In the 18th Century, a venture begun in England established an outpost in the New World around Hudson Bay. The Hudson Bay Company was given license by the crown to exploit the bounty of the Northernmost parts of North America, and eventually a trading network was built out, trading fur, woods, and mineral resources. This network manifested itself primarily through a series of forts that protected general stores, extending as far south and west as Oregon, along the Pacific Coast, forts that would in time become cities like Portland, Vancouver, Toronto and so forth.
The Hudson Bay Company used its own special scrip within its territory, the scrip holding value because it could be traded for British pounds as well as establishing more or less standard prices for goods. When Canada was founded in 1867, it established its territory by buying the land from the HBC, and making HBC’s scrip fully convertible to the new Canadian Dollar. In effect, a privately held scrip became the de facto currency of a nation.
Empires, kings and potentates have long coveted the right to put their face on coins, but until comparatively recently, the value of those coins was determined primarily by the assayed weight of the metal that made them up. Indeed, the Dutch, during the 16th century, actually scored their gold coins so that a person could break it apart into octants, from whence was derived the term “Pieces of eight” so beloved in pirate tales. They also created coins from the silver mine of Joachim’s Valley (‘Joachimsthal’ in Dutch) which were in turn heavily used by first the Spanish territories then eventually English North America, the name frequently shorted first to ‘Thaler’, and then via Spanish as ‘Dollar’.
Following the death of Louis the Fourteenth of France, the French economy was in tatters given the financial excesses of the Sun King. The Duke of Orleans, the regent of the new five-year-old King Louis the Fifteen, turned to a friend, Scottish financier John Law, for help. Law, for his part, made a proposal that had been tried on a smaller scale, but never really at a national level: the concept of creating a paper currency, backed by the government and in theory redeemable with silver.
While the experiment worked for a little while, speculators made the currency unstable, which was then exacerbated by the government producing more Francs than it could support, causing the currency to crash and significantly diminishing the ability of France to compete in the colonization in North America. It also destabilized the French court by reducing the influence of the King over his aristocrats, many of whom had been severely burned in the crash, and not coincidentally laying the groundwork for the French Revolution several decades later.
Despite this, as Europe went from Feudal vassalages to nation-states, the ability to control the minting of paper currency based upon its status as a promissory note became one of the key prerogatives of nations. It was one of the reasons, when the first American Confederation, created in the aftermath of the US Revolutionary War, realized they needed a stronger government, the one thing that the Federal government reserved to itself rather than allow to the states was the exclusive right to mint coinage and currency.
Fast-forward two hundred and fifty years, and you can see that history is in fact repeating itself. A currency system works by having a few essential characteristics:
- A note of currency must be unique and non-duplicatable.
- Currency must be readily redeemable – if not enough people will accept the currency as having a certain value, it cannot be used as a medium of exchange.
- Currency must be relatively stable — it holds roughly the same value over some time interval.
These three conditions place some real constraints on currencies, though not always obvious ones. For instance, if you increase the supply of a given currency, you might think that it would dilute the value of that money. Maybe yes, maybe no. If demand is high for money, increasing the money supply may actually accelerate economic growth, though if demand for money is low, increasing the supply may simply cause inflation. If currency is only redeemable in certain places, then it has less utility as a store of value. If a currency has only half the value today that it had yesterday, then people will get rid of that currency quickly in favor of something that is more stable.
It turns out, in fact, that most paper currencies don’t completely satisfy the above constraints over a long time period, and what’s worse, the relationship between money and value can be quite non-linear. This is because currency by itself represents buying power. A gallon of gas in 1971 cost twenty nine cents in most places. Today, that same gallon of gas costs $2.90. Ironically, a loaf of bread cost $.29 and $2.90 respectively as well. The average wage in 1971 was $10,000. Today, its $50,000.
This is worth highlighting, though more from an economic rather than technical standpoint. Put in stark terms, the typical worker’s wages went up 400%, but the price of most goods went up 1000% percent over roughly the last fifty years (or, the money you earn is worth 60% less today than it was in 1971, relative to the cost of living). The actual utility of a gallon of gas has actually not changed much in that time, which means that what has changed is both buying power for a given amount of money, and the change in wages relative to the cost of goods. Why? That’s a topic for another time.
So, where do cryptocurrencies play into all of this?
At the moment, of the three points highlighted above, cryptocurrencies arguably are really, really good with the first point, are getting better (though still not great) with the second point, but really suck on the last point.
