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My dad asked me how I reconciled Bitcoin's fixed supply with the Keynesian model of supply. I understand that most people around here don't hold much stock in what Paul Krugman has to say. But much of the real world actually does, what with his Nobel prize and all. So I put some serious consideration into what he had to say about deflation, how it relates to Bitcoin, and other vague currency questions. What follows is my email back to my pa. Many of these ideas have come from my time spent in this forum, so feel free to chop it up, edit, and distribute away if you find any of it worthwhile. Thoughts from a liberal after reading Paul Krugman's 2010 NYT piece: Why is Deflation Bad? Krugman and Bitcoin and Me
Krugman's argument against deflation is built with a dependency: that there is a central authority which controls the money supply. So in a sense he has two core points.
(1) Krugman prefers that a centralized authority control the currency supply in order to manipulate the economy.
I'll allow that this tool can be a good, stabilizing force. But if that's the case, I want to be able to vet that institution from the bottom up before handing them the keys to the kingdom. And I want that institution to unequivocally work for society, not for Goldman Sachs
. If I thought the current system worked well, I wouldn't be exploring other options in the first place.
(2) Krugman prefers that that centralized authority manipulate the economy such that it encourages spending and lending. In other words, manipulate toward small inflation.
This could be a good thing. And maybe the economy it creates is more fluid than a deflationary one. But when you bake into the system incentives to spend now
and borrow from the future now
, you get exactly the problems that you'd expect: over-consumption and a society largely ridden in debt.
Control of the supply of the currency carries tremendous power. It can be used to smooth natural economic cycles and encourage specific consumer and producer behavior. This supply-manipulative ability is not in and of itself a bad thing. The question is whether it is necessary- because with Bitcoin (as it stands) it is impossible. Within the theoretical bounds of crypto-currency, the abilities for algorithmic, "smart" money-supply, one that rests on mathematics rather than the banking elite, are endless. There are truly exciting developments to come in this space. A First Consideration on Currency
Think, for a moment, of the unit of currency as sort of a creditor's note. It is an IOU from society; a placeholder for some unit of production. It says, "I produced something valuable (for someone else who takes part in this system). In return I got this note. I have reasonable assurance that one day I can cash this IOU in for something that I'll need in the future."
The unit of currency acts as a placeholder for its owner. Under this system, people trade their current productivity for the placeholder, and later (given the system still has integrity) they can trade that placeholder for something that raises their standard of living. It allows us to "time-shift" our production with respect to our consumption.
But don't forget!: A unit of currency as "just a thing". It only carries value if it is actually valued by somebody else you want to do business with. The dollar, the gold bar, the Bitcoin. the Euro, all work the same way: they are nothing but numbers or paper or metal. They are just atoms arranged in a way that make them valuable to a group of people only because they trust in the future of their common system.
Currencies are a subset of commodities. Commodities are things (oil, clothing, food, televisions) that are valuable to humans because they have useful properties. Like we said above, a currency's use is to "time-shift" production and consumption. The properties of the object that afford this advantage are usually a combination of irreproducibility, fungibility, scarcity, ease of transport, and securability. Why is Deflation Bad?
In his 2010 NYT piece
, Krugman argues that deflation hurts the economy due to three factors:
(1) People become less willing to spend, because sitting on money becomes an investment. Your dollar tomorrow will buy you more than what it can today, so why spend today? Therefore, spending goes down.
(2) Those in debt get into serious trouble awfully quickly, because the nominal amount-owed appreciates in value. As a result, they spend significantly less. At the same time, creditors have been shown to not spend enough such that it make up for this difference. Therefore, borrowing (and spending) goes down.
(3) Psychologically, people hate nominal wage decreases. With a fixed supply currency, year over year, wages will have to decrease in name. Even if the value of your wage rises, the amount written on the paycheck is lower. Therefore, people freak out.
These are troubling scenarios, though I think the first two are more substantial than the third. I don't mean to underestimate the psychological factor- in economics psychology is everything- but we'll talk about this later.
Krugman presents the first two points as bugs in a deflationary system. I see them as features. "Your dollar will buy you more tomorrow than what it can today."
I think this is natural. We are a rapidly advancing species; through technology we are becoming more efficient, automating crappy tasks, raising the standard of living for less work, of course
a dollar (that placeholder for your unit of production) is going to go further tomorrow than it does today.
Personally, I find this appealing. It provides every incentive to work now
and spend later
. That falls very much in line with good ol' American hard-working values and non-consumptive ethics.
Krugman finds this worrying though. If people have less incentive to spend, their is a crisis in demand. Hello liberals?! When was the last time we complained about lower consumption? In a country wracked with hyper-consumption that has put an unprecedented load on Earth's environment and ignited a climate crisis, I see a drop in demand as a breath of fresh air! Furthermore, you don't have to worry about people never
spending. People will always spend now
- but only on the want/need products, rather than the maybe-want-need-this-now-really-might-as-well-because-my-currency-is-losing-value-and-all-these-things-meet-my-zillion-useless-ephemeral-wants products.
I do believe there are much higher economic principles at work here. The United States is the world's default consumer. The global economy needs us to consume as much as it needs the million child laborers to produce. The economy would come crashing down if we stopped consuming immediately. But if we're trying to aim for a more sustainable economy, one that is compatible with the Earth's environment, let's move slowly and use a deflating currency as an incentive! "Deflation rewards creditors and hurts debtors. Debtors spend less and creditors don't spend more enough to offset."
