Launched in 2009, and of wider interest since 2013, the ‘cryptocurrency’ Bitcoin has seen both a rise in its value in relation to existing national and supranational currencies, and in the discussion of its forming a partial or even complete replacement to those currencies. This article outlines the nature of Bitcoin and of traditional currencies and how they differ, and so examines the case for Bitcoin’s future acceptance and valuation.
The urtext of Bitcoin – the so called ‘White Paper’ by Satoshi Nakamoto – focuses on the reversibility of traditional electronic money transfers and how this necessitates banks as trusted third-parties in these transactions. The ‘cryptographic proof’ method of transferring bitcoins was devised initially to lock-in successive electronic transactions as part of a ‘blockchain’ of data, so as to eliminate the role of banks in preventing reversibility and double spending. In essence the collaborative use of computing power is used to verify the chronological order of transactions. The security and anonymity aspects of conducting transactions in this way is not the subject of this piece. The transactions thus carried out and recorded could be actually be denominated in any existing currency. Chains of such transactions would need to be closed by the transfer of that currency (physical or electronic) from the initial donor to the final recipient. Continue reading The Fragility of Bitcoin→
Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, published in 2014, played an important role in directing attention to the issue of inequality in the developed economies of the 21st century. The book was both praised and criticised from many parts of the political and economic spectrum. Least controversial was his laying out of the evidence that inequality of both income and wealth has increased markedly since the 1970s, particularly in the US and the UK. A little more controversial is the suggestion that this increasing inequality is harmful to the societies of those countries. Most controversial, and more technical, was Piketty’s espousal of a ‘fundamental law of capitalism’ that when the return on capital (r) exceeds the rate of economic growth (g) inequality will increase.
The chart below shows the change in the fraction of total income going to the top 10% of the distribution for 1900 – 2010.
What is it about ideological free marketeers and their shaky relationship with the facts? Everyone likes markets and free exchange is one of the best manifestations of human co-operation there is – so why tell lies about their limitations and the infrastructure required to make them work for our benefit?
Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute is keen to adapt the often pejorative label of ‘neoliberalism’ to his cheery brand of paid-for market propaganda, and promotes it under this banner in an article in the online i newspaper. He defines a neoliberal as
For most of us, it’s a great boon to live in a world in which travel between even distant parts is relatively cheap and takes hours rather than days, weeks or months. We can visit, explore and learn about places and people we never could have done only 40 years ago. More than that, if things are difficult for us at home this gives us the option to try our fortune elsewhere where resources, attitudes and the style of governance may suit us better.
Is there are approaches which are systematically superior to others then it is entirely to be expected that people finding themselves where these are sub-optimal will, if they are courageous and determined enough, seek to move to those where things are better. In Western Europe and North America we regard ourselves as fortunate in having considerable freedom to say, do and trade what we wish. We think of these as rights to which most global citizens aspire. If we are right about this we must expect the arrival of people from abroad at our ports and airports who would like to live and work in our countries. Continue reading Bad Targets for Policy 2: Immigration→
This is the first blog in a two-part series on ‘Bad Targets for Policy’. The second in the series will be on immigration.
We’ve seen a lot of focus on the ‘costing’ of policies in the parties’ manifestos for the forthcoming UK election. But we must remember that money is only a means of keeping account. Accounts are important but they are not reality. An account of debt is important, but it is not a physical reality. When a government has a debt in its own currency which only it (or its institutions) can issue, its obligations are important but not physically binding. They are not even legally binding, since the debt can be devalued virtually to zero by inflation. It follows that the real implications of government debt are not simply consequences of current government spending and taxation and the gap between them. Indeed these may be among the least important causes.
