issue of Bitcoin’s democratic credentials [6], we can still assert that its underlying technology, the blockchain, does open up possibilities for decentralised co-operative management of information, and will clearly pave the way for the development of other digital currencies.

Given the multi-faceted and anarchic but energetic nature of cryptocurrency development it is starting to look as if the nation state’s only choice might be how exactly it wishes to be undermined – by globalised capital from the inside or by citizen-led ‘digital heteropeia’ [7] from the outside. Or maybe both at the same time, meeting in the middle to contest the emaciated remains of national sovereignties.

We have suggested elsewhere that the attitude of new currencies to fiat can usefully be made explicit – as fiat-friendly, fiat-cautious or fiat-averse [8]. But there is probably a fourth category – fiat-agnostic – for currency designers that haven’t the time or inclination to understand precisely the nature of fiat-toxicity.

Economic

The motivation here springs from an identification with a given sub-economy, and a desire to preference that sub-economy over the outside-world. The most common manifestation of this is where the sub-economy is a town or identifiable region that senses it is losing its sense-of-place under an onslaught from major brands and centralised supply. The preference then is for genuinely locally-rooted independent businesses and for keeping money circulating in the local economy, against the tide of centralised supply chains.

Currency projects of this sort, like the proxy-pounds, can be seen as much as local-identity reenforcers as economic interventions. Claims are made for increases in ‘local-GDP’ due to increase in velocity of exchange, but real additionality is difficult to prove. Some substitution of local for remote supply surely takes place, but the key objective – the creation of new local businesses – is elusive. The heavily centralised (out-of-area) supply of stuff-of-life transactions such as food, energy, shelter makes this a huge challenge.

Local economy currencies tend to attract activist support during start-up, but can struggle to retain a progressive mindset. Recently a tendency has been observed for them to attempt to grow via inter-connection [9], thereby arguably undermining the local-preferencing objective. Other ways of keeping up the progressive enthusiasm include new technology, local council integration and aggressive anti-consumerism.

Value-led

Value-led currencies are the most potentially interesting of the motivation-types because they are exploring the ability of a currency to be used for good. This positioning sets aside the economics professions conceit that money is neutral and replaces it with the assertion that if monies always carry values/ promote behaviours/ trigger specific outcomes then designers should be explicit about their objectives and how they are to be achieved. [10]

However, to move from no-brainer propositions such as ‘transactions are not all equal’ and ‘growth is not always good’ to a rigorous theory of value-led currencies is a bit of a challenge. It is hampered by the fact that there aren’t too many examples to study. The best examples are perhaps the Fureai Kippu [11] elder-care currrencies of Japan and the timebanks of various flavours that facilitate the exchange of participant-hours.

Review of the literature does suggest a number of challenges for such currencies. Staying true to themselves is perhaps the most severe. There is always the temptation to try to scale inappropriately by extending into non-core transactions. This is not to say that such scaling is always unwise – more that the potential value-conflict it surfaces should be carefully scrutinised and assessed. Part of the pressure for scaling is the underlying assumption that currencies must be as widely used as possible. But in a future diverse monetary eco-system this rationale potentially disappears. Another part of that pressure is the human desire for what might be called qualitative growth. The operators perhaps tend to get bored if the game isn’t perpetually changing. Tech developments deliver a continuing stream of possible futures and it seems unadventurous to ignore them.

Since around 2010 there has been a surge of interest in Behavioural Economics [12] – fuelled to a large extent by the Nudge unit set up within the UK Cabinet Office [13] and now being replicated world wide. There is likely some read-across from this experience to value-led currencies. One particular potential mindset-clash however needs to be addressed. The would-be discipline of Behavioural Insights, like it or not, carries a hint of citizen manipulation with it that sits ill with the sort of fully participative governance anticipated for value-led currencies. Put it this way – if we are going to be nudged then its important that we buy into the process and are aware of the intervention. It is clearly a hierarchichal process with the nudger and the nudgee. It would be good to see the nudger nudged; the policy makers directionally influenced via an understanding of their underlying psychology – #reversenudge .

Commercial

The proposition that corporations should be free to issue their own currencies and have them competing in a free market goes back to the seminal paper by Hayek [14,15], probably before. Arguably, the emergence of multi-nationals with multiple brands and a diverse range of ultimate products should encourage this approach, but as yet no examples seem to exist.

Of course, we have a proliferation of loyalty schemes but these tend to operate at the individual brand level, (though coalition loyalty schemes such as Nectar are obviously an attempt to widen the redemption options available). There does seem to be a recent pattern of the ‘superbrand’ asserting ownership of its sub-brands. Unilever comes to mind, as does the ‘peel-off’ corner on Danone ads. So there is probably a brand bun-fight going on internally at some of these organisations. Indeed, taking the Unilever connection further, their recent well-resourced attempts at CSR initiatives [16] might indicate a fertile ground for a value-based superbrand currency.

