Bitcoin – Millennial's Fake Gold
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I’ve been asked about Bitcoin a lot lately. I’ haven’t written anything about it because I find myself in an uncomfortable place in agreeing with the mainstream media: It’s a bubble. Bitcoin started out as what I’d call “millennial gold” – the young (digital) generation looked at it as their gold substitute.
Bitcoin is really two things: a blockchain technology and a (perceived) currency. The blockchain element of Bitcoin may have enormous future applications: It may be used for electronic contracts, voting, money transfers – and the list goes on. But there is a very important misconception about Bitcoin: Ownership of Bitcoin doesn’t give you ownership of the technology. I, without owning a single bitcoin, own as much Bitcoin technology as someone who owns a million bitcoins; that is, exactly none. It’s just like when you have $1,000 on a Visa debit card: That $1,000 doesn’t give you part ownership of the Visa network unless you actually own some Visa’ stock.
Owning Bitcoin gives you a right to … what, actually? Digital bits?
I can understand gold bugs and the original Bitcoin aficionados. The global economy is living beyond its means and financing its lifestyle by issuing a lot of debt. Normally this behavior would cause higher interest rates and inflation. But not when you have central banks. Our local central bankers simply bought this newly issued debt and brought global interest rates down to near-zero levels (and in many cases to what would have been previously unthinkable negative levels). If you think investing today is difficult, being a parent is even more difficult. I tried to explain the above to my 16-year-old son, Jonah. I saw the same puzzled look in his eyes as when he found out where babies come from. I also felt embarrassed, for my inability to explain how governments can buy the debt they just issued. The concept of negative interest rates goes against every logical fiber in my body and is as confusing to this forty-four-year-old parent as it is to my sixteen-year-old.
The logical inconsistencies and internal sickness of the global economy have manifested themselves into a digital creature: Bitcoin. The core argument for Bitcoin is not much different from the argument for gold: Central banks cannot print it. However, the shininess of gold has less appeal to millennials than Bitcoin does. They are not into jewelry as much as previous generations; they don’t wear watches (unless they track your heartbeat and steps). Unlike with gold, where transporting a million dollars requires an armored track and a few body builders, a nearly weightless thumb drive will store a dollar or a billion dollars of Bitcoin. Gold bugs would of course argue that gold has a tradition that goes back centuries. To which digital millennials would probably say, gold is analog and Bitcoin is digital. And they’d add, in today’s world the past is not a predictor of the future – Sears was around for 125 years and now it is almost dead.