The Political Economy of Cryptocurrency

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By MA Iliasu.

One would have to wonder how huge the work rate of economic theory must be to astonishingly liberate existential debates on the possibility or otherwise, the undertones and the future of currency digitalization – which has been the major talking phenomenon since the slump in 2008. Nevertheless, a free flow of theoretical opinions and treatise prescriptions by established economists, prophecies of doom and suggestions in persuasion by ecosystem commentators is only expected when the phenomenon is a determining factor on the future of money and the role of government.

Cryptocurrency as the so-called apolitical and decentralized digital currency is an economic phenomenon like any other, unlike what many people think, and therefore has a meaningful context inside the economic theory. On its own merits, its warranted to say that the economic relevance of the phenomenon takes the courtesy of massaging the idea of the monetary economists who hold immense reservations upon centralization of money supply and government intervention in general, along the line rattling the scrutiny of the neo-Keynesian economists and their sensitivity to centralization of money supply and government intervention generally.

Predicting the major stand of the two distinguished schools would, economically speaking, be as easier as tracing the economic backgrounds of their distinctive arguments. The neo-Keynesians would naturally be anti-cryptocurrency for the threat it cast upon centralization and the policing of financial bubbles. While the monetarists would be more inclined to be pro-cryptocurrency for the opportunity it brings their thoughts on fixation and decentralization. Why they hold their stands should be discussed later in the essay.

-What is cryptocurrency and why has it been introduced?

The 2008 global financial crisis was a moment in history during which bankers hubris blew out spectacularly. The big number of jobs, businesses, houses and assets lost to crisis crushed people’s optimism to the level where the trust between economic society and bankers alongside their politicians allies arrived under radical scrutiny. People felt the impact of the crisis and therefore no longer trust the engineers that created it – the bankers and the politicians. As a response, the Central Bank governors of the G-20 organized a meeting to discuss how the bankers were to be rescued from the financial disaster. The concerned populace who understood how banking hubris works and what the bailout could turnout to be, began to exercise the hope and thoughts of having a medium of exchange (read: currency or money), that doesn’t get affected neither by the hubris of bankers nor by the skeptical government intervention. An apolitical money that can’t be controlled by the central, and democratically decentralized in a nature that it’ll be a currency of the people, for the people and by the people.

In an attempt to satisfy people’s wish for apolitical currency, an email was received bearing the signature of Satoshi Nakamoto (who is still yet to be to identified) carrying an algorithm that meet people’s ideals, what we currently call “Bitcoin”. The beauty of Nakamoto’s algorithm was that it did away with the ledger run by a central authority but still managed to ensure that a single currency unit could never be copied or spent twice. The whole community using Bitcoin would share in the task by each making available a small part of their computer’s capacity for this purpose. Everyone would observe everyone else’s transactions, ensuring their validity, while at the same time no one would know whose transactions they were observing, safeguarding privacy. Many people around the world were enthused and signed up. Until a large scandal perpetrated by entrepreneurs who exploited people’s fears against fraud to collect their quantity of Bitcoin for safeguarding only for them to run away with it. And with the absence of centralized controller, people lost their money without insurance or bailout.

That was the inception of cryptocurrency and the reason behind its introduction. But as any logical thinker could guess, the nature of the currency and the reasons behind it are all pending the complexities of an ecosystem that doesn’t get easily overrun by the wildness of popular fantasies. Some of those complexities were explained inside the economic theory, experienced in the past and are the skeletal frameworks forming the arguments of the monetarists and Neo-Keynesians.

-Crisis and Logic of History.

