Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advice for Gary North: When You Find Yourself in a Hole, STOP DIGGING!


I confess that I'm not a Gary North fan. Usually I just ignore him. But since he started weighing in on Bitcoin and various libertarian writers have taken the time rebut his errors, I've sort of had to pay attention (here's a Google search that should bring up most of his diatribes and the responses thereto). I guess it's time to do my part and briefly fisk his latest compendium of ignorant assumption.

First, a brief note on where I don't necessarily disagree with North:

He doesn't believe that Bitcoin is "real money" as defined in Austrian economic doctrine. He may be right about that. It's not backed by any physical commodity. It is not, at least at the moment, a reliable "store of value" (its value relative to various currencies and commodities has tended to fluctuate wildly; while I think we've seen the worst of that, I could be wrong).

But even if Bitcoin is not "real money," it's already proven its worth in one of the functions that money serves: As a "medium of exchange." The aforementioned fluctuations do make that a somewhat dicey proposition (I recently bought a television with Bitcoin that, had I saved it for two more weeks would have been worth four times as much in US Federal Reserve Notes, for which I could have bought a much nicer TV and maybe a new guitar!), but so far it's the best kludge I've seen for taking electronic (as opposed to physical "cash") economic exchanges off the government regulation grid.

Now to the problems with the piece I link above.

North asserts that US government paper money is superior to Bitcoin in terms of privacy because:


[A]nyone with a bank account in the United States can obtain greenbacks. ... As soon as an individual has paper money, he has total privacy. He also has total control over his money. He knows where the money is. He decides where the money will go. He decides how long he will keep the money. He can of course be robbed, but this is relatively rare."

Pause for effect. OK, spit-take break over.

"Anyone with a bank account?" Really? Let's see: In order to get a bank account, you have to present government ID and undergo a credit check. Once you have a bank account, the bank monitors all of your transactions on behalf of, and reports anything "suspicious" (including all transactions greater than $5k) to, the federal government.

But even setting that part aside, on every other count above Bitcoin is at least as good as paper money. Once you have Bitcoin, you have total control over it. You know where it is. You decide where it will go. You decide how long you will keep it. And if you're careful, your chances of getting robbed of Bitcoin are considerably lower than your chances of getting robbed of paper money.

Just as an example of that last claim, let's take the case of Ross Ulbricht, allegedly "Dread Pirate Roberts" of Silk Road fame. The US government stole his web site, and while they were at it they were able to steal a fraction of Bitcoin that was stored in transit/commerce accounts on its server. But even though they have physical possession of a copy of an account with 144,000 Bitcoins (as I write this, about $140 million USD worth) in it, that money is safe as houses. It's encrypted. Well-encrypted. They can't get to it without its owner's consent. And if he has another copy stored somewhere, it will be waiting for him when he escapes the regime's clutches. Assuming it's his, which we can't safely assume. Do you think he'd have been able to keep $140 million green pieces of paper, or a $140 million bank balance, out of their clutches? [Addendum Note: My numbers here may be off as there are various versions of the story floating around that seem to make contradictory claims; see the comments below this post for a different set of numbers - TLK]

And as far as privacy per se is concerned, yes, as I've said again and again, Bitcoin is not inherently anonymous. But it can be made so fairly easily.

North's next line of argument:

Almost nobody knows how to buy Bitcoins. The person must buy them through a Bitcoins currency exchange company. He has no idea which ones are reliable. He risks getting into an exchange like the Silk Road, which the government shut down. He risks getting into an exchange like the one that replaced it, Sheep Marketplace, which was hit by a $100 million heist, and which shut down, leaving its users with a 100% loss. ... He has to know how to use computers to get access to this kind of money. Not many people know how to do this online. In other words, there is a huge learning curve involved in gaining access to this privacy money.

Hmm, where to begin?

No, you don't have to buy Bitcoins through a currency exchange company. In fact, I have never done so. There's no problem at all with coming to a personal arrangement of any variety you like with someone who has Bitcoins to get them. You might sell them something. You might hand them those green pieces of paper that North seems to like so much. You might set up a "donate Bitcoin" button on your web site.

Secondly, neither Silk Road nor Sheep Marketplace were "Bitcoins currency exchange companies." They were marketplaces in which goods and services were traded using Bitcoin as a medium of exchange. North doesn't know what he's talking about here.

Thirdly, complaining that people have to know how to use computers to get access to this kind of money is pretty weak. People have to know how to use computers to get access to Gary North's articles at LewRockwell.com, too. People have to know how to use computers to get access to books at Amazon.com. Whoop de freaking do.