The real consequences of government debt result from the physical burden implied by the future obligation to transfer some control over a portion of real goods and services from the state to holders of the issued debt, either as interest or in repayment of capital. That debt in the nominal quantity of the national currency (the total amount in pounds or dollars say) is only a starting point. Inflation changes the relationship between that number and the obligation in real goods and services; the changing size of the national economy alters the ability to fulfill a fixed obligation. Continue reading Bad Targets for Policy 1: Government Debt→
Having recently had the opportunity to visit China and combine that with some reading about the country, I’ve come away with some inevitably fairly superficial thoughts about how the Chinese and the West do things differently. While the Chinese government sets limits on voiced or organised challenges to the Communist Party’s control of the country, it seems that most Chinese are able to pretty much get on with their lives as they wish. Having visited the great open spaces at the centre of London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Madrid, it felt disturbing to be shooed off Tiananmen Square at dusk, but otherwise despite the presence of police and soldiers at nearly every turn in central Beijing, I felt able to move around and take photographs pretty much as elsewhere.
I suspect the vast politically apathetic majority of Westerners would feel no restriction of their freedom under the Chinese regime. If the rise of Donald Trump and apparently popular strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, along with Brexit, show that the ability to vote is not enough to sustain government by reason then Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution show that the lack of a democratic buffer leads to the deaths of millions.
Just how much cash does the NHS and social care need to prevent the distressing stories of patients languishing on trolleys for hours in A&E departments? Can we possibly afford what it needs, or is it really a ‘bottomless pit’ as often claimed? Do we need to lower our expectations of what can be provided for us? Or does the whole funding system of the NHS need to be overhauled, with charges and/or insurance-style payments? Sadly, we are frequently being directed by politicians’ state-shrinking agendas and commentators’ ignorance towards the wrong numbers and the wrong reading of those numbers, with the result that the wrong answers are given to these questions. The truth is that if we look at things correctly, there is no reason why we cannot have an excellent healthcare system in Britain without any great sacrifice in our enjoyment of the other goods and services that the modern economy has to offer. Continue reading Explaining the NHS Crisis: Lies, Damn Lies and Health Spending→
Since the financial crisis of 2007-8, one suggested target reform has been the monetary system itself. This reform is based on the recognition that money in the modern economy is a rather peculiar phenomenon.
There are two popular conceptions of the nature of money, both of them incorrect. (Note that when we talk about money, it is entirely artificial to separate cash, in the form of bank notes and coin, from what we hold in bank accounts. To all effects and purposes, for the vast majority of us, they are the same and completely interchangeable.)
The first conception is that money is a fixed quantity determined by the government, which is either accepted by convention or because you can go to your bank and get a certain quantity of gold for it. (Presumably not many people have actually tried this!) The second is that banks can issue new money to lenders as a multiple of pre-existing deposits, depending on how often depositors demand cash. This is frequently referred to as ‘fractional reserve banking’. Continue reading A Banking Debate→
The authors of this report claim that ‘there has been a failure of government policy to decide the role banks should play, and therefore what sort of institutions they should be.’ and that ‘we have ended up with a banking system dominated by a small number of giant banks…’ These institutions are only able to survive because they are ‘too big to fail’, yet they offer poor customer choice and service, have acted illegally in rigging markets and indulge in ‘socially useless’ activities.
A Review of ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down…and Why They’ll Take Us to the Brink Again’ by Suzanne McGee (2010, Crown Business)
This book is an excellent complement to the academic stuff I’ve read on the causes of the financial crisis. These latter accounts are very detailed in terms of ‘what’ happened but tend to be light on the ‘why’. ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ goes a long way to filling that gap.
The academic consensus view seems to be that driven by an increase in demand for safe places to save there was a huge increase in deposits held by financial institutions and collateralised by Asset-Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP). A significant proportion of this paper was comprised of securitised mortgages – many packaged in such a way that their quality was opaque. The toxicity of these was enhanced by dodgy ratings and shuffling to off-balance-sheet vehicles. When problems with some of these mortgages arose it took a while for holders of these ‘shadow-banking’ deposits to sort out whether or not their deposits were collateralised by bad assets or good ones. There was a panic and large-scale dumping of these deposits which led to loss of liquidity in the market for short-term interbank loans. Without these loans banks find it very difficult to balance their books at the end of each day as they are obliged to. (A good guide to all this from the academic point of view and to further more technical reading is at http://www.nber.org/papers/w17778.) Continue reading ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee – A Review→