In this post I'm going to outline a case for bitcoin. I still think bitcoin is a bad medium of exchange and a rubbish store of value. It's just too volatile and unhinged, and it'll always be that way. But bitcoin still has an important role to play... just not the role that most people assume.
Sara Hess and Eugene Soltas recently published a fascinating article on the life of Russian ponzi-scheme architect Sergei Mavrodi, who passed away last month. I found it interesting that in the latter part of his career, Mavrodi openly advertised that his schemes were pyramids, yet people still bought in.
Ponzi-schemer Sergei Mavrodi clearly advertised MMM's risks and promised nothing in return, yet still people bought in. If he didn't trick people into joining, maybe society genuinely needed him to manage ponzis? https://t.co/5RAzDFvTgx pic.twitter.com/pUghQJQB00— JP Koning (@jp_koning) April 26, 2018
This got me thinking. I've always sort of assumed that ponzi schemers were just con men who fooled innocent people into giving up there money. But even after Mavrodi lifted his skirt and told the truth, people still flocked to join his schemes. Maybe there is a constant demand on the part of willing and informed individuals for ponzis. Which would mean that folks like Mavrodi aren't just conmen. Rather, society genuinely needs them to manage ponzi games.
The role that lottery and casinos operators play is certainly similar to that played by ponzi schemers. People take joy in gambling, and lottery operators and croupiers make sure these games run smoothly. Ponzis, lotteries, and poker are all versions of a zero sum game. If you win $10, it's only because someone else who was playing the game lost $10. Zero sum games are different from win-win games, say like stocks, bonds, and other liabilities including banknotes. Someone doesn't have to lose $10 on Google shares for you to be able to make $10 on Google. The underlying business generates income from its customer base and this provides each and every shareholder with a return.
What differentiates one type of zero-sum game from another is the rule used for redistributing money from losers to winners. Ponzis and pyramids are early-bird zero sum games: the jackpot goes to the earliest entrants and is funded by money provided by the latest entrants. A lottery, on the other hand, awards a randomly chosen participant with everyone else's money. Being the last buyer of a lottery ticket provides one with the same odds of winning the jackpot as the first buyer.
The coexistence of different types of zero sum games indicates that while the public has an ongoing demand for the chance to win jackpots, it also values the way those jackpots are rewarded. Perhaps a ponzi provide a different set of psychic returns than other zero sum games; getting in line early and looking back at all the late comers may offer a sense of satisfaction that a lottery can't provide.
Society has typically legalized lotteries while criminalizing ponzis and pyramids, although in Mavrodi's case there was some ambiguity since he cheekily advertised them as ponzis rather than trying to deceive the public. Luckily for authorities, ponzis and pyramids are easy targets. They have central points of failure. An administrator needs to collect money from new entrants and then pay it out to older entrants. So there is a physical entity with an address that can be sued by unhappy participants or pursued by the authorities.
Because they are illegal, ponzis have been driven underground. Unfortunately, the delegitimization of markets can have perverse effects. For instance, street drugs are often mixed with dangerous contaminants, say like how heroin is laced with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer. If the drug market were brought into the open, it could be that producers would be pressured by market forces to provide a purer product and fewer users would die from accidental overdoses.
The same argument applies to ponzis. Those who play them have to rely on fly-by-night operators who may abscond with the funds at any moment, the ponzi collapsing before reaching its natural end. If ponzis were legitimized, it would be much easier to have a transparent and well-run ponzi market.
Like ponzis and pyramids, a chain letter is an early-bird game, a type of zero-sum game that use entrance order as its redistribution rule. And like ponzis and pyramids, they are illegal. The Circle of Gold chain letter that began in San Francisco in 1978 and spread to the rest of the U.S. through 1979 and 1980 is a good example of the genre.
In brief, I buy an existing copy of the letter from you for $50, and simultaneously mail $50 to the name at the top of the list, for a total outlay of $100. I then make two copies (removing the name at the top of the list an inserting my own at the bottom) and sell them for $50 each, for a total of $100, thus breaking even. By selling the letters directly rather than sending them via the mail, presumably I avoid mail fraud. The buyers in turn make copies and sell them on, the chain continuing. Once my name starts arriving at the top of the list the money will pour in. The letter exhorts recipients not to break the chain.