Yes, you need a little more than average computer knowledge and better equipment to "mine" Bitcoin out of the aether efficiently -- or you can do it inefficiently right in your browser at bitcoinplus.com, or you can buy shares in mining operations, or you can earn Bitcoin at a number of those "pay per click" sites for viewing ads -- but using Bitcoin in commerce is no more knowledge-intensive than using a credit card or Paypal in commerce.

Next:

There is no way to prosecute. There is no way for a depositor to get his digital money back. He bought secrecy with respect to any police agency, so nobody can find out where his money went, and he has no legal claim against anybody.

There are two ways to look at these claims.

The first way is from the perspective of someone who actually believes the state is there to "protect" us from these problems. I'd ask that person how he plans to prosecute someone who didn't hand over the gram of cocaine in return for greenbacks, or whether he'd expect the police to roll out and turn on the sirens because he got ripped off for ten bucks on something "legitimate." And I'd point out that some "mainstream" Bitcoin outfits are integrating themselves into the state system. I expect that within a year or so you'll see protection systems similar to PayPal's "buyer protection plan" operating in some Bitcoin markets. Of course, to take advantage of those protections, you'll have to do the same things that take the privacy out of dollar exchanges -- produce government ID or link a government-ID-backed bank account, etc.

The second way is to look at it from a libertarian or anarchist standpoint. Yes, one disadvantage of abandoning state "protection" is that you either have to do without it or develop new systems to replace it. At present, some people would rather do without it than pay the price for it, and I don't see why North would object to their preferences in that regard. And I suspect that over time the "off-grid" Bitcoin users will also develop systems that make it easier to guarantee delivery of goods or services for payment -- especially, but not only, after the state is no longer part of the picture.

Next, North moves on to "marketability":

You cannot use Bitcoins to buy anything in approximately 99.9% of American retail establishments. This is probably too low an estimate. You cannot buy what you want, when you want, where you want with Bitcoins. There are search costs involved in locating anybody who will sell you anything with Bitcoins.

You can't use gold bullion to buy anything in approximately 99.9% of American retail establishments. I'm trying to think of the last time I read Gary North complaining that gold is an awful, awful idea.

But my guess is that you can use Bitcoins to buy anything in far more than 0.1% of Internet retail establishments, either directly or indirectly, and that that percentage is growing. Here's a VERY partial list of well-known establishments whose Internet storefronts I can buy gift cards for using Bitcoin through only one provider:

Barnes and Noble, CVS Pharmacy, GameStop, The Gap, Land's End, Sephora, TGI Fridays, Home Depot, 1-800-Flowers, Belk, Brookstone, FTD, Groupon, JC Penney, K-Mart, Overstock.com, 1-800-Pet-Supplies, Sears, Wal-Mart, Applebee's, Chili's, Domino's, IHOP, Maggiano's Little Italy, Morton's The Steakhouse, Papa John's, Red Robin, Steak'n'Shake, Tony Roma's, Banana Republic, Babies R Us, Foot Locker, Hot Topic, Old Navy, Sports Authority, Stein Mart, Zales, Dell, Staples, Toys R Us, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, Bath and Body Works, Nutri-System, Lowe's, American Airlines, Carnival and Celebrity cruises, Hyatt and Marriott hotels ...

By the way, I had never noticed that outlet before I started writing this post. It took me about 30 seconds to find it once I started looking. So I think we can write North's notions of "marketability" off with relative ease.

The nut of North's final bewildering argument is this gem:

The Bitcoins market operates only at the discretion of the central banks. The central banks allow Bitcoins for the moment, and only because of this toleration by the central banks does any market for Bitcoins exist.

In actuality, the truth is something close to the reverse of this claim. The central banks have precisely zero control over Bitcoin, and to the extent that they threaten regular banks with sanctions for accepting/dealing in it, they're harming themselves and those banks, not Bitcoin.

North's premise is that merchants will only accept a currency that they can deposit in the traditional banking system. He may be right about some merchants, but even if he is, see that list above: The major merchants don't have to accept Bitcoin in order for customers to buy from them using Bitcoin. Intermediaries who don't give a tinker's damn about government approval or access to the existing bank system will be glad to act as market makers for a cut of the action.

And if the two systems -- government regulated banks and decentralized, encrypted, peer-to-peer currencies -- separate completely, I know which one I'll bet on myself (hint: I haven't had a bank account in 13 years).

As I've said over and over, I don't know if Bitcoin will be the state-killer currency app, but I do know such an app is coming and that it will require several of Bitcoin's essential features.

North is all wet in every major area he addresses here.

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