# Cars, Gold, Houses, Toys & Stock: What gives value?

The title of this post is intentionally misleading. We frequently discuss the traits that lead to value in this Blog. But today, I was asked a more nuanced question: “What things will hold their value?

And there is a ulterior motive in being a Wild Duck contributor. Analyzing the dynamics of durable value leads to some surprising conclusions about the money supply and what a society chooses to use as money. We’ll get to this at end of this post.

We know that value comes from supply and demand. There are no exceptions. But, we have not addressed the properties that make an asset hold value over the long haul. Let’s consider some examples…

Cars

In an affluent, mobile society, most people desire personal, point-to-point transportation — and so there is clearly a demand for automobiles.

But style & technology change rapidly and automobiles deteriorate with use and weather. After 8 to 10 years, their cost and maintenance rise dramatically, and owners lust for a new model. So cars don’t get our award for assets that hold value.*

Popular Toys

In the 1970s, the Cabbage Patch doll from Calico Industries, and later, Tickle Me Elmo in the 1990s created a buyer frenzy that rivaled a lemonade stand in the desert. Shoppers fought each other to grab a limited supply. Clearly, demand was very high. The one shown below is listed at Ebay this week with a starting bid of $5,000. Other, less popular styles can be found for$4.99.

At first, this demand was driven by clever marketing and crying children in the week before Christmas. Demand was driven by a parent’s love. But at the peak of frenzy, demand shifted to buyers without children who felt certain that they could profit from selling the dolls that they snatched up first.

But the demand was not durable. Fads driven by frenzy don’t hold value for the long haul — especially when a manufacturer can simply turn the spigot back on.

Stocks & Bonds

A share of stock represents ownership in a corporation. A municipal bond represents a lien against a city—or the fees generated by an infrastructure project.

In both cases—especially bonds, which are a limited promise—no one expects value to last forever. It is a time-sensitive bet with the intention of expiration, redemption or exchange. So, these things also fail our criteria for durable value.

Houses & Real Estate

Like cars, homes require ongoing maintenance. But, most people weigh the maintenance cost against the benefit of having shelter, rather than comparing it to their gain or loss in value.

On the other hand, real estate value fluctuates in the long run due to things that are difficult to predict — population density, demographics, and quality-of-life issues related to infrastructure: weather, seismic events, politics, and access to health care and education.

Some real estate rises enormously in value over 50 or 100 years. Yet, we have seen boom-and-bust cycles that wipe out substantial wealth. So, real estate does not cut it in our contest for durable value.

Gold

The allure of gold and other precious metals is that their supply is capped — or limited by slow and predictable growth. The asset is difficult to find. It is acquired only from natural phenomena.

So, if we can also make it fungible, divisible, portable and difficult to counterfeit, then it meets most of Aristotle’s requirements for a functional currency. Theoretically, this can lead to widespread demand.

Gold certainly has exhibited its ability to hold value throughout thousands of years. But it is not so easily tested and divided in the field, and the impression that it has intrinsic value is an illusion. That’s because the fraction of gold acquired by investors dwarfs the amount actually needed for dentistry, electronics and even jewelry. In this modern era, even gold is becoming a house of cards, because its value is built upon speculation and emotion.

Oil (aka “black gold”)

With the rise of the automobile and power plants that burn fossil fuel, oil became a reserve currency of the 19th and 20th centuries. But there are two problems with it holding value over the long haul.

First, unlike gold, oil is a consumable in every market. Therefore it is difficult to think of it as an asset. Also, we now live in a century in which energy and transportation is rapidly switching away from oil, while at the same time, new technology is making it cheap to acquire new oil. This (along with a history of violent political theater) dramatically deteriorates its potential as a store of value in coming years.

Money

The supply-demand dynamics of money is widely misunderstood. More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle defined the properties of a functional currency.

