|by Paul Conrad|
When we talk about bitcoin, one thing we need to ask ourselves is this: can worthless things circulate and be accepted in trade? If so, how? And can this state of affairs continue indefinitely?
An intrinsically useless, unbacked, and costless fiat object might be accepted in trade, but only if it already has a positive price. A history of positive prices will generate sufficient expectations among potential acceptors that they will be able to trade that object on tomorrow. But how might our fiat object earn a positive price to begin with? If we reply that early adopters expected it to be widely accepted by others in trade, how did these early adopters ever form these expectations if that object didn't already have a positive price? We're dealing with a problem of circularity. There is no way to "break into" a dynamic that might generate a positive value for a fiat object. So logically, worthless things cannot trade in the market at a positive value.
However, fiat objects like dollars and yen do seem to have a positive value. Two types of economists, Austrians and MMTers, recognize the circularity dilemma that emerges when trying to explain the positive price of a useless fiat object. Both solve the circularity problem in different ways.
Austrians say that when early adopters first acquired the fiat object, it was not yet intrinsically useless, unbacked, or costless. Thanks to its original commodity nature, or perhaps its status as a backed financial asset, it already traded at a positive price. Even if that character is lost, the object suddenly becoming a fiat one, it may still be widely accepted in trade on the basis of people's memory of its pre-fiat price. Thus the circle can be broken into, and worthless bits of paper can legitimately have a positive value in trade. This is Ludwig von Mises's famous regression theorem.
MMTers solve the circularity problem by bringing in the tax authority. As long as some agency like the government imposes an obligation on people to pay taxes with these fiat objects, that will be enough to drive their positive value.
I should point out that I don't think we actually face a circularity problem with modern central banknotes since they aren't worthless bits of paper but rather exist as a liability of their issuer. But we do run into the problem with bitcoin. Here we have an unbacked, intrinsically useless, stateless fiat object trading at $950 or so, not to mention a legion of copycat coins trading at various positive prices. 
Austrians are all over the board on bitcoin. Because their solution to the circularity problem is to invoke the legacy commodity value of a fiat object, bitcoin poses some theoretical hurdles for them since it is by no means clear whether bitcoin ever had an original commodity value. Bob Murphy for one argues here that bitcoin may have earned its first foothold thanks to non-pecuniary ideological reasons. However, there seems to be no consensus among Austrians on that point. MMTers seem to genuinely dislike bitcoin since their preferred tax obligation story can't bear the load of explaining bitcoin's price. Here is L. Randall Wray who says that bitcoin is a test of the "infinite regress view of money", then gleefully points to its falling price as evidence that the taxed backed theory is the dominant theory (it later rebounded).
Let's move on from MMTers and Austrians. George Selgin recently came up with an interesting way to explain how bitcoin might have earned its all important original positive price:
Records show that a just a few persons took part in most early Bitcoin transfers, and especially in the larger-volume ones. My guess is that they all knew each other, and that those trades were more-or-less fictitious, with large values being traded and then traded back again, with the intent of enhancing the prominence of the positive-value equilibrium by drawing attention away from the much larger set of inactive Bitcoin markets. Bitcoin’s inventors, I’m now almost certain, were making conspicuous leaps onto their own bandwagon, so as to encourage others to do so, whether to express themselves or to profit by doing so. In short, a clever marketing strategy, including a little strategic sleight-of-hand, can substitute for history in putting a positive sign on the expected value of an otherwise useless potential exchange medium.Here we have neat way to break into the circle. Have a group of insiders trade the fiat object amongst each other in order to generate an artificial history of positive prices, at which point outsiders will be willing to accept it in trade based on the expectation that others will repurchase it from them later.
Making "conspicuous leaps onto one's own bandwagon," as Selgin calls it, is a well worn tactic. In stock markets, the term wash trading refers to the illegal practice whereby an individual or group of schemers trade an illiquid, often worthless, stock back and forth among different accounts. The goal is to give the illusion of activity, thereby attracting innocent traders who would otherwise pass up the stock. A more colourful term for this is "painting the tape", which refers to the old ticker tape of yore.
Another way to paint the tape is to high close a stock. Using this technique, a trader or group of traders will buy a stock in the closing seconds of the day, pushing its price up. Since media outlets tend to focus on a stock's daily closing price, and stock charts depend on the daily close, high closing may be a cost effective strategy for traders to create and benefit from the positive price momentum that news of a high closing price engenders.
Auction markets, say in livestock or art, are sometimes populated with confederates—those who work in conjunction with a seller to provide fictitious bids so as to drive some object's price, say a dubious piece of abstract art, or a lame horse, far higher than it would otherwise be worth. Should the confederate's bid be the only bid, the worst that happens is that the schemers get their own painting or horse back, upon which they can try the same trick over again in the next auction. If their bidding excites someone else to add a bid, then they've succeeded in earning something for nothing.
