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Is This a Bitcoin Bubble? An In-Depth Look at the Bitcoin Phenomenon.

by Kenny Estes on December 11, 2013 · 28 comments

  
Bitcoin Bubble

Bitcoins are on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days; probably because they quadrupled in price in the month of November.

Although they’ve been around for years, this is the first time they look like they might live up to their promise: challenging the US dollar for dominance.  Should you buy them?  Or are we seeing a Bitcoin bubble?  I’ve been following Bitcoins since the year they were put into circulation, so I thought I would share my thoughts with you.

A Brief Explanation of Bitcoins

How Bitcoins are created is…technical.  For the sake of this article just know you have to find rare numbers with a specific property.  As you find these numbers, Bitcoins are created.  The more numbers are found, the harder it is to find new ones.  The process of searching for these numbers and receiving Bitcoins is called Bitcoin “mining.”

In theory, the number of Bitcoins that can be created is incredibly large (should run out around 2140).  In practice the supply is limited by processing power.  A couple of weeks ago I priced out how much it would cost to rent a few racks of servers and run a mining application across all of them (well, one for each CPU core).  My back of the envelope math showed that my rental fees would break even with the value of the Bitcoins I mined (they were worth ~$1,000 at the time).  I figured it wasn’t worth my time and moved on.

You can still make money by mining, but it requires specialized hardware and a smart algorithm.  Unless you’ve a lot of experience managing server farms and/or programming FPGA’s, its’ more cost effective to buy Bitcoins than mine them.

Great…now I know how they’re created, what are they used for?

The goal of Bitcoins is to be a new currency.  Not just any currency though, Bitcoin transactions are anonymous and digital, which means it has the potential to be the first currency free from government intervention.

Can it be done?  Is the recent price increase jusitified?  Or is Alan Greenspan right: this is a Bitcoin bubble?  Well…let’s start with a basic question.

What is Money?

Time for a history lesson.  Virtually every basic economics class starts by explaining “money” with an example that goes something like this:

What we’re told money is

Imagine a hypothetical village with three people: a blacksmith who sells knives, a cobbler who sells shoes, and a farmer who sells pigs.  If the cobbler wants knives at the same time the blacksmith wants shoes,  they swap.  The same if the farmer wants shoes at the same time the cobbler wants a pig.

But what if the blacksmith wants a pig but the farmer wants shoes?  Well, they introduce a fourth thing called money which has a value roughly equal to a pig or a pair of shoes.  Then the cobbler sells the blacksmith shoes in exchange for money and who then uses that money to buy a pig from the farmer.

There’s one slight problem with this example: It’s completely wrong.

What Money Actually Is

Never in the history of our species have we seen a money come into being in this way.  What anthropologists have actually discovered is:

The blacksmith wakes up one day and realized he needs new shoes.  So, he wanders on down to the cobbler and drops some subtle hints (or more likely he has his wife drop subtle hints with the cobbler’s wife) and the cobbler gives him a pair of shoes.   After a socially acceptable amount of time the cobbler swings by and tells the blacksmith what nice knives he has.  Of course, the blacksmith doesn’t get the hint until his wife points it out to him, but he eventually gives the cobbler a knife.

It’s the same thing as when you borrow your neighbors lawn mower and then you later lend him some sugar (great, now I’m going to have Outkast stuck in my head).

Let’s extend our example: the cobbler gave the blacksmith a pair of shoes and the blacksmith still hasn’t made good on his debt.  Now the farmer wants a knife.  Since it’s a small village the farmer knows the blacksmith owes a favor to the cobbler, so the farmer asks the cobbler to help him out.  Magically the blacksmith gives the farmer a knife and the farmer owes the cobbler “one.”

One what?

One debt.  One money.  (grammar shrammar)

How Does That Scale Out?

If the village only has a handful of inhabitants, it’s not hard to keep track of a few debts between people.  After all, they’re not idiots.