Consider this. One of the biggest arguments in favor of cryptocurrencies is that they are hard to forge. It’s possible – throw enough computation power at it and you could in fact do it, but the salient point is that the cost to do so likely outweighs the value of the coin. Now the downside to that is that many of the current mechanisms for determining uniqueness (such as mining prime numbers) are also very expensive, not just in terms of computational cycles but in terms of energy costs. It’s one of the reasons why a few of the primary coins actually are too large by themselves to be used for currency – you have to divide a coin up to say a 1000 different micro-coins to get to the point where you can buy a cup of coffee and a sweet roll at Starbucks, and this in turn still requires effective uniqueness algorithms.
However, even with weaker algorithms for division, such micro-coins are still orders of magnitude harder to forge than your average US $20 bill, which is far and away the most popular currency in the world in terms of forgery. However, this point is actually becoming less and less of an issue for the simple reason that paper currency itself is becoming obsolete, except among the very poor (who often have difficulty in being able to set up bank accounts). For much of the latter twentieth century, credit cards made significant inroads in eliminating paper currency, and most recently, the introduction of chipped cards, both credit and debit, have significantly reduced the incidences of fraud.
The bigger issue today is online card fraud, though even there, the introduction of electronic wallets (and the growing liability that retailers are facing with each hacking incident via class action suits) are spurring much better encryption of data, as well as better control by consumers. This is not to say that credit card fraud isn’t still a problem, but it is a problem that shows signs of abating.
Another, perhaps far more reaching consequence of the rise of credit cards, debit cards, digital rewards cards, gift cards and EBTs has been that it has been destroying the physicality of currency, and with it, one of the last vestiges of control that most nations have over their currency.
The reason for this is simple. Today, it is possible to set up foreign exchange transfer accounts in which a given currency is in Yen, or Euros, or Pounds, and draw upon them as readily as you can a US funds account. You can set up a crypto account in much the same way, and can even, with some creative work, set up accounts that let you play currency arbitrage across multiple such accounts.
If Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook (or their counterparts in other countries) set up their own digital currency, you could do the same thing. Amazon is actually creating a highly synergistic ecosystem that is nearly a full bore economy in its own right.
Put yourself ten years in the future. Amazon (as an example) puts out a cryptocurrency called the bezo (one bezo, two bezos, ….). You can continue to set up a US dollar account for Amazon prime, but you can also open up a bezos account, based upon a blockchain like construct under the control of Amazon. Prices begin to creep up when measured in US dollars, because the US economy has for the most part had net positive price inflation even during recessions, but prices in bezos stay fixed.
Other companies look at this and offer the option of paying their employees in bezos. Some are resistant, but especially younger employees take the plunge, and after a while, older employees see that their net buying power continues to decline while the ones in the Amazon ecosystem are seeing wage power stability, and you see a shift as older employees begin to do the same thing.
Other companies do this on their own, but discover that they don’t have quite enough people in their network to maintain stability, and so they reach out and affiliate themselves with the Amazon network. Banks have taken notice, and all of a sudden you see Amazon currency replacing the US Dollar in more and more transactions, many of them for millions or even billions of dollars.
And then Amazon moves the Amazon Currency Network to the Cayman Islands.
Overnight, the United States sees 35% of its tax base disappear. Too many people are no longer using US Dollars for transactions. The US Debt, which has been a ticking time bomb for decades, goes off as the US can no longer even pretend to service its deficits, let alone the total debt. States, given the conundrum of having a central Federal government that has become increasingly hostile and demanding (while providing less and less value for the tax money that their citizenry have paid) vs. working with a more stable currency and more autonomy, begin to think the unthinkable at a policy level: choosing to join a different political alliance based upon a common protocol for sharing currencies.
Another scenario can be envisioned. Recently, Walmart announced that they had a patent on a new blockchain currency, with the implications that they would be issuing a currency within the relatively near future. Amazon and Walmart are seen as competitors in the general goods sector, and while there is some overlap they tend to service different regions (and their customers often have very divergent political leanings).
Over time you end up with two competing currencies, the Bezo and the Walton. Each of which provides a premium within their respective networks and a double penalty within the opposite network – the double being the fact that in order to convert from Bezos to Waltons, you would have to convert one currency to USDs and then to the other currency, with fees at each transaction point (something often happens in existing currency exchanges, where you have to find a common currency to exchange between two different currencies that don’t otherwise have exchange rates).
