YouTube’s decision to demonetize podcaster Bret Weinstein raises serious questions, both about the First Amendment and regulatory capture
Matt Taibbi 22 hr ago 498 742
Just under three years ago, Infowars anchor Alex Jones was tossed off Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify, marking the unofficial launch of the “content moderation” era. The censorship envelope has since widened dramatically via a series of high-profile incidents: Facebook and Twitter
- suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story,
- Donald Trump’s social media suspension,
- Apple and Amazon’s kneecapping of Parler, the
- removal of real raw footage from the January 6th riots, and others.
This week’s decision by YouTube to demonetize podcaster Bret Weinstein belongs on that list, and has a case to be put at or near the top, representing a different and perhaps more unnerving speech conundrum than those other episodes.
Profiled in this space two weeks ago, Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying — both biologists — host the podcast DarkHorse, which by any measure is among the more successful independent media operations in the country. They have two YouTube channels, a main channel featuring whole episodes and livestreams, and a “clips” channel featuring excerpts from those shows.
Between the two channels, they’ve been flagged 11 times in the last month or so. Specifically, YouTube has honed in on two areas of discussion it believes promote “medical misinformation.” The first is the potential efficacy of the repurposed drug ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment. The second is the third rail of third rails, i.e. the possible shortcomings of the mRNA vaccines produced by companies like Moderna and Pfizer.
Weinstein, who was also criticized for arguing the lab-leak theory before conventional wisdom shifted on that topic, says YouTube’s decision will result in the loss of “half” of his and Heying’s income. However, he says, YouTube told him he can reapply after a month.
YouTube’s notice put it as follows: “Edit your channel and reapply for monetization… Make changes to your channel based on our feedback. Changes can include editing or deleting videos and updating video details.”
“They want me to self-censor,” he says. “Unless I stop broadcasting information that runs afoul of their CDC-approved talking points, I’ll remain demonetized.”
Weinstein’s travails with YouTube sound like something out of a Star Trek episode, in which the Enterprise crew tries and fails to communicate with a malevolent AI attacking the ship. In the last two weeks, he emailed back and forth with the firm, at one point receiving an email from someone who identified himself only as “Christopher,” indicating a desire to set up a discussion between Weinstein and various parties at YouTube.
Over the course of these communications, Weinstein asked if he could nail down the name and contact number of the person with whom he was interacting. “I said, ‘Look, I need to know who you are first, whether you’re real, what your real first and last names are, what your phone number is, and so on,” Weinstein recounts. “But on asking what ‘Christopher’s’ real name and email was, they wouldn’t even go that far.” After this demand of his, instead of giving him an actual contact, YouTube sent him a pair of less personalized demonetization notices.
As has been noted in this space multiple times, this is a common theme in nearly all of these stories, but Weinstein’s tale is at once weirder and more involved, as most people in these dilemmas never get past the form-letter response stage. YouTube has responded throughout to media queries about Weinstein’s case, suggesting they take it seriously.
YouTube’s decision with regard to Weinstein and Heying seems part of an overall butterfly effect, as numerous other figures either connected to the topic or to DarkHorse have been censured by various platforms. Weinstein guest Dr. Robert Malone, a former Salk Institute researcher often credited with helping develop mRNA vaccine technology, has been suspended from LinkedIn, and Weinstein guest Dr. Pierre Kory of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC) has had his appearances removed by YouTube. Even Satoshi Ōmura, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for his work on ivermectin, reportedly had a video removed by YouTube this week.
There are several factors that make the DarkHorse incident different from other major Silicon Valley moderation decisions, including the fact that the content in question doesn’t involve electoral politics, foreign intervention, or incitement. The main issue is the possible blurring of lines between public and private censorship.
When I contacted YouTube about Weinstein two weeks ago, I was told, “In general, we rely on guidance from local and global health authorities (FDA, CDC, WHO, NHS, etc) in developing our COVID-19 misinformation policies.”
The question is, how active is that “guidance”? Is YouTube acting in consultation with those bodies in developing those moderation policies? As Weinstein notes, an answer in the affirmative would likely make theirs a true First Amendment problem, with an agency like the CDC not only setting public health policy but also effectively setting guidelines for private discussion about those policies. “If it is in consultation with the government,” he says, “it’s an entirely different issue.”
Asked specifically after Weinstein’s demonetization if the “guidance” included consultation with authorities, YouTube essentially said yes, pointing to previous announcements that they consult other authorities, and adding, “When we develop our policies we consult outside experts and YouTube creators. In the case of our COVID-19 misinformation policies, it would be guidance from local and global health authorities.”
Weinstein and Heying might be the most prominent non-conservative media operation to fall this far afoul of a platform like YouTube. Unlike the case of, say, Alex Jones, the moves against the show’s content have not been roundly cheered. In fact, they’ve inspired blowback from across the media spectrum, with everyone from Bill Maher to Joe Rogan to Tucker Carlson taking notice.
“They threw Bret Weinstein off YouTube, or almost,” Maher said on Real Time last week. “YouTube should not be telling me what I can see about ivermectin. Ivermectin isn’t a registered Republican. It’s a drug!”
From YouTube’s perspective, the argument for “medical misinformation” in the DarkHorse videos probably comes down to a few themes in Weinstein’s shows. Take, for example, an exchange between Weinstein and Malone in a video about the mRNA vaccines produced by companies like Moderna and Pfizer:
Weinstein: The other problem is that what these vaccines do is they encode spike protein… but the spike protein itself we now know is very dangerous, it’s cytotoxic, is that a fair description?
Malone: More than fair, and I alerted the FDA about this risk months and months and months ago.
In another moment, entrepreneur and funder of fluvoxamine studies Steve Kirsch mentioned that his carpet cleaner had a heart attack minutes after taking the Pfizer vaccine, and cited Canadian viral immunologist Byram Bridle in saying that that the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t stay localized at point of injection, but “goes throughout your entire body, it goes to your brain to your heart.”
Politifact rated the claim that spike protein is cytotoxic “false,” citing the CDC to describe the spike protein as “harmless.” As to the idea that the protein does damage to other parts of the body, including the heart, they quoted an FDA spokesperson who said there’s no evidence the spike protein “lingers at any toxic level in the body.”
Would many doctors argue that the 226 identified cases of myocarditis so far is tiny in the context of 130 million vaccine doses administered, and overall the danger of myocarditis associated with vaccine is far lower than the dangers of myocarditis in Covid-19 patients?
Absolutely. It’s also true that the CDC itself had a meeting on June 18th to discuss cases of heart inflammation reported among people who’d received the vaccine. The CDC, in other words, is simultaneously telling news outlets like Politifact that spike protein is “harmless,” and also having ad-hoc meetings to discuss the possibility, however remote from their point of view, that it is not harmless. Are only CDC officials allowed to discuss these matters?
The larger problem with YouTube’s action is that it relies upon those government guidelines, which in turn are significantly dependent upon information provided to them by pharmaceutical companies, which have long track records of being less than forthright with the public.
In the last decade, for instance, the U.S. government spent over $1.5 billion to stockpile Tamiflu, a drug produced by the Swiss pharma firm Roche. It later came out — thanks to the efforts of a Japanese pediatrician who left a comment on an online forum — that Roche had withheld crucial testing information from British and American buyers, leading to a massive fraud suit. Similar controversies involving the arthritis drug Vioxx and the diabetes drug Avandia were prompted by investigations by independent doctors and academics.
As with financial services, military contracting, environmental protection, and other fields, the phenomenon of regulatory capture is demonstrably real in the pharmaceutical world. This makes basing any moderation policy on official guidelines problematic. If the proper vaccine policy is X, but the actual policy ends up being X plus unknown commercial consideration Y, a policy like YouTube’s more or less automatically preempts discussion of Y.
Some of Weinstein’s broadcasts involve exactly such questions about whether or not it’s necessary to give Covid-19 vaccines to children, to pregnant women, and to people who’ve already had Covid-19, and whether or not the official stance on those matters is colored by profit considerations. Other issues, like whether or not boosters are going to be necessary, need a hard look in light of the commercial incentives.
These are legitimate discussions, as the WHOs own behavior shows. On April 8th, the WHO website said flatly: “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.” A month and a half later, the WHO issued a new guidance, saying the Pfizer vaccine was “suitable for use by people aged 12 years and above.”
The WHO was clear that its early recommendation was based on a lack of data, and on uncertainty about whether or not children with a low likelihood of infection should be a “priority,” and not on any definite conviction that the vaccine was unsafe. And, again, a Politifact check on the notion that the WHO “reversed its stance” on children rated the claim false, saying that the WHO merely “updated” its guidance on children. Still, the whole drama over the WHO recommendation suggested it should at least be an allowable topic of discussion.
