Bitcoin: I Guess I Missed It!

bitcoin1Like so many trends, the Bitcoin phenom was born, lived — and now has nearly died — before I ever got a handle on it.  The world’s first virtual currency was virtually wiped out just as I was beginning to understand its significance.  And now it looks as if it’s not going to matter.

Ironically, although the concept of Bitcoin (I’m not sure if there is a plural) is very simple, the actual nuts and bolts of the thing are impossible to understand.  For example, I have no idea how Bitcoin is generated, and nobody I’ve talked to does either.  Even the mighty Wikipedia is so convoluted as to be useless.  Not only that, but I have yet to find a place where I (or anybody else I know) would spend Bitcoin, assuming of course that we had any.  These are two serious problems with a currency which is supposed to take the place of sweaty twenties and good old-fashioned Visa™.  However, let’s put the thing into perspective. because even though Bitcoin may be going the way of the iPod, virtual currency is the way of the future.

As far as I can tell, Bitcoin is the brainchild of a group of Uber-nerds who created it as virtual money — money that exists without ever taking tangible form.  Their concept is an anarchist’s dream: a People’s Free-Range Currency, untethered to any bank or national monetary system.  It is money that follows the ebb and flow of the marketplace; its value dictated by its purchasing power.  This is not a radical idea.  It’s merely contemporary capitalism at its fundamental best.  Let me explain.

As we all know, in simplistic terms, money is nothing more than faith.  We believe that the piece of plastic in our pockets will buy us Big Macs™.  We’re allowed to buy them because McDonald’s believes they will get their money from our bank.  Our bank gives McDonald’s the money because they believe we will pay the bill when it shows up.  Everybody’s happy, and we’ve had lunch.   In this entire sequence of events, no one has actually handled any money.  The reality is our national currency is virtually virtual money already.

So why did Bitcoin fail so miserably?

The answer is quite easy.  The creators of Bitcoin forgot one simple overwhelming principle of economics: money is only worth what it can buy you.  Since currency itself has no intrinsic value, if it can’t be exchanged for Big Macs™, it reverts to its original incarnation – a rectangular bit of plastic with your name on it.  Thus, when it became apparent that Bitcoin couldn’t be exchanged for anything beyond a few esoteric Internet specialities, it ceased to be a currency.  However, since it was tied to a tangible dollar value, it became a commodity and — in a marketplace (the Internet) without any rules — the object of wild-eyed speculation.  Bitcoin was a bubble waiting to burst, and last week it did.  Today, it doesn’t matter how Bitcoin is generated or what people say it’s worth; it’s virtually valueless.

Bitcoin didn’t fail just because ordinary people couldn’t buy anything with it and therefore lost their faith in it.  It actually failed because we don’t need another virtual currency.  We have one already.  In fact, aside from street corner drug deals, we live in a cashless society.  We no longer need tangible money to go about our business and, in reality, very seldom use it.  So it doesn’t really matter that I missed it: Bitcoin was redundant before it began.

A Penny Saved is a Penny Lost

Last week, in a fit of uncontrollable common sense, the Canadian government decided to quit minting the penny.  According to the Finance Minister, it was costing Canadians 1.6 cents to produce the one cent coin.  A quick run to the calculator puts the annual loss at approximately eleven million dollars — which isn’t chump change, even to a national government.  So, as of sometime next autumn, Canadians will no longer get pennies from heaven, buy penny loafers or play the Beatles song “Penny Lane.”  They will have to give a nickel for your thoughts and keep their two cents’ worth to themselves.  Okay, I’ll stop now.  Actually that’s about the extent of the Canadian reaction to the penny’s demise.  Nobody cares.  After all, how worked up can you get when you have the world’s most uber-stable banking system and you call your national currency the Loonie?

Personally, I’ve always liked the penny.  Slowly accumulating in the jars of my youth, it was my ticket to Batman comics and small brown bags of candy.  That was back in the days when coins were currency, and paper dollars were reserved for birthday cards.  However, noble as it once was, the penny has become a pariah: a horrid little coin that nobody wants.  It adds weight but no value to our pockets; it cheapens the charitable donation and provides the most striking of insults to the restaurant tip.  It is money in name only; left unguarded in “Take a penny: leave a penny” retail counter dishes.

Of course, the penny itself doesn’t matter.  Nobody is going to miss it.  There will be no indignant parents tearing up over their child’s lost piggy bank experience nor angry university blowhorns demanding the government reinstate the penny for the poor.  The penny will fade out of time and memory, just like the groat and the farthing before it.

However, the larger question is not confined to pennies but to currency itself.  How deep is our commitment to money in its tangible form?  There are those who argue that our world has now transcended money, and cash actually causes more trouble than it’s worth.  As long as there are old guys like me around, those folks might be jumping the gun a bit.  However, even I have the feeling they’re right, and we’re less than a generation away from a cashless society.

These days, the only people who use cash on a regular basis are dinosaurs, drug dealers and the Salvation Army.  Obviously, the Sally Ann and the Los Zetas cartel do it out of necessity.  However, the rest of us, who don’t need to look like Tony Soprano every time it’s our turn to buy lunch, rely on dots of data emanating from our credit cards.  It’s quick: it’s easy, and, most importantly, it’s safe.  Meanwhile, back at the ranchero, paying our household bills online is becoming the norm.  Internet commerce will soon outstrip bricks and mortar shopping in cash flow, even though there’s no cash involved.  And only the Tech-gods know what kind of purchasing power our Smart phones are going to have by this time next year.   Folding money is losing its commercial dominance.  In fact, if you want some serious grins, go try booking a hotel room with cash or renting a car or even paying your phone bill.  Money still talks in the 21st century, but it’s getting a little hoarse.

The fact of the matter is it makes just as much sense to base our net worth on binary code as it does shiny metal or coloured paper.  Money, whether it’s gold ingots, sweaty twenties or American Express, is a question of faith.  It’s not the object itself; it’s its purchasing power.  We lost faith in the penny many years ago when it quit buying us things.  There are no more penny arcades, no penny candy and “penny ante” is an expression of derision.   That’s why the penny now lives in the fuzzy back corners of our office desk drawers (with the sprung paperclips and the bent pushpin) orphaned by the speed of a modern society which no longer has time to pinch its pennies.