What’s Wrong With Bitcoin

May 21, 2013 – Since it’s raining today and I cannot cut the grass, I figured it’s a good day to get this one off my chest.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

I don’t mean to pick on bitcoin specifically, and this essay pertains to all virtual currencies, including devcoin, litecoin, namecoin, ppcoin, terracoin and probably many more I’m not aware of. I’m definitely not an apologist for fiat currencies, nor am I a “gold bug.” I simply evaluate my surroundings dispassionately and logically. So here’s what I think about bitcoin.

Currency Competition

Fundamentally, I like the idea of competing currencies. Honest competition improves the health of any system, for it weeds out defects and enhances resiliency and stability. In fact, currency competition already exists because there are many sovereign currencies around the world that ostensibly compete against one another, despite increasing central bank policy collusion. The well known “dollar index” is a graphical depiction of this currency competition. Unfortunately, trading in multiple currencies is largely the domain of wealthy elites who straddle national borders.

I think part of the appeal of bitcoin is that it enables “ordinary” folks to trade in alternative currencies independently of national sovereignty, which is probably one reason why those same elites wish to target bitcoin, because they don’t control it and bitcoin gives the people too much freedom. Although I’ve come close to purchasing some bitcoins, if only as a token show of support for the concept, I harbor reservations that have prevented me from doing so.

As far as competing currencies go, I always thought Liberty Dollar was a good model, being essentially a privately issued currency based on precious metals. I consider it superior to bitcoin because it was based on something tangible, possessing secondary value as a precious metal. A recipient of a Liberty Dollar would receive a physical store of value that could be traded based on the value of its precious metal content alone. By contrast, you can’t pay your handyman with a bitcoin. Not surprisingly, Liberty Dollar was too great a threat to the centrally managed U.S. Dollar and so it was shut down for specious reasons. I fear bitcoin and its brethren will follow the same fate, which is one of the reasons I’ve been leery of purchasing any.

Theoretically Decentralized

Contrary to claims, bitcoin is centralized and easy to attack because of its centralized nature, and anonymously as well. The recent shutdown by the U.S. Government of a major bitcoin trader illustrates how bitcoin is more centralized than people realize. If bitcoin were truly as decentralized as its theory of operation suggests, then the shutdown of a bitcoin trader or even many such traders would not have been newsworthy. After all, the whole point of decentralization is that the loss of a portion of the system is insignificant to the rest of the system. So instead of a central bank acting as a gatekeeper for a sovereign currency, bitcoin has a handful of major companies playing a similar role, and they must comply with government edicts regarding the movement of money.

Whereas printed currencies and precious metal bars and coins are individual stores of value, bitcoin is like a single hoard of currency or precious metal in which each bitcoin owner owns a share of that hoard, not unlike a precious metal ETF. When one person sends bitcoins to another, nothing tangible is transferred; instead, an electronic package of data indicating the number of shares to be transferred is sent into the bitcoin system and migrates to the recipient. The bitcoins one “owns” are actually pieces of data typically stored on their own computer in an electronic “wallet.”

Because the bitcoins are stored as myriad bits of data and because the computing is performed on a distributed network of computers, it is claimed that bitcoin is therefore decentralized. However, individual bitcoins have no meaning; they only have meaning within the context of the bitcoin “cloud,” in which an individual bitcoin represents a share of the entire collection of bitcoins. In that sense the entire bitcoin network, software and data collectively behaves no differently from a huge centralized system. It’s not possible for an individual computer to utilize bitcoins in any way without the rest of the bitcoin cloud being available!

For example, if I want to send bitcoins to my coworker sitting at the desk beside me, I cannot do it peer-to-peer, from my computer to his, but only by sending the bitcoins through the entire bitcoin cloud, which doesn’t really strike me as a truly decentralized system. Ironically, the currency-based banking system that’s been around for a long time is less centralized than bitcoin, for if I want to transfer money from one account at a bank to another at the same bank, that transfer is recorded within that bank alone and it is not necessary to involve the entire banking network in order to effect such a transfer. Similarly, if I want to withdraw money from my bank, I can go to the physical branch and receive money directly from that branch, again without involving the entire banking network. A precious metal coin or bar is also less centralized than bitcoin, for an individual can trade that store of wealth for something without involving anyone else in the transaction.

