The most stable currency in Europe is virtual
In recent years there has been increasing demand for alternative currencies in countries such as Greece, USA and Germany, and quite a few businesses and consumers already use hundreds of currencies that are nothing like the national currency
This seemed to be another normal episode of the legal drama "The Good Wife" broadcast on the CBS network. As usual, the employees of the Lockhart-Gardener law firm, which is at the center of the show, defended a client whose story is inspired by actual events.
Only this time they had to defend an exceptionally unusual client, which has made its premiere appearance in American prime-time: Anarchism appearing in the form of the Bitcoin, a decentralized digital currency, absent of centralization and free from the control of central banks and corporations, based on open-source code, community-driven in nature and especially controversial, whose detractors prefer to see it as a doomed weird internet idea at best, and a subversive and dangerous Ponzi scam at worst - and whose supporters swear that it is the greatest invention since the internet and holds the key to the future of humanity.
Most of the episode revolves around the question of who exactly invented Bitcoin, an absolutely real currency that in the recent years has won over, gradually, a strange coalition of anarchists, libertarians, geeks and forex traders who are all gathered under the wide umbrella known as the internet. The people of the American Department of the Treasury - who are presented as conservative and spooked goons - argued during the episode that Dillen Stack, a young, idealistic lawyer with an attitude, portrayed by Jason Biggs, is himself Satoshi Nakomoto, the genius cryptographer (who claims to be Japanese, though apparently uses an alias) who invented the alternative currency in 2009. Federal agents arrest Stack and demand to bring him to justice, claiming that the unregulated currency guarantees anonymity to digital criminals and is thus responsible for the creation of a black market, where criminal organizations launder money and trade drugs and illegal substances.
Stack, who presents himself at first as the lawyer of Bitcoin's inventor who insists to remain anonymous, is a virtuous young man who devotes his time to the legal defense of "Occupy Wall Street" protestors, while the people of the Department of the Treasury, representing the old establishment, are conservative, corrupt and perplexed adults who try in a display of thuggishness to restrict and castrate the internet, merely because they do not understand how it works.
Bitcoin is far from being the first alternative currency, nor is it the first currency that exists only online. It is predated by failed experiments such as Digicash, a digital currency system that went bankrupt in 1998; Flooz, which at the peak of the dot-com bubble was endorsed by actress Whoopi Goldberg before it collapsed in 2001 while receiving allegations by the FBI that it was used by Russian criminal organizations as a money laundering mechanism; and Beenz, "the web's currency" which was supposed to eventually replace the national currencies, but is remembered today as one of the greatest falls of the internet bubble after it, too, evaporated in 2001.
But this time, the supporters swear, everything is different. First, they claim, humanity is ready for a monetary revolution. While the central banks have become a monopoly which protects the financial centers of power from disruption using public funds, leads to inflation and bankrupts countries, Bitcoin offers a decentralized model without authority, where the coins are not minted by a central entity that prints money as is its will, but are based on demand and an encrypted system, uncrackable and with a predefined limit that nobody can change, or in other words: There is no inflation. Second, it is not alone: In recent years there has been dramatic increase in demand for alternative currencies in countries such as Greece, USA, Canada and Germany, and more and more businesses and consumers agree to trade products and services using hundreds of currency kinds that are nothing like the national currencies.
The fact that this is happening while the world suffers from a continuing economic depression is not coincidental: In times of economic crisis, when the real money diminishes, companies and citizens are forced to find other ways to provide goods and services, and to pay for them. During the wave of inflation that drove Argentina to the floor in 2000, millions of people have managed to survive using barter. During the great depression in the USA and Europe local communities have invented their own currencies from papers, cardboard, wood, chips, leather pieces and even clams to continue to operate their local economies after the banks collapsed and money became a rare sight. Recently, following the weakening of the dollar, Utah has made silver and gold official currencies in the state, and it is now possible to pay using them rather than dollars.
Who needs banks, anyway
When Bitcoin was launched on January 3 2009, it managed to solve the greatest problem that has always toppled any attempt to create a virtual currency and made it worthless: If it is only digital information, without and physical paper or metal to back it up, what prevents people from copying and pasting the coin and spending it again and again as is their will, without a central authority that would oversee the transactions and guarantee that if you have used a virtual coin once you cannot use it again?