As the village gets bigger and bigger they realize they need something better.  So, they start using things to keep track of it all.  A popular way to do this was with a tally, which was a stick on which they write the amount of the debt down the side.  Then they break the stick in half with the creditor keeping the longer half and the debtor keeping the shorter half.  When the debt is settled, they each bring their halves, make sure the grooves match and burn them.

Interestingly enough, the longer half (kept by the creditor) was called the stock of the tally.  A term that, in theory, has the same meaning today.

Tally sticks were one solution to the problem of tracking debts; sea shells, beads, necklaces, and the most familiar gold/silver were others.

It’s important to note that complicated debt systems were around far before “money.”  This is the opposite of the traditional thinking that money was created and debt came later.

Money is Just a Measure of Debt

At this point, you’re probably thinking: that’s interesting Kenny (or maybe not), but why the F do we care?

In the traditional model (money being used to barter), the gold/seashells/beads have the same value as the items being sold. That makes it a commodity.

In the historically accurate model, money is a measure of debt.  The item itself doesn’t have to have any value.   Remember our tally stick?  In today’s money it would be worth about $0.01 but could represent a debt of billions of dollars.

This has interesting implications for the good folks who want to go back to the gold standard, but I won’t go into that here.

Are Bitcoins Really “Money?”

Now the million dollar question: are Bitcoins money?

Well…is it an accepted measure for debt?  Negative Ghostrider.

Outside of some now defunct illicit marketplaces and a splattering of online vendors, they aren’t used as a method of exchange.

Which means…they’re a commodity.  So what is the value of Bitcoins as a commodity?  I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with something valuable about them.  They don’t have an physical form.  They don’t conduct electricity.  They’re not shiny.  They’re not anything.  As a commodity, their value is zip, zero, zilch.

But Wait…Bitcoins Might Become Money

If Bitcoins don’t have a value as a commodity, then their prices must be determined by their value as money.

Now we’re to the interesting part of this debate.  The hope is that Bitcoins make the transition from being just a commodity and become money, used on a daily basis.  Here are some reasons this won’t happen

  1. Regulators will stomp on them
  2. You have to eat
  3. You have to pay taxes

Let’s discuss each of these:

Regulators will stomp on them

Bitcoin proponents tout how they are untraceable and impossible to regulate.

Ballocks.

The government might be slow, but it only takes one person to realize all they have to do is the same thing the United States did in 1933.  Make it illegal to own Bitcoins.  It’s simple: if they find you with Bitcoins on your computer, they toss you in jail.  If you’re in China, they shoot you.  The transactions might be anonymous, but you’ve still got to store them somewhere.

Not only can any government regulate their ownership, but if Bitcoins get a critical mass, they will HAVE to.  There is some evidence that the recent soar in Bitcoin prices is due to Chinese wholesale adoption of them.  However, China (like any major government) relies on being able to manipulate the value of their currency.  They cannot allow unchecked adoption of something outside of their control.  In just the last few days, we’ve seen China take steps to mitigate Bitcoin growth.

You have to eat

An entirely electronic way to buy things works great…as long as everything you need to buy is online.  What percentage of your daily expenditures are web based?  What incentive do physical stores have to accept digital currency?

As far as I can gather, Bitcoin proponents think a conversation like this is imminent:

Bitcoins at Walgreens

If only we already had an untraceable way to pay for everyday items that is not only legal, but supported by our government.  Oh wait…isn’t that what cash is?

You Have to Pay Taxes

Let’s say the government, for some strange reason, never regulates Bitcoins.

They’re not stupid enough to accept a competing currency to pay your taxes.

To get your USD into Bitcoins (and vice versa) today, you’re looking at a 5-10% commission.  You could you argue that as the demand gets larger the cost will drop.

Except exchanges are getting shut down left, right, and center.  The funny thing is when they shut down, they tend to keep the money.  That’s the downside of having untraceable transactions…it assumes people aren’t greedy.  To my mind, that’s a suckers bet.

Even if the commission drops to 2%, who in their right mind is going to get paid in dollars, convert them to Bitcoins, and then convert them back to dollars to pay taxes?

Never in the history of money have the state and money been two distinct entities.  There’s a reason for that and it’s called taxes.

