It’s easy to be negative about the U.S. economy these days. Find a glint of silver, and folks come running to point out all of the dark clouds looming about. This, of course, is what we got last week when the monthly jobs report was released from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Folks pooh-poohed the number of jobs and whining that they’re not enough or that it’s less than a bunch of economists thought that it might be. But you know what? Stuff ’em.
Given how poorly states like California and Illinois have funded the pension funds for their own employees, one would think that this would stop dead in its tracks any plan to have the government assist in managing private sector funds too. The spate of recent activity, however, suggests otherwise.
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
“When they come for my gun, they will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands,” is a common refrain I often hear from the Neo-Cons when there is a threat, credible or otherwise, that the U.S. government is going to take their firearms.And, when I hear this crazy talk, I agree with […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is acting in a bipartisan way to cover up the biggest single threat to the bipartisan political alliance that is stripping America of its wealth: the United States Congress.There is no question that the following policy is bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are completely agreed that the following information […]
Amidst all the revelations about how the American people, many of whom are absolutely convinced they live in a free society, have their telephone calls, emails, website visits, and who knows what else under surveillance by their own government, let’s not forget the massive infringements on financial privacy that have gone on for decades.Consider, for […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
So you’ve maneuvered the Obamacare website, plugged in your top-secret information and found out how much you are forced to pay to avoid a fine.And for some of you, it turns out you qualify for a government subsidy — making the premium sound like a bargain. But signing on that line to accept the government’s […]
The Largest Company in History:“The United States Corporation of Government (USCOG)”I follow global social and commercial networks, looking for entrepreneurial opportunities.Innovation surges when industry and government models change. Buggy whips. Landline phones. Railroads. The Soviet Union. Apartheid South Africa. All marked social and commercial innovation, both bad and good.We are witnessing a new form of […]
We’d like to give the banks in Australia some credit. They’ve finally gone and done it. They have caught up with 1960s technology. They’ve figured out how to use PIN numbers.How to only use PIN numbers, that is. They’re considering scrapping signatures on credit cards to cut down on fraud. Apparently, having to verify your […]
We put in a good-citizen call to the SEC the other day.“There’s a massive scheme to manipulate stock prices,” we told the friendly agent.“I have to tell you that your call is being monitored so that we can better serve the public,” he replied.“Oh, don’t worry about that. The NSA is tapping our call anyway.”“Are […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
Politicians — elected officials — are street smart rather than book smart.If you care about influencing government policy it helps to know how they think.Forbes contributor Nathan Lewis argues that:“Too much is done today on the oral tradition. That is, literally, what it is. In this post-Gutenberg age, we have some better alternatives.“Thus, we need […]
Bitcoin has been making headlines for months now. Extreme price fluctuations have sparked a vigorous debate: Is it a currency or a scam? Is Bitcoin viable in the long-term, or are we witnessing a bubble waiting to burst?The answers to these questions are simple: Yes, Bitcoin is a currency, but we cannot know if it […]
The Silk Road was an undercover website where you could buy or sell illegal goods — drugs mainly. I believe passports were changing hands for about $6,000, and I understand weapons were also sold, but that was ceased in response to the spate of shootings in the U.S. over the summer. The essence of the […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Now, this is sheer entertainment. The Chicago branch of the Federal Reserve has addressed the great monetary question of our day. A researcher has taken a detailed look at the prospects for market-based crypto-currency, with a special focus on Bitcoin. It concludes that Bitcoin is not a viable replacement for the dollar. The report includes […]
The standard version of how money came to be goes like this: First, there was barter. (A handful of nails for a pint of ale!) Then, along came various forms of money. An evolutionary derby eventually crowned gold and silver as the supreme money. And finally, credit (or debt) was born. This is the apex […]
2013 represents another turning point in the demise of the American Empire. If you view it in economic (rather than ethical or moral) terms, the high water mark of Empire was probably in the late 1990s.But the Internet bubble and bust marked an important turning point. It coincided with the birth of the euro, a […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
My community in the Deep South prides itself on friendship, community feeling, and an overall happy spirit. So it was a bit strange for all of this to be utterly smashed and obliterated in the course of a few calamitous weeks in which friend turned against friend, colleagues became antagonists and enemies, and families were […]
A new assessment of state pension obligations suggests the problem is even worse than it already appears.How much worse?EMPTY COOKIE JAR: Pension liabilities are worse than many states’ official figures indicate.Using a more conservative method of accounting for financial gains in the marketplace, there is a $4.1 trillion gap between assets and liabilities — known […]
I dreamed I saw Bernard von NotHaus, alive as you or me.Said I, “But Bernard, you’ve been jailed two years.”“I never was,” said he.Bernard has been the called the Rosa Parks of the alternative money movement. More than 10 years ago, he had this idea that he would make his own money — not the […]
There were no cubicles, no executive suites, and no visible hierarchies of power. It was just a large open room with computers and desks, and at each sat a large monitor in the shape of a medieval triptych: a large screen in the middle, flanked by one on each side.
“Programmers like to have several screens running at once,” explained my tour guide.
My tour didn’t last very long, because the office is surprisingly small.
Despite appearances, this is a room in which history is being pushed forward in ways that no one imagined possible even two years ago.
These are the new offices of BitPay Inc. in Atlanta, Ga. I was there to attend a meetup sponsored by Data Science Atlanta. This meeting just happened to be hosted by BitPay Inc., one of the hottest startups in the crypto-currency world.