Certainly there are critics of Weinstein’s who blanch at the use of sci-fi terms like “red pill” (derived from worldview-altering truth pill in The Matrix), employing language like “very dangerous” to describe the mRNA vaccines, and descriptions of ivermectin as a drug that would “almost certainly make you better.”
Even to those critics, however, the larger issue Weinstein’s case highlights should be clear. If platforms like YouTube are basing speech regulation policies on government guidelines, and government agencies demonstrably can be captured by industry, the potential exists for a new brand of capture — intellectual capture, where corporate money can theoretically buy not just regulatory relief but the broader preemption of public criticism. It’s vaccines today, and that issue is important enough, but what if in the future the questions involve the performance of an expensive weapons program, or a finance company contracted to administer bailout funds, or health risks posed by a private polluter?
Weinstein believes capture plays a role in his case at some level. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he says. He hopes the pressure from the public and from the media will push platforms like YouTube to reveal exactly how, and with whom, they settle upon their speech guidelines. “There’s something industrial strength about the censorship,” he says, adding. “There needs to be a public campaign to reject it.”
INTJs do not give their trust easily, not in regards to trusting others to provide sound, logical opinions let alone advice, and even less so in terms of trusting others to reveal emotions to.
39:04up the down escalator no III think I39:07think there are real possibilities of39:09creating communities of distributed39:14trust right which is which is at the39:17core of the to in my mind the whole39:19effort right have now how do you create39:22a community of distributed trust and and39:27and what I’d like to see is that that39:29distributed trust is applied to areas39:32that are not so fiercely guarded by the39:38you know the the powerful you know39:42states governments and and and39:45businesses right because again it when I39:48think about how to play the long game39:49here I think that is possible to carve39:53out39:55areas of got resistance but what I39:58really mean is areas of sovereignty self40:00sovereignty over issues again they’re40:02not so fiercely guarded as money yes40:04about the state and and so again this is40:07an issue of tactics or other than40:09strategy right and and and so that I40:11would pursue a different tactical40:14approach to the I think the goal we all40:17or most of your listeners share with you40:20and I for sure it it does seem to me and40:27I want to bring this back to the run of40:29iris now right which is that everything40:34you’re describing whether it’s whether40:36it’s your tactical approach my tactical40:39approach I40:42I think it’s tempting to think oh the40:44instability that the virus brings is40:47going to be an advantage in fighting40:51this long game right I actually think40:54it’s it’s it’s it’s a very much40:57disadvantageous to both of us right the41:00both of our tactical approaches here and41:02and I don’t think you have to look much41:04farther than what happened in Hungary41:07right over the last two days where the41:09the Hungarian Parliament and this has41:12been building for a while right and41:14event but Hungarian Parliament in41:17response to the throne of iris emergency41:21and it is an emergency gave really41:26dictatorial powers to to Viktor Orban41:29the the Prime Minister where he now has41:32the ability ability to rule by decree41:34right don’t have to pass the law doesn’t41:37have to go to Parliament whatever the41:40executive says is law there’s no time41:43limit on this now in hunger there’s a41:47new law that if you spread false41:49information I think and use as the41:53executive describes this what at stake41:54or not you’re in prison for five years41:56and if you try to leave the areas of41:59confinement quarantine that they’ve set42:01up that’s in the this this is what42:04happens I think in weaker states42:07go back to some you know idyllic state42:09of nature where you know you can set up42:13your you know Kingdom of Wakanda you42:15know alright what happens is they’re42:17taken over by thugs they’re taking them42:19by warlords and by thugs and and you42:23know in Hungary is uh it’s a member of42:26the yeah I mean I mean it’s a core42:28member of Europe so when I when I think42:31about what’s going to happen in the next42:33year and a half in Indonesia what’s42:36gonna happen the next year and a half in42:38Egypt it’s going to happen in today42:40what’s happening right now in Iran for42:42God’s sakes I I don’t think it works to42:46our advantage42:47III think that the impetus in every42:50country and particularly in the weaker42:52States is going to be for reclaiming of42:55the physical of the violence of the gun42:59and so this is why I think it’s more43:03important than ever that we identify43:06each other in our communities of empathy43:09in our communities of our pack right so43:14that we can fight this long game this43:18long war and so we can support each43:19other so anyway that’s not I’m just43:23trying to bring it back to what’s43:25happening today and and how we should43:28think about this unfortunately I don’t43:29think it’s a great opportunity but I43:32think it’s something that we all need to43:35come together even more around so that43:38we can can stray stay strong or the the43:42dark times that are ahead and I do think43:44they’re dark times well never one to43:48mince words and and and I certainly43:50appreciate the perspective on I’m43:52slightly more optimistic for the reasons43:56that I outlined you know in the physical43:57realm but in the digital realm right is44:00the internet still a bastion of freedom44:02and can you ultimately get people to act44:05freely outside of you know some of the44:08more restrictive social media platforms44:11for instance but just any type of44:12peer-to-peer communication system44:14peer-to-peer digital realms would seem44:17if you’re more conducive for the silent44:20distance the quiet resistance yes and44:22that individual thesis but how exactly44:26we get there not not debating that it44:29could get ugly I want to change gears44:32for the the last a little bit that we44:34have and just talk about your44:37understanding of the investment you know44:40as I guess for this generation of44:45investors because one of your more44:47popular posts this is water and yeah44:51it’s still water it kind of talked about44:53this shifting mindset where deflation44:56expectations that were driven by44:58technology are now inflation44:59expectations there’s and this isn’t45:02necessarily new but I like the way they45:04laid it out the the globalism that had45:09permeated the the macroeconomy for so45:12long is now becoming more nationalistic45:13now in some respects that’s not a bad45:16thing because now you might have45:18countries that are more resilient in the45:21face of issues like pandemics when when45:24today you know we’re seeing just how45:26levered we are via global supply chains45:31you talked about the kind of shifting45:33from you know capital markets into you45:36know true market mechanisms just45:38political utilities and um and then just45:41overall how financialization is kind of45:43exacerbated you know all of those trends45:46what what’s what’s the what’s the next45:49step in in financial markets right yeah45:51if if you run out of the capacity to45:53print if you run out of the capacity to45:55spend let’s not even talk about the u.s.45:58let’s talk about some some country like46:00like Hungary they don’t necessarily46:02control their own currency it’s a small46:05but usually functioning democracy what46:09does a market system look like in a46:11situation like hungry and then how do46:13you ever get back to normalcy or how do46:18you set the reset button so that the46:24short answer is that for in a I’ll go46:30back to46:32I’m gonna go back 2,500 years yeah this46:37is the academic in me right I can’t I46:38can’t I can’t give you a straight answer46:39right what you’re asking has all46:43happened before like it’s all happened46:46before right so Peloponnesian War you’ve46:52got a thens and Sparta the big countries46:56you know fighting each other and then46:59the question is well what happens to the47:00little countries what happens to ya47:05you know magar you know all these these47:07these little city-states and the the47:11Athenians they’re trying to get their47:13their allies together in one of the the47:18little allies is saying well you know47:20but you know you’re asking us to47:22sacrifice everything is all for you I47:24mean this this sounds this justice out a47:28great deal and the Athenian ambassador47:31says you know it was ever thus the47:33strong do as they will the weak do as47:36they must strong do as they will the47:39weak do this they must47:40and nothing has changed in 2500 freaking47:44years when it comes to the ability of47:49countries to chart their own course to47:55deal with the exigencies of power hungry48:02will do as they must even weaker48:07countries than hungry will definitely do48:08is they must and the strong do as they48:10will so what they will when it comes to48:15Europe when it comes to the United48:16States when it comes to Japan which48:17comes to to China is that there are no48:20limits on you know printer Gober right48:24there are no limits on you know we we48:29haven’t even really touched yet modern48:33monetary theory in the notion that well48:35there’s not even a relationship between48:37spending and taxing right48:38you can run deficits as much as you want48:40go on go for it we’re just getting48:43started man48:45getting started hey we’re not at the end48:48game of this where yeah it’s like it’s48:52like this is halftime hey this this48:55isn’t the last few minutes of the fourth48:56quarter48:57with how governments are going to48:59transform capital markets and the fourth49:01key utilities with how they’re going to49:03you know transform the meaning of money49:06into what supports political power yeah49:09this is just half time so I I think we49:14really do have to take that long-term49:16perspective that the printer can go burr49:20for a lot longer and it doesn’t matter49:25who gets elected you know you know it’s49:27it’s it it’s all the same that the last49:3010 years have been the greatest transfer49:32of wealth – I call it the managerial49:35class then I really think anything in49:40history it has come through stock49:42buybacks through stock sales through49:44stock based compensation it’s all49:46happened in the last 10 years and it’s a49:48transfer of hundreds of billions of49:50dollars of wealth to managers not49:55entrepreneurs not founders not Shinya to49:59managers managers and when that much50:04wealth is transferred to that number of50:06people in such a short period of time50:08it doesn’t reverse itself yeah you know50:11you know people don’t the the cheese may50:14move but people still want their cheese50:16yeah and and and I just I just think50:20it’s so important to remember that we50:24really are playing that long game to50:26remember that the strong do is they will50:28and the weak – as they must and to have50:32in mind a set that that we’re just half50:34time right now and that we need to play50:39the game accordingly because what you50:42don’t want to do is you don’t want to50:46yeah you don’t want to storm an50:48entrenched machine-gun nest you know50:50with you know huzzah now is our time you50:53know then you you really do I think want50:57to play the long game50:58I think there50:59a real power of conviction and belief51:03that allows us to play a long game51:06mm-hmm and to keep it all together51:11of course people like you doing your51:13podcast it requires people like me doing51:15our writing and most of it all it it51:18requires a critical mass of people who51:22whose greatest regret would be to give51:26up and to be co-opted by the powers that51:30be rather than play the long game and51:32fight the long fight I can’t think of a51:36better way to wrap up this conversation51:39than calling for conviction and long51:42term ISM and a market remedies panicked51:45and and you know short termism generally51:48drills the day then where can people51:51find you on twitter I’m easy it’s it’s51:54it’s all epsilon Theory all the time so51:56at epsilon theory and epsilon Theory51:59comm it’s for you to read and love to52:03love to have you on board it’s a it’s an52:06excellent read always I’ve been52:08following you for years now and and52:10definitely appreciate your commentary52:11and watching it at all even as we get52:14into a slightly darker period and you52:16can tell for those that are tuning in if52:19you can hear the background noise that52:20naptime just ended so we we just wrapped52:23up with the most perfect time because I52:25just I just heard my kids wake up and52:27surprise that they haven’t run in here52:28already thank you for having me Ryan’s52:32really a pleasure anytime Thank You Ben52:35and stay safe52:36YouTube take care
Brené Brown PhD, LMSW (born November 18, 1965) is a professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host. She has dedicated her career to studying concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and authored seven books including five New York Times best-sellers.
