Monday, March 12, 2018

What John Oliver gets wrong about Bitcoin

John Oliver covered bitcoin/cryptocurrencies last night. I thought I'd describe a bunch of things he gets wrong.

How Bitcoin works

Nowhere in the show does it describe what Bitcoin is and how it works.

Discussions should always start with Satoshi Nakamoto's original paper. The thing Satoshi points out is that there is an important cost to normal transactions, namely, the entire legal system designed to protect you against fraud, such as the way you can reverse the transactions on your credit card if it gets stolen. The point of Bitcoin is that there is no way to reverse a charge. A transaction is done via cryptography: to transfer money to me, you decrypt it with your secret key and encrypt it with mine, handing ownership over to me with no third party involved that can reverse the transaction, and essentially no overhead.

All the rest of the stuff, like the decentralized blockchain and mining, is all about making that work.

Bitcoin crazies forget about the original genesis of Bitcoin. For example, they talk about adding features to stop fraud, reversing transactions, and having a central authority that manages that. This misses the point, because the existing electronic banking system already does that, and does a better job at it than cryptocurrencies ever can. If you want to mock cryptocurrencies, talk about the "DAO", which did exactly that -- and collapsed in a big fraudulent scheme where insiders made money and outsiders didn't.

Sticking to Satoshi's original ideas are a lot better than trying to repeat how the crazy fringe activists define Bitcoin.

How does any money have value?

Oliver's answer is currencies have value because people agree that they have value, like how they agree a Beanie Baby is worth $15,000.

This is wrong. A better way of asking the question why the value of money changes. The dollar has been losing roughly 2% of its value each year for decades. This is called "inflation", as the dollar loses value, it takes more dollars to buy things, which means the price of things (in dollars) goes up, and employers have to pay us more dollars so that we can buy the same amount of things.

The reason the value of the dollar changes is largely because the Federal Reserve manages the supply of dollars, using the same law of Supply and Demand. As you know, if a supply decreases (like oil), then the price goes up, or if the supply of something increases, the price goes down. The Fed manages money the same way: when prices rise (the dollar is worth less), the Fed reduces the supply of dollars, causing it to be worth more. Conversely, if prices fall (or don't rise fast enough), the Fed increases supply, so that the dollar is worth less.

The reason money follows the law of Supply and Demand is because people use money, they consume it like they do other goods and services, like gasoline, tax preparation, food, dance lessons, and so forth. It's not like a fine art painting, a stamp collection or a Beanie Baby -- money is a product. It's just that people have a hard time thinking of it as a consumer product since, in their experience, money is what they use to buy consumer products. But it's a symmetric operation: when you buy gasoline with dollars, you are actually selling dollars in exchange for gasoline. That you call one side in this transaction "money" and the other "goods" is purely arbitrary, you call gasoline money and dollars the good that is being bought and sold for gasoline.

The reason dollars is a product is because trying to use gasoline as money is a pain in the neck. Storing it and exchanging it is difficult. Goods like this do become money, such as famously how prisons often use cigarettes as a medium of exchange, even for non-smokers, but it has to be a good that is fungible, storable, and easily exchanged. Dollars are the most fungible, the most storable, and the easiest exchanged, so has the most value as "money". Sure, the mechanic can fix the farmers car for three chickens instead, but most of the time, both parties in the transaction would rather exchange the same value using dollars than chickens.

So the value of dollars is not like the value of Beanie Babies, which people might buy for $15,000, which changes purely on the whims of investors. Instead, a dollar is like gasoline, which obey the law of Supply and Demand.

This brings us back to the question of where Bitcoin gets its value. While Bitcoin is indeed used like dollars to buy things, that's only a tiny use of the currency, so therefore it's value isn't determined by Supply and Demand. Instead, the value of Bitcoin is a lot like Beanie Babies, obeying the laws of investments. So in this respect, Oliver is right about where the value of Bitcoin comes, but wrong about where the value of dollars comes from.

Why Bitcoin conference didn't take Bitcoin

John Oliver points out the irony of a Bitcoin conference that stopped accepting payments in Bitcoin for tickets.

The biggest reason for this is because Bitcoin has become so popular that transaction fees have gone up. Instead of being proof of failure, it's proof of popularity. What John Oliver is saying is the old joke that nobody goes to that popular restaurant anymore because it's too crowded and you can't get a reservation.

Moreover, the point of Bitcoin is not to replace everyday currencies for everyday transactions. If you read Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper, it's only goal is to replace certain types of transactions, like purely electronic transactions where electronic goods and services are being exchanged. Where real-life goods/services are being exchanged, existing currencies work just fine. It's only the crazy activists who claim Bitcoin will eventually replace real world currencies -- the saner people see it co-existing with real-world currencies, each with a different value to consumers.

Turning a McNugget back into a chicken

John Oliver uses the metaphor of turning a that while you can process a chicken into McNuggets, you can't reverse the process. It's a funny metaphor.

But it's not clear what the heck this metaphor is trying explain. That's not a metaphor for the blockchain, but a metaphor for a "cryptographic hash", where each block is a chicken, and the McNugget is the signature for the block (well, the block plus the signature of the last block, forming a chain).

Even then that metaphor as problems. The McNugget produced from each chicken must be unique to that chicken, for the metaphor to accurately describe a cryptographic hash. You can therefore identify the original chicken simply by looking at the McNugget. A slight change in the original chicken, like losing a feather, results in a completely different McNugget. Thus, nuggets can be used to tell if the original chicken has changed.

This then leads to the key property of the blockchain, it is unalterable. You can't go back and change any of the blocks of data, because the fingerprints, the nuggets, will also change, and break the nugget chain.

The point is that while John Oliver is laughing at a silly metaphor to explain the blockchain becuase he totally misses the point of the metaphor.