Earlier, we stated that all value comes from supply and demand. But, it is fair to ask “What creates the demand?” or “What backs the expectation of future demand?” Surprisingly, even if we limit our scope to just one country (USA), the value of government-issued currency has been tied to different things over time:

• Gold
• Promise of redemption
• Legal tender (public must accept it for all debts)
• Settlement of taxes
• The “good faith and credit” of workers

Ultimately, demand is influenced by oversupply and by public perception more than government promises or laws. The perception that the US dollar has no cap and that its supply can be inflated whenever a body of transient politicians decides to raise the debt ceiling may eventually cause its value to collapse. Although it has not happened yet, at some point consumers (or those holding our debt), will begin to question if Americans have the capacity and will to produce and export the goods & services necessary to balance their mass consumption of the past half-century.

And so, government-issued Fiat does not pass our smell test for durable value. Sooner or later, all national currencies collapse. On a personal level, the only question that matters is if you will be caught by surprise—with a fraction of wealth tied to your favored currency.

What has the potential to meet all
requirements for holding value?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could find an asset that is a product of pure mathematics? A perfect asset would be fair, fungible, immutable, and capped. It could never be inflated or manipulated by politicians. It would decouple governments from monetary policy. It would be politically agnostic.

If correctly designed, it would be capable of absorbing and incorporating improvements developed by any copycat or pretender nipping at its heels. Most important, it would be open source, peer-to-peer, massively distributed, redundant, and completely permissionless.

This perfect asset would derive trust from mathematics and crowd-sourced consensus. It would not require that anyone believe in a government, a bank, a land mass, or the uncertain supply of precious objects. Authenticity could tested easily and its value transmitted instantly. The history of each unit would be completely transparent. With free tools, anyone, anywhere could trace its history of moving from one owner to the next.

Ten years ago, such an asset was unleashed into the wild by a person or team of developers under the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. It not only meets all of these requirements, it has built-in immunity from competition. It even resolves a technical problem that troubled Aristotle more than two millennia ago.

I won’t name this radical yet natural evolutionary development in this answer—but, I can confidently state that it passes our test for an asset that will hold value over time. Despite a wildly fluctuating exchange rate with Fiat currency, its inherent value has never dropped. Ultimately, you will no longer asses value based on the exchange rate of an anachronistic currency that fails all of the other smell tests. Instead, you will assess value on how many heads of lettuce you can buy or how much that new sailboat costs.