Satoshi gave the world Bitcoin, a true “something for nothing.” His discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an unstoppable idea that is changing the world tremendously, just like its digital ancestor: the number zero.
Zero is Special
“In the history of culture the discovery of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race.” — Tobias Danzig, Number: The Language of Science
Many believe that Bitcoin is “just one of thousands of cryptoassets”—this is true in the same way that the number zero is just one of an infinite series of numbers. In reality, Bitcoin is special, and so is zero: each is an invention which led to a discovery that fundamentally reshaped its overarching system—for Bitcoin, that system is money, and for zero, it is mathematics. Since money and math are mankind’s two universal languages, both Bitcoin and zero are critical constructs for civilization.
For most of history, mankind had no concept of zero: an understanding of it is not innate to us—a symbol for it had to be invented and continuously taught to successive generations. Zero is an abstract conception and is not discernible in the physical world—no one goes shopping for zero apples. To better understand this, we will walk down a winding path covering more than 4,000 years of human history that led to zero becoming part of the empirical bedrock of modernity.
Numerals, which are symbols for numbers, are the greatest abstractions ever invented by mankind: virtually everything we interact with is best grasped in numerical, quantifiable, or digital form. Math, the language of numerals, originally developed from a practical desire to count things—whether it was the amount of fish in the daily catch or the days since the last full moon. Many ancient civilizations developed rudimentary numeral systems: in 2000 BCE, the Babylonians, who failed to conceptualize zero, used two symbols in different arrangements to create unique numerals between 1 and 60:
Vestiges of the base-60 Babylonian cuneiform system still exist today: there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 6 sets of 60 degrees in a circle. But this ancient system lacked a zero, which severely limited its usefulness. Ancient Greeks and Mayans developed their own numeral systems, each of which contained rough conceptions of zero. However, the first explicit and arithmetic use of zero came from ancient Indian and Cambodian cultures. They created a system with nine number symbols and a small dot used to mark the absence of a number—the original zero. This numeral system would eventually evolve into the one we use today:
In the 7th century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta developed terms for zero in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (although he struggled a bit with the latter, as would thinkers for centuries to come). As the discipline of mathematics matured in India, it was passed through trade networks eastward into China and westward into Islamic and Arabic cultures. It was this western advance of zero which ultimately led to the inception of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system—the most common means of symbolic number representation in the world today:
The Economization of Math
When zero reached Europe roughly 300 years later in the High Middle Ages, it was met with strong ideological resistance. Facing opposition from users of the well-established Roman numeral system, zero struggled to gain ground in Europe. People at the time were able to get by without zero, but (little did they know) performing computation without zero was horribly inefficient. An apt analogy to keep in mind arises here: both math and money are possible without zero and Bitcoin, respectively—however both are tremendously more wasteful systems without these core elements. Consider the difficulty of doing arithmetic in Roman numerals:
Calculation performed using the Hindu-Arabic system is significantly more straightforward than with Roman numerals—and energy-efficient systems have a tendency to win out in the long run, as we saw when the steam engine outcompeted animal-sourced power or when capitalism prevailed over socialism (another important point to remember for Bitcoin later). This example just shows the pains of addition—multiplication and division were even more painstaking. As Amir D. Aczel described it in his book Finding Zero:
“[The Hindu-Arabic numeral system] allowed an immense economy of notation so that the same digit, for example 4, can be used to convey itself or forty (40) when followed by a zero, or four hundred and four when written as 404, or four thousand when written as a 4 followed by three zeros (4,000). The power of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system is incomparable as it allows us to represent numbers efficiently and compactly, enabling us to perform complicated arithmetic calculations that could not have been easily done before.”
Roman numeral inefficiency would not be tolerated for long in a world enriching itself through commerce. With trade networks proliferating and productivity escalating in tandem, growing prospects of wealth creation incentivized merchants to become increasingly competitive, pushing them to always search for an edge over others. Computation and record-keeping with a zero-based numeral system was qualitatively easier, quantitatively faster, and less prone to error. Despite Europe’s resistance, this new numeral system simply could not be ignored: like its distant progeny Bitcoin would later be, zero was an unstoppable idea whose time had come:
Functions of Zero
Zero’s first function is as a placeholder in our numeric system: for instance, notice the “0” in the number “1,104” in the equation above, which indicates the absence of value in the tens place. Without zero acting as a symbol of absence at this order of magnitude in “1,104,” the number could not be represented unambiguously (without zero, is it “1,104” or “114”?). Lacking zero detracted from a numeral system’s capacity to maintain constancy of meaning as it scales. Inclusion of zero enables other digits to take on new meaning according to their position relative to it. In this way, zero lets us perform calculation with less effort—whether its pen strokes in a ledger, finger presses on a calculator, or mental gymnastics. Zero is a symbol for emptiness, which can be a highly useful quality—as Lao Tzu said:
“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
More philosophically, zero is emblematic of the void, as Aczel describes it:
“…the void is everywhere and it moves around; it can stand for one truth when you write a number a certain way — no tens, for example — and another kind of truth in another case, say when you have no thousands in a number!”
Drawing analogies to the functions of money: zero is the “store of value” on which higher order of magnitude numerals can scale; this is the reason we always prefer to see another zero at the end of our bank account or Bitcoin balance. In the same way a sound economic store of value leads to increased savings, which undergirds investment and productivity growth, so too does a sound mathematical placeholder of value give us a numeral system capable of containing more meaning in less space, and supporting calculations in less time: both of which also foster productivity growth. Just as money is the medium through which capital is continuously cycled into places of optimal economic employment, zero gives other digits the ability to cycle—to be used again and again with different meanings for different purposes.