Loyalty schemes on their own are significant for one reason. They have driven the engineering of an alternative payment mechanism – when I go into Costa I can pay in cash or in Costa points if I have enough of them. The significance here is that the Point of Sale systems, settlement and back office systems permit it. The card swipe takes my Costa loyalty card and routes data to the back-end Whitbread servers rather than to the merchant acquirer. So loyalty systems are paving the system way for the diverse monetary ecosystem that is coming.

Summary & Conclusions

There will clearly be mixed-motive currencies – indeed most new and developing currencies will want to explore the various motivations and set out for themselves – ideally explicitly – their balance of motives. This process should not be seen as an additional chore, rather it can be part of developing a coherent and compelling narrative for a currency project – feeding into statements of mission and values in a way that gives a currency real brand-value. It can act as a guide to future action and as a mandate with external partners including potential funders. The tensions that the process of motivation disclosure surfaces should themselves be treasured. They will form an important part of the agenda going forward, and their publication will underline the transparency of governance that is needed for real progress. Feasta would be happy to play a part in such motivation audits.

References

[1]: Swiss group says it has signatures for ‘sovereign money’ vote
http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/10/31/uk-swiss-sovereign-money-idUKKCN0SP0FW20151031

[2]: Sovereign Money : Joseph Huber
http://www.sovereignmoney.eu/

[3]: Creating a Sovereign Monetary System: Positive Money
http://positivemoney.org/our-proposals/creating-sovereign-monetary-system/

[4]: Iceland looks at ending boom & bust with radical money plan [March 2015]
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11507810/Iceland-looks-at-ending-boom-and-bust-with-radical-money-plan.html

[5]: International Movement for Monetary Reform: Coalition of 22 national sovereign money groups
http://internationalmoneyreform.org/member-organisations/

[6] For example around 2% of BTC addresses control over 92% of BTCs:
https://bitinfocharts.com/top-100-richest-bitcoin-addresses.html

[7]: Miscione G & Kavanagh D : UCD School of Business, University College Dublin [July 2015]
Bitcoin and the Blockchain: A coup d’état in Digital Heterotopia?
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2624922

[8]: http://www.feasta.org/2015/07/29/new-currencies-and-their-relationship-with-fiat-currency/

[9}: For example the ‘Town Pound’ project
http://guildofindependentcurrencies.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/GoIC_Conf2014_TownPound_GW.pdf

[10]: Series of articles on Intentional Currencies at:
http://www.feasta.org/author/graham-barnes/

[11]: Hayashi, M. (2012) ‘Japan’s Fureai Kippu Time-banking in Elderly Care: Origins, Development, Challenges and Impact’ International Journal of Community Currency Research 16 (A) 30-44 <www.ijccr.net>

[12]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_economics

[13]: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/behavioural-insights-team

[14]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denationalization_of_Money and

[15]: Hayek’s Plan for Private Money:
https://mises.org/library/hayeks-plan-private-money

[16}: https://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/

Featured image: spices. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/many-kinds-of-spices-1566276

Navigating the Blockchain: Drones, Droids and BitCoins

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Published on Peak Surfer on July 5, 2015

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A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.


— Isaac Asimov, Runaround (1942)Barack Obama may be remembered for many things — becoming the first Hawaiian President of the United States, withdrawing allied forces from epic military disaster in the Muslim World, dismantling market moral hazard, and reopening Cuba to the mob — but his most lasting legacy may be still to come.

There is a revolution quietly taking shape in Air Force joystick cubicles near Las Vegas, in the Horn of Africa, the Tribal Territories of Pakistan, the DMZ of Korea, and in secret sites in Tel Aviv and Kiev. Autonomous Robot drones are evolving capability to select and execute targets of opportunity.   

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota meaning forced labor, and is generally attributed to a 1924 play by Karel Capek. The idea that men will build machines that may all too easily destroy their creators runs back through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Greek mythology. We have a deeply engrained wariness of anything that might knock us out of our place as top-predator in the food chain. And yet, we ignore these death machines we are building, seeing nothing more threatening than a good movie script. 

The median response from Artificial Intelligence programmers when asked when AI-droids will have better processing power than humans is 2030. Put another way, the coming generations of flying robots that kill their human prey from 10,000 feet up will be smarter than people in about 15 years, barring total collapse of petroleum civilization, or maybe even because of it.

Removing Asimov's three laws from the kernel of killer robot CPUs is a death wish. Actually, Asimov wrote four laws. The fourth or zeroth law that outranked the others:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.


Blockchain

 
 In the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, the open source protocol for a public asset ledger called the blockchain was put forward. The core of this invention was the idea of decentralized consensus on a large scale, an app version of Occupy, if you will.

From the blockchain emerged BitCoin. BitCoin was modeled on the gold standard for valuing transportable wealth – there was a finite supply but it could be "mined" to enlarge what was available for transactions by users. New gold went to miners who solved mathematical problems. The Cyberpunk community extolled its virtues:

"Psychopathic tendencies as the side effect of extreme individuality can be brought into balance within a new social contract, enforced by Satoshi’s perfect market with its equilibrium of supply and demand. Characteristics that are often considered negative in society such as risk taking, calculated selfish acts and profit motives can now be channeled to serve a larger shared vision of a more free society.