Wrap It Up: Is this a Bitcoin Bubble?

Who would be interested in Bitcoins as a currency?  From this article we see they are people who want anonymous transactions, are comfortable carrying personal risk, and don’t pay taxes.  Turns out, these are the same people who currently transact in cash, are comfortable carrying personal risk, and don’t pay taxes.  We call them criminals.

Unfortunately, Bitcoins are not an accepted token of debt…nor will they ever be.  So they can’t be valued as money in and of itself.

That means their only value is as a commodity.  Except their commodity value is 0!  They have no use in and of themselves.

Is the Bitcoin bubble going to burst soon?  I have no idea.  That’s the trouble with bubbles, irrationality can last longer than your bank roll.

However, I’ll leave you with a parting thought.

In my BiggerPockets podcast interview, I mentioned the cab driver test.  Whenever a cab driver asks you how to buy something, the first thing you should do is sell it.  Why?  Cause by the time someone who doesn’t follow finance hears about the “hot new thing,” the bubble is running out of suckers.

Last week, my cab driver asked me how to buy Bitcoins.

Photo: BTC Keychain

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad W December 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Excellent, well-reasoned piece. As long as there are no federal regulations on BitCoins, they can never be a legitimate form of currency. And if federal regulations are put into place, BitCoins lose their anonymity, and thus, there primary reason for existence.

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Cheers for the comment Brad.

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Karen December 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm

It’s these kinds of things that make me feel old, really old….. bit what? Oh phooey.

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm

You know what they say: you’re only as old as you think you are.

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Mike December 12, 2013 at 11:25 am

People had this same attitude with the web, email, cellphones, etc.

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mark Ferguson December 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Karen, don’t feel bad. I have no idea what I just read.

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Jason December 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Kenny,

Thank you for the article. Now lets put on our tin foil hats. The central banks have been trying to create one world currency for years. This is their doorway. A currency that is difficult to understand, has no real backing, can be used across borders, is created out of thin air and can be manipulated; the central banks must be drooling by now. When the dollar and euro collapse, do not be surprised if this “currency” or its next of kin suddenly becomes the savior.

Jason

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 3:43 pm

The role of the Central Bank is to control the money supply. The whole point of Bitcoins is their supply can’t be controlled. The Central Bank will never adopt Bitcoins.

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Jeff Brown December 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm

A very few ‘somebodies’ are makin’ a whole buncha money. As Grandma liked to say, ‘This too shall pass’.

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Indeed. A few somebodies made a lot of money off Tulips in the Netherlands as well.

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Matt DeVincenzo December 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Great article Kenny, my brother in law just asked me about this the other day because his wife’s brother has paid off their debt using BTC. That was how I knew it’s not a good idea to jump in. As for the “anonymity” of them. here’s a Forbes article that shows they can be somewhat tracked, so even the criminals might not like them at some point soon.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/09/05/follow-the-bitcoins-how-we-got-busted-buying-drugs-on-silk-roads-black-market/

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Good point Matt. If you use secure transactions, you can cover your footprints, but for the casual user? Not so much.

So now we’re down to people who want to transact business anonymously, not pay taxes, and are tech savvy. The universe is getting smaller and smaller.

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Troy December 11, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I have a few things:
1. Bitcoins are accepted at some retailers already.
2. Bitcoin developers are willing to live with “open and transparent” regulations from goverments.
3. Bitcoins are not just for criminals that don’t pay taxes.

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Kenny Estes December 11, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Thanks for the comment.

1. Yes, very few.
2. What do the developers have to do with adoption or usage? That’s like saying the man who created the machine that mints quarters has anything to do with how they’re used.
3. Care to make an argument and/or present facts to backup your opinion?

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Troy December 11, 2013 at 8:29 pm

I’m not disagreeing that this could be a bubble or the bitcoin prices could inflated right now. But I think bitcoins will be a viable alternative to cash or currency in the future.

Sure:
http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/230019
http://www.inc.com/will-yakowicz/bank-of-america-report-bitcoin-serious-competitor-to-cash.html
http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/bitcoin-goes-to-washington.html

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Kenny Estes December 12, 2013 at 8:09 am

Cheers for the comments and the links Troy.