Tempting Target

It does not matter whether any single hoard of stored value resides in a steel and concrete vault or in encrypted form in an internet “cloud.” Either way, the existence of any hoard of wealth in a single location – even a virtual one – makes it a tempting target for someone to attack, whereas millions of widely distributed individual stores of value would be too much trouble to attack, at least on a massive scale. Hackers, for example, don’t waste their time trying to crack the online passwords of individual bank accounts, but go after the bank’s central database where all the passwords are stored.

Bitcoin, because it’s in effect a single store of value – in the form of a distributed but highly interconnected database of encrypted virtual bitcoins – is a tempting target for malevolent forces. As far as I know such an attack has not yet occurred, but given enough time and ever more powerful computing resources, I think it’s only a matter of time until it does happen.

Relative Frailties

Although currency notes and precious metal bars and coins can be counterfeited (such as in the recently discovered instances of gold bars filled with tungsten), confidence in the currency or the precious metal is only undermined in proportion to the relative quantity of counterfeit items in circulation, and confidence can be improved by the removal of these counterfeit items, something which occurs on a continual basis.

Bitcoin, by contrast, is vulnerable to a systemic loss of confidence should an attacker successfully bypass bitcoin’s security mechanisms. Instead of destroying confidence in a few currency notes or precious metal bars, a successful attacker could destroy confidence in the entire bitcoin system in one fell swoop.

One of bitcoin’s greatest weaknesses is its dependence on a functioning electrical grid and a functioning internet, not to mention a large group of buyers and sellers willing to participate in the system. If the internet or the electrical system goes down, there is no way to extract the value from virtual bitcoins. By contrast, currency or precious metal coins or bars can be traded without the aid of computers or electricity, and were traded that way for thousands of years until a little more than a century ago. With peak oil and total economic collapse looming, not to mention already endemic criminality throughout our economic and political systems, I’m quite reluctant to park my meager wealth in a place from which I might not be able to get it back out.

Anonymity, one of bitcoin’s strengths, is also one of its weaknesses because it makes it possible for people to manipulate or undermine the asset anonymously. I can’t help but wonder if bitcoin’s exponential rise and subsequent crash a few weeks ago was engineered by governments seeking to protect the monopoly of their sovereign currencies. We may never know the answer because of the anonymous nature of bitcoin transactions.

Few, including me, completely understand how bitcoin works, meaning those who do understand how it works have an advantage over the rest, an advantage they may be tempted to exploit. Our incredibly complex financial system, for instance, gives people who understand how it works an advantage over the rest, an advantage they do exploit for profit. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before clever people apply the same nefarious skills in the virtual currency realm.

The complexity of bitcoin also gives those with superior computing power an advantage, which is why a cottage industry has emerged wherein people rig together networks of extremely powerful GPU processors for the purpose of “mining” new bitcoins. So if massive computing power can be used benignly to mine bitcoins, can massive computing power also be used maliciously to hack the bitcoin system or perhaps spy on it? Pondering the subject of immense computing power, a number of U.S. Government agencies with three-letter acronyms come to mind.

Bitcoin is so complex it raises a number of questions in my mind that I do not know the answers for:

Answers for all these questions are well established in the case of currencies and precious metals, but seem to be lacking in the case of bitcoin.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as intrinsic value. The value of everything is determined by human beings and is by no means permanent, although there do exist historical norms such as the value universally ascribed to precious metals. Thus, if humanity universally recognized bitcoins as valuable then my arguments above would be overshadowed by the reality of that mass recognition, but that is not yet the case, nor does it seem to me that bitcoin will ever become more than a faddish asset. For one thing, a lot of people who use currencies or recognize precious metals as valuable don’t even own a computer, the very thing that gives bitcoins any value at all. A lot more people would be leery of entrusting their wealth to a complex algorithm that resides in a nebulous “cloud” somewhere on the internet.

Any store of value has its own pitfalls: currencies can be counterfeited or intentionally debased, precious metals can be faked and bitcoins can be hacked, from within by unscrupulous individuals wielding powerful computing capabilities, and from without by tyrannical governments or others using anonymous market transactions. But bitcoin has a few more disadvantages as well: its dependence on a fully operational electrical and internet grid, the inability to physically hand somebody a bitcoin and bitcoin’s lack of tangible value. Granted, pure fiat currencies lack tangible value too but they are accepted everywhere as payment, and precious metals are universally recognized as valuable, neither of which claims can be made for bitcoin.

