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I'm avoiding a full-on post at the moment because I'm very uncertain, so I figured I'd solicit opinions here, and see if I'm wrong. This post should be viewed as an attempt to invoke Cunningham's Law rather than something you should update on immediately. I expect some people to disagree, and if you do, I ask only that you tell me why. I am open to having my mind changed on this. I've thought this for a while, but now seems the obvious time to bring it up.

To me, cryptocurrency as a whole, at least in the form it is currently practiced, seems inherently anticapitalist, and not in a socialist way either. What's the ideal of capitalism, the kind EA tends to philosophically endorse? (Which I love about EA) The ideal of capitalism is - I spend $10 of labor and materials to produce a widget you value at $20, then I sell it to you for $15. We make gains from trade and I've produced $10 of value out of thin air, thus increasing the size of the economy for everyone, making the world better off, and earning some portion of the gains for myself as is right and proper.

How does crypto do this? I cannot think of a single application of cryptocurrency where it's worth spending money on something if I then know for certain I can then never sell it. I value it so I can sell it to someone else later for more money. By contrast, if I buy a computer, or a kebab, or a gym membership, I don't care if its resale value is $0 - I have bought it purely for the utility of owning the thing.

So, what if that's true? If cryptocurrency is purely (or even mostly!) speculative, it is a negative-sum game. If I buy crypto for $10, then sell it to you for $20, we both pay $1 for the transaction, and then the currency crashes and you can't resell it, I haven't sold you $20 worth of value - you're left holding the bag, you'd take the transaction back in a second if you could. All you could do is sell it onwards, but that just acts as a delay mechanism - someone, somewhere, has to be the last person in the chain who pays for all. At no point in the chain is someone going to actually obtain utility from the thing in itself.

Ergo, cryptocurrency does not improve the world. It, in fact, makes the world worse off on average, just like any sort of financial instrument that fails to pay for itself in terms of adding real value to the economy. This is, therefore, against the spirit of what capitalism should be - a means of getting rich by providing a ton of value to the economy and capturing some portion of it for oneself, such that both you and the world at large are better off. While I wouldn't go so far as to say we should refuse any donations downstream of cryptocurrency, I feel like crypto should be treated the same as any of our harmful careers - EA's should not go into it, or at least think twice and thrice before doing so.

Evidence that would change my mind:

- Show that cryptocurrency provides substantial utility to people separate from speculation or resale, such that the industry is overall net positive - it increases the size of the economy and makes the world better off on net rather than redistributing a limited pie. (Conditional on my changing my mind, I expect it to probably come from here)

- Convince me that the deontological framework of "Don't take a job that makes the world worse even if your donations make the world better" is not actually the correct way for flawed humans to do consequentialism, and that the ends really do justify the means here, despite my strong prior against "The ends justify the means".

I think crypto was genuinely an improvement for facilitating international money transfer. I personally transferred a bunch of my tuition payments from Germany to the U.S. via crypto, and it saved me a few thousand dollars in exchange payments and worse exchange rates. 

I think this had more to do with how terrible international money exchange is (or was at the time, before Wise.com started being much better than the competition), but I do think the crypto part was genuinely helpful here.

Upvoted, and updating on this somewhat. I don't think it's a sufficient value proposition to justify the entire enterprise, but this is very much a non-trivial gain made because of crypto - I'm sure you're not the only one to have done something like this.

Cryptocurrency is meant to be a form of money, so I think the following quote doesn't really make sense as a bar: 

I cannot think of a single application of cryptocurrency where it's worth spending money on something if I then know for certain I can then never sell it.

Would you spend dollars for euros if you then knew for certain you could never "sell" ( i.e. trade it for something else) your euros? The only difference in principal is that crypto is backed by math and cryptography rather than government enforcement. 

More practically, as Habryka noted, crypto is useful for international payments. Because it relies on a blockchain (a public ledger that is operated by thousands of computers around the world), you can send payments from/to anywhere in the world as long as you have electricity and internet access. This means you can send money more or less instantly with low fees, which seems like a big improvement over current SWIFT infrastructure, though there are downsides.[1]

The blockchain/crypto enable use cases like DeFi (decentralized finance) that seem high potential. There's borrowing/lending protocols that allow depositors to get yield on their assets and borrowers to get access to additional capital. There are decentralized exchanges that enable participants to exchange assets. In principal this could extend to all viable financial services including insurance and derivatives. 