Zero’s second function is as a number in its own right: it is the midpoint between any positive number and its negative counterpart (like +2 and -2). Before the concept of zero, negative numbers were not used, as there was no conception of “nothing” as a number, much less “less than nothing.” Brahmagupta inverted the positive number line to create negative numbers and placed zero at the center, thus rounding out the numeral system we use today. Although negative numbers were written about in earlier times, like the Han Dynasty in China (206 BCE to 220 BCE), their use wasn’t formalized before Brahmagupta, since they required the concept of zero to be properly defined and aligned. In a visual sense, negative numbers are a reflection of positive numbers cast across zero:
Interestingly, negative numbers were originally used to signify debts—well before the invention of double-entry accounting, which opted for debits and credits (partly to avoid the use of negative numbers). In this way, zero is the “medium of exchange” between the positive and negative domains of numbers—it is only possible to pass into, or out of, either territory by way of zero. By going below zero and conceptualizing negative numbers, many new and unusual (yet extremely useful) mathematical constructs come into being including imaginary numbers, complex numbers, fractals, and advanced astrophysical equations. In the same way the economic medium of exchange, money, leads to the acceleration of trade and innovation, so too does the mathematical medium of exchange, zero, lead to enhanced informational exchange, and its associated development of civilizational advances:
Zero’s third function is as a facilitator for fractions or ratios. For instance, the ancient Egyptians, whose numeral system lacked a zero, had an extremely cumbersome way of handling fractions: instead of thinking of 3/4 as a ratio of three to four (as we do today), they saw it as the sum of 1/2 and 1/4. The vast majority of Egyptian fractions were written as a sum of numbers as 1/n, where n is the counting number—these were called unit fractions. Without zero, long chains of unit fractions were necessary to handle larger and more complicated ratios (many of us remember the pain of converting fractions from our school days). With zero, we can easily convert fractions to decimal form (like 1/2 to 0.5), which obsoletes the need for complicated conversions when dealing with fractions. This is the “unit of account” function of zero. Prices expressed in money are just exchange ratios converted into a money-denominated price decimal: instead of saying “this house costs eleven cars” we say, “this house costs $440,000,” which is equal to the price of eleven $40,000 cars. Money gives us the ability to better handle exchange ratios in the same way zero gives us the ability to better handle numeric ratios.
Numbers are the ultimate level of objective abstraction: for example, the number 3 stands for the idea of “threeness” — a quality that can be ascribed to anything in the universe that comes in treble form. Equally, 9 stands for the quality of “nineness” shared by anything that is composed of nine parts. Numerals and math greatly enhanced interpersonal exchange of knowledge (which can be embodied in goods or services), as people can communicate about almost anything in the common language of numeracy. Money, then, is just the mathematized measure of capital available in the marketplace: it is the least common denominator among all economic goods and is necessarily the most liquid asset with the least mutable supply. It is used as a measuring system for the constantly shifting valuations of capital (this is why gold became money—it is the monetary metal with a supply that is most difficult to change). Ratios of money to capital (aka prices) are among the most important in the world, and ratios are a foundational element of being:
“In the beginning, there was the ratio, and the ratio was with God, and the ratio was God.” — John 1:1*
*(A more “rational” translation of Jesus’s beloved disciple John: the Greek word for ratio was λόγος (logos), which is also the term for word.)
An ability to more efficiently handle ratios directly contributed to mankind’s later development of rationality, a logic-based way of thinking at the root of major social movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. To truly grasp the strange logic of zero, we must start with its point of origin—the philosophy from which it was born.
Philosophy of Zero
“In the earliest age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.” — The Rig Veda
Zero arose from the bizarre logic of the ancient East. Interestingly, the Buddha himself was a known mathematician — in early books about him, like the Lalita Vistara, he is said to be excellent in numeracy (a skill he uses to woo a certain princess). In Buddhism, the logical character of the phenomenological world is more complex than true or false:
“Anything is either true,
Or not true,
Or both true and not true,
Or neither true nor not true.
This is the Lord Buddha’s teaching.”
This is the Tetralemma (or the four corners of the catuskoti): the key to understanding the seeming strangeness of this ancient Eastern logic is the concept of Shunya, a Hindi word meaning zero: it is derived from the Buddhist philosophical concept of Śūnyatā (or Shunyata). The ultimate goal of meditation is the attainment of enlightenment, or an ideal state of nirvana, which is equivalent to emptying oneself entirely of thought, desire, and worldly attachment. Achievement of this absolute emptiness is the state of being in Shunyata: a philosophical concept closely related to the void—as the Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh describes it:
“The first door of liberation is emptiness, Shunyata
Emptiness always means empty of something
Emptiness is the Middle Way between existent and nonexistent
Reality goes beyond notions of being and nonbeing
True emptiness is called “wondrous being,” because it goes beyond existence and nonexistence
The concentration on Emptiness is a way of staying in touch with life as it is, but it has to be practiced and not just talked about.”
Or, as a Buddhist monk of ancient Wats temple in Southeast Asia described the meditative experience of the void:
“When we meditate, we count. We close our eyes and are aware only of where we are at in the moment, and nothing else. We count breathing in, 1; and we count breathing out, 2; and we go on this way. When we stop counting, that is the void, the number zero, the emptiness.”
A direct experience of emptiness is achievable through meditation. In a true meditative state, the Shunyata and the number zero are one and the same. Emptiness is the conduit between existence and nonexistence, in the same way zero is the door from positive to negative numbers: each being a perfect reflection of the other. Zero arose in the ancient East as the epitome of this deeply philosophical and experiential concept of absolute emptiness. Empirically, today we now know that meditation benefits the brain in many ways. It seems too, that its contribution to the discovery of zero helped forge an idea that benefits mankind’s collective intelligence — our global hive-mind.
Despite being discovered in a spiritual state, zero is a profoundly practical concept: perhaps it is best understood as a fusion of philosophy and pragmatism. By traversing across zero into the territory of negative numbers, we encounter the imaginary numbers, which have a base unit of the square root of -1, denoted by the letter i. The number i is paradoxical: consider the equations x² + 1 = 0 and x³ + 1 = 0, the only possible answers are positive square root of -1 (i) and negative square root of -1 (-i or i³), respectively. Visualizing these real and imaginary domains, we find a rotational axis centered on zero with orientations reminiscent of the tetralemma: one true (1), one not true (i), one both true and not true (-1 or i²), and one neither true nor not true (-i or i³):
Going through the gateway of zero into the realms of negative and imaginary numbers provides a more continuous form of logic when compared to the discrete either-or logic, commonly accredited to Aristotle and his followers. This framework is less “black and white” than the binary Aristotelean logic system, which was based on true or false, and provides many gradations of logicality; a more accurate map to the many “shades of grey” we find in nature. Continuous logic is insinuated throughout the world: for instance, someone may say “she wasn’t unattractive,” meaning that her appeal was ambivalent, somewhere between attractive and unattractive. This perspective is often more realistic than a binary assessment of attractive or not attractive.
Importantly, zero gave us the concept of infinity: which was notably absent from the minds of ancient Greek logicians. The rotations around zero through the real and imaginary number axes can be mathematically scaled up into a three-dimensional model called the Riemann Sphere. In this structure, zero and infinity are geometric reflections of one another and can transpose themselves in a flash of mathematical permutation. Always at the opposite pole of this three-dimensional, mathematical interpretation of the tetralemma, we find zero’s twin—infinity:
The twin polarities of zero and infinity are akin to yin and yang — as Charles Seife, author of Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, describes them:
“Zero and infinity always looked suspiciously alike. Multiply zero by anything and you get zero. Multiply infinity by anything and you get infinity. Dividing a number by zero yields infinity; dividing a number by infinity yields zero. Adding zero to a number leaves it unchanged. Adding a number to infinity leaves infinity unchanged.”
In Eastern philosophy, the kinship of zero and infinity made sense: only in a state of absolute nothingness can possibility become infinite. Buddhist logic insists that everything is endlessly intertwined: a vast causal network in which all is inexorably interlinked, such that no single thing can truly be considered independent — as having its own isolated, non-interdependent essence. In this view, interrelation is the sole source of substantiation. Fundamental to their teachings, this truth is what Buddhists call dependent co-origination, meaning that all things depend on one another. The only exception to this truth is nirvana: liberation from the endless cycles of reincarnation. In Buddhism, the only pathway to nirvana is through pure emptiness:
Some ancient Buddhist texts state: “the truly absolute and the truly free must be nothingness.” In this sense, the invention of zero was special; it can be considered the discovery of absolute nothingness, a latent quality of reality that was not previously presupposed in philosophy or systems of knowledge like mathematics. Its discovery would prove to be an emancipating force for mankind, in that zero is foundational to the mathematized, software-enabled reality of convenience we inhabit today.
Zero was liberation discovered deep in meditation, a remnant of truth found in close proximity to nirvana — a place where one encounters universal, unbounded, and infinite awareness: God’s kingdom within us. To buddhists, zero was a whisper from the universe, from dharma, from God (words always fail us in the domain of divinity). Paradoxically, zero would ultimately shatter the institution which built its power structure by monopolizing access to God. In finding footing in the void, mankind uncovered the deepest, soundest substrate on which to build modern society: zero would prove to be a critical piece of infrastructure that led to the interconnection of the world via telecommunications, which ushered in the gold standard and the digital age (Bitcoin’s two key inceptors) many years later.
