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A firefighter’s take on today’s precarious economic mechanics and how bitcoin steps in as an empowerment tool for the middle class.

This is an opinion editorial by Dan, cohost of the Blue Collar Bitcoin Podcast.

A preliminary note to the reader: This was originally written as one essay that has since been divided into three parts for publication. Each section covers distinctive concepts, but the overarching thesis relies on the three sections in totality. Much of this piece assumes the reader possesses a basic understanding of Bitcoin and macroeconomics. For those who don’t, items are linked to corresponding definitions/resources. An attempt is made throughout to bring ideas back to the surface; if a section isn’t clicking, keep reading to arrive at summative statements. Lastly, the focus is on the U.S. economic predicament; however, many of the themes included here still apply internationally.

Series Contents

Part 1: Fiat Plumbing

Introduction

Busted Pipes

The Reserve Currency Complication

The Cantillon Conundrum

Part 2: The Purchasing Power Preserver

Part 3: Monetary Decomplexification

The Financial Simplifier

The Debt Disincentivizer

A “Crypto” Caution

Conclusion

Part 1: Fiat Plumbing

Introduction

When Bitcoin is brought up at the firehouse, it’s often met with cursory laughs, looks of confusion or blank stares of disinterest. Despite tremendous volatility, bitcoin is the best-performing asset of the last decade, yet most of society still considers it trivial and transient. These inclinations are insidiously ironic, particularly for members of the middle class. In my view, bitcoin is the very tool average wage earners need most to stay afloat amidst an economic environment that is particularly inhospitable to their demographic.

In today’s world of

Chart Source: “Does QE Cause Wealth Inequality” by Lyn Alden

The factors contributing to the wealth inequality are undeniably multifaceted and complex, but it’s my suggestion that the architecture of our fiat monetary system, as well as the increasingly rampant monetary and fiscal policies it enables, have contributed to broad financial instability and inequality. Let’s look at a couple examples of imbalances resulting from centrally-controlled government money, ones that are particularly applicable to the middle and lower classes.

The Reserve Currency Complication

The U.S. dollar sits at the base of the 21st century fiat monetary system as the global reserve currency. The march toward dollar hegemony as we know it today has taken place incrementally over the last century, with key developments along the way including the Bretton Woods Agreement post-WWII, the severance of the dollar from gold in 1971, and the advent of the petrodollar in the mid-1970s, all of which helped move the monetary base layer away from more internationally neutral assets — such as gold — toward more centrally-controlled assets, namely government debt. United States liabilities are now the foundation of today’s global economic machine3; U.S. Treasurys are today’s reserve asset of choice internationally. Reserve currency status has its benefits and trade-offs, but in particular, it seems this arrangement has had negative impacts on the livelihood and competitiveness of U.S. industry and manufacturing — the American working class. Here is the logical progression that leads me (and many others) to this conclusion:

  1. A reserve currency (the U.S. dollar in this case) remains in comparatively constant high demand since all global economic players need dollars to participate in international markets. One could say a reserve currency remains perpetually expensive.
  2. This indefinitely and artificially elevated exchange rate means the buying power for citizens in a country with reserve currency status stays comparatively strong, while the selling power stays comparatively diminished. Hence, imports grow and exports fall, causing persistent trade deficits (this is known as the Triffin dilemma).
  3. As a result, domestic manufacturing becomes relatively expensive while international alternatives become cheap, which leads to an offshoring and hollowing out of the labor force — the working class.
  4. All the while, those benefiting most from this reserve status are the ones playing part in an increasingly engorged financial sector and/or involved in white-collar industries like the tech sector that benefit from diminished production costs as a result of cheap offshore manufacturing and labor.

The reserve currency dilemma highlighted above leads to exorbitant privilege for some and inordinate misfortune for others.4 And let’s once again go back to the root of the issue: unsound and centrally-controlled fiat money. The existence of reserve fiat currencies at the base of our global financial system is a direct consequence of the world moving away from more sound, internationally neutral forms of value denomination.