* A classic car avoids the problems associated with use & maintenance—and it can hold value over a long period. But like a Picasso painting, the market for classic cars has a limited audience, especially for the florescent green ’63 Mustang that I found in in my great uncle’s garage. Additionally, it is subject to the whims of popular perception. Styles go in and out of vogue and so we cannot predict how long that car will hold value. (Please call me if you value my uncle’s Mustang at more than $150,000). # Is Bitcoin Erasing 300 years of Monetary Evolution? Today, economist and Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote in the New York Times, that Bitcoin is taking us back 300 years in monetary evolution. As a result, he predicts all sorts of bad things. A significant basis for Mr. Krugman’s argument is that the US dollar has value because men with guns say it does. Is Bitcoin erasing 300 years of monetary evolution? Running with the metaphor that fundamental change to an economic mechanism represents ‘evolution’, I think a more accurate statement is that Bitcoin is not erasing the lessons of history. Rather, it is the current step in the evolution of money. Of course, with living species, evolution is a gradual process based on natural selection and adaptation. With Bitcoin, change is coming up in the rear view mirror at lightning speed. The Evolution of Money When a medium of exchange is portable, fungible, divisible, unforgeable and widely accepted, it becomes money. For at least six millennia, barter was gradually replaced by various mediums of exchange. • Obsidian —» Cowry shells —» Gold —» Promissory notes (backed by a Bank, employer or wealthy industry) —» Fiat (national currency) But what backs these forms of money? What gives them value? The first 3 currencies above were accepted as money on 5 continents. They were backed by their scarcity and unique characteristic properties (Aristotle called this intrinsic value). But even gold cannot serve as a widely used currency today. Although it is portable and scarce, it is not easily tested or subdivided in the field; it is risky to transport and difficult to track; and it is not suited to instant electronic settlement. But what about Fiat money. What backs it? What Backs National Currencies? Fiat has been backed by various different things throughout history. They are all compromised attempts to establish confidence and trust. They are compromised, because the fall short of one or more facets of trust. In the list below, monetary backings in Red are what Mr. Krugman calls “men with guns”. That is, he claims that government demands give value to the dollar: • Value tied to gold —» Promise of redemption —» Legal tender (public must accept it for all debts) —» settlement of taxes —» The “good faith and credit” of workers Unfortunately, the transition away from a trustworthy basis and the constant temptation of kings, dictators and politicians to print money based on credit (or nothing at all—as in the case of our fractional reserve system), has created a house of cards that few people believe is sustainable. Bitcoin changes all this. Finally, a crowd-sourced trust basis was invented (or discovered). It is unhackable, un-inflatable, unforgeable and immutable. Most important, it allows a government to be decoupled from its own monetary policy and supply. This is a remarkably good thing for businesses, consumers, creditors, trading partners—and especially for governments. And Bitcoin is backed by something better than guns, gold or promises. It is provably scarce, capped in supply, completely fair, and built on a massive, crowd-sourced network of bookkeepers and auditors. It is the first currency—and quite probably the last—built on genius math and indisputable trust. Despite the gross misunderstandings and misconceptions of early pundits, it does not interfere with a government’s ability to tax, to spend or to enforce tax collection—and it does not facilitate crime. Bitcoin is new, but the goal of distributing trust is not as radical as you might think. It addresses a problem that economists and mathematicians have pondered since Aristotle and the ancient Greeks… Background Ever since the transition from real gold to government notes, bank notes and bank ledgers—economists have wondered if value can arise from a public trust that is durable, distributed and stateless. Until 2009, the answer seemed to be that this was impossible because of the double-spend problem. But 9 years ago, something changed; and the change is dramatic. It will take an additional decade for most people to understand and appreciate this change… In the first paragraph, I cited Mr. Krugman’s statement that the US Dollar has value because of “men with guns” (a reference to the fact that its use is legally compelled for payment of any debt and for government taxes). But this is not what gives it value. The dollar, the Euro, a Picasso painting and a fresh serving of hot french fries all derive their value from supply and demand. Bitcoin is no different. The trick is to generate viral demand and a ubiquitous infrastructure needed to achieve a robust two-sided network. In the white paper that introduced both blockchain and Bitcoin (the first blockchain application), Satoshi taught us that a widespread and easy to access communications network (the internet and universal access to smartphones) can give rise to value that is based on a different type of trust. Instead of trust in a government, a bank, or testing the chemistry of a precious metal, value can arise from trust in a formula that is ubiquitous, redundant and constantly monitored and vetted. All of these things have a value based on demand and the available supply. But with Bitcoin, the medium of exchange (and additionally the store and transfer of value), can be achieved by math, distributed trust and a pure, two-sided network. So, is Bitcoin taking us backward in time, utility, safety and governance? I have never been awarded a Nobel Prize—but it seems pretty clear to me that Bitcoin is taking us forward and not backward. Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, hosts the New York Bitcoin Event and is keynote speaker at Cryptocurrency Conferences. He sits on the New Money Systems board of Lifeboat Foundation. Book a presentation or consulting engagement. # Why would anyone attribute value to Bitcoin? Oh, Cheez…We’re back to this question, again! As a Bitcoin columnist, I get asked a lot of questions regarding cryptocurrency and I don’t mind that at all because I enjoy educating people on the topic. Whether it’s recommending people this review if they’re looking for trading help, going over the fundamentals of Bitcoin, or answering why Bitcoin holds any value. And I get this question a lot. Today, an answer was requested at Quora.com, where I am a leading contributor on cryptocurrencies: “Clearly, some people value Bitcoin. But How can this be? There is nothing there to give it value!” Many individuals, like the one who asked this question, suspect that Bitcoin was pulled out of thin air-and that it is not backed by gold, a government, or an authoritative redemption guaranty. After all, it is just open source code. What stops me from creating an ElleryCoin using the same code?! Let’s start with the short answer: • Indeed, it was pulled out thin air • It isn’t backed by an asset, government or promise • You could easily clone Bitcoin (the entire mining ecosystem) and distribute it yourself. It would be exactly like Bitcoin. Yet, Bitcoin is clearly valued by everyone, and your new coin is unlikely to generate interest or adoption. A More Complete Answer: What is value? Bitcoin has more intrinsic value than a government printed paper bill. The value arises from a combiation of fundamental properties: • It has a capped supply • It is widely recognized, liquid, and resistant to legislation • It has attained the robust supply-demand of a growing, 2-sided network. • It is open and transparent. This elevates user trust • Unlike cash and credit, Bitcoin requires no back-end settlement. That’s because it is not a payment instrument. Rather, it is money itself. • Finally, it’s value is likely to be durable, because it is not printed by a country that spends beyond its means and racks up debt. In fact, it can never be inflated. Downside and Risks But wait! What about the long transaction delay and high cost? There are sharp disagreements anong miners, users and developers concerning block size, transaction malleability, and replay issues. Aren’t these a deal killers? And what about wild volatility in the exchange rate? Doesn’t this retard adoption as a functional currency? These are transient issues associated with a new technology. Bitcoin is weathering growth pains that arise from a new and distributed governance technology (democracy can be messy!). But, all of these issues have sound solutions. We have witnessed and tested the solutions with various forked coins. Think of these imrpoved altcoins as beta tests. Even if current problems delay the day when you can spend bitcoin at every retail establishment-it is already sucking liquidity from national currencies and becoming the world’s de facto reserve currency. Many individuals find all of this hard to accept. That is because we have been conditioned to think that ‘value’ arises from assets with ‘intrinsic’ value, the promise of redemption, or by edict. This is not true. In all things (including gold, a Picasso painting, or your labor), value arises from simple supply and demand. Some individuals claim that all other factors are secondary. But, even this statement is false. All other factors are irrelevant. They may be related, but they are not the source of value. I recognize that this answer may seem smug or definitive. So, allow me to suggest related questions with answers that are a bit more interesting, because they are subtle. Unlike the question of value, these two questions are open to analysis and opinion: (1) “Will people continue to value bitcoin in the future?” – And (2) “When will Bitcoin stop swinging wildly in value?” (measured by its exchange rate with other currencies). This is fun! Let’s explore… Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes A Wild Duck and hosts the New York Bitcoin Event. Last month, he kicked off the Cryptocurrency Expo in Dubai. Click Here to inquire about a live presentation or consulting engagement. # Privacy –vs– Anonymity My friend and business partner, Manny Perez holds elective office. As New York State politicians go, he is an all around decent guy! The first things colleagues and constituents notice about him is that he is ethical, principled, has a backbone, and is compassionate for the causes he believes in. Manny wears other hats. In one role, he guides an ocean freighter as founder and co-director of CRYPSA, the Cryptocurrency Standards Association. With the possible exceptions of Satoshi Nakamoto and Andreas Antonopoulos, Manny knows more about Bitcoin than anyone. But Manny and I differ on the role of privacy and anonymity in financial dealings. While he is a privacy advocate, Manny sees anonymity —and especially civilian tools of anonymity—as a separate and potentially illegal concept. He is uneasy about even discussing the use of intentionally architected anonymity in any financial or communications network. He fears that our phone conversation may be parsed (I agree) and trigger a human review (I agree) and that it could be construed as evidence of promoting illegal technology. This is where we differ… I agree, but I don’t care how anyone who is not party to a private conversation construes it! Yet, I see anonymity as either synonymous with privacy or at least a constituent component. You can’t have one without the other. Manny was raised in Venezuela, where he was schooled and held is first jobs. He was involved in the energy industry. He acknowledges that experience with a repressive and graft-prone government, lead to a belief in a more open approach: free markets coupled with a democratic government. Perhaps this is a key source of our different viewpoints. Manny