The "Anti-Economist" Vs Paul Krugman Who Calls Bitcoin the Anti-Social Network

Reggie Middleton's picture


Paul Krugman wrote an anti-cryptocurrency Op-Ed piece in the NY Times titled the "Anti-social Network". Now, I know the Times needs to sell ad space and subscriptions, hence technical accuracy may not be exactly what they are going for, but Mr. Krugman (the classical Keynesian economist type - I don't particularly subscribe to such schools of thought, I guess I'm not educated enough) has spewed so many inaccurate statements, false facts and just plain old indications of his total misunderstanding of the subject matter one would think it would behoove the Times to either have him issue corrections (or, since it is Op-Ed after all) have someone such as my self (you know, maybe a little less academically involved) come after him and clean up a little. 

Now, where shall I start? To quote Mr. Krugman:

So how is bitcoin different? Unlike credit card transactions, which leave a digital trail, bitcoin transactions are designed to be anonymous and untraceable. When you transfer bitcoins to someone else, it’s as if you handed over a paper bag filled with $100 bills in a dark alley.

I don't think that's true Mr.Krugman. Let's refer to Wikipedia's write-up on the Cryptocurrency...

 Once validated, every individual transaction is permanently recorded in a public ledger known as the blockchain.[8] 

I believe Mr. Krugman made this error due to the accuracy of a statement made earlier in the Wikipedia description of Bitcoin, to wit:

Bitcoin (signBitcoinSign.svg ; code: BTC or XBT[7]) is a peer-to-peer digital currency that functions without the intermediation of a central authority.[8] 

You see, the old school way of applied economics may very well have a big problem wrapping their collective heads around the concept of the absence of a "central authority" (read central bank) to act as the Grand Pubah, or ultimate financial intermediary. I'm just saying..

And to go on with the oh so witty comments from Mr. Krugman...

And sure enough, as best as anyone can tell the main use of bitcoin so far, other than as a target for speculation, has been for online versions of those dark-alley exchanges, with bitcoins traded for narcotics and other illegal items.

Bitcoin is a currency that's no older than 4 or 5 years. Has any other currency experienced a genesis any different than Bitcoin? The US dollar, when freshly minted was used for the spurious trade of human lives, the lives of my very own relatives several generations back, actually. It was the tool for rampant speculation as well, prone to extreme volatility and purposeful devaluations. Was it really so different from Bitcoin before it went mainstream (that is except for the purposeful devaluations part since there is no Grand Pubah to unilaterally call the market shots)? Methinks this economist may be picking and choosing his facts. For instance, look at how he started the Op-Ed missive in the first place...

Bitcoin’s wild ride may not have been the biggest business story of the past few weeks, but it was surely the most entertaining. Over the course of less than two weeks the price of the “digital currency” more than tripled. Then it fell more than 50 percent in a few hours. Suddenly, it felt as if we were back in the dot-com era.

The economic significance of this roller coaster was basically nil. But the furor over bitcoin was a useful lesson in the ways people misunderstand money — and in particular how they are misled by the desire to divorce the value of money from the society it serves.

Volatility is the name of the game with new currencies that have limited penetration and distribution, no? Why pick on bitcoin? Let's recall how the US dollar got started via the continental note, as per Wikipedia:

By the end of 1778, Continental Currency retained between only 1/5 to 1/7 of their original face value. By 1780, Continental bills - or Continentals - were worth just 1/40th of their face value. Despite efforts by Congress to reform the currency by removing the old bills from circulation and issuing new ones, the attempt met with little or no success. By May 1781, Continentals had become so worthless they ceased to circulate as money. Benjamin Franklin noted that the depreciation of the currency had, in effect, acted as a tax to pay for the war.[1] In the 1790s, after the ratification of the United States Constitution, Continentals could be exchanged for treasury bonds at 1% of face value.[2]..

Hey, it doesn't end there...

 On August 8, 1785, the Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of a new currency the US dollar.

However runaway inflation and the collapse of the Continental currency prompted delegates at theConstitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to include the gold and silver clause into the United States Constitution preventing individual States from issuing their own bills of credit. Article One states they were prohibited to "make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts."[4] 

 Paul then goes on to compare Bitcoin enthusiasts to Goldbugs - which was inevitable. I'm far from a Goldbug, and those that follow me can attest. Apparently Mr. Krugman isn't either, but he appears to make a specious argument, to wit:

The similarity to goldbug rhetoric isn’t a coincidence, since goldbugs and bitcoin enthusiasts — bitbugs? — tend to share both libertarian politics and the belief that governments are vastly abusing their power to print money. At the same time, it’s very peculiar, since bitcoins are in a sense the ultimate fiat currency, with a value conjured out of thin air. Gold’s value comes in part because it has nonmonetary uses, such as filling teeth and making jewelry; paper currencies have value because they’re backed by the power of the state, which defines them as legal tender and accepts them as payment for taxes. Bitcoins, however, derive their value, if any, purely from self-fulfilling prophecy, the belief that other people will accept them as payment.

I really need somebody from the academic ivory towers to explain to me the difference between paper currencies being backed by the power of the state and Bitcoins alleged self fulfilling fulfilling prophecy of the belief that other people will accept them as payment. Both of these concepts share one common theme that seems to have escaped Mr. Krugman - Belief!!! Being backed by the full faith and power of the government means nothing unless you believe that government backing has a real value. That real value, if you do believe in it, is solely a function of your level of belief in the government and the governments willingness to back the currency  and to what extent. After all, Greek bonds written under Greek law are backed by their government as well, as are Somalian bonds. So, pray tell, what's the difference between the value of those bonds and US treasuries? Belief, that's the difference! Again, a refresher from Wikipedia:  

Today, like the currency of most nations, the dollar is fiat money, unbacked by any physical asset. A holder of a federal reserve note has no right to demand an asset such as gold or silver from the government in exchange for a note.[28] Consequently, some proponents of theintrinsic theory of value believe that the near-zero marginal cost of production of the current fiat dollar detracts from its attractiveness as a medium of exchange and store of value because a fiat currency without a marginal cost of production is easier to debase via overproduction and the subsequent inflation of the money supply.



Who is Reggie Middleton?