Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gary North is clueless about Bitcoin

Introduction

In the last couple of days, Gary North has made posts about Bitcoin on his blog:

My major irritation is that North makes two fundamental mistakes that a researcher shouldn't do. He did not review existing Austrian literature on Bitcoin, and he did not collect empirical data. Instead, he repeated long refuted fallacies, and he made up his own fictional history of Bitcoin. This is why I have said in the past that the people associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute have become lazy and stupid. There has been progress in the meantime, however. Mark Thornton, for example, has become a fan, and the LvMI actually started accepting both donations and payments for their webshop in Bitcoin. But then Gary North pops up.

To a small extent, I am familiar with North's work. I quote him in my master's thesis, and I read his chapter from the Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media (more on that later, when I quote North based on the notes I made when I read it).

Inability to classify Bitcoin

North repeatedly argued that Bitcoin is not used in market exchanges. This is empirically false. I buy goods with Bitcoin all the time. And I was told that even Walter Block (whom I argued earlier to be clueless about Bitcoin) sold his book for bitcoins once. I don't know why North makes claims to the contrary. However, this allows him to perform a methodological trick: because he denies that Bitcoin is used in exchanges, he can avoid having to classify it within the Misesian framework for classification of goods (into consumer goods, producer goods, and media of exchange).

Instead of classifying Bitcoin as a good then, North classifies it as a ponzi scheme.

Ponzi scheme

North provides his own definition of a Ponzi scheme and a reason why it causes problems. I submit my own definition, which is in my opinion more economically useful.

A ponzi scheme is a hierarchical system of fractionally backed claims. By putting an amount of money into the system, the participant gains a claim for a larger amount of money than he put in. In order for the settlement of claims to work at the beginning, the system is built hierarchically, so that earlier participants can get money from later participants. The reason why a system like this collapses is that as the amount of debt increases, so does the risk of triggering a settlement of claims. A full settlement at any particular time is impossible: the system is insolvent. Once there are too many triggered claims, this causes a cascading wave of defaults, and the claims thus become unclaimable and worthless. In a ponzi scheme, the trigger typically happens when not enough new people enter the system on time as the old claims mature, but this is merely a special case of trigger. All kinds of other triggers can hypothetically cause the cascade.

Bitcoin is not a system of claims. Bitcoin is a pseudo-commodity, not a claim. People who purchase Bitcoins do not have a claim on anybody, nor does anybody have a claim on them. There is no debt to settle, and no default that makes Bitcoin unclaimable. The mechanism that makes a ponzi scheme to collapse is absent with Bitcoin. Whatever reasons are there for Bitcoin to succeed or to fail, the analogy to ponzi schemes is invalid.

The necessity to classify Bitcoin as a claim, in the absence of the ability to classify it as a good, follows directly from the Misesian framework for classification of goods. The difference between a good and a claim is explained by Mises several times as relevant for determinant of their price: the price of claims is derived from the price of the underlying good. Sometimes, there are other factors influencing the price of a claim, but the price of the underlying good is a necessary component at least at the beginning.

The connection between the price of a good and a claim has been expanded upon by Malavika Nair, who also has a chapter in Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media, actually precisely about this topic. I exchanged some emails with professor Nair and this is what she wrote in respect to the classification of Bitcoin:
"I agree that Bitcoin is not a money substitute [i.e. not a claim, ed.], I think of it as closer to commodity money, just not a kind of commodity most people are used to. I know Selgin has come up with the term “synthetic money” but I’m not sure if that helps clear things up or confuses them. If anything, it’s a quasi-money or secondary money, which benefits greatly from its liquidity and the ease with which it can be sold for dollars".
In other words, Bitcoin is not a claim, but a good. It is priced for its own sake, not based on a price of another good it refers to. And since it is held in order to buy goods, it is a medium of exchange.

But even if we disregard the methodological nonsense and stick with North's own empirical description of the beginnings of Bitcoin:
"The money was siphoned off from the beginning. Somebody owned a good percentage of the original digits. Then, by telling his story, this individual created demand for all of the digits. The dollar-value of his share of the Bitcoins appreciates with the other digits."
even then the description is false. Almost all of Satoshi's Bitcoin are unspent, still where they were mined. As Bitcoin didn't even have a price for almost nine months, if Satoshi had attempted to sell his coins, he would have made a revenue of ... nothing. If he had tried to sell them when the price first formed on the market, he would have earned ...  932.68 USD. There's no typo, the value of all Bitcoin in existence at the time when the price emerged was less than a grand. If he waited until Mt. Gox started operating, he would have earned ... 171,517.5 USD (assuming he actually had all of the bitcoins himself). These sums are not even profit, only revenue, as they don't consider costs. Sounds like a real opportunity, doesn't it?