The impassive Krugman is beating around the bush. There is
a problem when debtors suffer at the expense of creditors, and it's more than just a net loss in consumer spending. If you're concerned about a reduction in spending, see my previous point. But the remaining ethical problem is glaring- a power imbalance already exists in a creditor-debtor relationship, and it seems that deflation only widens this gap, crucifying the debt class on a cross of deflationary coin
There's no doubt that this is a problem. And wealth redistribution may ultimately be easier with an inflationary currency- again, a word on that later. But there is also an incentive here: borrow less. Credit card debt is at an all-time high, up 1200%
in the US since 1980, all while student loans have ballooned
out of control. But neither of these problems even compares to the $7.8 trillion of mortgage debt our country has dug itself into.
Now debt is not a bad thing. The right combination of debt and saving, that is- using both capital previously earned with capital borrowed from future earnings- indicates a healthy economy. I don't want to have to work my entire life only to afford a house at the very end. I want to be able to borrow from my future economic output, buy the house now, and live in it while I work to pay it off. The same goes for student debt, corporate debt-financing, etc. Access to credit is crucial to a healthy middle class.
But ever-increasing debt is not sustainable. Nobody lives- and produces- forever, so you cannot always borrow from your future economic output. In the end, regardless of the money tricks you play, you have to produce enough value to cover your consumption. The world recently found out, in a mild manor, what happens when a currency's incentive and a nation's culture favors borrowing. When given the opportunity to build houses they never could have dreamed of paying off in their lifetime, millions of people took the offer and the biggest lenders took the risk. The echoes of their mass default still burden the global economy 6+ years later.
The point is, if Krugman says "inflation promotes borrowing", I say, "is this debt-ridden wreck what we really want our economy to look like?" "People would freak out when their paycheck goes down."
I say get over it. Other possible proclamations in a deflationary world:
- "Today, this meal costs the most it ever will!"
- "My phone bill will never be this high again!"
- "Filling my car up costs less every day!"
- "Taxes go down every year so I love my life!"
Better yet, this reflects reality! Technology makes everything cheaper every day. You should
be paying lower phone bills tomorrow. Has the infrastructure gotten less efficient?
Here it feels like Krugman's grasping for straws. He pounces on people's reaction to their one source of income rather than their many expenses. This point also invokes that ugly liberal side: "The people don't know what's best for them." The Central Authority as a Tool for Wealth Redistribution
Now we're talking. As a Liberal, I consider this to be a most important necessary evil. But let's call it what it is: stealing from the rich to give to the poor. (Unless we reject the modern notion of property- stay tuned...)
In an inflationary economy, value is constantly leaching out of everyone's savings. Those who control the monetary supply have a means of reaching into every dollar, and skimming off a little bit of value. We can choose to do a lot of good with this. Right now the skimmed dollars are "lent" to banks- the theory is that they then have more to lend to the general public and everyone benefits. Lending is good right? It introduces liquidity. But continue this cycle ad infinitum and all the spending in the economy starts in the form of bank debt! It is no coincidence that Americans households are more in debt than ever before.
If wealth redistribution is the only benefit of a central supply authority (which can fall out of trust at any time), this is a weak foundation. We already have a mechanism for wealth redistribution: taxation. Let's be proud of it, call a duck a duck, raise taxes on the wealthy, and introduce that liquidity with massive infrastructural programs, education spending, science spending, etc, rather than in the form of bank loans.
One last point- inflation appears to be a flat tax. That's already bad. It affects every dollar proportionally, rich or poor. Worse, the middle class and poor have a higher percentage of their net worth in USD- so inflation then becomes a regressive tax... given to banks... to be lent out to again to the middle class. All in the name of wealth redistribution?! In the name of kick-starting the economy?! Something's fishy here, and "you wouldn't understand, it's more complicated" doesn't cut it as an answer for these practices. Bitcoin
So. What are we even doing here?
In 2009 a great mind developed a tool
, the first in the history of human civilization, for "minting" a currency according to a fixed and open sourced algorithm. Without the involvement of any third party, you can now send an irreproducible digital object of fixed supply to anyone with an internet connection. The implications
. But the first such currency, Bitcoin, happened to be fixed-supply and ultimately deflationary, which has re-sparked the deflation vs. inflation debate.
This is happenstance. The protocol that gives rise to these digital currencies- the bitcoin protocol (small b)- could easily implement a different supply model. Paul Krugman can start a currency, KrugCoin, with any supply model that he likes! Which begs one last question.
Let's say I'm presented with an option: I may collect my paycheck in a currency that deflates- that is, my paycheck will gain value over time. Or I may collect my paycheck in a currency that inflates- it loses value over time. Why would anyone choose the latter? Must a population be forced into using an inflationary currency? Are we?
Bitcoin Is A Bubble To be sure, this is not the first time that Krugman has come out against bitcoin. Back in December, when bitcoin prices were shooting to record highs, Krugman said that the ... Bitcoin. Hey, Paul Krugman: Here's What Bitcoin Is Good for To assume that governments do better at keeping currencies stable ignores parts of the world. Paul Krugman ist ein bekannter US-Ökonom und Nobelpreisträger. Jetzt erklärte er, warum er nicht an den Erfolg des Bitcoin glaubt. Krugman could pen another 100 salty op-eds about bitcoin (and he probably will), but no matter how wrong he’s shown to be, and no matter how high bitcoin climbs, his failure to recognize the ... Bitcoin hit bottom (around $6k) three times since then and seems to be ever so gradually beginning to find a new footing. Paul Krugman, an intellect I admire and trust, has unfortunately been unable to understand Bitcoin. He almost systematically refuses to comprehend the advantages of a Bitcoin economy.
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