Blazing a path forward: the twin conceptions of zero and infinity would ignite the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — all movements that mitigated the power of The Catholic Church as the dominant institution in the world and paved the way for the industrialized nation-state.
Power of The Church Falls to Zero
The universe of the ancient Greeks was founded on the philosophical tenets of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Ptolemy. Central to their conception of the cosmos was the precept that there is no void, no nothingness, no zero. Greeks, who had inherited their numbers from the geometry-loving Egyptians, made little distinction between shape and number. Even today, when we square a number (x²), this is equivalent to converting a line into a square and calculating its area. Pythagoreans were mystified by this connection between shapes and numbers, which explains why they didn’t conceive of zero as a number: after all, what shape could represent nothingness? Ancient Greeks believed numbers had to be visible to be real, whereas the ancient Indians perceived numbers as an intrinsic part of a latent, invisible reality separate from mankind’s conception of them.
The symbol of the Pythagorean cult was the pentagram (a five-pointed star); this sacred shape contained within it the key to their view of the universe—the golden ratio. Considered to be the “most beautiful number,” the golden ratio is achieved by dividing a line such that the ratio of the small part to the large part is the same as the ratio of the large part to the whole. Such proportionality was found to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also naturally occurring in a variety of forms including nautilus shells, pineapples, and (centuries later) the double-helix of DNA. Beauty this objectively pure was considered to be a window into the transcendent; a soul-sustaining quality. The golden ratio became widely used in art, music, and architecture:
The golden ratio was also found in musical harmonics: when plucking a string instrument from its specified segments, musicians could create the perfect fifth, a dual resonance of notes said to be the most evocative musical relationship. Discordant tritones, on the other hand, were derided as the “devil in music.” Such harmony of music was considered to be one and the same with that of mathematics and the universe—in the Pythagorean finite view of the cosmos (later called the Aristotelean celestial spheres model), movements of planets and other heavenly bodies generated a symphonic “harmony of the spheres”—a celestial music that suffused the cosmic depths. From the perspective of Pythagoreans, “all was number,” meaning ratios ruled the universe. The golden ratio’s seemingly supernatural connection to aesthetics, life, and the universe became a central tenet of Western Civilization and, later, The Catholic Church (aka The Church).
Zero posed a major threat to the conception of a finite universe. Dividing by zero is devastating to the framework of logic, and thus threatened the perfect order and integrity of a Pythagorean worldview. This was a serious problem for The Church which, after the fall of the Roman Empire, appeared as the dominant institution in Europe. To substantiate its dominion in the world, The Church proffered itself as the gatekeeper to heaven. Anyone who crossed The Church in any way could find themselves eternally barred from the holy gates. The Church’s claim to absolute sovereignty was critically dependent on the Pythagorean model, as the dominant institution over Earth—which was in their view the center of the universe—necessarily held dominion in God’s universe. Standing as a symbol for both the void and the infinite, zero was heretical to The Church. Centuries later, a similar dynamic would unfold in the discovery of absolute scarcity for money, which is dissident to the dominion of The Fed—the false church of modernity.
Ancient Greeks clung tightly to a worldview that did not tolerate zero or the infinite: rejection of these crucial concepts proved to be their biggest failure, as it prevented the discovery of calculus—the mathematical machinery on which much of the physical sciences and, thus, the modern world are constructed. Core to their (flawed) belief system was the concept of the “indivisible atom,” the elementary particle which could not be subdivided ad infinitum. In their minds, there was no way beyond the micro barrier of the atomic surface. In the same vein, they considered the universe a “macrocosmic atom” that was strictly bound by an outermost sphere of stars winking down towards the cosmic core—Earth. As above, so below: with nothing conceived to be above this stellar sphere and nothing below the atomic surface, there was no infinity and no void:
Aristotle (with later refinements by Ptolemy) would interpret this finite universe philosophically and, in doing so, form the ideological foundation for God’s existence and The Church’s power on Earth. In the Aristotelean conception of the universe, the force moving the stars, which drove the motion of all elements below, was the prime mover: God. This cascade of cosmic force from on high downward into the movements of mankind was considered the officially accepted interpretation of divine will. As Christianity swept through the West, The Church relied upon the explanatory power of this Aristotelean philosophy as proof of God’s existence in their proselytizing efforts. Objecting to the Aristotelean doctrine was soon considered an objection to the existence of God and the power of The Church.
Infinity was unavoidably actualized by the same Aristotelean logic which sought to deny it. By the 13th century, some bishops began calling assemblies to question the Aristotelean doctrines that went against the omnipotence of God: for example, the notion that “God can not move the heavens in a straight line, because that would leave behind a vacuum.” If the heavens moved linearly, then what was left in their wake? Through what substance were they moving? This implied either the existence of the void (the vacuum), or that God was not truly omnipotent as he could not move the heavens. Suddenly, Aristotelean philosophy started to break under its own weight, thereby eroding the premise of The Church’s power. Although The Church would cling to Aristotle’s views for a few more centuries—it fought heresy by forbidding certain books and burning certain Protestants alive—zero marked the beginning of the end for this domineering and oppressive institution.
An infinite universe meant there were, at least, a vast multitude of planets, many of which likely had their own populations and churches. Earth was no longer the center of the universe, so why should The Church have universal dominion? In a grand ideological shift that foreshadowed the invention of Bitcoin centuries later, zero became the idea that broke The Church’s grip on humanity, just as absolute scarcity of money is breaking The Fed’s stranglehold on the world today. In an echo of history, us moderns can once again hear the discovery of nothing beginning to change everything.
Zero was the smooth stone slung into the face of Goliath, a death-stroke to the dominion of The Church; felled by an unstoppable idea, this oppressive institution’s fall from grace would make way for the rise of the nation-state—the dominant institutional model in modernity.
Zero: An Ideological Juggernaut
Indoctrinated in The Church’s dogma, Christianity initially refused to accept zero, as it was linked to a primal fear of the void. Zero’s inexorable connection to nothingness and chaos made it a fearsome concept in the eyes of most Christians at the time. But zero’s capacity to support honest weights and measures, a core Biblical concept, would prove more important than the countermeasures of The Church (and the invention of zero would later lead to the invention of the most infallible of weights and measures, the most honest money in history—Bitcoin). In a world being built on trade, merchants needed zero for its superior arithmetic utility. As Pierre-Simon Laplace said:
“…[zero is] a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it lent to all computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions.”
In the 13th century, academics like the renowned Italian mathematician Fibonacci began championing zero in their work, helping the Hindu-Arabic system gain credibility in Europe. As trade began to flourish and generate unprecedented levels of wealth in the world, math moved from purely practical applications to ever more abstracted functions. As Alfred North Whitehead said:
“The point about zero is that we do not need to use it in the operations of daily life. No one goes out to buy zero fish. It is in a way the most civilized of all the cardinals, and its use is only forced on us by the needs of cultivated modes of thought.”
As our thinking became more sophisticated, so too did our demands on math. Tools like the abacus relied upon a set of sliding stones to help us keep track of amounts and perform calculation. An abacus was like an ancient calculator, and as the use of zero became popularized in Europe, competitions were held between users of the abacus (the abacists) and of the newly arrived Hindu-Arabic numeral system (the algorists) to see who could solve complex calculations faster. With training, algorists could readily outpace abacists in computation. Contests like these led to the demise of the abacus as a useful tool, however it still left a lasting mark on our language: the words calculate, calculus, and calcium are all derived from the Latin word for pebble—calculus.