Interesting reads. I probably just didn’t read close enough, but I’m not seeing anything arguing for wholesale adoption outside of illicit activities. If anything, they’re saying they’re not even good for criminals (less of a target audience than I’m arguing :) ).

Generally, the articles I’ve seen about the adoption of Bitcoins are of two varieties:
1 – Talks about the advantages of unregulated currency (which has never happened cause of reasons like taxes)
2 – Some bank (like BAML) or individual (like the Winklevoss twins) are betting big on it.

For me, neither is a compelling argument for why there will be adoption.

Thoughts?

Cheers,

Kenny

Sharon Tzib December 12, 2013 at 7:54 am

This recent story illustrates another danger with Bitcoin:
http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/11/28/21654552-it-worker-throws-out-hard-drive-loses-75-million-bitcoin-fortune

This guy is supposedly “tech savvy,” yet he has no back up?? To think that you could lose millions by having your hard drive damaged or thrown away is wayyyyyy too unsettling for me, and an inherent reason why Bitcoin is not going to succeed long term. Sure, the other alternative is to carry your “i.d. number” around with you, but that seems even less secure than keeping it on a computer.

I’m with you – this Bitcoin craze is just a fad, and a lot of people will be sorry they bought into it.

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Kenny Estes December 12, 2013 at 8:12 am

Thanks for the comment Sharon. It will be interesting to see if this fad truly phases. It is funny to see a bubble…and know what is is…while it’s still “in the wild.”

Regarding the guy who chucked his hard drive. I could totally see how that happens. When he was mining them back in 2009, Bitcoins were worth like a penny. That 7 million bucks were worth under 100 at the time (I’ve not verified those numbers, but it’s around the correct order of magnitude). If he lost interest and didn’t keep abreast of BC prices, I could totally see how he he would chuck it. I feel for the guy….trust me, I’ve done sillier things.

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Mike December 12, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I’m very disappointed in this article.

Most people who read this article won’t even know what the heck Bitcoin is, let alone understand your “points against it”. You should have provided more information about what Bitcoin even is. People should be educated about it, what it is, what you can do with it, just how much potential is has, how far along it has come, and what the current status of it is.

You skipped over the important and good parts and emphasized the outdated view that bitcoins are only used to buy drugs or are only used by criminals. Cash is also used by criminals – even more so than bitcoins at the moment. Criminals will use anything to commit crimes. This is like saying the web is only for porn.

This article has many things wrong with it, and is filled with old, outdated information. This article does nothing for Bitcoin, it only distances BiggerPockets away from the thousands of people who do understand Bitcoin and invest in it. I thought BiggerPockets was about all forms of investment. You’re “BiggerPockets”, not “BigotryPockets”.

To those who don’t know what bitcoin is: it’s just a new form of payment/money that is gaining in popularity online and offline the last few few years. Like, exploding with popularity. Why? Because for these reasons:

- Decentralized: No government, no bank, no company owns it or controls it. You are your own bank.
- You can setup a wallet and accept bitcoins in seconds. No need to go to a bank, meet with a representative, sign documents, hand over all your personal info and open a bank account. Nothing is required.
- Zero of very small transaction fees (you actually set your own fee you want to pay), nearly instant transactions, take only a few minutes to confirm. We’re talking about optional transaction fees of only a few cents. Paypal is like $0.30 + 2.9% or something.
- No counterfeiting, no chargebacks, no holds, available 24/7/365, no limits, irreversible, no account freezing, etc.
- Unlimited number of “wallets”, unlimited number of “addresses” (which are like accounts, ie. your chequing and savings account).
- Borderless, international, no intermediary or middleman required.
- Inflationary. Your bitcoins will, in theory, continue to rise in value, not decrease. Unlike fiat currencies. That $100 000 in your bank account will have a lower purchasing power later on and won’t be able to buy as much as it can today. Bitcoin is the opposite, your bitcoins will increase in value, due to small supply and huge demand.
- Bitcoins take up no space. You can fit any amount or value on your computer, your phone, your tablet, etc.
- When/if the day comes that one bitcoin is equal to $10 000+ or $100 000+, it’s okay, because 1 bitcoin can be broken down into 100 000 000 pieces. Each piece is called a Satoshi (0.00000001). Because of inflation and the cost of manufacturing, in Canada at least, we’ve abandoned the penny.
- Mostly anonymous, public ledger that records all transactions.
- And many more…

