A Crypto-Mystery: Is $140 Million Stuck or Missing?

Gerald Cotten launched Quadriga in December 2013. The exchange claimed to be one of the largest in Canada, allowing customers to trade a handful of cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and ether.

On Jan. 15, the company announced on its website that Mr. Cotten had died on Dec. 9 from complications related to Crohn’s disease while building an orphanage in India. He was 30 years old. Two weeks later, the exchange filed for bankruptcy protection in a Nova Scotia court.

.. While those suspicious of Quadriga acknowledge the public transactions don’t provide certainty, some say there is a way to determine if the exchange’s money is indeed trapped. A crypto developer named Amaury Sechet suggested Quadriga should publish the addresses of the cold wallets. This would allow anyone to see how much cryptocurrency is in them, even if they couldn’t access it.

Poloniex said it identified accounts that could be related to Quadriga, and is working with appropriate authorities. Bitfinex did not immediately reply to a request for comment. ShapeShift declined to comment.

“Over time trust will build as the coins remains (sic) untouched,” he wrote on Twitter. “If they cannot do this, their story is not credible.”

The Big Blockchain Lie

Now that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have plummeted from last year’s absurdly high valuations, the techno-utopian mystique of so-called distributed-ledger technologies should be next. The promise to cure the world’s ills through “decentralization” was just a ruse to separate retail investors from their hard-earned real money.

.. Faced with the public spectacle of a market bloodbath, boosters have fled to the last refuge of the crypto scoundrel: a defense of “blockchain,” the distributed-ledger software underpinning all cryptocurrencies. Blockchain has been heralded as a potential panacea for everything from poverty and famine to cancer. In fact, it is the most overhyped – and least useful – technology in human history.

In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed. Blockchain fundamentalists’ ideal world is one in which all economic activity and human interactions are subject to anarchist or libertarian decentralization. They would like the entirety of social and political life to end up on public ledgers that are supposedly “permissionless” (accessible to everyone) and “trustless” (not reliant on a credible intermediary such as a bank).

.. Yet far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalized, and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralization of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers, and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralization and democracy; it is about greed.

For example, a small group of companies – mostly located in such bastions of democracy as Russia, Georgia, and China – control between two-thirds and three-quarters of all crypto-mining activity, and all routinely jack up transaction costs to increase their fat profit margins. Apparently, blockchain fanatics would have us put our faith in an anonymous cartel subject to no rule of law, rather than trust central banks and regulated financial intermediaries.

A similar pattern has emerged in cryptocurrency trading. Fully 99% of all transactions occur on centralized exchanges that are hacked on a regular basis. And, unlike with real money, once your crypto wealth is hacked, it is gone forever.

.. Moreover, the centralization of crypto development – for example, fundamentalists have named Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin a “benevolent dictator for life” – already has given lie to the claim that “code is law,” as if the software underpinning blockchain applications is immutable. The truth is that the developers have absolute power to act as judge and jury. When something goes wrong in one of their buggy “smart” pseudo-contracts and massive hacking occurs, they simply change the code and “fork” a failing coin into another one by arbitrary fiat, revealing the entire “trustless” enterprise to have been untrustworthy from the start.

.. Lastly, wealth in the crypto universe is even more concentrated than it is in North Korea. Whereas a Gini coefficient of 1.0 means that a single person controls 100% of a country’s income/wealth, North Korea scores 0.86, the rather unequal United States scores 0.41, and Bitcoin scores an astonishing 0.88.

As should be clear, the claim of “decentralization” is a myth propagated by the pseudo-billionaires who control this pseudo-industry. Now that the retail investors who were suckered into the crypto market have all lost their shirts, the snake-oil salesmen who remain are sitting on piles of fake wealth that will immediately disappear if they try to liquidate their “assets.”

.. Moreover, in cases where distributed-ledger technologies – so-called enterprise DLT – are actually being used, they have nothing to do with blockchain. They are private, centralized, and recorded on just a few controlled ledgers. They require permission for access, which is granted to qualified individuals. And, perhaps most important, they are based on trusted authorities that have established their credibility over time. All of which is to say, these are “blockchains” in name only.

Stephen Bannon Buys Into Bitcoin

“It almost seems like a natural progression for a man who gained prominence by shoveling out unfounded conspiracies to now shilling complex technology and financial instruments to an unsophisticated investing public,”

.. Bitcoin has been popular with the alt-right and nationalist communities because it has provided them with a way to receive online donations and evade restrictions put on them by banks and payment companies. PayPal and Apple Pay, for example, shut down the accounts of some right-wing groups last year.

.. Cryptocurrencies are also gaining mainstream interest. Goldman Sachs, where Mr. Bannon worked in the 1980s, recently said it was creating a Bitcoin trading operation. The parent company of the New York Stock Exchange has been looking at building an exchange for digital tokens. And Facebook has put top executives on a project exploring use of the technology.

.. Mr. Bannon is particularly interested in the possibility that countries could create coins tied to national wealth — an Italian coin tied to marble deposits in the country, for instance.

.. The company, Internet Gaming Entertainment, or IGE, brought on Mr. Bannon as vice chairman in 2005 to help Mr. Pierce expand the business and deal with legal threats.

.. Mr. Bannon credits the company with introducing him to the ranks of disaffected young men who gathered online around video games, and who became pillars of the alt-right movement.

 

The Old Allure of New Money

Practically no one, outside of computer science departments, can explain how cryptocurrencies work, and that mystery creates an aura of exclusivity, gives the new money glamour, and fills devotees with revolutionary zeal. None of this is new, and, as with past monetary innovations, a seemingly compelling story may not be enough.

.. the true public justification for creating the European currency in 1992 was a kind of “groupthink,” a faith “embedded in people’s psyches” that “the mere existence of a single currency…would create the impetus for countries to come together in closer political embrace.”
..  in 1932 the economist John Pease Norton, addressing the Econometric Society, proposed a dollar backed not by gold but by electricity. But while Norton’s electric dollar received substantial attention, he had no good reason for choosing electricity over other commodities to back the dollar. At a time when most households in advanced countries had only recently been electrified, and electric devices from radios to refrigerators had entered homes, electricity evoked images of the most glamorous high science.
..Each of these monetary innovations has been coupled with a unique technological story. But, more fundamentally, all are connected with a deep yearning for some kind of revolution in society. The cryptocurrencies are a statement of faith in a new community of entrepreneurial cosmopolitans who hold themselves above national governments, which are viewed as the drivers of a long train of inequality and war.
And, as in the past, the public’s fascination with cryptocurrencies is tied to a sort of mystery, like the mystery of the value of money itself, consisting in the new money’s connection to advanced science. Practically no one, outside of computer science departments, can explain how cryptocurrencies work. That mystery creates an aura of exclusivity, gives the new money glamour, and fills devotees with revolutionary zeal. None of this is new, and, as with past monetary innovations, a compelling story may not be enough.