CRYPTO: Economic Rent-seeking is Universal

Source: American Institute for Economic Research

Source: American Institute for Economic Research

The post-AI and post-crypto world will reconfigure many of our basic economic assumptions and requires a bit of philosophizing. So forgive our attempt, but we need to talk about economic rent-seeking and wealth creation. The Peter Thiel definition of building a successful company is to discover a piece of information around which a monopoly can be built. Building a monopoly is the primary reason that supports the venture capital industry model of rushing to massive unprofitable scale fist, and then creating moats and extracting value (i.e., economic rents from the monopoly/oligopoly position). See Amazon, which has leveraged not-caring about profitability into an unshakeable bedrock of retail. And once you have rent-seeking monopolies in place, they grow tendrils into media, politics, and customers -- and are very hard to remove. This snowballs and leads to extreme inequality, which is exacerbated by the power laws of software and the attention economy.

In the crypto world, there is a techno-utopia story that posits that a decentralized open technology ecosystem will be the antidote to centralized institutions that are controlled by questionable interests.  A key argument by bitcoin maximalists is that central banks print fiat money at will (often at the behest of bailing out Wall Street), which represents debt that erodes regular people's hard-earned savings through inflation. The argument goes that Bitcoin, on the other hand, has a fixed supply of currency and therefore cannot be manipulated to enrich some particular hegemonic party. This view is unsurprisingly contentious and only tells some of the story. We may be upset with instances when governments, which are to some extent accountable to citizens, use sovereign power to lower our purchasing power. But does that mean anyone and everyone else should be able to do the same?

Crypto currency and tokens issued by projects, through ICOs or reverse ICOs or airdrops or forks, are all a version of money printing. Mature capital markets do this all the time, through the issuance of debt and equity that time-shift financial resources to enable productive use. We allow and regulate such activity to encourage economic growth -- but may rightly be concerned that oligopolies have captured the process and are taking economic rents by being closest to the river of money. But does that imply that any individual at any time should be able to issue personal currency in billions of flavors? And that those most enriched by this process are those with the highest control of the attention economy -- i.e., the armies of bots pushing the latest altcoin, the ICOs with the best bounty programs, the biggest celebrities, the largest pump and dump Telegram groups? Disagreeing with central bank policy execution does not imply a right to be a Bernie Madoff.

While the stated motivation for much of the crypto movement has been to solve economic rent seeking by traditional finance and governments, we are now at a place in the industry where crypto is full of rent-seekers. Crypto investors have focused on owning the protocols of the new world. That means owning the highways on which information travels and taking a toll (through capital appreciation) any time someone uses the highway. Is that a productive outcome for global wealth distribution? Look at the blockchain name game and the reverse ICO phenomenon. Telegram is aiming to raise $2 billion for which it will give out no equity, with 52% of the tokens will accrue to the company owned by the founders. Looks like a self-minting of billionaires - a massive economic rent on controlling a popular messaging platform that dilutes the ecosystem. And that's not to mention the self-enrichment from premining in forks like Bitcoin Gold

But the traditional system is catching on! See Japan's largest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, which plans to launch its own coin in 2018. If it is okay for tech firms to extract this type of value, then those who are most familiar with the money printing process will do it too. As another data point, Bank of America has more blockchain patents than IBM, trying to create intellectual property control over a resource that is meant to be open source and free. We need only look at the sideways journey of the web -- with the loss of net neutrality and the walled gardens of Facebook and its newsfeed algorithm -- to understand the danger of unabridged rent-seeking behavior on public goods.

So after all that, what is the answer? We don't have many. But we know at least to (1) highlight that rent-seeking is a universal human trait that exists in all types of communities, and (2) avoid cultish beliefs that are allergic to evidence. Penny for your thoughts?