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Economy

Bitcoin: Silicon Valley Vanities Invent Cyber-Currency That Crashes Like A Hard Drive

Whether tulips in the 1600s or bitcoin today, get rich quick schemes usually fail.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright Igor Stevanovic

When Holland’s tulip-buying mania and market bubble crashed in the 1630s, at least buyers whose finances were ruined could watch pretty flowers grow from the ashes.

“At least then you got a tulip, now you get nothing,” said Nout Wellink, former president of the Dutch Central Bank, speaking last December before the price of the cyber-currency known as bitcoin began plummeting and $480 million in electronic-only wealth vanished late last week due to hackers on Tokyo’s biggest bitcoin exchange.

Should anyone who isn’t drunk with images of fast and easy money be surprised? After all, investments that are too good to be true usually turn out not to be true at all.

The bitcoin craze is no exception, even though it has generated a global following among wealthy high-tech devotees and libertarian entrepreneurs who love the idea of an Internet-only currency that’s not tied to any government and is supposed protected by encryption. Except, in the collapse of the Japanese exchange last week, it was not safe and secure—as hackers apparently stole the digital keys to $480 million in other people’s money.

“The news that Mt. Gox, the Japanese virtual currency exchange, had lost 850,000 bitcoins, worth $480 million, through hacking, is extremely troubling,” the Sacramento Bee editorialized, saying real people were hurt. “This led Mt. Gox’s chief executive officer, Mark Karpeles, to seek a very non-libertarian solution: filing for bankruptcy. He did bow right before his news conference. Nice touch.”

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Autumn Radtke, a 28-year-old American who was the CEO of a Singapore-based Bitcoin exchange was found dead of what looks like a suicide. Her firm, First Meta, allowed people to trade real cash for the cyber-currency. It issued as statement saying that it was "shocked and saddened.”

There will be no shortage of articles about bitcoin’s risks—and possible upside if it ever grows up and become a real currency backed by real assets. But for now, several things are worth noting about the cultural vanities that have led many otherwise smart people to create a 21st century computerized currency and believe that it was trustworthy.

The idea that government cannot be trusted is nothing new in libertarian and tech circles. Right-wingers, including many AM radio hosts selling another overpriced investment, namely gold, are always looking for a safe harbor as they predict the dollar’s collapse. That political and financial paranoia runs headlong into Silicon Valley’s central vanity, which is that computer technology holds the answers to everything—and that today’s leaders don’t wait for the future but invent it instead. 

The biggest and most profitable inventions in Silicon Valley are tech platforms that other people use—such as microchips, computers and devices, software and other tools. So it was inevitable that Silicon Valley would want to create the most ubiquitous tool of all—its version of money. And especially cyber-money not tied to any government.

Bitcoin was introduced first in papers and then as a virtual currency in 2009, according to Wikipedia, which notes how many supposedly super-hip and super smart techies and groups quickly embraced it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for online civil liberties in court, started taking donations in bitcoin. So did Wikipedia. Meanwhile, large-scale drug dealers found it useful, according to the FBI and DEA. In late 2013, the first bitcoin ATMs were introduced. In 2014, the Sacramento Kings basketball team was planning to accept payment for concesssions in bitcoin. 

On November 29, 2013, bitcoin hit its all-time high of trading at $1,242 per coin, which was $2 more than an ounce of gold in that day’s spot markets, Forbes said. But late last month, Tokyo’s leading bitcoin exchange was badly hacked. In a flash, many of the same people who had grow used to staring at their computer screens and feeling that they were super-saavy investors gettng rich, could not access their cyber-currency.

Of course, they were warned. But people who get greedy don’t want to hear that. 

“The exchange rate is volatile and there is no central issuer which may be held liable,” Holland’s Dutch Central Bank said last December, foreseeing a bitcoin bubble popping. It also cautioned that its bank deposit guarantees do “not apply.” The same in the U.S., where the Federal Reserve has stayed away from the gimmicky cyber-currency.

Last Friday, Feb. 28, when Tokyo’s bitcoin exchange abruptly shut down and it managers filed for bankruptcy, it wasn’t just Silicon Valley venture capitalists who were stung.

“Devon Weller, a 40-year-old freelance Web developer in Nashville who said he had a ‘small amount’ of bitcoins stashed at Mt. Gox, tossed aside his regular work Friday morning to start looking for missing bitcoins,” the Wall Street Journal said. “He tapped into the public ledger from his home office and started following the trail of large transactions. ‘I haven't gotten very far, but it’s one of those things that is going to eat away at me,’ said Mr. Weller.”

On Thusday at 2.40 PM Pacific Standard Time, a bitcoin was trading for $661, according to BitCoinExchangeRate.org

That’s quite a bit more than the cost of purple tulip bulbs. But anyone spending that kind of money on a costume currency that’s lost half its value in a matter of weeks, might as well be digging a hole and throwing it into the ground. They might end up discovering that they’re bailing out early investors, instead of watching investments grow the old-fashioned way: like a tulip, slowly and with the seasons.

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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