Finally, governments will never permit competing currencies to upstage their sovereign currencies. In just the last few months bitcoin suffered an exponential price rise followed by a brutal crash, which I suspect was engineered by governments. The U.S. Government has recently intimated its intention to “regulate” bitcoin as a commodity (as absurd as that sounds since it’s a purely virtual asset), the real intent being to prevent bitcoin from being anything other than a dollar proxy. And a few days ago the U.S. Government shut down a major bitcoin trader for specious reasons reminiscent of the shutdown of Liberty Dollar. The writing on the wall could not be any clearer.

Update – June 2, 2017

In light of recent stunning, bubble-like price increases of bitcoin, perhaps it’s opportune to add one more caveat to the list. One of bitcoin’s purported “strengths” is that the number of bitcoins is finite, unlike fiat currency, which can be printed up in quantities approaching infinity. However, this presumption of a finite supply is illusory, for an unlimited number of crypto-currencies can be created! If one views the entire spectrum of crypto-currencies as a single pool, then there is no finite limit to the size of the pool. In fact, given the virtual nature of crypto-currencies, existing solely within computer memories, it’s easier to create more crypto-currency units than it is to create printed currency notes! Since I originally wrote this article years ago, at least one more popular crypto-currency has emerged, ethereum, which is siphoning funds away from bitcoin. If the fiat currency masters wanted to destroy crypto-currencies, they could flood the market with numerous competing “brands,” pump them up, wait for “investors” to pile in and then pull the plug.

For those die-hard crypto-currency devotees, here’s a sobering article: DO THE MATH: Here’s the rational analysis why 99% of current Bitcoin owners will never be able to sell Bitcoins for anything close to its imagined current value.

Update – June 18, 2017

It appears more and more intelligent people are offering well thought out reasons to avoid bitcoin and its ilk, such as this article I read today: Digital 'Currencies' Are ALL A Scam. In the article, the author concurs with my observation that crypto-currencies aren’t finite, as is claimed, because any number of competing crypto-currencies can be created.

Update – July 10, 2017

I hate to keep picking on crypto-currencies but more and more juicy details about them continue to trickle out of late. (Who knows, perhaps this trickle of damning evidence is being released by the opponents of crypto-currencies.)

Whenever I consider the long term viability of anything I look at the fundamentals with respect to the laws of physics. Anything that does not conform to the laws of physics or depends on a sustained imbalance may be maintained for a while, but eventually the laws of physics must be recognized, whereupon the system collapses. That’s exactly how I view crypto-currencies and this article is one reason why: Ethereum And Bitcoin Energy Consumption Surpasses Entire Countries' Power Budgets. The luscious title aside, the article can be reduced to this succinct, stunning sentence: “the average Bitcoin transaction requires 163 kilowatt hours (KWh) of electricity.” My eyeballs nearly popped out of my skull when I read that sentence. My average monthly electricity usage is about 200 KWh, so a single bitcoin transaction uses almost as much electricity as I use in an entire month! Mind you, that’s for one single bitcoin transaction! The cost for a single ethereum transaction is “only” 49 KWh, for the time being. The problem with crypto-currencies is that over time it gets increasingly costly to “mine” the currency, and as the usage of crypto-currencies increases it gets more costly and time consuming to process transactions. I’ve read that it now takes days to actually complete a bitcoin transaction because the backlog of transactions is so large and it’s so expensive in computing terms to process them.

To me, all these clues scream unsustainable. The electricity consumption by itself is sufficient to render crypto-currencies unsustainable. After all, somebody has to pay for that electricity. Electricity is relatively cheap where I live, yet 163 KWh still costs about $16.30. That’s the cost per bitcoin transaction! With such high transaction costs, would you use bitcoin to pay your next door neighbor’s kid for mowing your lawn, or to pay the girl down the street for babysitting your kids, or to pay for trinkets at a garage sale? By contrast, the cost per transaction for paper currency is nearly zero, even factoring in the cost of manufacturing the paper note, which is amortized over a very large number of transactions. In addition, the paper currency transaction is fully completed in the time it takes to hand the physical note to someone. Even credit card transactions are completed more rapidly than bitcoin transactions. And I repeat, the processing times and costs increase for crypto-currencies the more they are used.

