Bitcoin Value Questions

Does Bitcoin offer something of value today?  Does it have the potential to be more valuable in the future? Here are some thoughts how you might be able to answer yes or no to these questions.

I.

The first point is a question of how currencies have value. How does the US dollar have value? In a very concrete and practical sense, the dollar is valuable due to legal tender laws, where any legitimate transaction that occurs in the US must accept US dollars as a form of payment. Moreover, US taxes must be paid in dollars. However, that’s not a majority of the dollar’s value.

The US dollar has value because people believe it will be accepted in the future. That’s why the dollar is valuable in countries outside America where users are presumably not under US legal tender laws. Why do people believe it has value? Well partially its derived from the practical points made above combined with the size and scope of the US economy; if dollars are used in the United States, often by legal mandate, and if the US economy is large and vibrant, it will need lots of dollars. The US economy, even if it struggles, won’t be gone overnight, so you can bet in five or ten years, there will be plenty of transactions that need to occur in dollars. There’s also the point that trade with people in the United States mean dollars cross borders pretty easily. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy; since people know there are Americans and traders who will accept dollars, other people accept dollars too, knowing they will be accepted in the future.

That accounts for the demand side of dollars. On the supply side, there is at least implied trust in the US central bank, the Federal Reserve. This may rub Ron Paul fans the wrong way, but I think it’s somewhat undeniable. People in the US and outside see the inflation track record of the American dollar and agree that it’s unlikely to be really poorly managed. Perhaps that’s just because alternative central banks are even less trustworthy, perhaps it’s because the Fed has a reputation of being stingy about inflation. It’s hard to say. What is undeniable is that the US dollar is widely used and held throughout the world.

II.

Does Bitcoin have a role to fulfill in the market when the US dollar serves as an excellent international medium of exchange and store of value? Yes. Bitcoin is inherently digital, meaning you just need some information, on a computer, in your head, or written on paper, in order to use it. Dollars require a bank, and if international, they require a bank that reports to a local government which may or may not allow foreign currency holdings.

This means today Bitcoin offers some advantages over American dollars in certain situations without any scaling updates to the Bitcoin network that we’ll discuss later. Such areas include international transfers, domestic currency mismanagement, and anonymous transactions.  International transactions because all you need is an internet connection, not a bank or Western Union office. Bitcoin transactions have fees, but they can be lower than international wire fees. Domestic currency mismanagement is Bitcoin’s clearest use case. Venezuela has experienced hyperinflation as its currency is worth less than World of Warcraft gold. Bitcoin has become highly useful as it does not lose its value over time like Bolivars. Bitcoin also saw a spike in India when they unanimously outlawed large denomination cash bills. In another interesting case Zimbabwe actually uses the US dollar (after hyperinflation destroyed the currency last decade), but because they cannot print it, liquid cash is scarce in the country, so Bitcoin is highly valuable since it is more easily imported than dollars.

Finally, Bitcoin is of course useful for illicit activities, such as the fabled Silk Road dark net trading site.  Not much to add here, except to point out that another cryptocurrency, Monero, may actually fill this niche better if you’re just looking for confidential transactions. More on other cryptocurrencies in the final section.

III.

However, if you are in a developed country, it’s unlikely Bitcoin is better than your national currency in terms of ease of use, acceptance by merchants, quickness of transactions, cost of transactions, etc. Certainly people who believe in Bitcoin politically can pay these increased costs and use it anyway, but that’s essentially paying for a political statement.

Bitcoin may be a better long term store of value than a state currency, e.g. the US dollar. It is governed by an algorithm as opposed to a committee. Algorithm changes are difficult and slow, and there is currently a cap on the total number of Bitcoins that will ever be created. If the US hits the Fed’s estimated inflation target of 2%, then the value of any currency owned by residents will halve in about 34 years.  However, Bitcoin is volatile, and buying it as a store of value uses it as an investment. Some Bitcoin investment today is certainly speculation. And if a decent chunk of the Bitcoin price is caused by investment/speculation instead of current usefulness, then a better store of value/investment could rapidly pull the money out of Bitcoin. Perhaps some investment is acceptable, but doing more radical actions, like putting your life savings in something that can lose its value relatively quickly isn’t a good idea.

We should keep in mind that there are people even in developed countries that have limited access to banking and credit. Large commercial banks are notorious for charging fees to customers who specifically don’t have the cash to spare on those fees. Bitcoin may be a way for those with poor access to banks to “be their own bank” and hold their savings securely without needing a national bank. Perhaps transfer fees are too high to make this practical, but at the very least, this is a potential market for Bitcoin, if scaling issues can be solved.

