The article by Greg Phelan published in The Gospel Coalition titled Ask the Economist: Should Christians Invest in Bitcoin? was one I looked at with great interest. I’m a Christian and a Bitcoiner. I’ve been teaching the technical and economic details of Bitcoin for over 5 years and have written 3 books on the topic. The latest book is Thank God for Bitcoin, which makes the moral argument for Bitcoin from a Christian perspective.
To say that I was disappointed would not do my feelings justice. Greg Phelan claims to be focusing on “higher level ideas,” but what comes through loudly and clearly is that he doesn’t understand what Bitcoin is or what problem it’s solving. This article is a rebuttal, but also a different perspective. I hope to show a view that is a lot more expansive, which critically compares our current monetary system to Bitcoin, rather than dismissing Bitcoin in isolation as Phelan does.
The strategy of the article is made clear in the first subheading: “There Are No Dividends Here.” Phelan’s argument starts by classifying Bitcoin into known categories like stocks, bonds, assets or currencies and then analyzing whether Christians should invest based on the norms of that category. While this sounds reasonable, it’s a very narrow view of what Bitcoin is and reveals a lack of understanding of what Bitcoin is trying to do. I’ll have more to say about this later.
Phelan notes that there are no dividends in Bitcoin, eliminating it as an asset. He reveals his lack of knowledge about Bitcoin as he gets even basic facts wrong when he writes:
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies produce no dividends. They will never provide a place to stay or earned income or even interest.
His claim that there will never be a place to earn interest is demonstrably false as there are multiple such places that operate right now, including locking up Bitcoin in lightning liquidity pools. There are also multiple services with varying levels of risk that offer interest as well. Given Phelan’s apparent lack of knowledge about the Bitcoin ecosystem, his confidence in his analysis is a bit strange.
What’s stranger is his conclusion from the premise that Bitcoin does not produce dividends. He concludes:
So why do people invest in crypto? Because they expect the price to rise.
We have a word in finance for an investment like this — a bubble. An asset that never pays a dividend but has a price that keeps rising is a bubble. An investor can believe Bitcoin is a bubble and rationally invest so long as she expects to sell out before the bubble pops. But that isn’t investing; that’s gambling, and it’s a zero-sum game.
His argument here amounts to saying that because there is no dividend, Bitcoin must be a speculative gambling vehicle. By his logic, gold jewelry and artwork do not qualify as assets and must be gambling vehicles since, strictly speaking, they don’t produce dividends.
More charitably, perhaps he’s talking about utility since he gives an example of a house where you get “the value that you receive from having a place to stay.” Using that definition, jewelry provides a dividend from the value that you receive from wearing it and artwork provides a dividend from the value you receive displaying it in your home. Even by this rather strange definition of dividend, Bitcoin certainly qualifies. You can timestamp documents using proof-of-existence. You can create a decentralized identity on Bitcoin using ION. If “dividend” is defined as “value you receive,” then it’s really no different than utility you can get for an item.
The conclusion is a non sequitur, or more accurately, an accusation: Bitcoiners are a bunch of gamblers! This is not only uncharitable, but startlingly ignorant. Even a modicum of research into the topic would show that the most popular use of Bitcoin is what he accuses Bitcoin not being useful for: storing value.
Bitcoin is for Saving
…you don’t “buy” money because you intend to hold it forever. The point of holding money is to “sell it” in the future
This is what economists call salability across time and what normal people call saving. Saving is the main reason people hold Bitcoin. Bitcoin stores value really, really well (+150%/yr) as the last 10 years have shown. This is in stark contrast to USD, which has depreciated considerably in the last 10 years. Even by using the heavily manipulated CPI metric, a dollar from 10 years ago has lost 20% of its purchasing power. This is obvious when shopping at the grocery store as some items have gone up 20% just in the past 6 months. Using his definition of what money is for, the dollar has performed poorly while Bitcoin has performed spectacularly.
Yet he comes to an odd conclusion:
The value of currency comes from people’s willingness to accept it as a means of payment.
But Bitcoin is a much less robust means of payment than other currencies. While there is a black-market demand for Bitcoin transactions because of anonymity, the current level of payments can’t explain the price. The number of Bitcoin transactions slowed down starting in 2012 and hasn’t increased at all since 2017. But the price has soared since then.
There are a couple of demonstrably false statements in the second paragraph. First, the black-market demand for bitcoin is a very small amount of transactions as compared to USD. Second, Bitcoin transactions have increased significantly since 2017 through the lightning network.