When the hell of economic crisis broke loose in Europe and America back in 1929, a policy prescription that aimed at controlling inflation was introduced which convinced the US and the European economies to print only the quantity supply of money that corresponds to the same amount of gold reserve, the so-called “Gold Standard”. Through Gold Standard, economies were cuffed to hinder the reckless printing of money – which was the determining factor in the surge of inflation. For if countries are obliged to print money with respect to gold reserve – something with limited, though intrinsic supply – the velocity of money in circulation would be reasonable and the money supply is tied to a commodity that doesn’t get assassinated by inflation. That way, the countries found a standard and common dictator of their currency value, just like the dollar nowadays. But few years later, the demand for money began to exceed the supply, due to the limited supply of money as a result of printing per unit of gold. And shortly afterwards, the story changed. Inflation – an occurrence when the quantity of money in the economy chases the same quantity of commodity, causing the prices to unhealthily rise – culminated into what the economists call “Deflation” – an occurrence when too less quantity of money chases significantly higher quantity of commodities, causing a significant a fall in the price of goods and services below their actual and reasonable value.

The deflation in US forced the hands of the then government under President Roosevelt, and the European economies, the emissary of which was the famous John Maynard Keynes, to abolish the “Gold Standard”. It was later adopted and abolished once again by president Nixon in the 70s. The underlying rationale behind the consistent execution and abolishing of the policy during the 20th century was informed by the standard economic theory that asserts and has been proven accurate that when money supply is fixed below the rate of public demand, deflation will strike. The same way when its left uncontrolled beyond the public demand, inflation will strike.

Along the same curve, the decentralized nature of Cryptocurrency means it can’t be policed by any institution, rather a block chain that comprises of different unidentified individuals with asymmetric chance of arriving at consensus. And when Satoshi Nakamoto (who is yet to be known) explained his algorithm in 2009, it was specified that the total supply of Bitcoin was certainly fixed, with the mining only certain to grow slowly until it reaches a maximum number of 1 million Bitcoins some time in 2032. That means the digital currency is problematic in two ways; first it makes crisis more likely and secondly it offers no room for government to alleviate the crisis. So the prospects of any economy that gets into bed with cryptocurrency resembles the pre-1929 unpoliced economy that was crushed by absurd inflation. The same way its limited supply renders the prospects of any economy that adopts it to face the threat of post-1929 economy that was plagued by Gold Standard deflation. So in short, with cryptocurrency, its either deflation or inflation, with price and currency stability extremely unlikely.

That was the viewpoint of the Neo-Keynesian economists, mostly the alumni of Harvard. The most vocal being the American economist and crisis expert, Professor Roubiel Roubini from University of New York, who even believe that cryptocurrency has no feature of money. And the Greek economist and author, Professor Yanis Varoufakis from University of Athens. The latter dedicated a whole chapter to discuss the issue extensively in the prolific crisis-dissecting book, “The Brief History of Capitalism”. While the former is quite consistent with podcasts and interviews.

-Modern Sensitivity to Technology and impact of Optimism.

In contrast to the belief of the Neo-Keynesians, the most influential figure in the monetary school, Milton Friedman, originally proposed a fixed monetary rule, called Friedman’s k-percent rule, where the money supply would be automatically increased by a fixed percentage per year. Under this rule, there would be no leeway for the central reserve bank, as money supply increases could be determined “by a computer”, and business could anticipate all money supply changes. With other monetarists he believed that the active manipulation of the money supply or its growth rate is more likely to destabilize than stabilize the economy. So the most important area of concentration is price stability rather than currency stability as proposed by Keynes.

The mention of computer by Friedman, and fixed increase rate of money per year, agrees with two among the three most important features of cryptocurrency, which are digitalization and fixed increase rate of Bitcoin until 2032. While the consistent castigating of the Central Bank by Friedman and Schwartz skews their idea closer to decentralization than otherwise.

The monetarists who are mostly anti-Keynes and subtly pro-decentralization arrived fierce to debunk what they call nostalgia that was inspired by obsession with post-crisis literature, mostly the contributions of Keynes that comprises of “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1932)” and “A Treatise on Money 1930”. The mainstream among their economic commentators debunk the thesis in some of the post-2008 contributions of Yanis Varoufakis that discussed economy and future of capitalism. Books like “The Brief History of Capitalism (2014)”, “Adults In the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (2017), “And The Weak Suffer What They Must: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability (2016)”.