The theoretical explanation of the purchasing power of Bitcoin is missing, and the empirical one is contradicted by the empirical data. Now I'll proceed to explain why North cannot provide a valid theoretical explanation of Bitcoin.

Lack of a theory of liquidity

North refers to the chapter "The Regression Theorem As Conjectural History". Luckily, I made some notes when I read the book. North quotes Menger as writing:
"The theory of money necessarily presupposes a theory of the saleableness [nowadays we use the term liquidity, ed.] of goods. If we grasp this, we shall be able to understand how the almost unlimited saleableness of money is only a special case, - presenting only a difference of degree - of a generic phenomenon of economic life - namely, the difference in the saleableness of commodities in general."
This is precisely where and why North fails. He does not have a theory of liquidity. He has a theory of "stability of prices" instead. While Menger did claim that precious metals have a higher price stability than other goods, he argued that this is not a prerequisite for how the market participants treat it. In fact, with respect to the unit of account function, in Principles of Economics, Menger actually wrote this:
"The function of serving as a measure of price is therefore not necessarily an attribute of commodities that have attained money character. And if it is not a necessary consequence of the fact that a commodity has become money, it is still less a prerequisite or cause of a commodity becoming money." [emphasis added]
If the unit of account function is not a prerequisite for a commodity to become money, then it shouldn't matter how stable it is. Liquidity is not price stability. Liquidity is, in Menger's own words:
"A commodity is more or less saleable according as we are able, with more or less prospect of success, to dispose of it at prices corresponding to the general economic situation, at economic prices."
Apples have a relatively stable price. Yet apples are illiquid: they cannot be sold easily at the market price. Bitcoin does not have a stable price, yet Bitcoin is liquid. It's not as liquid as money, and it's probably not as liquid as gold. But it it is liquid and this satisfies the prerequisite for it acting as a medium of exchange. North's grasp of Menger's insights fails.

Speculation with Bitcoin

North argues that Bitcoin is used for speculation. The issue with this argument is that it does not contradict Bitcoin being used as a medium of exchange. The motivations of human actors in this respect are not mutually exclusive. If people hold a good in the expectation of dispensing with it in order to buy something else when they need that something else, it means they are using it as a medium of exchange. If they hold a good with the expectation of dispensing with it at a higher price when the time and place are opportune, they are speculating. But speculation is a normal part of life. A retailer buys, say, clothes wholesale, with the expectation of selling them at a higher price throughout the operating hours of his business, waiting for an opportunity. He speculates on the price of clothes. But that does not mean that clothes are a ponzi scheme or that there's something wrong about it. It does not refute the validity of other reasons for buying clothes.

People in countries with a high rate of inflation tend to increase the proportion of more foreign fiat monies in their liquidity portfolio. They simultaneously hold the foreign money because it is liquid (and can be used for its purchasing power), and because they expect the purchasing power to be higher than when holding their national, faster inflating, money. This proves that the motivations are not mutually exclusive.

The regression theorem

Regrettably, it turned out that a lot of Austrians do not comprehend the regression theorem. I suspect that this is because of the difference in the approaches of Mises and Menger. Mises spends the majority of his Theory of Money and Credit by analysing the mechanism by which prices form, and the factors influencing this. Based on this, he presents a threefold classification system of goods: consumer goods, producer goods and media of exchange. Mises himself did not invent this classification, he got it from an earlier economists but unfortunately I don't have my notes on this in a searchable form so I'll update this post with the proper reference later. Media of exchange, according to Mises, differ from other goods, because they are held for their purchasing power. He then goes on to explain how purchasing power (or "exchange value", another term he uses) emerges from use value through market exchange due to differences in marketability of goods (nowadays we use the term liquidity rather than marketability). He finishes with the conclusion that there is no other way for the exchange value to emerge than through a former use value and market exchange (catallactics), and theories that do not explain the exchange value of goods, "acatallactic monetary doctrines", cannot explain the exchange value of media of exchange.

While Mises viewed exchange value and use value as two components of the final price, Menger viewed the concept of liquidity as orthogonal to the concept of price. Their goals were different. Mises' approach is helpful for the analysis of the economic calculation, and for macroeconomics (business cycle, money supply and so on). Menger's approach on the other hand is helpful of understanding the microeconomic foundations of media of exchange.

Both Menger and Mises argued that the difference between money and a medium of exchange is quantitative rather than qualitative ("presenting only a difference of degree", in fact North himself has the same Menger's quote in his "The Regression Theorem As Conjectural History"). This is why we cannot make praxeological arguments about the origin of money that also do not apply to the origin of a medium of exchange. And this is why it's evident that some Austrians still don't understand the regression theorem.