There are hundreds of offline and online businesses that accept bitcoins: https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Trade, with more accepting them everyday. Bitcoin is only in its infancy. It’s like the web in 2000 – just a baby, just starting out.

Bubble? Not really. Only 21 000 000 bitcoins will ever exist, with 12 000 000 currently in circulation, with 25 being released every 10 minutes I think. Bitcoin is still in its infancy. As more businesses accept it, more governments recognize it, and as millions more people buy and own bitcoins, the price per bitcoin will have to go up to accompany everyone and as people compete to buy them, and the price will be less volatile as more people own them.

Even if it were to capture just 0.1% of the global economy or gold/online transactions/etc (or, like, 1 country), that would value 1 coin at tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many reports suggest the price might hit $5000 in just a couple years or so. It’s only 4.5 years old. Bitcoin has withstood many hits to it so far: exchange hacks, temporary forks in the code, regulations against and for it, block size limitations, and it has had huge dips in price, but it always recovers because of the immense demand for it.

Even if Bitcoin were to only capture a fraction of only one of these: Gold, micropayments, credit cards, remittances, store of wealth, or something else, it still has immense value and potential (all the above list of benefits would still apply, too), and would result in the price rising further, as people will be more willing to pay more for it.

Also, don’t be afraid of the current price per bitcoin (~$900) (http://bitcoincharts.com/markets/), as you can buy pieces of bitcoins. 0.001 bitcoin = 1 millibit, which is a little less than $1 right now. So 0.140 bitcoin (140 millibits) = a little less than $140 right now. Someday we could be telling our grandchildren how back in our day a single bitcoin could be bought for only $900.

People are indeed using it as money. You can buy virtually anything with it, from gift cards, electronics, food, web hosting, to cars, houses, etc. More are popping up everyday: http://www.reddit.com/r/AcceptingBTC/ One company, Fidelity, now even accepts bitcoins in your IRA. (Note: I’m Canadian.) There are even ATM machines, debit cards rolling out, and BitPay.com for accepting it on your site. There was even a Canadian company that paid a contractor in bitcoins. Many web designers, developers, and programmers are accepting bitcoins as payment. OKCupid.com, Reddit.com, WordPress.com, etc. are accepting bitcoins. And the list goes on and on, and will continue to get larger.

The exchanges that have been shut down say nothing really about Bitcoin as they do about bad and/or inexperienced programmers who try to start one up and fail. If you’re in the US, most suggest using Coinbase, which just secured $25 million in funding and is expected to be the first $1 billion Bitcoin company. Elsewhere, try: http://howtobuybitcoins.info/.

Buying bitcoins is as simple as verifying yourself on an exchange by providing a photo ID and documents that prove your current address; verification usually takes a couple days or so. Then you transfer your money to the site (by cheque, cash deposit, etc.), then place an offer on the site for the amount of bitcoins you want, for the exchange rate you want. Then someone fulfils your order and now you’re the proud owner of bitcoins. You may save them, as they’re raising in value right now, or you may buy things with them, or send them to friends and families, etc.

It is a little complicated to understand? Perhaps at first. But so were computers, the web, email, and Facebook. My dad still doesn’t even really understand email. But the adoption rate will slowly increase as more people educate themselves and other people about it.

People can continue to pay their taxes in dollars, while using bitcoins in online transactions, investing, etc.

Are there problems, doubts, uncertainties, and risks with Bitcoin? Of course. It’s very young. Gold has been around and used for a very long. Bitcoin has only been around for 4.5 years. Bitcoin has withstood many hits, but is continuing to gain in use and acceptance (and rise in price). The common motto with bitcoin investing is “don’t invest more than you’re able to lose”, which is true of many investments. You may not want to put all your eggs in one basket after all.

