At this point, you’ve probably heard the name Bitcoin, but you probably don’t know exactly what it is.
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OK, online money, fair enough. But its online money whose underlying technology has myriad and far-reaching implications. Thus, this will be the first of a multi-part series featuring Bitcoin.
Bitcoin, the Absolute Basics:
First, we’ll start by comparing the similarities and differences between the digital currency and our more commonly known paper variety.
Just like paper money, it is accepted as a medium of exchange between two parties that have no reason to barter. I might not need your fish that you have to trade for my grain, but I can use your currency to trade with a 3rd party for a shovel, which I do need.
Just like normal currencies, Bitcoin can also be traded for other currencies. The foreign exchange market is the world’s biggest, with literally trillions of dollars trading hands daily.
And just like standard currencies, there’s not a damn thing backing it up, except consumer confidence that it is actually worth something. Yep, Bitcoin is just an idea that represents nothing in particular. Just like a US dollar. Technically, a Bitcoin does represent the computer processing power and electricity used to generate it, just as a US dollar is supposed to represent a share of the US economy, but realistically, if everyone loses confidence in the currency, down it goes, regardless of its “backing”. See Argentina’s current currency collapse to see how well that “backing” works out.
Unlike paper money, however, there is no physical entity to hold onto. All transactions are controlled and recorded simultaneously by thousands of computers at once. Although this isn’t entirely different from standard currencies in that the vast majority of government issued currencies has no physical form either, only an electronic one.
The biggest difference between Bitcoin and other standard currencies, however, actually has little to do with its digital nature. It comes from who issues it. There is NO government behind Bitcoin, or (at present) any other digital currency. Bitcoin is issued by a consensus of “miners” or computers dedicated to resolving the thousands of transactions a minute into one big, shared ledger. There is NO central authority to regulate (or more likely manipulate the currency). How many coins are issued (and how often) was set out on a schedule that was publicly know since the whole idea was first implemented.
Why does that make a big difference? Because unlike governments, which run a deficit roughly 100% of the time, the non-existant central authority for Bitcoin doesn’t have a yearly debt binge to pay for. Which means it doesn’t have to print up more and more currency every year to pay for the difference, making the dollars (or whatever currency) in your pocket worth less.
In fact, there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins ever mined, with currently about 12 million in circulation. After that, that’s it. But as demand for Bitcoin increases, the value of the whole currency will increase as well. Which is the exact opposite of how governments run their currencies. Governments want their currencies to be worth less over time, so the value of their debt constantly shrinks.
Put like that, which currency would you rather have your savings account in?