A world without cash - Barokong

Max Raskin and David Yermack have a nice WSJ OpEd last week, "Preparing for a world without cash." The oped summarizes their relatedpaper.

What would a government-backed digital currency look like? A country’s central bank would need to become a deposit-taking institution and hold accounts on behalf of citizens and businesses. All of their debits would be tracked on the central bank’s blockchain, a digital ledger resistant to tampering. The central bank would pay interest electronically by adjusting the balances of depositor accounts.
I'm a big fan of the idea of abundant interest-bearing electronic money, and that the Fed or Treasury should provide abundant amounts of it. (Some links below.) Two big reasons: First, we then get to live Milton Friedman's optimal quantity of money. If money pays interest, you can hold as much as you'd like. It's like running a car with all the oil it needs. Second, it is a key to financial stability. If all "money" is backed by the Treasury or Fed, financial crises and runs end. As Max and David say,

Depositors would no longer have to rely on commercial banks to hold their checking accounts, and the government could get out of the risky deposit-insurance business. Commercial banks that wished to keep making loans would raise long-term capital in the debt and equity markets, ending the mismatch between demand deposits and long-term loans that can cause liquidity problems.
However, there are different ways to accomplish this larger goal. Do we all need to have accounts directly at the Fed, and is a blockchain the best way for the Fed to handle transfers?

The point of the blockchain, as I understand it, is to demonstrate the validity of each "dollar" by keeping a complete encrypted record of its creation and each person who held it along the way.

Its archival blockchain links together all previous transfers of a given unit of currency as a method of authentication. The blockchain is known as a “shared ledger” or “distributed ledger,” because it is available to all members of the network, any one of whom can see all previous transactions into or out of other digital wallets
That, and a limited supply to control its value, was the basic idea of bitcoin. But when we are clearing transactions by transferring rights to accounts at the Fed, the validity of the "dollar" is not in question. It's at the Fed. And, the big advantage relative to bitcoin as I see it, the value of the dollar comes from monetary policy and ultimately the government's demand for "dollars" to be paid in taxes, not from a fixed supply as was the case with gold.

The blockchain also appears to clear transactions more quickly and offer some security advantages. The latter are very attractive -- in my personal life I've recently had the questionable pleasure of spending days enjoying 19th century finance of multi-day clearing times, obtaining notarized signatures and medallion guarantees, and sending pieces of paper around. But not yet ironclad -- The same week of the WSJ has a string of articles on the security ofBitcoin following a recent hack.

The biggest stumbling block in my mind is "all members of the network, any one of whom can see all previous transactions into or out of other digital wallets." Per Max and David, this has pluses and minuses:

Tax collection would become much simpler, and tax evasion and money laundering could become prohibitively difficult.
Yet the centralization of banking under this system would also create a Leviathan with the power to monitor and control the personal finances of every citizen in the country. This is one of the chief reasons why many are loath to give up on hard currency. With digital money, the government could view any financial transaction and obtain a flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios.
This really is a big change in how "money" works. Traditional cash has a lovely property, that it has no memory. Its physical properties determine its value in a way independent of its history. It is incredibly efficient, in a Hayek information sense. The economy does not need the memory of every transaction. Blockchains turn this around.

The anonymity of cash makes it enduringly popular -- cash holdings are up, not down in the digital age. The same week of WSJ reading had articles delving into the continuing popularity of cash, and themechanics of handling it, the ongoing fury over theplaneload of cashdelivered by the Obama administration to Iran. It's not hard to figure out why both Iranians and Administration needed to send old-fahshioned bills on an unmarked plane, not a wire transfer.

Indeed creating this Leviathan is a danger, to the economy, and to our political freedom. Our government likes to pass aspirational laws that we don't really mean to enforce. Get rid of cash, and allow the government to see every transaction and enforce every law regarding payment of anything, and 11 million immigrants suddenly can't work at all and become penniless. Rigorous enforcement of all transactions would not only stop your kids lemonade stand and babysitting business, it would wipe out most of the employment opportunities for lower-income America. Many businesses would come to a halt.

The natural response is, well, maybe we shouldn't pass laws we don't really mean to enforce. Good luck with that.

More deeply,  "flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios" is truly frightening. I don't think there is a political candidate in the whole country who could not be embarrassed with one purchase at some point in their lives. Consider the brouhaha now over "disclosure" of political contributions -- there is a real fear that disclosure is a way of setting up hit lists for the administration to go after its political enemies. Multiply that by a thousand. Dissenters could easily be silenced if the government can monitor or block every transaction.

The ability to transact with anonymity and privacy has been a central freedom for hundreds of years. It's largely gone already. Losing it entirely and giving the government huge power to enforce any law it passes is not necessarily a good thing.

Mike and David opine

creating and respecting privacy firewalls and rethinking legal-tender laws could mitigate the dangers of monopoly and stifled competition in currency markets.
[Subject-free sentences (creating?) are always a sign of trouble!] The dangers are not of monopoly and competition, the dangers are in the vast loss of privacy that the government, and its leakers and hackers knowing all our transactions implies.

(Here I'm out on a limb on my blockchain knowledge, but I gather that one does have to wipe the slate clean occasionally. Otherwise, the blockchain gets ridiculously long. Imagine each dollar, a hundred years from now, attached to a list of everyone who has ever held it! That wiping out process could do a lot for privacy.)

So, back to basics. It is not at all clear to me in their analysis why the Fed has to manage all the accounts. The Fed, Treasury, and the government in general are very good at defining the units of a currency, and providing an easy standard of value -- cash, coins, liquid government debt, reserves.  That is their natural monopoly. I don't see that the government has a similar natural advantage in providing low-cost transactions services, especially on monitoring fraud in the use of those services. The Fed got hacked by employees of the central bank of Bangladesh.

So I leave with two big questions -- and these are questions, and this is an invitation to more thought.

Is a blockchain really better than accounts at the Fed, and instructions to flip a switch to send money from my account to your account? What is the best way to get low transactions costs and fraud prevention, given that we don't need authentication of the dollar itself and a supply limitation?

Is it really better for the Fed to handle all transactions directly, rather than for the Fed to provide clearing accounts, and "banks" (narrow!) to provide transactions services between people, using reserves as now for netting and clearing? The latter setup allows competition and innovation in transactions services, and a better hope for an information firewall retaining some privacy and anonymity in transactions.

(Note for readers new to the blog: I've written about some of these issues inA new structure for US Federal Debt, Toward a run-free financial system, A blueprint for effective financial reform and previous blog posts, such as here.)

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