1. This week’s news, or “news,” about the US Treasury’s ability, or willingness, or just trial-balloon troll-suggestion to mint a one trillion dollar ($1,000,000,000,000) platinum coin in order to extend the country’s debt-limit reminded me of some other monetary reading I encountered, during the sweltering summer, when it first became clear to many that the greatest impediment to any new American infrastructure bill wasn’t going to be the debt-ceiling but the Congressional floor.
That reading, which I accomplished while preparing lunch with the help of my favorite infrastructure, namely electricity, was of a transcript of a speech given by one Christopher J. Waller, a freshly-minted governor of the United States’ 51st and most powerful state, the Federal Reserve.
The subject of this speech? CBDCs—which aren’t, unfortunately, some new form of cannabinoid that you might’ve missed, but instead the acronym for Central Bank Digital Currencies—the newest danger cresting the public horizon.
Now, before we go any further, let me say that it’s been difficult for me to decide what exactly this speech is—whether it’s a minority report or just an attempt to pander to his hosts, the American Enterprise Institute.
But given that Waller, an economist and a last-minute Trump appointee to the Fed, will serve his term until January 2030, we lunchtime readers might discern an effort to influence future policy, and specifically to influence the Fed’s much-heralded and still-forthcoming “discussion paper”—a group-authored text—on the topic of the costs and benefits of creating a CBDC.
That is, on the costs and benefits of creating an American CBDC, because China has already announced one, as have about a dozen other countries including most recently Nigeria, which in early October will roll out the eNaira.
By this point, a reader who isn’t yet a subscriber to this particular Substack might be asking themselves, what the hell is a Central Bank Digital Currency?
Reader, I will tell you.
Rather, I will tell you what a CBDC is NOT—it is NOT, as Wikipedia might tell you, a digital dollar. After all, most dollars are already digital, existing not as something folded in your wallet, but as an entry in a bank’s database, faithfully requested and rendered beneath the glass of your phone.
Neither is a Central Bank Digital Currency a State-level embrace of cryptocurrency—at least not of cryptocurrency as pretty much everyone in the world who uses it currently understands it.
Instead, a CBDC is something closer to being a perversion of cryptocurrency, or at least of the founding principles and protocols of cryptocurrency—a cryptofascist currency, an evil twin entered into the ledgers on Opposite Day, expressly designed to deny its users the basic ownership of their money and to install the State at the mediating center of every transaction.
2. For thousands of years priors to the advent of CBDCs, money—the conceptual unit of account that we represent with the generally physical, tangible objects we call currency—has been chiefly embodied in the form of coins struck from precious metals. The adjective “precious”—referring to the fundamental limit on availability established by what a massive pain in the ass it was to find and dig up the intrinsically scarce commodity out of the ground—was important, because, well, everyone cheats: the buyer in the marketplace shaves down his metal coin and saves up the scraps, the seller in the marketplace weighs the metal coin on dishonest scales, and the minter of the coin, who is usually the regent, or the State, dilutes the preciosity of the coin’s metal with lesser materials, to say nothing of other methods.
The history of banking is in many ways the history of this dilution—as governments soon discovered that through mere legislation they could declare that everyone within their borders had to accept that this year’s coins were equal to last year’s coins, even if the new coins had less silver and more lead. In many countries, the penalties for casting doubt on this system, even for pointing out the adulteration, was asset-seizure at best, and at worst: hanging, beheading, death-by-fire.
In Imperial Rome, this currency-degradation, which today might be described as a “financial innovation,” would go on to finance previously-unaffordable policies and forever wars, leading eventually to the Crisis of the Third Century and Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices, which outlived the collapse of the Roman economy and the empire itself in an appropriately memorable way:
Tired of carrying around weighty bags of dinar and denarii, post-third-century merchants, particularly post-third-century traveling merchants, created more symbolic forms of currency, and so created commercial banking—the populist version of royal treasuries—whose most important early instruments were institutional promissory notes, which didn’t have their own intrinsic value but were backed by a commodity: They were pieces of parchment and paper that represented the right to be exchanged for some amount of a more-or-less intrinsically valuable coinage.
The regimes that emerged from the fires of Rome extended this concept to establish their own convertible currencies, and little tiny shreds of rag circulated within the economy alongside their identical-in-symbolic-value, but distinct-in-intrinsic-value, coin equivalents. Beginning with an increase in printing paper notes, continuing with the cancellation of the right to exchange them for coinage, and culminating in the zinc-and-copper debasement of the coinage itself, city-states and later enterprising nation-states finally achieved what our old friend Waller and his cronies at the Fed would generously describe as “sovereign currency:” a handsome napkin.
Once currency is understood in this way, it’s a short hop from napkin to network. The principle is the same: the new digital token circulates alongside the increasingly-absent old physical token. At first.
Just as America’s old paper Silver Certificate could once be exchanged for a shiny, one-ounce Silver Dollar, the balance of digital dollars displayed on your phone banking app can today still be redeemed at a commercial bank for one printed green napkin, so long as that bank remains solvent or retains its depository insurance.
Should that promise-of-redemption seem a cold comfort, you’d do well to remember that the napkin in your wallet is still better than what you traded it for: a mere claim on a napkin for your wallet. Also, once that napkin is securely stowed away in your purse—or murse—the bank no longer gets to decide, or even know, how and where you use it. Also, the napkin will still work when the power-grid fails.
The perfect companion for any reader’s lunch.
3. Advocates of CBDCs contend that these strictly-centralized currencies are the realization of a bold new standard—not a Gold Standard, or a Silver Standard, or even a Blockchain Standard, but something like a Spreadsheet Standard, where every central-bank-issued-dollar is held by a central-bank-managed account, recorded in a vast ledger-of-State that can be continuously scrutizined and eternally revised.
CBDC proponents claim that this will make everyday transactions both safer (by removing counterparty risk), and easier to tax (by rendering it well nigh impossible to hide money from the government).
CBDC opponents, however, cite that very same purported “safety” and “ease” to argue that an e-dollar, say, is merely an extension to, or financial manifestation of, the ever-encroaching surveillance state. To these critics, the method by which this proposal eradicates bankruptcy fallout and tax dodgers draws a bright red line under its deadly flaw: these only come at the cost of placing the State, newly privy to the use and custodianship of every dollar, at the center of monetary interaction. Look at China, the napkin-clingers cry, where the new ban on Bitcoin, along with the release of the digital-yuan, is clearly intended to increase the ability of the State to “intermediate”—to impose itself in the middle of—every last transaction.