There is one other use case where Bitcoin is clearly superior to even a developed world currency. That would be a tax-free asset and currency. It’s not particularly difficult to purchase Bitcoin and then launder it through another cryptocurrency or through CoinJoin (an anonymization protocol) and make the money untraceable. Assuming Bitcoin’s basic use cases of international transactions and troubled currency refuge continue to grow, Bitcoin offers a big tax haven. I should note, of course, that this is plainly illegal, and I suspect the more tax evasion an individual undertakes, the more likely they are to be scrutinized by authorities.

IV.

We’ve established Bitcoin has explicit use cases and therefore offers value today. We’ve also established that some of these uses cases may grow in the future. What about threats to Bitcoin’s value?

If a significant use case of Bitcoin is illicit transactions and tax avoidance, then I would claim Bitcoin is a direct threat to the state, even in developed countries. As stated in “What is Postlibertarianism? v2.0“, widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies could mean the end of taxable transactions, and possibly the end of the modern state. I’m not interested in making a judgment about whether this is good or bad, but I think the threat to states is undeniable (if still very far away).

The obvious next question: if states have an incentive to stop Bitcoin, can they do it In cases where Bitcoin has solid use cases, as in Venezuela and Zimbabwe, it seems highly unlikely. Bitcoin was built to be censorship resistant; deleting a node does almost nothing to the network, as all nodes are peer-to-peer and you can quickly switch to talking to another node or two or fifty. To shut down a Bitcoin payment network in a country, you’d likely have to shut down access to the outside internet. However, with new developments in the Bitcoin space, even partitioning a country’s internet from the outside won’t work anymore; Blockstream is currently broadcasting Bitcoin blocks from geostationary satellites (yes, really) to most of the world. Their goal is total global coverage. However, you can only receive the blockchain, not send transactions with this technology. So recently, Nick Szabo and Elaine Ou introduced a protocol for sending and receiving Bitcoin transactions (and block headers) over HF radio.

In reality, Venezuela hasn’t made Bitcoin illegal anyway. It seems unlikely that Nicholas Maduro’s ineffective government could substantially threaten the internet. China, while having the Great Firewall and having shut down Bitcoin exchanges, has not made the possession or use of Bitcoin illegal. These technologies are really only a just-in-case scenario. However, if you do live in a country with no internet or interaction with the outside world (North Korea), you still might not be able to use Bitcoin; no internet, no distributed systems, no censorship resistance (although the North Korean government itself uses Bitcoin to avoid international sanctions).  While I have to concede this point, it’s also important to acknowledge that technological advancement has enabled South Korean soap operas to be smuggled across the border; in the future Bitcoin may find a way into the Hermit Kingdom as well.

However, North Korea is one of the worst-case situations. In almost any other country, cheap computing technology and simple internet infrastructure has taken hold in an irreversible trend. And that’s all that’s really needed to use Bitcoin.

…Probably. What if a high trust societies made Bitcoin illegal? What if the United States and Europe made it illegal to own or transact in Bitcoin? I don’t think this is likely, as democracies tend be very slow when it comes to legislation, especially regulation where financial markets can make a lot of money. Moreover, institutional investors have already created legitimate companies in the US and Europe and so there would be lobbying, deliberating, compromising, etc. Japan has already recognized Bitcoin as an official form of payment, and if nothing else, the US making Bitcoin illegal would create an odd situation for American citizens living in Japan and vice versa.

But let’s say it happens.

It’s undeniable that Bitcoin’s value would drop. If you were already using Bitcoin for illicit activity, you might keep using it, but it might expose you to additional legal risk where it didn’t before. However, if you were using Bitcoin as an investment/speculative vehicle or as a way to send international transfers, an illegal Bitcoin is significantly less appealing because it would expose you to legal risk that you wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with at all. Bitcoin’s growth proposition wouldn’t be zero, but it might be pretty grim, and perhaps relegated to country’s with weak state legitimacy (and where widespread mistrust of the state means ordinary activities are criminalized anyway).

However, like I said previously, I find this scenario unlikely. Moreover, the Bitcoin network isn’t just waiting for governments to act, it is constantly under development with a large technical community.

V.

Can Bitcoin scale to take on more roles and use cases? Can it upgrade to become more censorship resistant? Definitely.

One big item we’ve talked about before is the Lightning Network. The idea behind the LN is pretty simple: you can create payment channels by putting some Bitcoin in escrow through a time-locked transaction that is signed but not posted to the blockchain. This channel can be continually updated with new transactions representing different payments back and forth across the channel until the channel closes by posting the final “net” transaction to the Bitcoin blockchain (read more about it here). This uses the blockchain as a settlement layer, and saves on transaction fees since only two transactions are ever posted to the blockchain (to open and close the channel) even if lots of payments occur.

There is another interesting aspect of this technology, which is that you can use a LN channel as an initial hook into a larger network. So if you (Person A) already have a channel open with Person B, you could pay Person C without opening up a new channel as long as both B and C have a channel between them already open. A pays B, then B pays C, and everyone updates their current balances on two payment channels, but no one needs to post anything to the blockchain, so no transaction fees are needed.