comes from a repressive land and has come to respect the rules-based structure within his comfort zones of banking, energy and government. He is a certified AML expert (anti-money laundering) and believes strongly in other financial oversight rules, like KYC (Know Your Customer) and RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act). Because Manny is appreciative of the opportunity and benefits conveyed by his adoptive country, he may overlook a fact that whispers in the minds of other privacy advocates: That is, we may one day need protection from our own government. After all, who but a conspiracy nut or white supremacist could imagine the US government suppressing its populace. Sure, they engage in a little domestic spying—but if you have nothing to hide, why hide at all?! This week, Manny posted an open letter to the cryptocurrency community. His organization, CRYPSA is at the intersection of that community with law, technology and politics. His letter addresses privacy, anonymity and transparency, but the title is “How can you report a stolen bitcoin?” For me, the issue is a non-sequitur. You needn’t, you shouldn’t, the reporting superstructure shouldn’t exist, and in a well designed system, you can’t.* More to the point, the imposition of any centralized reporting or recording structure would violate the principles of a decentralized, p2p currency. To be fair, Manny is not a sheep, blindly falling into line. He is shrewd, independent and very bright. But in response to my exaggerated and one-dimensional Manny, I have assembled some thoughts… 1. Privacy, Anonymity and Crime The debate about Bitcoin serving as a laundering mechanism for cyber-criminals is a red herring. Bitcoin does not significantly advance the art of obfuscation or anonymity. There have long been digital E-golds and stored value debit cards that offer immunity from tracking. They are just as easy to use over the Internet. Moreover, it’s common for crime or vice to drive the early adoption of new technology, especially technology that ushers in a paradigm shift. The problem with linking Bitcoin to crime is that it drives a related debate on transparency, forensics and government oversight. This is a bad association. Transparency should be exclusively elective, being triggered only after a transaction—if and when one party seeks to prove that a payment was made or has a need to discuss a contractual term. On the other hand, a good mechanism should render forensic analysis a futile effort if attempted by a 3rd party without consent of the parties to a transaction. We should always resist the temptation to build a “snitch” into our own tools. Such designs ultimately defeat their own purpose. They do not help to control crime—Rather, they encourage an invasive government with its fingers in too many people’s private affairs. CRYPSA is building tools that allow Bitcoin users to ensure that both parties can uncover a transaction completely, but only a party to the transaction wishes to do so!. For example, a parent making a tuition payment to a college can prove the date, amount and courses associated with that payment; a trucker or salesman with a daily expense account can demonstrate to his employer that a purchase was associated with food and lodging and not with souvenirs. And, of course, a taxpayer under audit can demonstrate whatever he wishes about each receipt or payment. But in every case, the transaction is opaque (and if properly secured, it is completely anonymous) until the sender or recipient chooses to expose details to scrutiny. I will never accept that anonymity is evil nor evidence of illicit intent. Privacy is a basic tenet of a democracy and a government responsible to its citizens. CRYPSA develops tools of transparency, because commerce, businesses and consumers often need to invoke transparency—and not because any entity demands it of them. We are not required to place our telephone conversations on a public server for future analysis (even if our government saves the metadata or the complete conversation to its clandestine servers). Likewise, we should not expose our transactions to interlopers, no matter their interest or authority. The data should be private until the data generator decides to make it public. 2. Reporting a Transaction (Why not catalog tainted coins?) Manny also wants to aid in the serialization and cataloging of tainted funds, much like governments do with mass movement of cash into and out of the banking network. This stems from an earnest desire is to help citizens, and not to spy. For example, it seems reasonable that a mechanism to report the theft of currency should be embedded into Bitcoin technology. Perhaps the stolen funds can be more easily identified if digital coins themselves (or their transaction descendants) are fingered as rogue. The desire to imbue government with the ability to trace the movement of wealth or corporate assets is a natural one. It is an outgrowth of outdated monetary controls and our comfort with centralized trust-endowed. In fact, it is not even a necessary requirement in levying or enforcing taxes. Look at it this way… 1. Bitcoin transactions are irreversible without the identification and cooperation of the original payee (the one who received funds). Of course, identification is not a requisite for making a transaction, any more than identification is required for a cash purchase at a restaurant or a newsstand. 