HODL is similar to the "DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN" exhortations commonly found on chain letters. They're not wrong—if the chain holds, the money keeps flowing! https://t.co/Ha0qaJGWsC pic.twitter.com/xcgpW1OV25— JP Koning (@jp_koning) December 22, 2017
Whereas a ponzi relies on a central node—or operator—for managing the game's flow of funds, a chain letter decentralizes the role of operating the system. Any participant who has bought a copy of the letter is delegated the job of faithfully modifying their version of the ledger (by removing the name at the top and inserting theirs at the bottom), sending the $50 by mail, and then passing the updated ledger on. Lacking attackable central nodes, chain letters are more difficult for the authorities to shut down than ponzis.
There are still a few key flaws with a chain letter. The first is that everyone who joins the chain letter needs to leave their physical address. And so it is possible for the authorities to target participants by getting a copy of the chain letter, visiting their home, and shutting it down that way. To avoid this risk, many would-be ponzi players will probably choose not to play.
The second flaw is that chain letters are not secure. Each participant has an incentive to mis-copy the list and put themselves at the top, thus cutting into the queue. This lack of credibility hurts the chain letter's ability to propagate.
All of which gets me back to bitcoin. Bitcoin is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game that uses entrance order as its redistribution rule, or an early bird game like a ponzi, pyramid, or chain letter. The only way to get ahead is if a subsequent participant buys one's bitcoins at a higher price.
But bitcoin brings a few unique features to the table. To begin with, Bitcoin is decentralized. Rather than a lone administrator like Sergei Mavrodi handling the scheme, the ledger is maintained by a disparate set of nodes. This makes bitcoin much harder to shut down than a ponzi.
Chain letters are also decentralized, but Bitcoin doesn't inherit the weaknesses of a chain letter. Although there are many different copies of the bitcoin ledger, these copies are constantly being checked against each other to ensure that they are all in sync. This means that—unlike a chain letter—there is no way to budge in line, say by re-writing the bitcoin ledger in one's favour. And this improves the durability of bitcoin.
Before I bring this all together and make my case for bitcoin, there is one other early bird game I haven't got into yet: the speculative bubble.
Unlike chain letters, ponzis, and bitcoin, which are pure early bird games, bubbles occurs on the back of an already useful asset, say like a stock or commodity. During the late 1990s internet mania, for instance, the return on an internet stock could be decomposed into two components: a fundamental component and a zero-sum game that was being played on top of the stock's fundamental value. Those playing a zero sum game by purchasing internet stocks didn't give a damn whether the underlying internet business made sense. No, they were betting that a late-comer would arrive to take the stock off their hands at a much higher price.
To a fundamental investors (say like Warren Buffett), zero-sum game players are a nuisance. The zero sum game that they are playing adds a wasteful premium to stocks, pricing fundamental investors out of the market. At the same time, zero sum game players are probably just as annoyed by the fundamental component of the asset they are buying and selling. Its presence dampens the jackpot that they stand to win.
Prices provide useful signals to society. A zero-sum game that runs on top of an intrinsically valuable asset like a stock or a commodity distorts that signal. This can lead to wasted resources. Producers who decide to add capacity—say a new production plant—in response to a commodity's high price may only be reacting to the transitory mood changes of those playing that commodity's attached zero-sum game, and not a fundamental need for new supply.
But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It should be embraced.
City planners build bike lanes in order to prevent the dangerous mixing of cars and bikes. Likewise, if people who are playing zero-sum games on top of regular stocks and commodities can be diverted into bitcoin (and other pure early bird games like ponzis) instead, maybe that would make for a more ordered financial system. Early-bird games that are played on top of useful assets taint their price, and thus play havoc with the signal this price provides. But bitcoins, ponzis, and chain letters have no use as commodities, so there is no underlying real good that can be contaminated by the presence of zero-sum game players.
When criminalization drives ponzis underground, the supply of trustworthy ponzis shrinks and the supply of untrustworthy ones increases. Bitcoin has a role to play here. It is an open system. The set of rules that governs it are automatic and available for all to see, unlike the closed books of a ponzi administrator. There is no way for the system operator to abscond with everyone's funds. So bitcoin is a safer zero-sum game than an illegal ponzi. If people have a genuine need to play zero-sum games, shouldn't they at least be able to play a good one?
Is bitcoin expensive? Sure. Lots of electricity is required to ensure the integrity of bitcoin. But if bitcoin has managed to displace a bunch of poorly-run underground ponzis and pyramids, as well as reducing the signal-destroying participation of zero-sum game players in traditional financial markets, maybe the expense was worth it.