Before the Hindu-Arabic numerals, money counters had to use the abacus or a counting board to keep track of value flows. Germans called the counting board a Rechenbank, which is why moneylenders came to be known as banks. Not only did banks use counting boards, but they also used tally sticks to keep track of lending activities: the monetary value of a loan was written on the side of a stick, and it was split into two pieces, with the lender keeping the larger piece, known as the stock—which is where we get the term stockholder:
Despite its superior utility for business, governments despised zero. In 1299, Florence banned the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. As with many profound innovations, zero faced vehement resistance from entrenched power structures that were threatened by its existence. Carrying on lawlessly, Italian merchants continued to use the zero-based numeral system, and even began using it to transmit encrypted messages. Zero was essential to these early encryption systems—which is why the word cipher, which originally meant zero, came to mean “secret code.” The criticality of zero to ancient encryption systems is yet another aspect of its contribution to Bitcoin’s ancestral heritage.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, the threat zero would soon pose to the power of The Church was not obvious. By then, zero had been adapted as an artistic tool to create the vanishing point: an acute place of infinite nothingness used in many paintings that sparked the great Renaissance in the visual arts. Drawings and paintings prior to the vanishing point appear flat and lifeless: their imagery was mostly two-dimensional and unrealistic. Even the best artists couldn’t capture realism without the use of zero:
With the concept of zero, artists could create a zero-dimension point in their work that was “infinitely far” from the viewer, and into which all objects in the painting visually collapsed. As objects appear to recede from the viewer into the distance, they become ever-more compressed into the “dimensionlessness” of the vanishing point, before finally disappearing. Just as it does today, art had a strong influence on people’s perceptions. Eventually, Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of The Church declared, “Terra non est centra mundi,” which meant “the Earth is not the center of the universe.” This declaration would later lead to Copernicus proving heliocentrism—the spark that ignited The Reformation and, later, the Age of Enlightenment:
A dangerous, heretical, and revolutionary idea had been planted by zero and its visual incarnation, the vanishing point. At this point of infinite distance, the concept of zero was captured visually, and space was made infinite—as Seife describes it:
“It was no coincidence that zero and infinity are linked in the vanishing point. Just as multiplying by zero causes the number line to collapse into a point, the vanishing point has caused most of the universe to sit in a tiny dot. This is a singularity, a concept that became very important later in the history of science—but at this early stage, mathematicians knew little more than the artists about the properties of zero.”
The purpose of the artist is to the mythologize the present: this is evident in much of the consumerist “trash art” produced in our current fiat-currency-fueled world. Renaissance artists (who were often also mathematicians, true Renaissance men) worked assiduously in line with this purpose as the vanishing point became an increasingly popular element of art in lockstep with zero’s proliferation across the world. Indeed, art accelerated the propulsion of zero across the mindscape of mankind.
Modernity: The Age of Ones and Zeros
Eventually, zero became the cornerstone of calculus: an innovative system of mathematics that enabled people to contend with ever-smaller units approaching zero, but cunningly avoided the logic-trap of having to divide by zero. This new system gave mankind myriad new ways to comprehend and grasp his surroundings. Diverse disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics all depend on calculus to fulfill their functions in the world today:
Zero serves as the source-waters of many technological breakthroughs—some of which would flow together into the most important invention in history: Bitcoin. Zero punched a hole and created a vacuum in the framework of mathematics and shattered Aristotelean philosophy, on which the power of The Church was premised. Today, Bitcoin is punching a hole and creating a vacuum in the market for money; it is killing Keynesian economics—which is the propagandistic power-base of the nation-state (along with its apparatus of theft: the central bank).
In modernity, zero has become a celebrated tool in our mathematical arsenal. As the binary numerical system now forms the foundation of modern computer programming, zero was essential to the development of digital tools like the personal computer, the internet, and Bitcoin. Amazingly, all modern miracles made possible by digital technologies can be traced back to the invention of a figure for numeric nothingness by an ancient Indian mathematician: Brahmagupta gave the world a real “something for nothing,” a generosity Satoshi would emulate several centuries later. As Aczel says:
“Numbers are our greatest invention, and zero is the capstone of the whole system.”
A composition of countless zeroes and ones, binary code led to the proliferation and standardization of communications protocols including those embodied in the internet protocol suite. As people freely experimented with these new tools, they organized themselves around the most useful protocols like http, TCP/IP, etc. Ossification of digital communication standards provided the substrate upon which new societal utilities—like email, ride sharing, and mobile computing—were built. Latest (and arguably the greatest) among these digital innovations is the uninflatable, unconfiscatable, and unstoppable money called Bitcoin.
A common misconception of Bitcoin is that it is just one of thousands of cryptoassets in the world today. One may be forgiven for this misunderstanding, as our world today is home to many national currencies. But all these currencies began as warehouse receipts for the same type of thing—namely, monetary metal (usually gold). Today, national currencies are not redeemable for gold, and are instead liquid equity units in a pyramid scheme called fiat currency: a hierarchy of thievery built on top of the freely selected money of the world (gold) which their issuers (central banks) hoard to manipulate its price, insulate their inferior fiat currencies from competitive threats, and perpetually extract wealth from those lower down the pyramid.
Given this confusion, many mistakenly believe that Bitcoin could be disrupted by any one of the thousands of alternative cryptoassets in the marketplace today. This is understandable, as the reasons that make Bitcoin different are not part of common parlance and are relatively difficult to understand. Even Ray Dalio, the greatest hedge fund manager in history, said that he believes Bitcoin could be disrupted by a competitor in the same way that iPhone disrupted Blackberry. However, disruption of Bitcoin is extremely unlikely: Bitcoin is a path-dependent, one-time invention; its critical breakthrough is the discovery of absolute scarcity—a monetary property never before (and never again) achievable by mankind.
Like the invention of zero, which led to the discovery of “nothing as something” in mathematics and other domains, Bitcoin is the catalyst of a worldwide paradigmatic phase change (which some have started calling The Great Awakening). What numeral is to number, and zero is to the void for mathematics, Bitcoin is to absolute scarcity for money: each is a symbol that allows mankind to apprehend a latent reality (in the case of money, time). More than just a new monetary technology, Bitcoin is an entirely new economic paradigm: an uncompromisable base money protocol for a global, digital, non-state economy. To better understand the profundity of this, we first need to understand the nature of path-dependence.
The Path-Dependence of Bitcoin
Path-dependence is the sensitivity of an outcome to the order of events that led to it. In the broadest sense, it means history has inertia:
Path-dependence entails that the sequence of events matters as much as the events themselves: as a simple example, you get a dramatically different result if you shower and then dry yourself off versus if you dry yourself off first and then shower. Path-dependence is especially prevalent in complex systems due to their high interconnectivity and numerous (often unforeseeable) interdependencies. Once started down a particular pathway, breaking away from its sociopolitical inertia can become impossible—for instance, imagine if the world tried to standardize to a different size electrical outlet: consumers, manufacturers, and suppliers would all resist this costly change unless there was a gigantic prospective gain. To coordinate this shift in standardization would require either a dramatically more efficient technology (a pull method—by which people stand to benefit) or an imposing organization to force the change (a push method—in which people would be forced to change in the face of some threat). Path-dependence is why occurrences in the sociopolitical domain often influence developments in the technical; US citizens saw path-dependent pushback firsthand when their government made a failed attempt to switch to the metric system back in the 1970s.
Bitcoin was launched into the world as a one of a kind technology: a non-state digital money that is issued on a perfectly fixed, diminishing, and predictable schedule. It was strategically released into the wild (into an online group of cryptographers) at a time when no comparative technology existed. Bitcoin’s organic adoption path and mining network expansion are a non-repeatable sequence of events. As a thought experiment, consider that if a “New Bitcoin” was launched today, it would exhibit weak chain security early on, as its mining network and hash rate would have to start from scratch. Today, in a world that is aware of Bitcoin, this “New Bitcoin” with comparatively weak chain security would inevitably be attacked—whether these were incumbent projects seeking to defend their head start, international banking cartels, or even nation-states:
Path-dependence protects Bitcoin from disruption, as the organic sequence of events which led to its release and assimilation into the marketplace cannot be replicated. Further, Bitcoin’s money supply is absolutely scarce; a totally unique and one-time discovery for money. Even if “New Bitcoin” was released with an absolutely scarce money supply, its holders would be incentivized to hold the money with the greatest liquidity, network effects, and chain security. This would cause them to dump “New Bitcoin” for the original Bitcoin. More realistically, instead of launching “New Bitcoin,” those seeking to compete with Bitcoin would take a social contract attack-vector by initiating a hard fork. An attempt like this was already made with the “Bitcoin Cash” fork, which tried to increase block sizes to (ostensibly) improve its utility for payments. This chain fork was an abject failure and a real world reinforcement of the importance of Bitcoin’s path-dependent emergence:
Continuing our thought experiment: even if “New Bitcoin” featured a diminishing money supply (in other words, a deflationary monetary policy), how would its rate of money supply decay (deflation) be determined? By what mechanism would its beneficiaries be selected? As market participants (nodes and miners) jockeyed for position to maximize their accrual of economic benefit from the deflationary monetary policy, forks would ensue that would diminish the liquidity, network effects, and chain security for “New Bitcoin,” causing everyone to eventually pile back into the original Bitcoin—just like they did in the wake of Bitcoin Cash’s failure.
