Bitcoin an even bigger waste of energy

by John Quiggin on December 4, 2017

I gave a talk yesterday at a Colloquium organized by a group called Sort, on The Wasteful Economics in Resource Recovery, and I was asked to talk a bit about blockchain technology. That reminded me that I needed to take another look at the issue, and what has changed since 2015 when I wrote that

at most of the market value of a Bitcoin reflects the electricity wasted in the calculations needed to “mine” it, with the obvious disastrous implications for the global climate.

and concluded that the sooner this collective delusion comes to an end, the better.

As far as I can determine, the only thing that has changed is that the Bitcoin bubble has got massively bigger and that the associated waste of energy is now much more widely recognised than when I first wrote about it.

Despite the huge increase in the market value of bitcoins, they seem further than ever from becoming an actual currency. Unsurprisingly, there’s no sign that governments are willing to accept bitcoins as legal tender. Nor is there any sign that they are displacing standard forms of money. On the contrary, bitcoins now seem to be seen as a financial asset, with no real suggestion that they will ever be a general medium of exchange.

As a check on this, here’s a list of firms that accept bitcoin as payment, which fits easily on to a single page. Sydney readers who would like to buy a beer with bitcoin are in luck, or were back in 2014 when the Old Fitzroy got a bit of coverage for saying it would accept bitcoins. There’s another pub listed in London, and that’s about it as far as drinks are concerned. After nearly a decade, Bitcoin acceptance remains the stuff of publicity stunts, not a serious commercial option.

At least by repute, bitcoins are used more extensively in covert transactions such as those involving drug trading, tax evasion and money laundering. But that’s scarcely a good reason to bet on them being around for a long while. If the scale of the problem gets large enough to cause real problems, governments will act to shut the whole system down or regulate it to the point where the compliance costs make the whole idea unattractive.

At any rate, the durability and magnitude of the Bitcoin phenomenon, running for nearly 10 years and with a putative value of nearly $US 100 billion, provides us with a very sharp test of the Efficient (financial) Markets Hypothesis. If Bitcoin eventually becomes a currency, the EMH and its supporters will be vindicated, and I (along with quite a few other economists) will have a lot of egg on my face. If the bubble bursts, the roles will be reversed.

Finally, I should give a plug to Gridcoin. This is a project that aims to avoid the massive waste involved in Bitcoin by making calculations that are actually useful to science. This is a worthwhile idea. But with a current market capitalization of $21 million, it’s obviously got a long way to go.

There are also alternatives to the “proof of work” method of validating changes to the blockchain, such as “proof of importance”, which is analogous to Google’s page ranking systems. I’m still trying to find out more about these.

Dream Hoarders

by Harry on December 4, 2017

If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Christmas gift for your upper middle class friends, whatever their politics, you could do worse than Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. I have to admit that, despite the fact that my poverty-researcher friends have been recommending Richard Reeves to me for a long while, I read it sooner than I might have otherwise because of this Observer piece, drawn from the book, which discusses one of the arguments in my and Swift’s book Family Values. I’ll be giving it to my recalcitrant (and definitely not liberal) father-in-law, along with The Color of Law.

Reeves isn’t interested in the 1%, but in the 20%. The starting point is Obama’s aborted plan in January 2015 to abolish 529 plans. For those of you who don’t use them, 529s are tax sheltered college funds. The funds grow tax free. They are a complicated enough instrument that (almost) no one outside the top 20% uses them and, like all tax-shelters and deductions, are more valuable the higher your tax rate. Ted Cruz inserted a provision to the Senate bill which expands 529s so that rich people can pay for elite private k-12 schools with tax-exempt savings. A particularly wicked feature is that anyone – grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends, etc – can contribute. So the more relatives with large amounts of disposable income you have, the more your college fund will grow, and the greater the cost to the taxpayer. In 2009 23% of households in the top quartile of the income distribution hold 529s, with an average balance of $32,000; just 2% of households in the bottom quartile had 529s, with an average balance of less than $1k. 529s are estimated to cost the federal government only about 5.8 billion in the next 5 years, but almost all of that will benefit families in the top quartile of the distribution (and those estimates do not account for the possibility that 529s will be useable for private k-12). And its not just that 529s effectively reduce the cost of college for affluent families but not for lower-income families: by increasing the higher education spending power of the affluent they, presumably, raise the price at the more selective end of higher education; thus rendering it less accessible to less affluent families.

Obama’s plan to abolish 529s, and replace them with a stronger and broader version of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for educational spending which is unavailable to families earning over $180k, was defeated not by Republicans, but by Democrats.
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