2. There are all sorts of benefits of both anonymous transactions and secure, irrevocable transactions—or least those that cannot be reversed without the consent of the payee. This is one of the key reasons that Bitcoin is taking off despite the start-up fluctuations in exchange rate. 3. Regarding the concern that senders occasionally wish to reverse a transaction (it was mistaken, unauthorized, or buyer’s remorse), the effort to report, reverse or rescind a transaction is very definitely barking up the wrong tree! The solution to improper transactions is actually quite simple. a) Unauthorized Transactions Harden the system and educate users. Unauthorized transactions can be prevented BEFORE they happen. Even in the worst case, your money will be safer than paper bills in your back pocket, or even than an account balance at your local bank. b) Buyer’s Remorse and Mistaken transactions Buyer beware. Think before you reach for your wallet! Think about what you are buying, from whom, and how you came to know them. And here is something else to think about (issues that are being addressed by CRYPSA)… i. Do you trust that the product will be shipped? ii. Did you bind your purchase to verifiable terms or conditions? iii. Is a third party guarantor involved (like Amazon or eBay)? All of these things are available to Bitcoin buyers, if they only educate themselves. In conclusion, “reporting” transactions that you wish to rescind is a red herring. It goes against a key tenant of cryptocurrency. It is certainly possible that a distributed reverse revocation mechanism can be created and implemented. But if this happens, users will migrate to another platform (call it Bitcoin 2.0). You cannot dictate oversight, rescission or rules to that which has come about from organic tenacity. Instead, we should focus on implementing tools that help buyers and businesses identify sellers who agree to these extensions up front. This, again, is what CRYPSA is doing. It is championing tools that link a transaction to business standards and to user selective transparency. That is, a transaction is transparent if—and only if— the parties to a transaction agree to play by these rules, and if one of them decides to trigger the transparency. For all other p2p transactions, there is no plan to tame the Wild West. It is what it is. * When I say that you should not report a stolen coin, I really mean that you should not run to the authorities, because there is nothing that they can do. But this is not completely accurate. 1. There are mechanisms that can announce your theft back into a web of trust. Such a mechanism is at the heart of the certificate revocation method used by the encryption tool, PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). CRYPSA plans to design a similar user-reporting mechanism to make the cryptocurrency community safer. 2. Authorities should still be alerted to theft or misuse of assets. They can still investigate a crime scene, and follow a money trail in the same way that they do with cash transactions, embezzlement or property theft. They can search for motive and opportunity. They have tools and resources and they are professionals at recovering assets. Disclosure: Just like Manny, I am also a CRYPSA director and acting Co-Chairman. (Cryptocurrency Standards Association). This post reflects my personal opinion on the issue of “reporting” unintended, unauthorized or remorseful transactions. I do not speak for other officers or members. # Is the US dollar backed by more than Bitcoin? Bitcoin is getting to be a frequent topic here at AWildDuck.* Regular readers know that I am bullish on the exchange medium. Not just as an investment, but as an emerging world currency. And, as the story continues to unfold, the fundamentals just keep getting better and better, you can see for yourself over on sites like https://coinsspent.com/ that allow you to see where your bitcoins are now widely accepted. Bitcoin has been around since late 2010. Less than 3 years. As an immature exchange medium, its wild swings make it too volatile to be recommended in any portfolio with short term objectives. But with bungling at the largest and earliest exchange and a perceived tie to the criminal bazzar, Silk Road, events have muddied the inevitable path toward legitimacy. They amplify the small risk and delay widespread adoption. I’m cool with that, because with widespread misunderstanding comes opportunity for those that see the long term picture—especially when it comes to a tectonic paradigm shift. As a long term investment, Bitcoin is a slam dunk. It can’t go down, any more than an original Rembrandt can lose value in the long run. But, what surprises me, is that three years on, we are still faced with pundits who fail to appreciate the dramatic tipping point that is looming just down the road. They point to volatility rather than fundamentals. Perhaps, most frustrating, they point to the lack of government backing or a central bank as a deficit rather than a bonus and—in fact—the Raison d’être. Backing that beats US dollars Here is a new article from a credible source that ought to understand the intersection of technology with economics: When armchair analysts dig into the risk or folly of Bitcoin as a currency or investment, I bite my tongue. (Well, not this time!). Let’s talk about item #2, If Bitcoin fails, it has no safety net. The argument is built around a premise that Bitcoin is backed by the “expectation of acceptance by others” while the US dollar is backed up by something more tangible (e.g. a government that can “step in”). That premise is wholly ludicrous. Both the dollar and Bitcoin have value that is backed by nothing tangible. And Bitcoin wins handily on the intangibles. Background In 1933, Teddy Roosevelt ordered Americans to redeem all private reserves of gold for printed notes. Americans were no longer allowed to own gold coins, bullion or certificates. (That left only the gold content of industrial products, jewelry and ornaments). For the next 40 years, the US insisted that it was still on a “gold standard”, because it amassed a stockpile of gold bullion in Fort Knox, Kentucky. With this as collateral, the government guaranteed the value of printed currency and it pegged the dollar value of what it printed. Of course, it was a guarantor only in theory, because it was illegal for US citizens to redeem their gold. They weren’t even allowed to own gold overseas. From 1934 until the early 1970s, the value of a dollar was fixed at 1/35 oz of gold. In other words, the US government was effectively promising foreign treasuries the foreign trade settlement was bound by the transfer of gold at a value of$35 for each oz.