 

***
 

"Instead of arms races and financial wars, with bitcoin the competition for solving a mathematical problem helps to achieve a global level security infrastructure. This new flow of currency has the potential to end financial apartheid and begin serving the unbanked and underbanked that have been excluded from the current financial system. It can free those who are restrained by rent-seekers and subjugated to financial colonization. Out of the torrents emerging through the massive hashing power, the torus of a new heart grows and with every beat expands our collective goodwill to flow throughout the entire network."


— Nozomi Hayase, Taming the Beast  

Anytime someone comes on to us like a Snake Oil salesman, we check to make sure we still have our wallet, even if that wallet is now an app on our wristwatch.

Actually, this exuberance is immediately suspect in the case of bitcoin because "free" coins will gravitate towards whomever has the most computing power, leaving a 99 percent of lesser power users to purchase from the 1 percent who get theirs for "free." This is not a paradigm shift, it merely shifts the elite class (temporarily) from banksters to any hackers with supercomputer access and an ability to pay the electric bill.

The top coin miners have a Red Queen problem. In the Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland, everyone runs faster and faster and no-one gets ahead. In coin mining, more and more computing power is required to solve the mathematical problems. The software underpinning the network reacts to successful miners by elevating difficulty, so hackers add even more computing power, and so on. 

As this cycle speeds, it takes more datacenter CPU heat, and more cooling electricity, to mine a bitcoin. The computational power of the bitcoin mining network surpassed the world's top 500 supercomputers in 2013. On average, for every megawatt of electricity spent mining bitcoins, 0.65 tons (1300lbs) of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Dave Carlson, founder of Megabigpower, a mining datacentre in Washington state, figures he spends 240 kWh and releases 312 lbs of CO2 for each coin he mines. Worldwide, bitcoin mining generates about 25 tons CO2 per hour, or 219,000 tons per year. This is not virtual CO2. This is real CO2.

Can the blockchain prevent HSBC’s illegal money laundering for Mexican drug cartels? No. It makes it easier. Nigeria is already becoming a blockchain haven for Citibank, with ambitions to colonize all of payments space. If it seems oddly ironic to speak of Nigeria as a colonial power, just remember how quick its entrepreneurs were to colonize and monetize spam.

Does Citibank have any compunction about employing the fastest available processing power to (a) game bitcoin mining; (b) replace devalued bitcoins with its own CitiCoin; and (c) unleash predatory trading algorithms from the blockchain that operate at warp speed or even employ quantum mechanics to execute trades before they are even imagined by the trading partners? 

The Cyberpunk response is that blockchain transparency will flush the bandit algorithms. But one man's bandit is another's freedom fighter, layering, spoofing, and generating wash trades. The sheriff (SEC, FIRA, FBI, or a State or US Attorney) is outgunned and doesn't usually want to do anything that might jeopardize his/her pension, or the party in power. 

In his White House War Room, The Commander-in-Chief is assured that if we don't do this first, our rivals will. And so we drift, towards unparalleled catastrophe.

Above, circling the heavens, are autonomous killer drones that keep getting smarter by the year. In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are they.

Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on May 22, 2015

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MoneyHoleDiscuss this Rant at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

 

Snippet:

…Bitcoins, a relatively new form of electronic money are also often hawked as the latest and greatest solution to keeping your money safe. Except EVERYBODY KNOWS about Mt. Gox by now. From Wiki:

Mt. Gox was a Bitcoin exchange based in Tokyo, Japan. It was launched in July 2010, and by 2013 was handling 70% of all Bitcoin transactions.[1] In February 2014, the Mt. Gox company suspended trading, closed its website and exchange service, and filed for a form of bankruptcy protection from creditors called minji saisei, or civil rehabilitation, to allow courts to seek a buyer.[2][3] In April 2014, the company began liquidation proceedings.[4] It announced that around 850,000 bitcoins belonging to customers and the company were missing and likely stolen, an amount valued at more than $450 million at the time.[5][6] Although 200,000 bitcoins have since been "found", the reason(s) for the disappearance—theft, fraud, mismanagement, or a combination of these—are unclear as of March 2014.[7]

You think Fraud, Mismanagement and Hacking will STOP if money goes cashless? OF COURSE NOT, IT WILL GET WORSE! There is no computer system ever that is foolproof and incapable of being hacked, and of course the rewards for hacking such a system or “mismanaging” it gets bigger all the time, so the Best & the Brightest spend all their time figuring out how to do that…

For the rest, LISTEN TO THE RANT!!!

Full Rant Transcript available HERE

ALSO, IF YOU HAVE NOT DONE SO ALREADY, TAKE THE SURVEY ON NEAR TERM HUMAN EXTINCTION BELOW!

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