Because these applications rely on smart contracts on the blockchain, they can provide financial services without the middlemen, enabling lower costs. There are also the benefits of financial inclusion since anyone around the world with electricity and internet access can participate, regardless of location, which in principal should help the global poor.

I've tried to highlight some of the upsides/potential upsides of the industry and technology, but the truth is that the entire space is incredibly young, and we don't know exactly how valuable this is going to end up being. 

You might wince at the analogy, but I think it's similar to someone in 1993 asking about the utility of the internet. There are fledgling applications that seem like they could  be valuable, but it's still too early to tell with certainty, and many valuable applications haven't even been discovered yet. 

I'd also like to acknowledge that there obviously is a lot of speculation and scammy behavior in crypto currently, but I don't think that represents everything that's going on in the space. It's difficult to say how potential upsides net out with speculation/scams, but it seems likely to me that there are enough potential and already existing use cases to make the industry long-term net positive. 

  1. ^

    Because crypto can be accessed by anyone with internet/electricity, it does enable some crime and money laundering. There is a debate over how much crime it enables relative to the US dollar, however. 

    The immutability of the blockchain (transactions, once sent, cannot be reversed) also can lead to users losing funds with effectively no recourse. 

Would you spend dollars for euros if you then knew for certain you could never "sell" ( i.e. trade it for something else) your euros?

Could you elaborate on this analogy? I feel like this is supposed to be a point for crypto, in context, but this feels like it's supporting my point. The answer to this is unequivocally "no". The only reason I would want euros, or dollars for that matter, is so I could then buy something with it. Money that can never be spent is useless.

Right, I'm trying to say - just like normal fiat currency, crypto is meant to be a money, it's not an end in itself. So using the bar "I wouldn't buy this thing if I couldn't then trade it for something else" doesn't really make sense, because the whole point of the thing is that you can eventually trade it for something else. 

The value in money is in its properties to facilitate store of value, unit of account, and unit of exchange. Crypto in principal can do these things.

Also, insofar as there is value in other blockchain based applications (e.g. DeFi), you need crypto in order to use those applications (for "gas" to pay for transactions). 

Also, you can use crypto/blockchain to transact in dollars - so called "stablecoins". So you can get the international transfer benefits but without the natural volatility that occurs in crypto prices. 

I may be overpleading the case here, but I feel like a big reason why there is default skepticism about crypto is that in most people's minds, they think "crypto" equals "bitcoin". 

Bitcoin makes up a plurality of total crypto market cap, but imo it's generally boring, uninteresting, and not a particularly high potential part of the space. If crypto was just bitcoin, I wouldn't think that highly of it either. Bitcoin may still be able serve as a kind of "digital gold", but that seems overall not that net positive or interesting.

Imo by far the most interesting part of the space is "smart contract blockchains", the most prominent being Ethereum. That is where the actual innovation and interesting potential use cases are. 

Some examples (sorry for using specific projects, I feel like it's easier to illustrate with concrete examples rather than abstractions):

Aave, the leading borrowing/lending protocol. Users can earn yield on their assets and borrow loans against their collateral. It's basically a bank that runs entirely on code that anyone around the world can access 24/7. 

Uniswap, the leading decentralized exchange. Users can swap assets or earn yield by providing liquidity for any token pair. It's basically an exchange that runs entirely on code that anyone around the world can access 24/7. 

Lens, the leading decentralized social media protocol (this one is still very early, but it shows the potential of the technology). It enables Twitter/FB style social networks, but where everything is on a blockchain so it's impossible to censor or de-platform users, and users can take their followers/friends to other sites (instead of the current siloing we see in current social media platforms). 

Proof of Humanity, a project that is trying to build a sybil-proof digital identification system that could enable things like a true global UBI (this project is also very early and I have no idea if it will actually end up being valuable).

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of projects like these that are building cool stuff enabled by blockchain and smart contracts. 

Right, I'm trying to say - just like normal fiat currency, crypto is meant to be a money, it's not an end in itself. So using the bar "I wouldn't buy this thing if I couldn't then trade it for something else" doesn't really make sense, because the whole point of the thing is that you can eventually trade it for something else. 

So, my understanding of your argument is that the ability to buy things with currency is literally the purpose of currency - it's a necessary but not sufficient condition for a valid cryptocurrency. Using it as a bar makes about as much sense as saying "I wouldn't buy a car if I couldn't drive it places" - true, but trivially obvious.

But in that case...are there cryptocurrencies where I can do this now? Can I buy cryptocurrency and then buy a useful assortment of things quickly and cheaply with it?