The dollar’s relative stability throughout the post war era was a result of the Bretton Woods agreement in which a large number of nations pegged their own currencies to the US dollar.* In fact, the value of the dollar increased, even though it was still worth 1/35 oz of gold. Everyone trusted the USA to maintain the value of its own currency with something. Most hoped that it was the gold at Fort Knox, but some economists say that it didn’t really matter, because the US was such a dynamic and growing economy, with a history of predictable inflation. And therefore, it had a high degree of trust.

But as we approach the ’70s, trust probably accounted for more dollar purchasing power than gold. In 1971, under Richard Nixon, the US terminated convertibility of the dollar to gold, even for foreign banks. By 1973, the US decoupled its currency from gold altogether, and in 1974, Americans could, once again, legally buy gold in any form.

So, what backs the dollar today? In academic jargon, it is a fiat currency.* To economists, it is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. But in reality, this just means that the US can print or borrow more money to pay past debts. In truth, it is backed by something, but that something is no more than what backs a Bitcoin: It’s value is based on the confidence of the person accepting or saving the coin that it will be accepted in the future by someone else—and at a rate they can believe in today.

But wait! Though both the US dollar and Bitcoin are fiat money—backed only by the perception of buyers and sellers, in fact, Bitcoin has the distinct edge…

Why Bitcoin?

Why is the long term value of a Rembrandt painting unlikely to tank? To retain value, any asset must meet two criteria: Limited availability and precious to behold (I use art as a metaphor—preciousness can be anything valued by a pool of perspective owners). Bitcoin is a limited commodity by pedigree and it is precious because of a vast trust-matrix built on a foundation of mathematics. When a two-sided market develops around something with a provably limited supply, trust becomes more durable than decree.

Bitcoin is the future of currency because it has the edge in all areas: it can be more certainly trusted, it offers an advantage to saving, it is a stateless exchange medium and requires no backing. This isn’t to say it is not backed… In fact, it is backed by solid mathematical principles that are open to peer review.

In the long run, the dollar is a weaker and more risky currency than Bitcoin. It has no natural cap and is subject to counterfeiters and manipulation by the people who authorize its printing. A wallet or bank cannot easily be provably “backed up” and its value inflates rather than deflates with adoption. Although armchair economists who focus on protectionism, exceptionalism, or short term objectives may see some of these things as benefits, they are all serious deficiencies.