The Cantillon Conundrum

Fiat money also sows the seeds of economic instability and inequality by actuating monetary and fiscal policy interventions, or as I’ll refer to them here, monetary manipulations. Money that is centrally controlled can be centrally manipulated, and although these manipulations are enacted to keep the brittle economic machine churning (like we talked about above during the GFC), they come with consequences. When central banks and central governments spend money they don’t have and insert liquidy whenever they deem it necessary, distortions occur. We get a glimpse at the sheer magnitude of recent centralized monetary manipulation by glancing at the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet. It’s gone bananas in recent decades, with less than $1 trillion on the books pre-2008 yet fast approaching $9 trillion today.

Chart Source: St. Louis Fed

The Fed’s ballooning balance sheet shown above includes assets like Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities. A large portion of these assets were acquired with money (or reserves) created out of thin air through a form of monetary policy known as quantitative easing (QE). The effects of this monetary fabrication are hotly debated in economic circles, and rightfully so. Admittedly, depictions of QE as “money printing” are shortcuts that disregard the nuance and complexity of these nifty tactics<FN5>; nonetheless, these descriptions may in many regards be directionally accurate. What’s clear is that this massive amount of “demand” and liquidity coming from central banks and governments has had a profound effect on our financial system; in particular, it seems to boost asset prices. Correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but it gives us a place to start. Check out this chart below, which trends the stock market — in this case the S&P 500 — with the balance sheets of major central banks:

Chart Source: Yardini Research, Incundefined(credit to Preston Pysh for pointing this chart out in his tweet).

Whether it’s heightening the upside or limiting the downside, expansionary monetary policies seem to cushion elevated asset values. It may appear counterintuitive to highlight asset price inflation during a significant market crash — at time of writing the S&P 500 is down close to 20% from an all-time high, and the Fed looks slower to step in due to inflationary pressures. Nevertheless, there still remains a point at which policymakers have rescued — and will continue to rescue — markets and/or pivotal financial institutions undergoing intolerable distress. True price discovery is constrained to the downside. Chartered Financial Analyst and former hedge fund manager James Lavish spells this out well:

“When the Fed lowers interest rates, buys U.S. Treasurys at high prices, and lends money indefinitely to banks, this injects a certain amount of liquidity into the markets and helps shore up the prices of all the assets that have sharply sold off. The Fed has, in effect, provided the markets with downside protection, or a put to the owners of the assets. Problem is, the Fed has stepped in so many times recently, that markets have come to expect them to act as a financial backstop, helping prevent an asset price meltdown or even natural losses for investors.”6

Anecdotal evidence suggests that supporting, backstopping, and/or bailing out key financial players keeps asset prices artificially stable and, in many environments, soaring. This is a manifestation of the Cantillon Effect, the idea that the centralized and uneven expansion of money and liquidity benefits those closest to the money spigot. Erik Yakes describes this dynamic succinctly in his book “The 7th Property”:

“Those who are furthest removed from interaction with financial institutions end up worst off. This group is typically the poorest in society. Thus, the ultimate impact on society is a wealth transfer to the wealthy. Poor people become poorer, while the wealthy get wealthier, resulting in the crippling or destruction of the middle class.”

When money is fabricated out of thin air, it’s prone to bolster asset valuations; therefore, the holders of those assets benefit. And who holds the largest quantity and highest quality of assets? The wealthy. Monetary manipulation tactics seem to cut primarily one way. Let’s again consider the GFC. A popular narrative that I believe is at least partially correct depicts average wage earners and homeowners as largely left to fend for themselves in 2008 — foreclosures and job losses were plentiful; meanwhile, insolvent financial institutions were enabled to march on and eventually recover.

Image Source: Tweet from Lawrence Lepard

If we fast-forward to the COVID-19 fiscal and monetary responses, I can hear counterarguments stemming from the notion that stimulus money was widely distributed from the bottom up. This is partially true, but consider that $1.8 trillion went to individuals and families in the form of stimulus checks, while the chart above reveals that the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded by roughly $5 trillion since the start of the pandemic. Much of this difference entered the system elsewhere, assisting banks, financial institutions, businesses, and mortgages. This has, at least partially, contributed to asset price inflation. If you are an asset holder, you can see evidence of this in recalling that your portfolio and/or home valuations were likely at all-time highs amidst one of the most economically damaging environments in recent history: a pandemic with globally-mandated shutdowns.7

In fairness, many members of the middle class are asset holders themselves, and a good portion of the Fed’s balance sheet expansion went to buying mortgage bonds, which helped lower the cost of mortgages for all. But let’s consider that in America, the median net worth is just $122,000, and as the chart below catalogs, this number plummets as we move down the wealth spectrum.

