Why Bitcoin Looks More Like Money Than Ever
12.24.2018

When Ohio announced in late November that it would begin accepting bitcoin as payment for business taxes, becoming the first state to do so, it struck many as an odd move. True, it was once common to call bitcoin “digital cash” and to tout its usefulness for payments. Having spent 2017 charting the cryptocurrency’s climb to $20,000 and this year watching its fall from orbit, though, many observers today hardly seem able to think of bitcoin as anything other than a speculative—and perhaps failing—asset.

This is a mistake. Look past the gold fever, with its stories of investors getting hilariously rich and not-so-hilariously “rekt,” and there are signs that bitcoin is quietly making inroads in the global economy, from ecommerce to remittances. Even as funding for new token projects declines and the speculative shine comes off the crypto apple, bitcoin, in important ways, looks more like money than ever.

First, some history. Five years into bitcoin’s existence, the cryptocurrency appeared to be moving forward into the sunlit uplands of social acceptance. Silk Road was in the rearview mirror, and along with the continued black-market use of bitcoin, traditional retailers began to embrace it. In January 2014, Overstock, an online retailer with $1.3 billion in revenue, began allowing customers to pay with bitcoin for any product on its website, from laptops to mattresses. Within two months, it had racked up more than $1 million in bitcoin sales and its CEO, the outspoken libertarian Patrick Byrne, was boldly predicting $10 million to $20 million by year’s end.

Before long, WordPress, Reddit, OKCupid, TigerDirect, and Zynga all followed suit. Besides the novelty factor, bitcoin payments were touted as having lower processing fees than credit-card transactions. Being immutable, they also spared merchants the pain of chargebacks. Soon, the CEO of one crypto company, Blockchain, was able to travel the world on bitcoin, buying airline flights with digital currency through CheapAir.

Just as bitcoin was starting to win over consumers, however, the Internal Revenue Service issued its first tax rules for cryptocurrencies. The agency decided to treat bitcoin not as money but as property, with each sale of bitcoin considered a taxable event. Every time you bought something with bitcoin, even a cup of coffee, you were supposed to record the difference between the price at which you acquired the digital currency and its market value when you spent it. At tax time, you had to add up your gains or losses for the entire year and render unto Caesar accordingly.

That turned everyday transactions into serious headaches; for anyone who wanted to comply with the law, spending bitcoin became a chore. The IRS’s decision made it easier to treat bitcoin as an asset than as a currency. As the cult of “hodling” took off, Overstock wound up badly missing Byrne’s estimate. By the end of 2014, his company had rung up only $3 million of the projected $10 million or more in bitcoin sales.

From then on, the narrative of bitcoin as a speculative commodity predominated. And though merchant adoption continued—Goldman Sachs analysts found that well over 100,000 merchants were accepting bitcoin worldwide in March 2015—some companies have been scared away in recent months. In January, the payments company Stripe stopped supporting bitcoin, citing long confirmation times and high transaction fees, which spiked as high as $55 in December 2017. (They are now less than $0.36.)

But consumers’ desire to spend their crypto, as opposed to simply holding it, hasn’t died out. In response, Coinbase announced in December that American users could now use their crypto balances to buy electronic gift cards for Uber, Nike, Banana Republic, and other major retailers. Previously available only in Europe, Coinbase’s offering waives the company’s usual 1.49-percent withdrawal fee, and gives a bonus of up to 10 percent for each vendor. (A five-percent bonus means that withdrawing $100 worth of bitcoin would yield a gift card worth $105.)

The hybrid nature of bitcoin means that it is simultaneously gaining ground as electronic cash, as a rewards currency, as “digital gold,” and as a high-risk speculative asset.

For those who want to do the opposite, exchanging cash for bitcoin instead of crypto for a cash equivalent, there is a growing network of bitcoin ATMs. More than 4,000 of the machines exist worldwide, most of them in the U.S., and several new ones are installed every day. That is a boon for immigrants looking for a better way to send money—or a better money to send—to their families overseas. (Admittedly, criminals also seem partial to the machines.) One company, Cottonwood Vending, operates 91 bitcoin ATMs in New York alone, raking in about $385,000 in cash per machine.

Other intermediaries between the world of bitcoin and the traditional economy are also doing a booming business. BitPay, the company contracted by the state of Ohio to convert bitcoin tax payments into U.S. dollars, now processes $1 billion in crypto payments per year, according to CEO Stephen Pair. Five times as many crypto companies are paying their law firms, internet hosting providers, accountants, and other vendors in bitcoin today as in 2017, a BitPay executive told Bloomberg in August.

In retail, bitcoin rewards are starting to compete with traditional cash back as a way to entice shoppers. Lolli, a rewards app that launched in September 2018, already counts multi-billion-dollar beauty brands Ulta and Sephora among its partners. Users install the app in their web browser and shop as normal, receiving bitcoin when they make purchases at participating retailers. Lolli doubled its sales in November, according to the CEO. Sixty percent of its users, of which there are thousands, become repeat shoppers.