Attending the event was an impressive crowd of 150 people, mostly data scientists and code slingers, but also people from the financial industry in Atlanta. They were interested intellectuals and students. Even a Fed economist came. Of course, the entire event was covered in real-time, with digital devices posting images all over the Web as the action was taking place.
The presentations began with an overview of Bitcoin, moved to a history of the company (which was founded only in 2011), went on with some speculation on the future, and ended with questions and answers. The atmosphere was pretty jazzy because the pace of development in recent weeks has sent that signal that there is no stopping this revolution.
BitPay specializes in making it possible for any online merchant to accept Bitcoin without having to become an expert. It has benefited lately from all kinds of new venture capitalist funding, but also from a global broadening of its client base.
Co-founder and CEO Tony Gallippi compared their services to expert installation of home appliances against do-it-yourself projects that take a considerable amount of time and don’t end up working properly.
A peculiar feature of Bitcoin — and a reason why so many people have a hard time wrapping their brains around it — is that it is both a payment system and an emergent money. Those two features are usually separate.
The payment aspects of Bitcoin are the main focus on this company. As Stephen Pair, a co-founder and the CTO, pointed out, Bitcoin is uniquely suited to a digital age. Real property is exchanged, not just a promise to pay, and it is done person to person, without having to go through banks and large institutions. This is crucial for ending the plague of identity theft online. In fact, before I had seen the numbers presented at this event, I had not fully understood what a profound change this really is.
The payment dimension might not seem that important in the United States, but when you broaden the perspective to global commerce, you can easily see it. There are huge swaths of the planet in which you cannot use credit cards at all. Even now, if you try to buy something on Amazon with a home address in one country and a delivery address in another, your transaction is likely to be refused. The anti-fraud measures have been necessary, but they have frustrated the development of the global marketplace.
It was at this point that it finally struck me: This is not a currency only, or even mainly, for the rich tech world; it is a currency for the world’s poor, who are desperately trying to become part of the global division of labor. It allows anyone from anywhere to buy or sell anything securely, privately, and reliably. It suddenly started making sense to me why Bitcoin is so wildly popular in Africa, Latin America, and the outer reaches of the Russian empire.
But even domestically, it is clear that this market is expanding. As of only a few weeks ago, you could pay for anything at hundreds of mainstream merchants with Bitcoin. This is thanks to a deal that BitPay struck with a smartphone application called Gyft. You buy a gift card from Gyft with Bitcoin and the merchant scans the card. The operation takes under a minute.
Personally, it’s fascinating to see this happening. It was only a few months ago that people were saying, “Oh, this stuff can’t really be money because I can’t spend it at Target.” Well, now you can. Where are these doubters now? Are they taking back their previous snark?
The payment system benefits of Bitcoin are clear enough, but there is a much broader vision at work here, one that goes to the heart of the development of money itself. Mr. Pair laid it all out in a presentation on the history of money.
Humankind needs money to facilitate trade, and many goods have served that purpose. At the dawn of modernity in the late Middle Ages, precious metals were universally seen as the best tools for this.
But there was a problem with precious metals. Namely, they are really heavy and not very portable in daily use. Thus did banking institutions come along, and with them paper money. Paper money dominated the world economy until the end of the gold standard in 1971. Since then, argued Pair, money has taken a digital form and is backed solely by debt obligations.
The great innovation of Bitcoin — which Mr. Pair regards not as a digital currency, but rather a crypto-currency — was 20 years in coming. There were many attempts to make a new currency, but they faltered repeatedly because of the problem of double spending. A currency should behave just like the real thing, which is to say like gold and silver.
In a question-and-answer session, there were questions about the deflationary implications of Bitcoin. CEO Tony Gallippi understood immediately what the questioner meant. The usual belief is that a currency rising in value incentivizes hoarding and makes business impossible. He doubted that this was true because his experience so far is that people spend Bitcoin more when the exchange rate value is rising.
For my part, I asked about why Apple’s operating system has been so slow to integrate Bitcoin into its payment apps, and they knew exactly what I meant. In this room full of programmers, there was a widespread groan at the very mention of Apple. Its tendency to roll out only near-perfect software even if it is out-of-date doesn’t sit so well with a crowd that lives on the edge.
I next asked about something I’ve found curious when I use Bitcoin. I begin to think in terms of a new pricing system and sense a real change of psychology. The CFO stood up and made some joking comments about how he looked forward to the day when all companies can keep their books in Bitcoin.
There is something especially dazzling about being around real pioneers of this industry, entrepreneurs who are making it happen. Mr. Gallippi provided some insight into the challenges they face. He said that they worked on the code for their plug-in for a very long time before releasing it. They knew with absolute certainty that the best features of their plug-in would be immediately copied by competitors upon release.
So they prepared to develop and move faster than ever immediately upon release. The first-mover advantage is, indeed, an advantage, but it doesn’t last. You have to “go, go, go, go” — in the Mr. Gallippi’s words — the minute you release.
This insight has some interesting implications for those who say that patents are necessary for enterprise. Actually, patents and other forms of “intellectual property” mostly serve as a license of laziness. Super-competitive businesses know that they can’t rely on them and can’t depend on them at all over the long term, and that the only way to make a market is to work harder, smarter, and more relentlessly than anyone else.
And what are they working toward? The goal is simple: to build a better currency as a means to a better world. There is a beautiful idealism at work here, the kind of thing that people look for from charities and universities. Actually, the world of commerce on this level represents an embodiment of this idealism.
Crazy? Yes. Crazy enough to change the world.