There are two main schools of thought when it comes to crypto. One side claims that cryptocurrencies are a fad, a speculative bubble, and one day it’ll pop and most cryptocurrencies will be worthless. The other side says that crypto is the future, and one day they will replace banks and fiat currency and almost every transaction we make will use crypto.
The first future is pretty easy to imagine. We’ve seen speculative bubbles before, and we know how they end. There will be some lucky folks who got in and out and made some profits. There will be some unlucky folks who lost a lot of money. There will also be a lot of people left with mining hardware and facilities that are now worthless. It’s not an interesting future to discuss, because there’s little to imagine.
But let’s talk about a future in which all transactions are done in crypto and fiat money is worthless. This is the future that many of my friends are hopeful for and banking on. What will some of the results of their dream future look like?
For one, it’ll mean that they have wealth and power beyond imagining. By purchasing crypto early, they’ll be the future aristocracy. Meanwhile, people who aren’t born yet will have to purchase fractions of bitcoin or ethereum or whatever replaces both of them at much higher prices. Grandparents will have to convert their worthless fiat to sky-high crypto. The poor, the non-tech-savvy, those who don’t happen to have financial freedom during the transition period, all those people are out of luck. This transfer of wealth will be staggering and inhumane.
There are good equivalents to this possible outcome in recent human history. It will be like the first people who stole American land and South American gold. The people who owned slaves. These groups established piles of wealth and created an income inequality that persists today. Future generations had to settle for the slivers of wealth that these early adopters carved out of their massive holdings. A mere quarter of an acre of land sold off by someone who stole the acres by the tens of thousands. Crypto is going to do the same thing to an entire new class of people.
Keep in mind, we are discussing here a future where the pro-crypto crowd is correct. This is their best case scenario, that they become vastly wealthy while everyone else suffers. Today, they think anyone critical of crypto is suffering from FOMO. In the future, they will be able to blame the poor for “not getting it” or “being dumb” or “too risk-averse” or “not doing their homework.” I’m sure this will go over well. (What I think would actually happen is that people who got wealthy via crypto would keep this to themselves, knowing that they didn’t contribute anything to society and that public resentment is high.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to buy slivers of crypto with a deflating fiat. The class warfare will not be pretty. This is unavoidable if crypto believers get the “bitcoin at a million” they say they crave. It’s not even a matter of timing or “getting in too late.” If everyone was told today that they needed to convert their fiat to crypto, the crush would drive up prices so fast that whoever was one minute later would have a worse future life than whoever booted up their computer quicker. This is the kind of lottery of inequality that these folks crave.
We’ve barely touched upon the social strife and the untold human suffering that will happen with a transfer to global crypto. Let’s look at the other ways that this future will be terrible.
In 2020, nearly two billion dollars of crypto were stolen. In a single year. Two billion dollars. Trust me, I get that fiat money can be stolen. I’ve been mugged three times. It’s no fun. I lost some cash and had to get credit cards replaced. Imagine a future where all your wealth is as safe as a password. Because that’s the future that crypto aficionados crave.
Crypto is not as secure as its proponents want you to believe. There are technical faults. Any consortium of nodes that reaches 51% can modify the blockchain, inserting false transactions. In the future we’re talking about, the pressure to try this will grow exponentially. A hundred trillion dollars could be at stake someday if the entire economy is on a blockchain. Pretending that this doesn’t change motivations and risk assessments is a delusion.
There are other technical faults. In 2017, hackers found a vulnerability in Ethereum wallets that allowed them to siphon off $208 million dollars. The rest of the funds were saved only because “white hat” hackers used the same exploit to grab and distribute the rest of the coins. In our future where “crypto wins,” the target will be enormous and the losses insane. Currently, crypto is a fraction of the global market. The two billion a year in stolen funds will grow as exponentially as its adoption.