The bigger error here is the argument which starts with the utility of money being savings somehow leading to the opposite, which is that payment volume should be the only factor in its price. The Venezuelan Bolivar has tremendous payment volume, mostly due to people wanting to get rid of it, but that hasn’t helped its price in USD terms at all. In other words, price doesn’t reflect payment volume. The market value of one currency relative to others comes from the opposite of spending: it comes from people’s willingness to hold savings in it.
As a currency, Bitcoin is not as good as dollars or any other currency.
As savings over the long term, Bitcoin has been quantifiably better and that’s easily proven. Charitably, his definition of “good” here could mean “more accepted worldwide as payment,” in which case, I’d agree. This would then be an argument from authority based on his false conclusion that currencies are only useful for payments. But as I’ll argue below, that’s not the only reason Bitcoin is useful nor the only problem that Bitcoin is solving.
All economists agree that a stable price is highly desirable for a currency.
This is another argument from authority with no justification. Stable to what? And desirable for whom? I strongly suspect he means stable to the dollar, which then would mean that no currency, even in principle, can ever be better than the dollar, a ridiculous conclusion. More charitably, perhaps he means staple basket of goods used to calculate CPI. On that metric, too, the dollar is very stable as it’s consistently suffered 2% or 3% debasement every year.
Is that really how we measure whether a currency is useful? A macro-economist may find that useful, but certainly not the average person. To normal people, a way to save over the long term is much more useful than stability to a basket of goods. For an asset you’re going to purchase and hold for 5 years would you rather have a 2% decrease every year in a perfectly stable way or a net 100% increase over 5 years with instability (say, -20%, +70%, +10%, -5%, +41%) along the way?
That is the big utility of Bitcoin that Phelan doesn’t acknowledge. Bitcoin is extremely useful as a savings vehicle. This is because there really aren’t many good stores of value in the market. Traditional stores of value like real estate and stocks are in an asset bubble because so much money is flowing into both as a result of the monetary expansion of the last 20 months.
Bitcoin is a Hedge Against Inflation
Speaking of which, inflation is the big elephant in the room that Phelan does not mention. Monetary expansion is the reason that people are opting out of the dollar and into other assets like Bitcoin. And this is where I think Phelan’s analysis falls woefully short.
Christians should be excited to invest in ways that serve the common good, whether by using their retirement funds to align values and investments or by providing funding for a car wash to provide jobs or in any number of other ways. Investing creates and serves.
I agree wholeheartedly with his statement. What Phelan doesn’t realize is that Bitcoin is far more aligned with Biblical principles than the US dollar. He doesn’t question the US dollar system at all, which is why his article comes off as ignorant and dismissive. In reality, the current monetary system is one of theft, corruption and cronyism running on debt.
The US Dollar System is Corrupt
New money is constantly created for the benefit of the people closest to the money printer in the form of loans. These not only include central banks, but also commercial and retail banks who lend out money that they create ex nihilo. Dollars created ex nihilo means that all other dollars in existence are diluted. In the case of the dollar, the supply has increased by over 70x in the past 62 years, meaning that the dollar has been diluted to 1.4% of its original value. This not only affects people in the United States, but people all over the world. The dollar is sadly the most accessible store of value for billions of people, especially those in fast-inflating economies.
Put another way, the monetary expansion is unjust to the poorest of the poor. People as far away as Nigeria, Turkey, Argentina, Lebanon and North Korea all use the dollar as their savings. Dollar expansion necessarily means that their savings get diluted. When the dollar expands through large government programs like PPP loans or stimulus checks, the poorest lose out. When banks loan money ex nihilo to buy corporate bonds or fund a residential mortgage, the poorest lose out. When hedge funds use 100x leverage and lose and are bailed out through repo loans, the poorest lose out.
Bitcoin is a way to opt out of this corrupt, US-centric system which takes value from the poor and gives to the rich. Because Bitcoin is decentralized, it is an apolitical money, meaning that it serves no one’s agenda. Because Bitcoin is digital, it’s convenient and individuals can obtain banking services without the need of a bank. This is by no means theoretical. The Bitcoin Beach movement in El Zonte, El Salvador is proof of that and many people are benefiting tremendously. Many people in El Zonte are starting their own businesses and providing goods and services to the market.
In Bitcoin, we have the concept of financial privilege. Financial privilege is people in first-world countries dismissing and ignoring the financial suffering they have inflicted on people in the third world. Greg Phelan’s attitude is an all-too-common example. His dismissal of Bitcoin as a gambling vehicle while saying nothing of Bitcoin’s benefits is not only factually wrong, but deeply uncharitable. His failure to acknowledge the corruption and shortcomings of the US dollar is even more telling.
Bitcoin allows Christians to opt out of the corrupt system of central banking which has done immeasurable harm to people around the world. Should Christians invest in Bitcoin? That’s something Christians should ponder while checking their financial privilege.