Governments Can and Should Beat Bitcoin at Its Own Game

What's to come?
Feb. 3 2014 7:15 AM

The Paperless Economy

How governments can and should beat Bitcoin at its own game.

Prehistoric paper money.
Paper money should go the way of the dinosaurs.

Photo by Sharon Meredith/iStock/Thinkstock

On Feb. 11, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University—will host an event on cryptocurrencies at the New America office in Washington, D.C. For more information and to watch the webcast, visit the New America website.

From a technical point of view, Bitcoin is far ahead of governments in its beautiful implementation of electronic money.

But Bitcoin itself is not the future of money, because it is hard to believe that governments will willingly hand over control of the world’s monetary policy to the Bitcoin algorithm. Nor should they. Keeping the value of money constant over time is difficult and requires strong, capable institutions like central banks. But looking toward the future, it is the electronic dollar (and euro and yen and pound … ) whose value should be kept constant, not yesterday’s paper currency.

Many people are attracted to the gold standard because they think of gold as maintaining its value. But like Bitcoin, the value of gold relative to the goods and services we need to buy fluctuates in the markets every day. An economic yardstick of fixed value doesn’t come that easily. It has to be engineered—and the clearest path to engineering an economic yardstick of fixed value is electronic. 

The key advantage of electronic money over paper currency is this: Monetary systems based on paper currency allow for strongly positive interest rates, but not strongly negative rates; by contrast, it is easy to have interest rates on electronic money vary all the way from strongly positive to strongly negative. High interest rates make it expensive to spend now compared with waiting until later, while low interest rates encourage people to spend now. If interest rates can vary freely over a wide range, they are able to signal to households and businesses as loudly as necessary that the economy needs people to cut back on spending and save more when the economy is overheated, or cut back on saving and spend more when the economy is in a recession.

To zero in on the key problem, in our current monetary system we take for granted an interest rate of zero on paper currency. That interest rate of zero can falsely signal to households and firms that it is OK for them to hold back on spending—even at times when businesses desperately need the customers and people desperately need the jobs that extra spending would provide. Think of a one-year loan. With a positive interest rate, of, say, 2 percent, borrowers pay back their initial loan, plus 2 percent interest. With an interest rate of zero, borrowers pay back the loan with no additional costs. With a negative interest rate, of, say, minus 2 percent, borrowers pay back the loan, minus 2 percent. In effect they’re being paid for taking on a loan. Can you imagine anything that might better stimulate economic activity?

Yesterday’s paper currency is not only a barrier to speedy recovery from deep recessions—it is also a barrier to ending inflation. Many people don’t realize inflation in advanced economies such as the United States, the eurozone, and the United Kingdom is the result of conscious decisions of the Fed, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England (with the Bank of Japan now trying to follow suit) to tolerate 2 percent inflation, in order to give monetary policy more room to maneuver. Here is the reasoning: Both households and businesses focus on interest rates in comparison with inflation when making spending decisions, so that higher inflation makes interest rates effectively lower. As economists say it, for a fixed nominal interest rate, higher inflation lowers the real interest rate. For example, if someone is paying 3 percent interest on a loan but inflation is 2 percent, then 2 percent is just making up for inflation, and only the remaining 1 percent actually gives the lender extra real value in terms of what the principal plus interest is worth. 

The key takeaway message for monetary policy is that because people look at how interest rates compare with inflation, an interest rate of zero that is 2 percent below inflation is much more stimulative than an interest rate of zero when inflation is also zero. (That is why the United States got more oomph from its zero interest rates than Japan, which had an inflation rate of zero or less.) 

As long as paper currency has an interest rate of zero, it is hard for other interest rates to go below zero, so the only way to get interest rates below inflation is to push inflation above zero. Take paper currency off its pedestal, and inflation is no longer necessary to provide this space for monetary policy, since interest rates can go down, instead of inflation having to go up. Then there is nothing standing in the way of ending inflation forever.

To make it possible to end recessions quickly and to end inflation forever, a government needs to take the following steps:

  1. Establish official government-sanctioned electronic money in a way that makes the use of electronic money as convenient and seamless as possible. This involves setting the stage for private innovation in electronic payment systems by giving full legal tender status to electronic money in all government-insured bank accounts and in other accounts that are officially certified as backed 100 percent by reserves held at the central bank.
  2. Dethrone paper currency from the exalted legal status it was given (very controversially) in the late 19th century, by giving anyone, at any time, the right to refuse payment in paper currency, unless a contract explicitly calls for payment in paper currency. Further demote paper currency by abolishing the guarantee that a paper dollar (or euro, or yen, or pound) will always be worth the same amount as an electronic dollar. But make sure that it is easy for people to convert paper currency into electronic form and vice versa.
  3. Search in the nooks and crannies of the legal code and government agency regulations and policies for places where it is assumed that interest rates are always zero or positive or where it is assumed that paper currency has a special status—and root those assumptions out. (For example, make it clear that people can’t show up with suitcases full of hundred-dollar bills to settle their taxes.) Encourage businesses to do the same with their business plans and their accounting.
  4. Give the central bank the authority to make interest rates negative, including making the interest rate on paper currency negative when necessary, by using the fact that a paper dollar is no longer guaranteed to be worth the same amount as an electronic dollar.
  5. Require the central bank to bring its inflation target down to zero over the course of 15 years and to forever afterward keep the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services within an unchanging narrow band. This should be revised only when necessary to take into account improved ways of measuring the value of a dollar (or euro or yen or pound).

It has become traditional for U.S. Treasury secretaries to periodically repeat the mantra that “a strong dollar is in our nation’s interest.” I would add one word to the mantra: “A strong electronic dollar is in our nation’s interest.” A strong electronic dollar is one that works smoothly in transactions, empowers monetary policy to bring a speedy end to recessions, and keeps its value over time with no concessions to inflation.

The path to a strong electronic dollar will require bureaucratic and political fortitude. But the economic principles involved are clear. The rewards at the end of that path—the taming of the business cycle and the end of inflation—insure that some nation will blaze that trail. (My bet is on the United Kingdom.) Then the rest of the advanced nations will follow.

But make no mistake: Giving electronic money the role that undeserving paper money now holds will only tame the business cycle and end inflation. Fostering long-run economic growth, dealing with inequality, and establishing peace on a war-torn planet will remain just as challenging as they are now. But every time one set of problems is solved, it allows us to focus our attention more clearly on the remaining problems. It is time to step up to that next level.