Why is cryptocurrency popular?

May 30 JDN 2459365

At the time of writing, the price of most cryptocurrencies has crashed, likely due to a ban on conventional banks using cryptocurrency in China (though perhaps also due to Elon Musk personally refusing to accept Bitcoin at his businesses). But for all I know by the time this post goes live the price will surge again. Or maybe they’ll crash even further. Who knows? The prices of popular cryptocurrencies have been extremely volatile.

This post isn’t really about the fluctuations of cryptocurrency prices. It’s about something a bit deeper: Why are people willing to put money into cryptocurrencies at all?

The comparison is often made to fiat currency: “Bitcoin isn’t backed by anything, but neither is the US dollar.”

But the US dollar is backed by something: It’s backed by the US government. Yes, it’s not tradeable for gold at a fixed price, but so what? You can use it to pay taxes. The government requires it to be legal tender for all debts. There are certain guaranteed exchange rights built into the US dollar, which underpin the value that the dollar takes on in other exchanges. Moreover, the US Federal Reserve carefully manages the supply of US dollars so as to keep their value roughly constant.

Bitcoin does not have this (nor does Dogecoin, or Etherium, or any of the other hundreds of lesser-known cryptocurrencies). There is no central bank. There is no government making them legal tender for any debts at all, let alone all of them. Nobody collects taxes in Bitcoin.

And so, because its value is untethered, Bitcoin’s price rises and falls, often in huge jumps, more or less randomly. If you look all the way back to when it was introduced, Bitcoin does seem to have an overall upward price trend, but this honestly seems like a statistical inevitability: If you start out being worthless, the only way your price can change is upward. While some people have become quite rich by buying into Bitcoin early on, there’s no particular reason to think that it will rise in value from here on out.

Nor does Bitcoin have any intrinsic value. You can’t eat it, or build things out of it, or use it for scientific research. It won’t even entertain you (unless you have a very weird sense of entertainment). Bitcoin doesn’t even have “intrinsic value” the way gold does (which is honestly an abuse of the term, since gold isn’t actually especially useful): It isn’t innately scarce. It was made scarce by its design: Through the blockchain, a clever application of encryption technology, it was made difficult to generate new Bitcoins (called “mining”) in an exponentially increasing way. But the decision of what encryption algorithm to use was utterly arbitrary. Bitcoin mining could just as well have been made a thousand times easier or a thousand times harder. They seem to have hit a sweet spot where they made it just hard enough that it make Bitcoin seem scarce while still making it feel feasible to get.

We could actually make a cryptocurrency that does something useful, by tying its mining to a genuinely valuable pursuit, like analyzing scientific data or proving mathematical theorems. Perhaps I should suggest a partnership with Folding@Home to make FoldCoin, the crypto coin you mine by folding proteins. There are some technical details there that would be a bit tricky, but I think it would probably be feasible. And then at least all this computing power would accomplish something, and the money people make would be to compensate them for their contribution.

But Bitcoin is not useful. No institution exists to stabilize its value. It constantly rises and falls in price. Why do people buy it?

In a word, FOMO. The fear of missing out. People buy Bitcoin because they see that a handful of other people have become rich by buying and selling Bitcoin. Bitcoin symbolizes financial freedom: The chance to become financially secure without having to participate any longer in our (utterly broken) labor market.

In this, volatility is not a bug but a feature: A stable currency won’t change much in value, so you’d only buy into it because you plan on spending it. But an unstable currency, now, there you might manage to get lucky speculating on its value and get rich quick for nothing. Or, more likely, you’ll end up poorer. You really have no way of knowing.

That makes cryptocurrency fundamentally like gambling. A few people make a lot of money playing poker, too; but most people who play poker lose money. Indeed, those people who get rich are only able to get rich because other people lose money. The game is zero-sum—and likewise so is cryptocurrency.

Note that this is not how the stock market works, or at least not how it’s supposed to work (sometimes maybe). When you buy a stock, you are buying a share of the profits of a corporation—a real, actual corporation that produces and sells goods or services. You’re (ostensibly) supplying capital to fund the operations of that corporation, so that they might make and sell more goods in order to earn more profit, which they will then share with you.

Likewise when you buy a bond: You are lending money to an institution (usually a corporation or a government) that intends to use that money to do something—some real actual thing in the world, like building a factory or a bridge. They are willing to pay interest on that debt in order to get the money now rather than having to wait.

Initial Coin Offerings were supposed to be away to turn cryptocurrency into a genuine investment, but at least in their current virtually unregulated form, they are basically indistinguishable from a Ponzi scheme. Unless the value of the coin is somehow tied to actual ownership of the corporation or shares of its profits (the way stocks are), there’s nothing to ensure that the people who buy into the coin will actually receive anything in return for the capital they invest. There’s really very little stopping a startup from running an ICO, receiving a bunch of cash, and then absconding to the Cayman Islands. If they made it really obvious like that, maybe a lawsuit would succeed; but as long as they can create even the appearance of a good-faith investment—or even actually make their business profitable!—there’s nothing forcing them to pay a cent to the owners of their cryptocurrency.

The really frustrating thing for me about all this is that, sometimes, it works. There actually are now thousands of people who made decisions that by any objective standard were irrational and irresponsible, and then came out of it millionaires. It’s much like the lottery: Playing the lottery is clearly and objectively a bad idea, but every once in awhile it will work and make you massively better off.

It’s like I said in a post about a year ago: Glorifying superstars glorifies risk. When a handful of people can massively succeed by making a decision, that makes a lot of other people think that it was a good decision. But quite often, it wasn’t a good decision at all; they just got spectacularly lucky.

I can’t exactly say you shouldn’t buy any cryptocurrency. It probably has better odds than playing poker or blackjack, and it certainly has better odds than playing the lottery. But what I can say is this: It’s about odds. It’s gambling. It may be relatively smart gambling (poker and blackjack are certainly a better idea than roulette or slot machines), with relatively good odds—but it’s still gambling. It’s a zero-sum high-risk exchange of money that makes a few people rich and lots of other people poorer.

With that in mind, don’t put any money into cryptocurrency that you couldn’t afford to lose at a blackjack table. If you’re looking for something to seriously invest your savings in, the answer remains the same: Stocks. All the stocks.

I doubt this particular crash will be the end for cryptocurrency, but I do think it may be the beginning of the end. I think people are finally beginning to realize that cryptocurrencies are really not the spectacular innovation that they were hyped to be, but more like a high-tech iteration of the ancient art of the Ponzi scheme. Maybe blockchain technology will ultimately prove useful for something—hey, maybe we should actually try making FoldCoin. But the future of money remains much as it has been for quite some time: Fiat currency managed by central banks.

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