To this question Nakamoto found an ingenious solution: Instead of subjecting the currency to a single entity, he made it everyone's and noone's. Bitcoins are transferred directly from user to user (P2P), without intermediaries such as banks or clearing houses, are global and are created at a predetermined rate in a process called "mining" by computers whose owners volunteer to install an application called Bitcoin Miner which solves complex mathematical problems. Those computers are called the block chain. Today there are about 8 million bitcoins in the world, and 50 bitcoins are "mined" every 10 minutes. However, as the currency continues to increase, so will its rate of growth slow down - as the number of "mines" rises so do the mathematical problems that the computers solve to create the currency become more complicated - and the amount of coins in the world is limited in advance to 21 million, a limitation that Nakamoto placed to prevent inflation. Around 2140 the Bitcoin system will reach the 21 million limit.
Bitcoin is the first digital currency that gave up from the get-go on the mediation of credit companies, and set up a clearing system independent from the current monetary system. With its launch it has been embraced enthusiastically by online communities, including of course subversive websited like Wikileaks and the hacker group LulzSec who accepted Bitcoin donations, exchanges for trading in the online currency have been established, as well as websites hosting "virtual wallets" and the range of services one can buy with it has expanded from Alpaca socks (an online joke that became the unofficial mascot of the currency), through video games all the way to meals in a number of restaurants in cities such as New-York. But there are those who would cliam that this is a kind of sophisticated pyramid scheme, or a ponzi scam, or that this is a bubble.
The fact that Bitcoin was founded by a man who keeps an unprecedented veil of mystery obviously didn't help to convince the inconvincible: Whoever Satoshi Nakamoto may be, his real name is not Satoshi Nakamoto and hey may certainly not be Japanese. When he first published his manifesto in a cryptographers mailing list in November 2008 nobody knew his name, searching his name on Google came up with nothing and his IP address was untraceable. He mined the first 50 bitcoins himself.
In 2010, after creating the greatest puzzle in the history of the internet, he surprisingly decided to vanish, a short while after Wikileaks decided to ask for Bitcoin donations despite his explicit request not to do so. The speculation only intensified after his disappearance. Many pointed out that the meaning of the name "Satoshi" in Japanese is "wise", because Nakamoto's English was perfect, which perhaps indicates a person whose native language is English, and various theories hypothesized that it is not one man, but a group of engineers from a company such as Google or even an intelligence agency. Some even believed that Nakamoto may be Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. Others preferred to cultivate a cult of personality around the mysterious cryptography expert, including T-shirts and other accessories.
By that point Bitcoin has already established a small but enthusiastic community of programmers and internet people, including the programmer Gavin Andresen from New England who in 2009 purchased 10,000 bitcoins for 50 dollars and set up a a website where he distributed them for free, and Laszlo Heinz from Florida who has made the first purchase in the history of the currency when he ordered two pizzas for 10,000 bitcoins (or more precisely, through a volunteer in Britain who received the coins and then ordered the pizzas using a credit card). The engaged an enthusiastic community no longer needed Nakamoto at this point. Since it was open source, anyone could have taken part in it. The technical skill with which the system was built impressed the network people without bound.
Until the middle of 2010, the bitcoins had no value. When they began to be traded in April 2010, their value was less than 14 cents. But an article in the "Forbes" magazine about the new currency, and a series of articles that came after it in other media, built up interest in the currency and its value went up from 86 cents in may 2010 to about 30 dollars in June 2011. A user from Tennessee who held about 371 thousand bitcoins suddenly found out that they are worth more than 10 million dollars. The value of the 10,000 bitcoins with which Heinz bought two pizzas in 2009 went up to 272,329 dollars ("I have no regrets", he later said, "the pizzas were delicious").