The evidence that should change your mind shouldn’t be proof that crypto isn’t speculative. All currency is speculative. The best evidence should be a more nuanced comparison of cryptocurrency against a conventional currency.

All currencies are subject to speculation in the way that you’re talking about. When people feel like the dollar is not doing well, they’re less likely to spend. When people feel more optimistic about the economy, they do spend. These are similar pressures to what you’re talking about, but when you’re operating at the size of a nation state, and you have the backing of your whole economy and a bunch of cash reserves, it’s an order of magnitude less likely, but still possible, that your currency goes belly up. When a country’s currency does go belly up, then everybody who has cash in that country’s currency gets caught holding the bag in the way that you’re talking about.

I think there’s a significant network effect happening on the side of conventional currencies. Specifically, since so many people use it, there is extra utility, and less speculation. To make a fair comparison, you need to be talking about a cryptocurrency that has reached the same scale as a state-backed currency.

It seems to me that a fair comparison is instead “if you scale cryptocurrency up to the same network size as conventional currencies, does it deliver better utility?”

There are a few reasons to think that this might be true. 

  1. It’s harder to steal money, because you have to convince the whole network (instead of just one bank)
  2. You don’t have to put your trust in a bank. 
  3. Transactions are more private
  4. Transactions are more convenient

All of this is to say that when you scale up cryptocurrency, it might actually win a head-to-head match up against the dollar.

Despite this, I think there are a few factors slowing down the uptake of cryptocurrency:

  1. A negative reputation on the part of cryptocurrencies (the term is practically synonymous with scammers these days)
  2. Pressure from the competition
  3. Requiring technical knowledge to understand in a way that conventional currencies don’t. This hinders the uptake in confidence that you need for the average person to actually trust the currency.

I think this leaves two questions which for me replace your first point of evidence:

  • Is there a likely path from where we are today to such a scaled-up cryptocurrency? 
  • Even if there is only a small chance that you are successful, are the benefits so good comparative to a conventional currency that they are worth spending your time and resources on achieving those benefits?

Steelmanning the argument for the utility of crypto besides speculation or resale value.

Baudrillard would call these crypto tokens pure signifier without signified. I disagree. I believe what tokens signify is hope. Undoubtedly, disenchantment has left a nihilistic void at the heart of society. Crypto, qua symbol, forms part of the re-enchantment of the world – a return to mythology. When someone invests in crypto, they receive utilons in return in the form of hope for a better future. They too, can become a multi-millionaire overnight and transform their life. Stories are important, the stories we believe in shape our quality of life. Crypto is the source of a story that helps people cope with difficult material circumstances.

I notice some parallels between the old essay "Transhumanism as Simplified Humanism" (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Aud7CL7uhz55KL8jG/transhumanism-as-simplified-humanism) and current criticisms of EA - that the idea of "doing the most good possible" is obvious and has been thought of many times before. Really,  in a way, this is just common sense. And yet:

Then why have a complicated special name like “transhumanism” ? For the same reason that “scientific method” or “secular humanism” have complicated special names. If you take common sense and rigorously apply it, through multiple inferential steps, to areas outside everyday experience, successfully avoiding many possible distractions and tempting mistakes along the way, then it often ends up as a minority position and people give it a special name.

I feel that EA is like this. If you take a common sense idea like "Do the most good possible", and actually really think about how to do that, and actively compare different things you could be doing - not just the immediate Overton window of what your friends or your colleagues are doing - and then make a serious commitment of resources to make that answer happen, then it ends up as a minority position and people give it a special name. 

A criticism of EA I see all the time: "Buying bednets for people in the third world is paternalistic, elevates the giver over the receiver, etc."

A criticism of EA I never see: "Donating to political candidates in the US is paternalistic, elevates the giver over the receiver, etc."

I find this strange because the latter seems at least as paternalistic as the former - using money to try and impact the political process for the good of the world says "I know what's good for you more than you do". This may be true in some cases, but still -  why do people critique the first, and not the second?

Theories, in rough order of most likely to least likely:

- Critics don't realise EA's involvement in politics is growing yet. Most paternalism claims of EA come from people outside of EA, so we should expect them to be more likely to know about highly visible stuff that's been going on for years.

- Paternalism critiques of EA come from the left, and when EA tries to impact politics they pick Democrat candidates. People don't think of "paternalism" except when it comes to things they disagree with.

- People have mentioned this criticism somewhere, and I just haven't seen it.

- EA donors tend to be Western, so they're from the same culture they aim to influence, which makes it okay.

Curious about people's thoughts on this.