The Mengerian approach to the origin of media of exchange is that media of exchange emerge out of liquid commodities. People recognise that some commodities are liquid (it is possible to"dispose of it at prices corresponding to the general economic situation, at economic prices"), and assisted by this knowledge, they start to hold them for this purpose (to dispose of them at economic prices). This is the moment when the function of a medium of exchange emerges. The Misesian approach is similar, but he uses the term "exchange value" to explain the liquidity premium of liquid goods (which is a more complex issue). This is why the Misesian approach is more helpful when examining prices, but less helpful when examining the motivations of market participants.

As Bitcoin is a medium of exchange (people hold it in order to purchase goods in the future), it must logically adhere to the regression theorem. It must have been a liquid good before it was used as a medium of exchange. And indeed, empirical analysis shows that this is correct. Before people used Bitcoin as a medium of exchange, it was possible to trade it against the US dollars on bitcoin exchanges, which featured visible order books. This made it easier to sell Bitcoin at economic prices. The fact that the exchanges were founded deliberately does not invalidate their economic function. Menger realised that specialised services that help with sales have a beneficiary effect on liquidity:
"The institution of an organized market for an article makes it possible for the producers, or other economizing individuals trading in it, to sell their commodities at any time at economic prices."
If we go even further chronologically, before Bitcoin exchanges existed, Bitcoin already had a price and was traded sporadically (i.e. was a good). The very early prices appear to have formed based on the variable production costs of Bitcoin at that time. And even further in the past, Bitcoin did not have a price, and while there were signs of using the blockchain, it probably didn't qualify as a good.

I document the process both in my thesis, and in an earlier blog post Professor Walter Block is clueless about Bitcoin. The origin of the function of a medium of exchange for Bitcoin is right out of the book. Menger's book, that is. Not North's book. North needs to deny the purchasing power of Bitcoin, because if he admitted it exists, he'd be left without the ability to explain it, having no catallactic theory of the origin of Bitcoin.

The network effect

North is equally clueless on the network effect (which was brought up by one of his critics). He goes even further:
"I can assure you that Carl Menger, the founder of Austrian school economics, did not use language like this: "money itself replaced non-money as a market network effect good." No Austrian school economist ever has. Austrian school economists do their best to communicate in something other than programmers' professional jargon."
North is wrong yet again. One economist familiar with the Austrian tradition, Mikael Stenukla, wrote a paper Carl Menger and the network theory of money. Many more Austrians are familiar with the network effect and understand that liquidity is a subset of the more generic concept of the network effect. The article was actually pointed out to me by Peter G. Klein, the executive director of the LvMI, who also did research the network effect.

Once you comprehend the network effect, you'll realise that the issue with respect to media of exchange is the empirical question of the critical mass of liquidity: the threshold below which a potential medium of exchange needs other utility in order for the system to be self-sustaining. Economists (including Austrians), who did not comprehend the concept of liquidity, implied that this threshold can only happen at a very high level of demand (or other auxiliary criteria, such as "price stability" proposed by North). But demand is not the same thing as liquidity. Bitcoin simply shows that liquidity can emerge at a lower level of demand than previously thought.

This is why it also cannot be concluded that Bitcoin cannot become money (the same non-sequitur that already was presented by Patrik Korda earlier this year). Of course it can. It just needs to outcompete other media of exchange. And this can't be determined apriori: it's an empirical issue. As I argued in my thesis, transaction costs play a major role in influencing the choice, and Bitcoin has lower transaction costs than anything that existed before that. Even though Austrians typically do not use the term "transaction costs" (I've heard Salerno use the term "transactions costs" once though), Menger used the term "economic sacrifices" and it was evident that it's the same phenomenon. It is also evident from Menger's writing that transaction costs are heterogeneous, with many influencing factors, and that:
"Economic development tends to reduce these economic sacrifices, with the result that even between the most distant lands more and more economic exchanges become possible which previously could not have taken place."
Bitcoin is just such an economic development as Menger mentions. It allows a more efficient conduct of market operations. This is why the claim of North that Bitcoin has no utility is absurd.

The utility of Bitcoin

North's denial of utility is filled with nonsense and lacks fundamental economic analysis. It has been repeated too often by others, but it's strange that reputable researchers like North come up with this too. In order to understand the utility of Bitcoin, I recommend the recent video by Stephan Molyneux. If you don't have the time to watch, I'll just provide some points which I consider important or interesting.