Many people say its revolutionary and compare Bitcoin to the invention of the web or the combustible engine, but only time will tell. I, personally, want to be a part of this revolution and adventure, because it’s exciting, it’s currently quite profitable, shows great promise and potential, and it has a lot of value in many useful different ways, and not just in investing.

More great resources:
Overview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um63OQz3bjo
A little more detail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7cEv7D1XFw
Bitcoin 101 – Bitcoin Vs. Gold – How Bitcoin Could Take Over a Trillion $ Market: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4QFErOdTag
Excellent videos: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgo7FCCPuylVk4luP3JAgVw/videos
Bitcoin News: http://www.coindesk.com/
Your first wallet: https://blockchain.info/wallet

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Kenny Estes December 13, 2013 at 7:33 am

Thanks for the comment.

While I appreciate you have a different opinion and a passion for this subject, try and keep your dialogue professional.

It’s worth noting the only argument you make is that Bitcoin has some adoption online (something I never contested) and completely ignored the three points I made about why it will never be a true currency.

I get that the new thing can be exciting, but as I said in my BP Podcast, don’t get so caught up chasing shiny new balls that you lose sight of logic.

Cheers,

Kenny

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Dave December 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm

When the big banks start falling, when currencies start losing their value, when countries start defaulting, when banksters start robbing, when the fed starts financing a global war and when real estate traders start laundering money, that is when Bitcoin (web 3.0) will revolutionize the world.

Remember Cyprus?

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Steve Johnson December 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Kenny, great read! I’m happy to see bit coins are still a thing. I’ve got to admit that from you podcast, regarding the cab driver, I had that thought when a friend first told me about bit coins. We spent an hour with him, a tech savy guy, explaining how the mining worked how there was a limit and how some were accepting them. I immediately thought “HOW COOL! TOO BAD I FOUND OUT ABOUT IT TOO LATE!” I think at this point if you’re jumping on its too late UNLESS you have the capital to get a giant computer farm to do the mining for you.

I think bitcoins has the potential to stay a bit longer than you might be hoping. There are a lot of positives to the discreet exchange and online instant access. It will work for some activities and not others. Some people may make a fortune from it and great for them, but even if it defeats the dollar, which I have yet to find articles saying why it won’t, I think it will happen smoothly. I don’t think people with the US dollar will end up empty handed if bit coins rule.

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Kenny Estes December 13, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Hey Steve thanks for the comment.

I’m really not hoping for Bitcoins to fail. Honestly, I think the world would be a better place if the dang government stopped messing with the currency.

However, we’ve never had money (which was originally a state issued coin to pay their armies rather than have to maintain long supply lines), it’s been controlled by the government.

For us to move away from the dollar, the government is going to have to cede a lot of power. That’s not something they’re good at.

Cheers,

Kenny

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Chris Rosenberg December 13, 2013 at 8:52 pm

I still don’t get it. Maybe someone can explain this to me. As far as I can tell a bitcoin is numerical code found by using a computer? It is not backed by any government and not backed by anything of value. So besides investors speculating appreciation, why does a bitcoin have value? I’m not asking what the positives and negatives are. I’m literally asking why a bitcoin has any monetary value at all. Also, I’ve read over the list of retailers accepting bitcoins as payments and I can find one actual reputable retailer. Sure you can buy amazon gift cards but you have to buy them through a different website so they are basically acting like a currency exchange.

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Kenny Estes December 13, 2013 at 9:25 pm

That’s the million dollar question.

Remember, wishes do come true if you just believe hard enough.

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Priscila Argaez December 14, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Kenny,
Interesting article. I don’t know much about Bitcoins, but I’ve heard about them. I love economics, and the topic of currencies is an interesting one. It was nice to learn a little bit more about Bitcoins by reading your article, and by reading the different points of view from the comments.

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Kenny Estes December 18, 2013 at 9:19 am
Kevin December 18, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Behold the power of the taxi cab driver!

Reply

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