Let’s go back to passwords, because that’s the only way to keep your crypto safe. When you buy crypto, you are given a long, complex, unique key that gives you ownership of that crypto. If you lose that key, or someone else gets it, you are toast. Tens of billions of dollars worth of crypto have already been lost simply because people forgot their keys, forgot where they wrote them down, or lost the digital file that they saved it in.
Most people use a wallet company like coinbase or Robinhood to keep this key safe. These are the same people who trust Target and Home Depot to not lose their email addresses to hackers. Your money is not safe in crypto. On a long enough timeline, it is only a matter of when you will be hacked.
There’s also the problem of state actors. When the entire world runs on crypto, the pressure to legislate and control it will be enormous. Crypto is not a distributed network. It isn’t peer-to-peer. It’s node-to-node. Peer-to-peer would mean that if you own some crypto and make some transactions, you are a part of this cool new banking system. The reality is that only the miners in “proof of work” networks and the biggest players in a “proof of stake” network control a node. We are already seeing issues with this, as major owners get to dictate hard forks and changes to code on their whim. There are still little guys and big guys. It’s just now, you’re trusting some oligarch in Russia and the Chinese Communist Party instead of Bank of America. What could go wrong?
I haven’t mentioned the environmental costs yet, because that’s the stick we naysayers have been using to beat the dead horse for years. In this pro-crypto future, we can imagine that proof of stake beat out proof of work, and that all energy is green, or whatever fantasy floats your boat. It won’t change the fact that we’ll add a ton to emissions to get to that future. Or the waste of manufacturing silicon and hard drives to process and store the blockchain. Speaking of storage, Houston we have a problem.
The bitcoin blockchain (which is just a type of database) is currently around 300 gigabytes in size. If the 600 or so billion annual transactions were done in crypto, that blockchain would be growing by 130 terabytes per year. The movement and validation of blocks would absolutely choke existing infrastructure. There is no long-term plan here. It is just people attempting to get rich quick while creating problems that didn’t exist before.
Late adopters (the elderly, the poor, the young, the tech illiterate), will all suffer in the future that crypto lovers crave. Trillions will be stolen with little recourse. Even though ledgers are public, techniques like “peel chain” and “chain hopping” make it possible to wash stolen crypto clean, and new techniques will stay ahead of law enforcement. People will lose entire fortunes simply because they forgot where they wrote down that password, or because a tech startup based in the Caymans got hacked, or the owner ran off with the funds. These are just the KNOWN issues that are already happening and will scale as the “crypto future” arrives.
Keep in mind that all of this suffering will happen in order to solve problems that don’t exist. The pro-crypto crowds want to put an end to the hegemony of banks, replacing that with a hegemony of wallet app startups and foreign actors who build out server farms. They want a ledger that is immutable, which means when someone puts child porn in there, it stays there forever. From what I can tell, they mostly like crypto because it makes them rich while doing no work and not contributing to society. Or so they can buy drugs, guns, traffic humans, or purchase pardons.
Transactions today can take days to process and can cost $20 a pop. Scale this up in the crypto future, and you’ll have worse clogs and higher fees. It’s easy to imagine in this future that someone comes along and sees the wildly fluctuating prices of crypto, the constant invention of a new one making the old ones worthless, and they say, “Hey, we are an old and established country with a system of laws and stable courts and a big military to keep our borders secure. Store your money with us, and we will create a banking network that can process one billion transactions per day at very little cost. We will insure every account you own for up to $250,000. Our currency will be stable enough that you won’t worry when you earn money how much it’ll be worth when you spend it. We will pressure those who do business with us to obey best practices and international law. We will not make you memorize complex passwords or else lose access to your life savings.
In other words, the system we have today. Which works well enough and can be improved with tech rather than replaced by tech. The future renegade who proposes our modern system will be the real disruptor. But hey, I don’t think it’ll be necessary. Because the pro-crypto future I describe above is far too wasteful, illogical, and cruel for us to ever allow it to come to pass.