Over time, the economies diverge, with frustrations mounting as the Bezo and the Walton respond to different economic strategies, and changes in political power in Washington DC bring with it a distinct preference for one currency or the other, with all that this implies for policy. Attempting to peg either of the private currencies to the dollar ends up with a situation similar to that which the European Union experience in 2008, when economic policy that was right for the northern countries with strong industrial bases proved ruinous for the southern countries that were primarily agrarian in nature (and is in fact a part of the current problem between red and blue America).
What is likely to happen in this scenario is the rise of compacts – agreements between states that standardize upon specific policies regarding economic action, taxation, representation, immigration, public programs, defense, ecological policy, education and so on. Put another way, the currency networks that emerge (and it is likely they will be networked, not just one single currency) will begin looking and acting more and more like autonomous countries. With this comes the reduction of power in Washington, DC and the federal government as states hew more closely to their compact alliances.
Now, to be clear, these are both hypothetical scenarios, and I’m using Amazon and Walmart here just to illustrate the point. Nor are these the only scenarios that may play out. It’s also worth noting that what is at issue is not so much cryptocurrency by itself as it is the ability of currency networks to effectively capture the tax base of parts or all of a country.
Will this result in civil war? Hard to say. We may very well end up in a situation where the US becomes a Confederation along the lines of Canada, with a weaker central government, a common defense agreement and stronger regional blocs. The US may split peacefully into several distinct regions based upon the degree of economic connectivity. It’s possible that smarter heads prevail and some agreement is worked out to keep the status quo. However, the likelihood of that decreases the more that mechanisms for separation get implemented, and eCurrencies, whether national based or privately based, have the potential to exacerbate an already stressed situation.
The primary mitigating factor from this happening now is the lack of stability of crypto-currencies, which is something of a chicken and egg problem. Stability ultimately comes from the number of participants involved, which in turn determines the degree to which speculation can take place within a currency. Speculation and stability are counter-weighted – most speculators prefer an asset class to be volatile, because such volatility can make for higher returns with less capital, though it can also lead to higher losses. You can speculate with stable currency (as George Soros managed to do successfully against the British pound in the 1970s) but it requires deep pockets and a great deal of leverage, and being unsuccessful can ruin you.
Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies are still very unstable primarily because they lack both the installed base of users and because they are not yet fully convertible or redeemable. It is arguable whether any of the first generation of ICOs will ever meet that bar alone, though that changes once you begin seeing mergers and adoptions between ICOs and large financial or network concerns.
This also moots one of the other major selling points that ICO promoters themselves try to make. No currency is going to survive if transactions in that currency remain anonymous, and keeping such transactions anonymous will become increasingly difficult over time. The reason for this is relatively simple – any transaction has real world implications, those implications can be tracked, and once one thread of a transaction begins to get picked apart, then it becomes possible to determine how these connect to other transactions.
Government opacity (which is one form of anonymity) will keep many existing ICOs from ever being recognized as legitimate, and may very well be seen as perfect channels for money laundering and black market transactions, putting these ICOs under deep scrutiny. It is likely that currencies based upon (semi-) transparent block-chains (something you’re increasingly seeing developed by financial institutions) will likely overtake the anonymous block-chains currently being deployed.
In the longer term (fifteen to twenty years), it is likely that the average consumer will likely not interact much at all with ICOs directly. Instead, what I see happening is that banks (and bank-like-entities, such as credit unions) will controls portfolios of currencies and accounts will then consist of baskets of different coins on various networks. Consumers can then determine the mix of their coin holdings, and can designate the default currencies they wish to be paid in (or pay out) when they make a financial transaction.
However, at the micro-level, these networks and baskets will be treated in much the same way national currencies do today, with the added wrinkle that these private currencies can push and pull on the national currencies at a level unprecedented until now. What happens when the Bezo replaces the Japanese Yen (or the US Dollar) as the primary instrument for carry trades. What if the Iranian eDinar becomes the preferred currency for pricing oil, or an international incident causes investors to buy up Chinese eYuan and sell the USD, raising the potential for price increases in the United States (or vice versa).
What will almost certainly happen is that the distinction between international corporations and nations, already somewhat blurry, will erode even more with time. Businesses will increasingly find themselves having to establish comprehensive foreign policies, fielding security forces and dealing with issues that traditionally have been the domain of countries. At the same time, fundamental questions, including the deceptively difficult one of what constitutes citizenship, will become pressing sooner than we’d like to believe.
The upshot of this is that Bitcoins and related electronic currencies are likely here to stay, will become progressively more influential in both political and economic policy as they become more stable, and will almost certainly introduce stresses and potential breaking points in economies globally throughout the twenty-first century.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Forbes or its staff.
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