Felix Salmon and many others have pointed out that a currency cannot succeed with a supply that is fixed, or if it grows too slowly. A currency is used to enter transactions; the more transactions there are, the more of the money you need. As the economy grows, a fixed-supply currency becomes worth more in terms of goods and services, and people begin to hoard it—expecting that if they wait a little longer, they will be able to buy more. Once hoarding takes over, circulation ends, and with it the function of the currency. Hoarding accounts for the large increase in the value of bitcoins; hoarding also sank Krugman’s baby-sitting scrip.
An even more fundamental problem with bitcoins, and indeed any private currency, is that there is no way to limit its supply. True, bitcoins cannot be manufactured beyond the limits set by Nakamoto. But there is no way to prevent future Nakamotos from creating bitcoin substitutes—say, bytecoin, or botcoin. If merchants are willing to accept bitcoins, they will be willing to accept the substitutes, especially as bitcoins become scarce and consumers scramble for substitutes. Nakamoto must have realized this because there are not enough bitcoins to substitute for the currencies around the world. The currency can only succeed if it is expanded or supplemented. But if there are no constraints on substitute digital currencies—and there aren’t—then the value of bitcoins will plummet as the subs begin to circulate. And once it becomes clear that there is no limit, people will realize that their holdings could become worthless at any moment, and demand for bitcoins and the other currencies will collapse, ending the experiment.
Unless a bitcoin has value as a currency, it has no value at all, and its price in dollars will fall to zero. A regular Ponzi scheme collapses when people realize that earlier investors are being paid out of the investments of later investors rather than from the returns on an underlying asset. Bitcoin will collapse when people realize that it can’t survive as a currency because of its built-in deflationary features, or because of the emergence of bytecoins, or both. A real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion.
Given this, why all the enthusiasm for bitcoin? Partly, the technological ingenuity of the scheme, of course. And people have misinterpreted the run-up in price as a sign of success rather than failure. But more fundamentally, bitcoin unites futuristic left-wing Internet anarchism—the fantasy that the Web can provide the conditions for a governmentless society—with the cave-dwelling right-wing libertarianism of goldbugs who think a stable money supply can be established without government involvement. It is proof for both that government is not needed for much, or at all.
Yet history shows that private currencies always end in tears; if central banks sometimes abuse the trust we place in them, the alternatives are worse. The strangest feature of the bitcoin saga is that people who are so suspicious of government put their trust in Satoshi Nakamoto, who could be anyone, or anyones—eccentric academic researchers, mischievous Fed economists, DARPA, U.N. globalizers in black helicopters, a criminal syndicate, a bored 11-year-old Ukrainian genius. If Nakamoto is as amoral as he is ingenious, then he pocketed the early bitcoins and laughed himself to the bank.
you don't own any bitcoins
I have stated on multiple occasions that I won't discuss details of my financial life but that I do own somewhere between .00000001 and 21,000,000 bitcoins.
Felix Salmon and many others have pointed out that a currency cannot succeed with a supply that is fixed, or if it grows too slowly.
A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to its investors from their own money or the money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from profit earned....