As with anything in which real money is suddenly involved, the pure open source code idea that stood behind Bitcoin has also been corrupted, and the libertarian anarcho-capitalist philosophy made way to a gold rush and chasing a quick buck. Suddenly, miners competed for who could mine more bitcoins. They bought more powerful computers, equipped their houses with a large number of computers that mined coins around the clock and hoarded the coins they purchased. The free currency became a victim to the most negative market forces: speculators. Technology experts were quick to crown Bitcoin as the greatest invention in the history of the internet and even the authorities started to notice the project, and not for positive reasons: In the Silk Road website, reported the American press, users could pay with bitcoins and buy "every drug possible". The American senator Charles Schumer demanded an immediate investigation and said the Bitcoin is in practice an online money laundering clearinghouse.
The great fall was not late to arrive: Less than two weeks after it reached the peak of 30 dollars there was a breach into Mt. Gox, the greatest Bitcoin exchange were 90% of the trade in the currency took place, by a hacker who withdrew tens of thousands of coins belonging to innocent users. The value of a bitcoin quickly plummeted to several pennies, less even than its low cost of production, and it seemed that its collapse was only a matter of time. Fortunately, the same speculators that brought it down were also the ones who wished to take advantage of the drop in its value, and hurried to buy all the coins they could get. The exchange rate gradually climbed to 4.9 dollars today. The increase in the exchange rate of the currency means that the loot of the thief that caused its value to drop was no more than 2,000 bitcoins.
But the troubles didn't end with the hack to Mt. Gox. A short while afterwards, the third largest Bitcoin exchange, the Polish Bitomat, announced that all wallets in its possession have been erased. Virus attacks that were specifically targeted against Bitcoin users managed to steal users' coins, or perform increased mining of new coins. The oldest virtual wallet service, Mybitcoin, suddenly shut down. The owner of the website, Tom Williams who also kept a veil of mystery, stopped answering emails. Afterwards it was found out that Williams disappeared with at least 25 thousand coins in his possession. Afterwards he surfaced again and claimed that the website was hacked.
Bruce Wagner, one of the most prominent and public Bitcoin supporters, who even hosted a weekly web show in topic related to the currency, was exposed as a convicted mortgage crook. The hacker attacks failed, the currency continued to increase in value and stabilized, trade in it remained active, but the damage was done: The trust that existed in the community in its early days was lost.
Doing business with the neighbors
(Some stuff about Tem, Chiemgauer, Urstromtaler, Fureai Kippu, WIR, C3, Berkshares, Ithaca Hours, Liberty dollar, ELM, Mintchip)
The traders' new toy
The thirst for alternative currencies, of course, didn't manage to slip past the greedy eyes of financial traders, who these days charge at Bitcoin with great lust. "Bitcoin is not run by people with increased sexual appetite to hotel maids. It is not run by corporations. It is not controlled by people with budgetary goals to meet. It is run by a mathematical formula. If you try to print more than 21 million bitcoins, you will be rejected by cold and merciless computers which run in the garages of geeks", a forex trader from London explained this week to "Reuters" the new attraction of traders in the financial sector of the city to the digital currency. The trader, who wished to remain anonymous, told the agency that he dedicates four hours daily to Bitcoin trading, which he describes as his second job, and estimated that 90% of the traders purchased it trying to achieve "a quick return of 2,000%".
In an interview for TheMarker last month, the Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, of the founding fathers of the Euro and an expert of monetary systems, said that the only solution to the inherent instability of the worldwide financial system is a transition from a one currency per state system to multiple currencies for different purposes. "We suffer from so many crises due to the culture of one currency per county, that is created in practice by bank debts. If something bad happens to the banks, everything stops. Because of this we constantly need to save these banks, because if we don't do it everything will stop. It is never a good idea to pump all your water from one well. It's a monopoly, and we should put an end to it". Lietaer initiated and has promoted in the recent years the idea of the global currency Terra, a "complementary currency" that he says will be based on a basket of 9-12 important commodities, will not belong to any country, and will be more stable and less volatile than the national currencies.
So are the alternative currencies a passing phenomenon, that will fade with the end of the economic crisis, or do they perhaps signify a radical change in the way the global economic system is built and imply a transition from a global system to a more stable, sustainable system, which better integrates the local and the global? The screenwriters of "The Good Wife" have a clear answer: "I bought a bitcoin today. It didn't feel real", said Julianna Margulies to Jason Biggs in the Bitcoin episode. Biggs, nonchalantly, gently replied: "real is about to change".