Finally, crypto-currencies seem to suffer from a fundamentally inefficient design. They are designed to be decentralized, which is something I frequently advocate. However, there are times when centralized systems are more suitable. As I understand crypto-currencies, and I may be wrong, the “block chain” records every single transaction over time, which makes it a database of sorts. Furthermore, every single user of a crypto-currency has their own copy of this block chain. Whenever the block chain is modified, which is after every transaction, everyone’s copy of it has to be updated! That would explain why it takes an increasingly long time to process transactions: more transactions; more copies of the block chain to be updated. Nobody would ever design a traditional database system in which each user had their own copy of the database and each copy had to be updated whenever the database was modified. Instead, the database would be centralized and users would access it in an orderly manner. Any changes made to the database would be immediately available to all users. That is how credit card systems work: there is a centralized database that maintains the credit card records, which can be rapidly interrogated and altered from millions of point of sale terminals. Being decentralized, crypto-currencies inherently lack the efficiency of traditional database systems, which puts crypto-currencies at a speed disadvantage compared to traditional centralized payment processing systems. (In addition to the cost of the electricity, I can’t help but wonder about the cost of storing all those copies of the block chain.)

In spite of the contradictory shortcomings listed above, proponents assert that crypto-currencies are ideal for small, quick transactions. Perhaps the inception of a crypto-currency transaction seems convenient and rapid but that’s because the full costs and processing times are concealed. Although I myself don’t trust crypto-currencies, I have nothing against them and find them intriguing. I just don’t see how they can be sustainable in light of these physical realities.

Update – December 4, 2017

The higher bitcoin soars the worse it smells. Some years ago when bitcoin was around $100, I nearly bought $1,000 worth as a speculative investment. Had I done so, that investment would be worth more than $100,000 today. Am I disappointed that I didn’t buy it then? Not really (even though I’m poor and $100,000 would pay for my cost of living for seven years). I didn’t trust bitcoin then and I don’t trust it now. Moreover, I probably would have sold it once it reached $1,000, content with a ten times gain, so I probably never would have profited from the full one hundred times gain since then.

Recently a meme has emerged to explain why bitcoin is inherently valuable: the high cost of the electricity required to mine it. At first blush this argument is seductive and some smart people have embraced it as valid. However, upon closer examination one realizes that paying a lot of money for something doesn’t make it valuable. If I sold a stool sample to some fool willing to pay $1,000 for it, would the price alone make it valuable? Or if I sold another fool a single painting for $450 million...I digress.

One might argue that gold and silver are expensive because it costs a lot to mine them but that’s incorrect. Certainly the price has to exceed the cost to mine them for mining to remain viable but they had value before humans began mining them. Precious metals are beautiful and ideal for making jewelry; they are rare and thus their price is determined in part by the laws of supply and demand; they have numerous industrial uses; and they are stable stores of wealth that don’t deteriorate over time. It was only because of the known utility of these metals that humans began mining them and for mining to be cost effective, the price of the metals has to cover the mining cost.

To argue that bitcoin’s value is derived from its cost of production contradicts the fact that many things aren’t cost effective to produce because the cost of production exceeds the price people are willing to pay for them. If values and prices were determined by the cost of production, then every conceivable product would be cost effective to produce, which we know is not the case.

Furthermore, the notion that bitcoin is valuable because it costs a lot to “mine” overlooks a key question: mining cost aside, what other value does bitcoin possess? None that I can see. Due to its high transaction cost and lengthy processing time it’s not an efficient payment system; thanks to its volatility it’s not a good store of wealth; because there is no limit to the number of crypto-currencies that can be created, collectively they aren’t scarce; and ironically, thanks to the oft touted persistent “blockchain,” bitcoin is not even anonymous, which is one of the “features” of bitcoin that was emphasized early on. In addition, we’ve witnessed recent incidents in which millions or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crypto-currencies simply went “poof” and disappeared into the digital ether, as a result of either nefarious actions or mishaps. Would any sane person put a significant portion of their wealth into such a risky system? In my opinion crypto-currencies possess none of the qualities required of money and should thus be considered no more than speculative investments.