The True Value of Bitcoin by Stephan Molyneux:

Bitcoin can partially or fully replace the following services by more efficient ones:
  1. Proof of ownership (obsoletes notaries)
  2. Dispute resolution (obsoletes mediators)
  3. Record auditing (obsoletes accountants)
  4. Smart property (obsoletes the police)
  5. Decentralised stock exchange (obsoletes centralised stock exchanges)
  6. Highly efficient payments (obsoletes banks, debit cards, money transmitters)
  7. Full control over your money (obsoletes central banks and banking regulators)
  8. Conditional payments (obsoletes lawyers)
  9. No inflation
  10. No business cycle
And now, here's the kicker: points 1-5 does not require that Bitcoin is a medium of exchange (because they do not require Bitcoin to have purchasing power) and points 6-8 do not require that Bitcoin is money (because they do not require that Bitcoin is used as a unit of account). Only points 9 and 10 require that Bitcoin is a unit of account. If that ever happens, that's just the cherry on the top. Some, for example Michael Suede, even come to the conclusion that without the ability to steal money, states couldn't exist.

The claim that Bitcoin has no utility is ridiculous. North really should have done some research.

Conclusion

It looks like I still have a lot of work to do. I thought that the research that Austrians (and semi-Austrians) did with respect to Bitcoin (in particular John Paul Koning, Konrad S. Graf, Daniel Krawisz, and of course me) would be sufficient for the other Austrians to move on and continue contributing more new interesting things. Sadly, this didn't happen yet. There are still many Austrians that are lazy, ignorant, or sadly, outright fraudulent, as they fabricate a fictional history and present it as facts. This is in particular saddening as North is a historian.

I'm not an expert in North's writings. I did find his "Mises on Money" helpful and informative (I highlighted 35 passages into my research catalogue), while his "The Regression Theorem as Conjectural History" somewhat weak. I know he has something against George Selgin, but I don't care about that. However, his attempts to address Bicoin are just annoying. I attempted to address several core problems of his articles. I hope this helps people to understand Bitcoin, and Austrian economists to finally move on beyond long refuted nonsense, and produce something new and helpful.

13 comments:

  1. Kudos!

    Just one question- isn't the concept of "transaction costs" already subsumed within the Austrian conception of "opportunity costs"?

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    1. Thanks.

      I don't think transaction costs are related to opportunity costs. These are two different concepts. Opportunity costs mean that by making a choice, you forego the potential utility of the options you didn't exercise.

      Transaction costs mean that when making an exchange, you need to forego more than the goods themselves that are exchanged (if not anything else, you need to forego the time you spend on the exchange). I quote Menger in my thesis explaining what transaction costs are, I still think he explained it brilliantly.

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    2. Its all shit you dont know what you are talking about. Stephan doesn't know shit about it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cV-32qmLG64

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    3. It might be more beneficial for a debate if you had an actual argument.

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    5. I do I pasted a link to my debate on bitcoin.. please watch it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cV-32qmLG64

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    6. Chris/Amber North, the problem with your proposal is the same as with Gary's: you do not have a theory of liquidity. Due to a lack of liquidity, joules wouldn't work as a medium of exchange (people do not want to keep illiquid goods to postpone purchases), or as a unit of account (due to low liquidity their price is subject to a higher bid-ask spread). Due to high transaction costs, their price is not uniform around the world. The necessity to have a central issuer also makes the system subject to the principal-agent problem. You also mix normative and positive arguments (you explain what an ideal system SHOULD be like, instead of analysing what money MUST be like). I might write a more detailed critique at some later stage.

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  2. Peter, Malavika may dislike the term "Synthetic Money," but that's no concern of mine, as I never used it to describe bitcoin, or anything else. As you know, I did coin the term "Synthetic Commodity Money," but I did not refer to Bitcoin as that, either, for the simple reason that I don't consider it "money" at all. What Bitcoin is, according to my terminology, is simple "a synthetic commodity," meaning one that is scarce in the sense that it takes resources to produce, yet does not occur naturally. This, too, may strike some as a useless terminological innovations 9though one I have my reasons for making). But if so, it is not for the reasons Malavika offers.

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    1. I disagree with your reasoning regarding "occurring naturally". All goods must be created from physical material using labour and knowledge. People needed to learn how to mine or otherwise extract gold, how to melt it, mint it and so on. The difference is more quantitative. Some commodities depend more on particular atomic structure of the universe, and some less.

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  3. Excellent post, Peter. Always a joy to read a good Austrian economist take on Bitcoin. Unfortunately, I think this will be an uphill battle.

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  4. Thank you for your ongoing contributions to reasoned and intelligent discourse on Bitcoin.

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