-Music and Musing; where do I stand? 

Having observed the possible major stands of the two distinctive schools, the argument of pro-Keynes that revolves around fixated supply of cryptocurrency was debunked once again by the creation of other types of cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Dodge, which unlike Bitcoin are of unlimited supply. So one among the two problems of the digital currency is said to be eliminated. Meanwhile, while the decentralization remains a concern for any individual household that understands the importance and need for government intervention, major technologically-innovative countries like China and Japan are already paving the way for decentralization of their financial institutions to accommodate the cryptocurrency. And the decision is being backed by lucrative optimism from the buyers of Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency, which is driving its value crazily higher than expectation. For what that’s worth, its certain that cryptocurrency is surging for a reason, same way it could be said its here for a reason. To quixotic commentators, its more like the introduction of computer in the 80’s, so it’ll to be correct if termed inevitable. Therefore judging from the flow, perhaps in the grand scheme of things the digital currency would have to be accommodated if it continues to dominate the economy. The question is when? 

The rhetoric also begs the question; may be the economists that are using Keynes to reject crypto are indeed plagued by nostalgia and fear that was breed due to consumption of post-crisis literature judging from the way cryptocurrency has been gathering incredible optimism and momentum. The reception it receives from rational and visionary capitalists like Elon Musk suggests so. But equally important are the questions: what would be the future of government without its ability to regulate money supply? What would be the response of America to a phenomenon that could dwarf the demand for dollar and the democratic nature of which could swindle the dollarization policy? What would be the second reaction of Third World countries whose democracies are so young and fragile, economies too unstable and inconsistent as to give-in to decentralization? What solution is there for the possible reoccurrence of the 2008 e-Theft? 

Currently not enough has been said or shown to indicate the wavering of governmental institutions as to give up their power on money supply. Chinese and Japanese economies are too advanced to be the sample of inference while judging possible decentralization in countries like Nigeria that has been fighting its second recession in a half decade, accumulating large chunk of debt and abject recession for almost a decade despite surprisingly being one of the highest traders of cryptocurrency. Its no wonder that the CBN banned it out rightly. First for being ignorant of its dynamics as was learnt from the governor. And second for having neither the efficient economic environment nor the institutional strength to accommodate it. Likewise where the accommodation of decentralization is concerned, banking sectors will have to restructure for the death of their last resort – the Central Bank. And when all the transactions are fiat, existential crisis looms in employment department of the banking sector.

There’s also the case of cryptocurrency as simultaneous medium of exchange and investment. When it becomes dominant the economic society may fall victim of the fallacy of composition and paradox of thrift, because more people would rather save their money in crypto to enjoy its speedy appreciation in value than do otherwise. And that would put the multiplier effect of disposable income and immediate consumption in jeopardy. The circular flow of income may turn into a vicious circle of rational economic households looking to outsmart themselves for profit, but are subconsciously crushing the entire ecosystem. The digital running of the currency as investment medium will remain the major avenue of investment, and little do we forget that its greatly influenced by speculation. And like Keynes said in the prophetic “General Theory: “Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes a bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”

The Keynesian prophets of doom should do kindly as to exercise patience. The same way the monetarists should enjoy their giant leap forward towards decentralization. Who is right shall be vindicated by time. If its the Keynesians the status quo lives on. And if its the monetarists we can look back to 2008 and say crisis is indeed the laboratory of the future. But personally I don’t think money can ever be apolitical, governments are as old and their influence as lasting as the social contract itself. The same way I believe in the strength of optimism, which is driving all the possibilities of cryptocurrency. After all, as Keynes said: “Investment is dedicating our intelligence in predicting what average opinion expects average opinion to be”. If the block chain behind Nakamoto’s algorithm keep getting the mind of the global economy spot on, Cryptocurrency are more than capable of being here to stay. But where an error occurs all hell would break loose. Whatever happens, we shall live to witness.

MA Iliasu studies economics at Bayero University, Kano.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sky Daily

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