All of this begs the question: Is bitcoin money? Practically from the moment Satoshi Nakamoto released the white paper for his “peer-to-peer electronic cash system,” answers have ranged from “Sure, why not” to “You must be joking.” In years of heated arguments, the “moneyness” of bitcoin is the point that central bankers, curmudgeonly New York Times columnists, and other gatekeepers of the status quo have been most loath to concede. Let 100,000 merchants accept it, let $1 billion in payments be sent with it, just so long as we don’t give it equal standing with the government-backed currency in our wallets and bank accounts.

Let’s define terms. Most of us have a preconceived notion of what money is, and it seems simple enough: we earn it, we spend it, we pay off our student loans with it. It turns out to be a little more complicated. One economist who studied the issue, Dale Osborne, identified nearly a dozen definitions of money, each focusing on a particular attribute.

At bottom, money is simply the name we give to a society’s generally accepted media of exchange. Moneyness, according the economist Lawrence H. White, is “a property conferred on an item by individuals’ plans”—not merely one person’s plans, but rather “an interwoven net of many individuals’ plans.” One person alone hoping to treat bitcoin as money is SOL, but together a few thousand people—or, better yet, a few million—can make it happen.

Money is a social institution, in other words, and can’t be defined by its physical attributes. Think of bitcoin as a viral meme. The further it spreads, the greater its cultural currency. The more individuals and merchants treat it as money, the more it becomes money.

As this happens, bitcoin inevitably begins to compete with other currencies, both crypto and fiat. Bitcoin maximalists like to talk about “hyperbitcoinization,” the process by which cryptocurrency, they say, will some day supplant national currencies as those forms of money become worthless by comparison.

The point when people will ditch their failing, endlessly inflated fiat currency for crypto may seem far off. But it’s already the reality in Venezuela, where annual inflation recently hit 1.3 million percent. Data from peer-to-peer exchange LocalBitcoins show bitcoin trading volumes reaching one record high after another, up to a total of 1,636 bitcoins—or 3.2 billion bolivars—for the week of Dec. 8. Faced with a monthly minimum wage of less than $10, currency that won’t hold its value, and capital controls that make it hard to get money out of the country, Venezuelans are turning to bitcoin to safeguard their earnings and give them a shot at some upside.

Similarly, in Turkey, the lira crisis this summer helped push trust in traditional finance to an all-time low—and drove Turks toward digital alternatives. A poll conducted by a Turkish research firm in late August found that nearly 20 percent of respondents had bought or sold bitcoin.

Even in countries not suffering under authoritarian regimes, cryptocurrency is starting to muscle in on fiat territory. In Germany, venture-backed startup Bitwala has partnered with a licensed bank to allow customers to hold bitcoin balances alongside euro deposits. The crypto accounts can be used to pay rent, receive wages, and trade bitcoin, though trading incurs a one-percent fee. By the time the service launched, in December, 40,000 customers had already signed up for it.

The future may look something like what Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek proposed in his 1976 book The Denationalisation of Money. As long as governments have a monopoly over currency, Hayek thought, the temptation to print money for short-term gain will be too great, and disasters like the Great Inflation of the 1970s will be inevitable. He suggested allowing private entities to issue their own currencies, all of which would circulate simultaneously. Superior currencies would naturally prevail by attracting more users, and governments would either have to get inflation under control or get out of the money game.

Radically for his time, Hayek imagined that these private monies could be “different abstract units fluctuating in their value relatively to one another.” Sound familiar? “In some sense, cryptocurrencies have put Hayek’s thought experiment into practice,” White and another economist, William J. Luther, wrote recently. “Privately issued cryptocurrencies compete directly with traditional government-issued monies.”

Where cryptocurrencies diverge from Hayek’s vision is that their purchasing power is volatile, changing—sometimes wildly—from day to day. Hayek sought a free-market means for beating inflation, but with bitcoin you can never be sure how much your holdings will be worth when you wake up in the morning. That presents certain difficulties for everyday use, but some people may prefer a type of money that could appreciate in value over time. And governments are starting to take notice. A month ago, bitcoin was not money in the eyes of the state of Ohio. Now, in a limited way, it is.

Ohio’s state treasurer, Josh Mandel, told CNBC that he hopes the move will “inspire other states and ultimately the federal government to allow people to pay their federal taxes [with bitcoin].” Some have argued that bitcoin won’t have staying power until this happens. But don’t hold your breath expecting the U.S. Treasury to declare that bitcoin is legal tender. The beauty of decentralized money is that it requires no official imprimatur for people to transact with it.

If the market for cryptocurrencies has proven anything, it’s that we are still figuring out what types of money people want and how to provide them. Competition, as Hayek wrote, is a discovery procedure. His radical vision—or something like it—is the new status quo.

The hybrid nature of bitcoin means that it is simultaneously gaining ground as electronic cash, as a rewards currency, as “digital gold,” and as a high-risk speculative asset. If, a decade after its creation, bitcoin looks more like money than ever, it’s partly because money today looks different than it ever has before.