Something else that has gnawed at the back of my mind ever since the introduction of bitcoin is the question of its provenance. Even today bitcoin’s origins are shrouded in mystery. I’m an expert computer programmer and have cursorily examined the bitcoin source code, yet I can’t explain precisely how it works. Nevertheless, millions of people possessing far less knowledge of computer science than me have enthusiastically poured their money into what for them is but a black hole. The increasingly frenetic rush to buy bitcoins looks an awful lot like countless prior investment manias that ended in disaster.

Lately a new observation has begun percolating away in my subconscious. Has anyone noticed that the international governmental “war on cash” began shortly after the introduction of the digital currency known as bitcoin? If I were a government wishing to eliminate cash (and they all do) and force people to use a digital currency over which the government had total surveillance and control, here’s how I would go about it:

Is the above scenario not what we’ve observed for the last several years? Given the murky origins of bitcoin and knowing how governments like to conduct psychological operations on their own people, I’ve always viewed crypto-currencies, at least some of them, as “experiments” aimed at testing the waters of public acceptance and tolerance. It amuses me to observe self professed freedom lovers embrace crypto-currencies when, ironically, even government-issued cash offers them more freedom! Crypto-currencies, once under the control of the government, are a tyrannical government’s wet dream! With control over a crypto-currency that the people are forced to use, a government can force people to spend their money or watch it drain from their computer screens over time; a government can restrict what people can buy with their crypto-currencies, such as guns, drugs, porn, junk food, books – the list is long and would certainly lengthen over time; and governments can simply “turn off” anyone’s or everyone’s money whenever it wishes. And that’s just a short list of the willful dangers with crypto-currencies. Would a crypto-currency be much use in a place devastated by a hurricane or some other natural disaster, such as, oh, I don’t know, maybe Puerto Rico. The people embracing crypto-currencies today are helping to seal their own fate tomorrow and are thus what Lenin might have called “useful idiots.”

Update – December 21, 2017

Writing about bitcoin is becoming some sort of fetish for me, not by my choice but because developments surrounding bitcoin are emerging ever more rapidly. A few days ago an establishment mouthpiece, The Washington Post, published an article titled, “ Bitcoin is big. But fedcoin is bigger.” By the way, “fedcoin” doesn’t even exist... yet. This article amounts to what’s known as “predictive programming,” preparing the masses for what the powers that be have in store for us.

The article contains a number of titillating statements that echo my own statements in various updates above. For example, early on the article states, “It is only a matter of time before paper money is phased out.” Observe the assertive rather than speculative nature of that statement and keep in mind that the source is an establishment mouthpiece.

A little while later the article states that $100 and $50 bills account for 85% of all paper currency in circulation and that virtually all of it resides in the “black market,” meaning in illicit hands. Just as I said, they will demonize paper currency to promote the government-run digital currency.

Ironically, the article concedes, “Cash has the distinct advantage of being anonymous,” which implies that digital currencies, especially those run by the government are not, as I previously noted.

The article goes on to state that one of the “advantages” of a government-run digital currency is the ability to impose negative interest rates, which is establishment code for “theft,” which I also warned about when I said the government could force people to spend their money or watch it drain away (through the use of negative interest rates).

To those who apathetically shrug at the thought of the government monitoring their every purchase or sale, I would point out that the government has a history of making egregious mistakes when interpreting such data and has countless times punished, imprisoned or killed people who engaged in perfectly innocent behavior. Furthermore, with the emphasis today on the mass collection of every shred of data about every single person, I guarantee that whether the government administers a digital currency or it’s “privatized,” the data about peoples’ purchasing habits will be collected, sold and abused. For example, suppose one buys “too much” junk food, then their “health insurance” company might just jack up their premiums. Or suppose one buys a lot of alcohol, then the local police might just begin keeping an eye on them, hoping for a big payday from a DUI arrest. Or suppose one innocently shops regularly in a neighborhood (perhaps because they live there) known to be frequented by drug dealers, then the local police might just begin keeping tabs on such a person whom they regard as guilty by association. The list of potential abuses is endless and I guarantee that the data collected will be abused in every conceivable manner and then some. The people embracing digital currencies today are locking the manacles of slavery around their own wrists.

Finally, those hoping to get rich quick in this digital “gold rush” might be interested to know that in the last few days it’s been revealed that two founders in the digital currency realm have sold all their holdings of digital currencies! (See The Swedish co-founder of Bitcoin.com has sold all his bitcoins and Litecoin Founder Cashes Out, Sells Entire Stake After 9,300% Rally.) Just sayin’...

The End