Path-dependence ensures that those who try to game Bitcoin get burned. Reinforced by four-sided network effects, it makes Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage seemingly insurmountable. The idea of absolute monetary scarcity goes against the wishes of entrenched power structures like The Fed: like zero, once an idea whose time has come is released into the world, it is nearly impossible to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. After all, unstoppable ideas are independent lifeforms:
Finite and Infinite Games
Macroeconomics is essentially the set of games played globally to satisfy the demands of mankind (which are infinite) within the bounds of his time (which is strictly finite). In these games, scores are tracked in monetary terms. Using lingo from the groundbreaking book Finite and Infinite Games, there are two types of economic games: unfree (or centrally planned) markets are theatrical, meaning that they are performed in accordance with a predetermined script that often entails dutifulness and disregard for humanity. The atrocities committed in Soviet Russia are exemplary of the consequences of a theatrical economic system. On the other hand, free markets are dramatic, meaning that they are enacted in the present according to consensual and adaptable boundaries. Software development is a good example of a dramatic market, as entrepreneurs are free to adopt the rules, tools, and protocols that best serve customers. Simply: theatrical games are governed by imposed rules (based on tyranny), whereas rulesets for dramatic games are voluntarily adopted (based on individual sovereignty).
From a moral perspective, sovereignty is always superior to tyranny. And from a practical perspective, tyrannies are less energy-efficient than free markets because they require tyrants to expend resources enforcing compliance with their imposed rulesets and protecting their turf. Voluntary games (free market capitalism) outcompete involuntary games (centrally planned socialism) as they do not accrue these enforcement and protection costs: hence the reason capitalism (freedom) outcompetes socialism (slavery) in the long run. Since interpersonal interdependency is at the heart of the comparative advantage and division of labor dynamics that drive the value proposition of cooperation and competition, we can say that money is an infinite game: meaning that its purpose is not to win, but rather to continue to play. After all, if one player had all the money, the game would end (like the game of Monopoly).
In this sense, Bitcoin’s terminal money supply growth (inflation) rate of absolute zero is the ultimate monetary Schelling point — a game-theoretic focal point that people tend to choose in an adversarial game. In game theory, a game is any situation where there can be winners or losers, a strategy is a decision-making process, and a Schelling point is the default strategy for games in which the players cannot fully trust one another (like money):
Economic actors are incentivized to choose the money that best holds its value across time, is most widely accepted, and most clearly conveys market pricing information. All three of these qualities are rooted in scarcity: resistance to inflation ensures that money retains its value and ability to accurately price capital across time, which leads to its use as an exchange medium. For these reasons, holding the scarcest money is the most energy-efficient strategy a player can employ, which makes the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin an irrefutable Schelling point—a singular, unshakable motif in games played for money.
A distant digital descendent of zero, the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity for money: an idea as equally unstoppable.
Similar to the discovery of absolute nothingness symbolized by zero, the discovery of absolutely scarce money symbolized by Bitcoin is special. Gold became money because out of the monetary metals it had the most inelastic (or relatively scarce) money supply: meaning that no matter how much time was allocated towards gold production, its supply increased the least. Since its supply increased the slowest and most predictable rate, gold was favored for storing value and pricing things—which encouraged people to voluntarily adopt it, thus making it the dominant money on the free market. Before Bitcoin, gold was the world’s monetary Schelling point, because it made trade easier in a manner that minimized the need to trust other players. Like its digital ancestor zero, Bitcoin is an invention that radically enhances exchange efficiency by purifying informational transmissions: for zero, this meant instilling more meaning per proximate digit, for Bitcoin, this means generating more salience per price signal. In the game of money, the objective has always been to hold the most relatively scarce monetary metal (gold); now, the goal is to occupy the most territory on the absolutely scarce monetary network called Bitcoin.
A New Epoch for Money
Historically, precious metals were the best monetary technologies in terms of money’s five critical traits:
- recognizability, and
Among the monetary metals, gold was relatively the most scarce, and therefore it outcompeted others in the marketplace as it was a more sound store of value. In the ascension of gold as money, it was as if free market dynamics were trying to zero-in on a sufficiently divisible, durable, portable, and recognizable monetary technology that was also absolutely scarce (strong arguments for this may be found by studying the Eurodollar system). Free markets are distributed computing systems that zero-in on the most useful prices and technologies based on the prevailing demands of people and the available supplies of capital: they constantly assimilate all of mankind’s intersubjective perspectives on the world within the bounds of objective reality to produce our best approximations of truth. In this context, verifiable scarcity is the best proxy for the truthfulness of money: assurance that it will not be debased over time.
As a (pre-Bitcoin) thought experiment, had a “new gold” been discovered in the Earth’s crust, assuming it was mostly distributed evenly across the Earth’s surface and was exactly comparable to gold in terms of these five monetary traits (with the exception that it was more scarce), free market dynamics would have led to its selection as money, as it would be that much closer to absolute scarcity, making it a better means of storing value and propagating price signals. Seen this way, gold as a monetary technology was the closest the free market could come to absolutely scarce money before it was discovered in its only possible form—digital. The supply of any physical thing can only be limited by the time necessary to procure it: if we could flip a switch and force everyone on Earth to make their sole occupation gold mining, the supply of gold would soon soar. Unlike Bitcoin, no physical form of money could possibly guarantee a permanently fixed supply—so far as we know, absolute scarcity can only be digital.
Digitization is advantageous across all five traits of money. Since Bitcoin is just information, relative to other monetary technologies, we can say: its
- divisibility is supreme, as information can be infinitely subdivided and recombined at near-zero cost (like numbers); its
- durability is supreme, as information does not decompose (books can outlast empires); its
- portability is supreme, as information can move at the speed of light (thanks to telecommunications); and its
- recognizability is supreme, as information is the most objectively discernible substance in the universe (like the written word). Finally, and most critically, since Bitcoin algorithmically and thermodynamically enforces an absolutely scarce money supply, we can say that its
- scarcity is infinite (as scarce as time, the substance money is intended to tokenize in the first place). Taken in combination, these traits make absolutely scarce digital money seemingly indomitable in the marketplace.
In the same way that the number zero enables our numeric system to scale and more easily perform calculation, so too does money give an economy the ability to socially scale by simplifying trade and economic calculation. Said simply: scarcity is essential to the utility of money, and a zero-growth terminal money supply represents “perfect” scarcity — which makes Bitcoin as near a “perfect” monetary technology as mankind has ever had. Absolute scarcity is a monumental monetary breakthrough. Since money is valued according to reflexivity, meaning that investor perceptions of its future exchangeability influence its present valuation, Bitcoin’s perfectly predictable and finite future supply underpins an unprecedented rate of expansion in market capitalization:
In summary: the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity, or absolute irreproducibility, which occurred due to a particular sequence of idiosyncratic events that cannot be reproduced. Any attempt to introduce an absolutely scarce or diminishing supplied money into the world would likely collapse into Bitcoin (as we saw with the Bitcoin Cash fork). Absolute scarcity is a one-time discovery, just like heliocentrism or any other major scientific paradigm shift. In a world where Bitcoin already exists, a successful launch via a proof-of-work system is no longer possible due to path-dependence; yet another reason why Bitcoin cannot be replicated or disrupted by another cryptoasset using this consensus mechanism. At this point, it seems absolute scarcity for money is truly a one-time discovery that cannot “disrupted” any more than the concept of zero can be disrupted.
A true “Bitcoin killer” would necessitate an entirely new consensus mechanism and distribution model; with an implementation overseen by an unprecedentedly organized group of human beings: nothing to date has been conceived that could even come close to satisfying these requirements. In the same way that there has only ever been one analog gold, there is likely to only ever be one digital gold. For the same quantifiable reasons a zero-based numeral system became a dominant mathematical protocol, and capitalism outcompetes socialism, the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin’s supply will continue outcompeting all other monetary protocols in its path to global dominance.