This is pretty good for scaling. However, it is somewhat negative for privacy. The most efficient way any Lightning Network will exist is through large central hubs. This is because end users will want to open a single payment channel (since it’s cheaper and ties up fewer funds), so they will want to connect to a hub everyone else is connected to. A hub that doesn’t stay available all the time would be unhelpful if you want to make instantaneous payments at any time, so the trend will be towards large, continuously available hubs. These hubs will also need access to lots of liquid cash as they will have lots of funds tied up in open channels, while also needing to have liquidity available to open new channels at any time.

This will lead to hubs with lots of cash and thus corporate backing. These large hubs will best be able to scale lots of LN instant payments while keeping LN node fees low. However, a central payment hub would have lots of information about its users, users who are using a single Bitcoin address for all of their transactions. Thus each address would have much more information leaked to the LN hub nodes, which you could track across time.

Of course, if you wanted more anonymity, you could just use a regular Bitcoin transaction; any service or individual who has a Lightning address must by definition have a Bitcoin address. This seems a reasonable tradeoff: instant transactions that can be tracked over time vs anonymous transactions that you pay a higher fee per use.

VI.

Another impressive project is Drivechain.  This project would allow for sidechains in the Bitcoin ecosystem. These would be soft-forked in (that means no network split), and these sidechains would not need to impact the mainchain. The sidechain could run its own nodes independent of the Bitcoin chain, although in practice we would expect Bitcoin nodes to watch the sidechains since we would imagine sidechains would only exist if there was significant value added there. The way these work is that Bitcoin would be sent to an escrow account watched by the sidechain. That would allow those coins to appear on the sidechain and be governed by any rules the sidechain wants.

Interesting sidechain ideas include Hivemind (decentralized Bitcoin prediction markets) and MimbleWimble (homomorphically encrypted confidential transactions). Needless to say, there is an enormous amount of potential here. Drivechains would allow limitless innovation, allowing new blockchain rules to flourish while maintaining the network effects and avoiding the coordination failure of multiple currencies or blockchains.

However, there are risks with this approach. One risk is that money stored in the sidechain is sitting in an escrow account on the mainchain. Mainchain nodes don’t have to watch the sidechain, and so if incorrect transactions are posted trying to withdraw money from the sidechain, it’s up to the miners to enforce the correct rules. As long as miners believe sidechains enhance the value of Bitcoin, there shouldn’t be a problem.  But if we don’t get to that point quickly, drivechains could be a short-lived experiment ending in grand theft. I’m hopeful this is not the case though, and sidechains would offer such a massive increase in the value of Bitcoin that several will survive and grow.

VII.

Let’s take a moment to elaborate on the implications here.  The creation of a MimbleWimble sidechain or the addition of the related idea of Confidential Transactions to Bitcoin would be game changers for Bitcoin privacy. Tax avoidance with Bitcoin would become simple, easy, and possibly unstoppable. Combined with improved scaling or the essentially limitless use cases for Bitcoin sidechains, there will be a combination of high demand and availability of Bitcoin with widespread privacy.  Even if governments can continue to collect tax revenues, their ability to combat Bitcoin would be completely diminished.

The interesting corollary is that governments aren’t really getting in the way of Bitcoin. Maybe they’ll crack down on it in the future, but for now there isn’t a lot of indication for heavy regulation. In the US, electoral politics means there will be a deregulatory environment for the next year, maybe three.

Finally, the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency space is not done developing. Sidechains offer the potential to incorporate all sorts of new rulesets and innovation into Bitcoin. The potential here is literally unknowable. For these reasons, I believe Bitcoin has the potential for significant value.

I would also of course like to point out that this is just some blog on the internet so take my advice as policy speculation and not investment speculation. There are plenty of other financial risks to Bitcoin I don’t have time to cover. This includes that if you lose your private keys, your money is gone forever. It includes that there could be an unknown flaw in the Bitcoin code that could be exploited, losing money and crashing the price of Bitcoin. It includes that government agencies could compromise developers and pay them off to put in code that helps to destroy the network. Bitcoin is risky and speculative. The fact that it has a lot of potential does not guarantee that it will have value in five years.

VIII.

A final note on other cryptocurrencies. There are many other cryptocurrencies, and I’m doubtful on all of them for two reasons. (1) If Drivechain is successful, most use cases for other coins will be gone. (2) As it is, even if other chains have cool features, they don’t have the network effects of Bitcoin. Collective action failures mean that better features may be passed over if it involves transaction costs distributed over many individuals; in other words, it will be nearly impossible to get users, vendors, developers, and miners to switch over to a different cryptocurrency. In the long run, we’d probably expect one or two cryptocurrencies to dominate. This may be Bitcoin or it may be something else, but today, Bitcoin is the clear market leader. To bet on another cryptocurrency is to bet against the market and to bet against the large ecosystem that Bitcoin has built. This seems very risky.

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