In any case, all of these techniques can push a worthless object's price above zero, at which point that object may have generated enough of a history of positive prices that it will be valued by enough outsiders that it will join the mass of non-fiat objects in circulation. From nothing, our worthless item it has pulled itself up by its own bootstraps.
Which explains bitcoin's incredible volatility. A bootstrapped object can just as easily let go of its own straps and fall back to zero. Without some real use or backing, there's nothing to catch it on the way to $0. And at $0, there's no guarantee of re-bootstrapping bitcoin back to some positive price. As such, Bitcoin users justifiably expect incredible returns from bitcoin holdings in order to bear the risk of a zero-value equilibrium. Expected hyperdeflation is the carrot that must be proffered up for risky cryptocoins to be held. When those expectations of price appreciation aren't met, a large crash in the current price (relative to its future expected price) is necessary in order to tempt the next crop of speculators to hold it again. Thus bitcoin's pattern of incredible rises, or hyperdeflation, followed by 50% flash crashes, followed by the next round of hyperdeflation.
So if unbacked, useless, and costless objects can be imbued with a positive price via Selgin's painting-the-tape story, why isn't everyone doing it? But they are! Attracted by the potential for large gains, plenty of people are creating alt-coins, as I wrote here and here. In theory, their combined greediness should have the effect of swamping the market with fiat objects, driving their price towards the cost of production. The idea here is similar to the Somali shilling story, in which continual counterfeiting of old fiat shilling notes drove their price down to the cost of production, namely the costs of paper, printing, and shipment.
This hasn't happened yet with bitcoin, which is hovering at around $950. In my old post Milton Friedman and the mania in "copy-paste" cryptocoins, I hypothesized that the seeming inability of competitors to drive bitcoin prices down had something to do with the unassailable benefits that bitcoin enjoys as being the first mover, including superior security and liquidity. Tyler Cowen has some interesting thoughts on this. Bitcoin has a market cap of about $20 billion. As long as Bitcoin's entrenched advantages are so supreme that it would cost $20 billion to create a competitor, then there's no profit in tackling its niche. Cowen, however, thinks that the cost of mimicking bitcoin is far less than this. Rather than being in equilibrium, the cryptocurrency market is currently working itself via a process of "supply-side arbitrage" to a new equilibrium at which bitcoin will be worth far less.
On this same topic, Nick Rowe suggests that a BackedCoin might be one of the competitors capable of carrying of this feat. I agree with Cowen and Rowe —that's why I mostly sold out of bitcoin last year, and why I plan to eventually sell my litecoin. Of course, I'm the dummy who sold BTC back at $100, so my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Where will the competition come from? Robert Sams makes a good argument for why bitcoin knock offs like litecoin, sexcoin, etc., though costless to produce, can't easily compete with bitcoin itself. The mining power that goes into maintaining the integrity of the various blockchains is in scarce supply. Merchants will always congregate to the blockchain with the most security, since that will be the coin that guarantees that the threat of double-spending is the smallest. While clones can be created with a few key strokes, good security can't be bought. Thus bitcoin's price can't be competed down to $0ish by alt-coins.
I think I buy Sams's point. However, he couches his argument within the existing universe of bitcoin and its clones. I'd make the argument that the crypto phenomena through which "supply-side arbitrage" will be carried out could be something entirely different than bitcoin, say Ripple or something we haven't yet seen. Ripple for one isn't constrained by the supply of existing mining power, or hashing, since the Ripple blockchain is maintained via consensus, not by hashing miners. Is this type of security cheaper? I'm no techie, so I won't speculate. But it is something different. And though it may take a while, at some point new and different will also be cheaper.
Another bonus of the Ripple system is that the crypto currency it creates are not bootstrapped assets, they are redeemable IOUs (let's not confuse Ripple IOUs and XRP!). In Rowe's UnbackedCoin vs BackedCoin world, Ripple IOUs are the equivalent of BackedCoin. It is their backing that should protect the exchange value of Ripple IOU from the threat of competition. This very same backing frees them from the hyperdeflation-crash-hyperdeflation patten that bootstrapped coins tend to display, stability being a desirable feature among those who want to hold an inventory of media of exchange. As long as Ripple IOUs are just as transferable & secure as bitcoin and other alt-coins, this stability will be the edge that pushes them above the crypto competition.
So in sum, worthless assets can be kickstarted into circulation, say by a group of confederates who paint the tape in a way to attract outsiders. The riskiness of these bootstrapped assets requires that they yield incredibly high returns, or constant price appreciation. However, this state of affairs can't last forever since others will be eager to issue their own competing fiat objects, including superior non-volatile competitors. If I'm right, in the future bitcoin will be a smaller part of the cryptocoin world than it it now, whereas stable-value non-bootsrapped crypto assets, like Ripple IOUs, will be a larger part of that world.
 Bitcoin may not be entirely intrinsically worthless. I have floated the idea before that bitcoin has commodity value as a symbol of geek cred.