Talk about Sound Money: Heckuva Job, Bitcoin

One of the buzzwords of assorted right-wing libertarians and conservatives is sound money. What’s interesting about their advocacy of “sound money” is that they typically identify “sound money” with restoring gold standard, or, more edgily, adoption of some new privately created currency like the bitcoin.

The past couple of months have seen a rapid run-up in the value of bitcoins which, after shooting up to over $1000 in 2014, had fallen back to the $200-300 range where it had been wallowing until for some reason it recently started a steady rise until shooting up to over $400 last week.

So I was interested in reading Dan McCrum’s piece in the Financial Times the other day in which he compared bitcoins to a pyramid scheme, providing a lot of historical background on similar schemes going back to General Gregor MacGregor in 1821. McCrum also points out an inherent flaw in the bitcoin which is that the very feature that is supposed to ensure its stability — the absolute limit on the total number of bitcoins — will ultimately cause its failure.

The inherent flaw of pyramid schemes is that they must always suck in new converts to avoid collapse, and the exponential growth in users is impossible to sustain. Bitcoin shares some of these features. It requires constant evangelism because its value derives from its use.

The limited supply of bitcoins then becomes a fatal constraint. The more people use it, the greater the price must rise, dissuading its use as a currency.

Of course, after each run-up in the value of the bitcoin, a reaction sets in, people then shifting away from bitcoins as a medium of exchange, causing its value to drop, so the bitcoin is naturally beset by sharp swings in its value – just what you want from sound money. Yeah, right. So, after a price increase of over 60% in less than a month, bitcoins have lost 20% of their value in a week. Have a look:

coindesk-bpi-chart-1

Doesn’t get much sounder than that.

I especially liked this quotation from Walter Bagehot provided by McCrum:

One thing is certain, that at a particular time a great deal of stupid people have a great deal of stupid money.

7 Responses to “Talk about Sound Money: Heckuva Job, Bitcoin”


  1. 1 JKH November 11, 2015 at 2:47 am

    The most dug in enthusiasts for Bitcoin (including the mandatory serve up of tech geniuses) don’t seem to understand the difference between money and payment systems.

    They don’t know what they don’t know on a rather impressive scale.

    That’s one qualification for hubris.

    I don’t know exactly what “block chain” is, but I do know it’s not money.

    Banks know that too, while at the same time becoming quite interested in the payments technology.

    Very appropriate title for the post.

  2. 2 djb November 11, 2015 at 4:56 am

    clearly a pyramid scheme

  3. 3 marcel proust November 11, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Gotta work out some way to store grain in a pyramid scheme: you know, for the coming apocalypse/lean years.

  4. 4 Tom Brown November 11, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    JKH,

    “They don’t know what they don’t know on a rather impressive scale.”

    There’s a name for that condition.

  5. 5 JKH November 12, 2015 at 3:15 am

    Tom Brown,

    Maybe worse than Dunning-Kruger.

    Analogize to a car (money) and a highway (payment system).

    Assume a really bad driver who thinks he’s a great driver (D-K).

    Now assume a driver who thinks the highway is the car (D-K +++)

  6. 6 JMRJ November 13, 2015 at 9:02 am

    I don’t think you can fairly use the bitcoin phenomenon to debunk the idea of “sound money”. I haven’t followed bitcoin closely, but I think an absolute limit on their number betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the sound money idea. So this post is something of a red herring. Or maybe a straw man, I haven’t reviewed the list of fallacies lately.

    Cheers.

  7. 7 David Glasner November 15, 2015 at 8:27 am

    JMRJ, I was not trying to debunk the idea of sound money. I was just pointing out that many advocates of sound money are making proposals for achieving sound money (e.g. bitcoins) that, based on the observable evidence, would provide us with very unsound money.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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