Chart Source: TheBalance.com

Furthermore, nearly 35% of the population doesn’t own a home, and let’s also discern that the type of real estate owned is a key distinction — the wealthier people are, the more valuable their real estate and correlated appreciation becomes. Asset inflation disproportionately benefits those with more wealth, and as we’ve explored in Part 1, wealth concentration has grown more and more pronounced in recent years and decades. Macroeconomist Lyn Alden elaborates on this concept:

“Asset price inflation often happens during periods of high wealth concentration and low interest rates. If a lot of new money is created, but that money gets concentrated in the upper echelons of society for one reason or another, then that money can’t really affect consumer prices too much but instead can lead to speculation and overpriced buying of financial assets. Due to tax policies, automation, offshoring, and other factors, wealth has concentrated towards the top in the U.S. in recent decades. People in the bottom 90% of the income spectrum used to have about 40% of US household net worth in 1990, but more recently it’s down to 30%. The top 10% folks saw their share of wealth climb from 60% to 70% during that time. When broad money goes up a lot but gets rather concentrated, then the link between broad money growth and CPI growth can weaken, while the link between broad money growth and asset price growth intensifies.”8

As a whole, artificially inflated asset prices are maintaining or increasing the purchasing power of the wealthy, while leaving the middle and lower classes stagnant or in decline. This also holds true for members of younger generations who have no nest egg and are working to get their financial feet underneath them. Although WILDLY imperfect (and many would suggest detrimental), it’s understandable why more and more people are clamoring for things like universal basic income (UBI). Handouts and redistributive economic approaches are increasingly popular for a reason. Poignant examples do exist where the rich and powerful were advantaged above the average Joe. Preston Pysh, cofounder of The Investor’s Podcast Network, has described certain expansionary monetary policies as “universal basic income for the rich.”9 In my view, it’s ironic that many of those privileged to have benefited most dramatically from the current system are also those who advocate for less and less government involvement. These individuals fail to recognize that existing central bank interventions are a major contributing factor to their bloated wealth in the form of assets. Many are blind to the fact that they are the ones suckling from the largest government teat in the world today: the fiat money creator. I am certainly not an advocate for rampant handouts or suffocating redistribution, but if we want to preserve and grow a robust and functional form of capitalism, it must enable equal opportunity and fair value accrual. This seems to be breaking down as the world’s monetary base layer becomes more unsound. It’s quite clear that the current setup is not distributing milk evenly, which begs the question: do we need a new cow?

Overarchingly, I believe many average folks are encumbered by 21st century economic architecture. We need an upgrade, a system that can be concurrently antifragile and equitable. The bad news is that within the existing setup, the trends I’ve outlined above show no signs of abatement, in fact they are bound to worsen. The good news is that the incumbent system is being challenged by a bright orange newcomer. In the remainder of this essay we will unpack why and how Bitcoin functions as a financial equalizer. For those stuck in the proverbial economic basement, dealing with the cold and wet consequences of deteriorating financial plumbing, Bitcoin provides several key remedies to current fiat malfunctions. We’ll explore these remedies in Part 2 and Part 3.

1. The words “credit” and “debt” both pertain to owing money — debt is money owed; credit is the money borrowed that can be spent.

2. The price of money being interest rates

3. For more on how this works, I recommend Nik Bhatia’s book “Layered Money.”

4. A disclaimer may be in order here: I am not anti-globalization, pro-tariff, or isolationist in my economic viewpoint. Rather, I seek to outline an example of how a monetary system built heavily on top of the sovereign debt of a single nation can lead to imbalances.

5. If you are interested in exploring the nuance and complexity of Quantitative Easing, Lyn Alden’s essay “Banks, QE, And Money-Printing” is my recommended starting point.

6. From “What Exactly Is The ‘Fed Put’, And (When) Can We Expect to See It Again?” by James Lavish, part of his newsletter The Informationist.

7. Yes, I admit some of this was the result of stimulus money being invested.

8. From “The Ultimate Guide To Inflation” by Lyn Alden

9. Preston Pysh made this comment during a Twitter Spaces, which is now available via this Bitcoin Magazine Podcast.

This is a guest post by Dan. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.