Oliver rightly says "don't worry if you don't understand it -- most people don't", but that includes the big companies that John Oliver name. Some companies do get it, and are producing reasonable things (like JP Morgan, by all accounts), but some don't. IBM and other big consultancies are charging companies millions of dollars to consult with them on block chain products where nobody involved, the customer or the consultancy, actually understand any of it. That doesn't stop them from happily charging customers on one side and happily spending money on the other.

Thus, rather than Oliver explaining the problem, he's just being part of the problem. His explanation of blockchain left you dumber than before.


John Oliver mocks the Brave ICO ($35 million in 30 seconds), claiming it's all driven by YouTube personalities and people who aren't looking at the fundamentals.

And while this is true, most ICOs are bunk, the  Brave ICO actually had a business model behind it. Brave is a Chrome-like web-browser whose distinguishing feature is that it protects your privacy from advertisers. If you don't use Brave or a browser with an ad block extension, you have no idea how bad things are for you. However, this presents a problem for websites that fund themselves via advertisements, which is most of them, because visitors no longer see ads. Brave has a fix for this. Most people wouldn't mind supporting the websites they visit often, like the New York Times. That's where the Brave ICO "token" comes in: it's not simply stock in Brave, but a token for micropayments to websites. Users buy tokens, then use them for micropayments to websites like New York Times. The New York Times then sells the tokens back to the market for dollars. The buying and selling of tokens happens without a centralized middleman.

This is still all speculative, of course, and it remains to be seen how successful Brave will be, but it's a serious effort. It has well respected VC behind the company, a well-respected founder (despite the fact he invented JavaScript), and well-respected employees. It's not a scam, it's a legitimate venture.

How to you make money from Bitcoin?

The last part of the show is dedicated to describing all the scam out there, advising people to be careful, and to be "responsible". This is garbage.

It's like my simple two step process to making lots of money via Bitcoin: (1) buy when the price is low, and (2) sell when the price is high. My advice is correct, of course, but useless. Same as "be careful" and "invest responsibly".

The truth about investing in cryptocurrencies is "don't". The only responsible way to invest is to buy low-overhead market index funds and hold for retirement. No, you won't get super rich doing this, but anything other than this is irresponsible gambling.

It's a hard lesson to learn, because everyone is telling you the opposite. The entire channel CNBC is devoted to day traders, who buy and sell stocks at a high rate based on the same principle as a ponzi scheme, basing their judgment not on the fundamentals (like long term dividends) but animal spirits of whatever stock is hot or cold at the moment. This is the same reason people buy or sell Bitcoin, not because they can describe the fundamental value, but because they believe in a bigger fool down the road who will buy it for even more.

For things like Bitcoin, the trick to making money is to have bought it over 7 years ago when it was essentially worthless, except to nerds who were into that sort of thing. It's the same tick to making a lot of money in Magic: The Gathering trading cards, which nerds bought decades ago which are worth a ton of money now. Or, to have bought Apple stock back in 2009 when the iPhone was new, when nerds could understand the potential of real Internet access and apps that Wall Street could not.

That was my strategy: be a nerd, who gets into things. I've made a good amount of money on all these things because as a nerd, I was into Magic: The Gathering, Bitcoin, and the iPhone before anybody else was, and bought in at the point where these things were essentially valueless.

At this point with cryptocurrencies, with the non-nerds now flooding the market, there little chance of making it rich. The lottery is probably a better bet. Instead, if you want to make money, become a nerd, obsess about a thing, understand a thing when its new, and cash out once the rest of the market figures it out. That might be Brave, for example, but buy into it because you've spent the last year studying the browser advertisement ecosystem, the market's willingness to pay for content, and how their Basic Attention Token delivers value to websites -- not because you want in on the ICO craze.


John Oliver spends 25 minutes explaining Bitcoin, Cryptocurrencies, and the Blockchain to you. Sure, it's funny, but it leaves you worse off than when it started. It admits they "simplify" the explanation, but they simplified it so much to the point where they removed all useful information.


David Allen Jones said...

Nice post and thanks for it. I keep hearing this argument in Bitcoin circles that fiat currency has no value which is simply wrong. Anything that can be used to purchase something else has value.

Second I keep hearing that nothing supports the Us dollar which is also incorrect. The reason the dollar was able to move away from the gold standard was because it had a more than 150 year history of never missing paying its bills. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies want to be given that right with no track records of performance.

third the description of inflation you use is only one reason for inflation. Inflation also happens because people want to simply raise prices. This is why prices go up in addition to a devaluing dollar. If it was only about putting more money into the money supply (which happens), you would see deflation happening all the time. You don't.

I make these arguments not to knock bitcoin. I am actually a big advocate, but this idea that it will somehow rescue the world and change everything makes it something that in my opinion nearly destines it to fail. Blockhain is a fantastic tech and a few of the cryptos have great ideas, but right now none work and none have a proven use case at scale. Also we have a merketplace that threatens to undermine the whole industry because of fraud and speculation.

Yes John Oliver was heavy handed and off the mark at times, but going equally far in the other direction has the same effect of being unbelievable. Just my humble opinions. Please provide your thoughts if you are inclined.


David Allen Jones said...

Sorry I made some mistakes above and could not correct them. I meant to say in the third paragraph that if you take money out of the money supply (which happen), you would see deflation happening every time that happen. You don't.


Wekoslav Stefanovski said...

Oliver's show did not focus on the technology at all - it focused on the people who treat crypto as the new gold rush, along with all the "get rich quick" promises.

Those who understand money and technology are not the problem, but there are a lot of people who will lose their houses to scams that claim some "crypto" connection, "investing" money they cant afford to lose.

I'm Manu. said...

David Allen Jones, I loved your comments on the review of the show, more than the review, or the show. Thank you.