Numbers are the fundamental abstractions which rule our world. Zero is the vanishing point of the mathematical landscape. In the realm of interpersonal competition and cooperation, money is the dominant abstraction which governs our behavior. Money arises naturally as the most tradable thing within a society—this includes exchanges with others and with our future selves. Scarcity is the trait of money that allows it to hold value across time, enabling us to trade it with our future selves for the foregone opportunity costs (the things we could have otherwise traded money for had we not decided to hold it). Scarce money accrues value as our productivity grows. For these reasons, the most scarce technology which otherwise exhibits sufficient monetary traits (divisibility, durability, recognizability, portability) tends to become money. Said simply: the most relatively scarce money wins. In this sense, what zero is to math, absolute scarcity is to money. It is an astonishing discovery, a window into the void, just like its predecessor zero:
Fiat Currency Always Falls to Zero
Zero has proven itself as the capstone of our numeral system by making it scalable, invertible, and easily convertible. In time, Bitcoin will prove itself as the most important network in the global economic system by increasing social scalability, causing an inversion of economic power, and converting culture into a realignment with Natural Law. Bitcoin will allow sovereignty to once again inhere at the individual level, instead of being usurped at the institutional level as it is today—all thanks to its special forebear, zero:
Central planning in the market for money (aka monetary socialism) is dying. This tyrannical financial hierarchy has increased worldwide wealth disparities, funded perpetual warfare, and plundered entire commonwealths to “bail out” failing institutions. A reversion to the free market for money is the only way to heal the devastation it has wrought over the past 100+ years. Unlike central bankers, who are fallible human beings that give into political pressure to pillage value from people by printing money, Bitcoin’s monetary policy does not bend for anyone: it gives zero fucks. And in a world where central banks can “just add zeros” to steal your wealth, people’s only hope is a “zero fucks” money that cannot be confiscated, inflated, or stopped:
Bitcoin was specifically designed as a countermeasure to “expansionary monetary policies” (aka wealth confiscation via inflation) by central bankers. Bitcoin is a true zero-to-one invention, an innovation that profoundly changes society instead of just introducing an incremental advancement. Bitcoin is ushering in a new paradigm for money, nation-states, and energy-efficiency. Most importantly, it promises to break the cycle of criminality in which governments continuously privatize gains (via seigniorage) and socialize losses (via inflation). Time and time again, excessive inflation has torn societies apart, yet the lessons of history remain unlearned—once again, here we are:
The Zero Hour
How much longer will monetary socialism remain an extant economic model? The countdown has already begun: Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Liftoff. Rocket technicians always wait for zero before ignition; countdowns always finalize at the zero hour. Oil price wars erupting in Eurasia, a global pandemic, an unprecedented expansionary monetary policy response, and another quadrennial Bitcoin inflation-rate halving: 2020 is quickly becoming the zero hour for Bitcoin.
Inflation rate and societal wellbeing are inversely related: the more reliably value can be stored across time, the more trust can be cultivated among market participants. When a money’s roots to economic reality are severed—as happened when the peg to gold was broken and fiat currency was born—its supply inevitably trends towards infinity (hyperinflation) and the functioning of its underlying society deteriorates towards zero (economic collapse). An unstoppable free market alternative, Bitcoin is anchored to economic reality (through proof-of-work energy expenditure) and has an inflation rate predestined for zero, meaning that a society operating on a Bitcoin standard would stand to gain in virtually infinite ways. When Bitcoin’s inflation rate finally reaches zero in the mid 22nd century, the measure of its soundness as a store of value (the stock-to-flow ratio) will become infinite; people that realize this and adopt it early will benefit disproportionately from the resultant mass wealth transfer.
Zero and infinity are reciprocal: 1/∞ = 0 and 1/0 = ∞. In the same way, a society’s wellbeing shrinks towards zero the more closely the inflation rate approaches infinity (through the hyperinflation of fiat currency). Conversely, societal wellbeing can, in theory, be expanded towards infinity the more closely the inflation rate approaches zero (through the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin). Remember: The Fed is now doing whatever it takes to make sure there is “infinite cash” in the banking system, meaning that its value will eventually fall to zero:
Zero arose in the world as an unstoppable idea because its time had come; it broke the dominion of The Church and put an end to its monopolization over access to knowledge and the gates to heaven. The resultant movement—The Separation of Church and State—reinvigorated self-sovereignty in the world, setting the individual firmly as the cornerstone of the state. Rising from The Church’s ashes came a nation-state model founded on sound property rights, rule of law, and free market money (aka hard money). With this new age came an unprecedented boom in scientific advancement, wealth creation, and worldwide wellbeing. In the same way, Bitcoin and its underlying discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an idea whose time has come. Bitcoin is shattering the siege of central banks on our financial sovereignty; it is invoking a new movement—The Separation of Money and State—as its revolutionary banner; and it is restoring Natural Law in a world ravaged by a mega-wealth-parasite—The Fed.
Only unstoppable ideas can break otherwise immovable institutions: zero brought The Church to its knees and Bitcoin is bringing the false church of The Fed into the sunlight of its long-awaited judgement day.
Both zero and Bitcoin are emblematic of the void, a realm of pure potentiality from which all things spring forth into being — the nothingness from which everything effervesces, and into which all possibility finally collapses. Zero and Bitcoin are unstoppable ideas gifted to mankind; gestures made in the spirit of “something for nothing.” In a world run by central banks with zero accountability, a cabal that uses the specious prospects of “infinite cash” to promise us everything (thereby introducing the specter of hyperinflation), nothingness may prove to be the greatest gift we could ever receive…
Thank you Brahmagupta and Satoshi Nakamoto for your generosity.
Scientists who have fought pandemics describe difficult measures needed to defend the United States against a fast-moving pathogen.
Terrifying though the coronavirus may be, it can be turned back. China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have demonstrated that, with furious efforts, the contagion can be brought to heel.
Whether they can keep it suppressed remains to be seen. But for the United States to repeat their successes will take extraordinary levels of coordination and money from the country’s leaders, and extraordinary levels of trust and cooperation from citizens. It will also require international partnerships in an interconnected world.
There is a chance to stop the coronavirus. This contagion has a weakness.
Although there are incidents of rampant spread, as happened on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, the coronavirus more often infects clusters of family members, friends and work colleagues, said Dr. David L. Heymann, who chairs an expert panel advising the World Health Organization on emergencies.
No one is certain why the virus travels in this way, but experts see an opening nonetheless. “You can contain clusters,” Dr. Heymann said. “You need to identify and stop discrete outbreaks, and then do rigorous contact tracing.”
But doing so takes intelligent, rapidly adaptive work by health officials, and near-total cooperation from the populace. Containment becomes realistic only when Americans realize that working together is the only way to protect themselves and their loved ones.
In interviews with a dozen of the world’s leading experts on fighting epidemics, there was wide agreement on the steps that must be taken immediately.
Those experts included international public health officials who have fought AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, flu and Ebola; scientists and epidemiologists; and former health officials who led major American global health programs in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Americans must be persuaded to stay home, they said, and a system put in place to isolate the infected and care for them outside the home. Travel restrictions should be extended, they said; productions of masks and ventilators must be accelerated, and testing problems must be resolved.
But tactics like forced isolation, school closings and pervasive GPS tracking of patients brought more divided reactions.
It was not at all clear that a nation so fundamentally committed to individual liberty and distrustful of government could learn to adapt to many of these measures, especially those that smack of state compulsion.
“The American way is to look for better outcomes through a voluntary system,” said Dr. Luciana Borio, who was director of medical and biodefense preparedness for the National Security Council before it was disbanded in 2018.
“I think you can appeal to people to do the right thing.”
In the week since the interviews began, remarkable changes have come over American life. State governments are telling residents they must stay home. Nonessential businesses are being shuttered.
The streets are quieter than they have been in generations, and even friends keep a wary distance. What seemed unthinkable just a week ago is rapidly becoming the new normal.
What follows are the recommendations offered by the experts interviewed by The Times.
The White House holds frequent media briefings to describe the administration’s progress against the pandemic, often led by President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, flanked by a rotating cast of officials.
Many experts, some of whom are international civil servants, declined to speak on the record for fear of offending the president. But they were united in the opinion that politicians must step aside and let scientists both lead the effort to contain the virus and explain to Americans what must be done.
Just as generals take the lead in giving daily briefings in wartime — as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf did during the Persian Gulf war — medical experts should be at the microphone now to explain complex ideas like epidemic curves, social distancing and off-label use of drugs.
The microphone should not even be at the White House, scientists said, so that briefings of historic importance do not dissolve into angry, politically charged exchanges with the press corps, as happened again on Friday.
Instead, leaders must describe the looming crisis and the possible solutions in ways that will win the trust of Americans.
Above all, the experts said, briefings should focus on saving lives and making sure that average wage earners survive the coming hard times — not on the stock market, the tourism industry or the president’s health. There is no time left to point fingers and assign blame.
“At this point in the emergency, there’s little merit in spending time on what we should have done or who’s at fault,” said Adm. Tim Ziemer, who was the coordinator of the President’s Malaria Initiative from 2006 until early 2017 and led the pandemic response unit on the National Security Council before its disbanding.
“We need to focus on the enemy, and that’s the virus.”
The next priority, experts said, is extreme social distancing.
If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt.
The virus would die out on every contaminated surface and, because almost everyone shows symptoms within two weeks, it would be evident who was infected. If we had enough tests for every American, even the completely asymptomatic cases could be found and isolated.
The crisis would be over.
Obviously, there is no magic wand, and no 300 million tests. But the goal of lockdowns and social distancing is to approximate such a total freeze.
To attempt that, experts said, travel and human interaction must be reduced to a minimum.
Italy moved incrementally: Officials slowly and reluctantly closed restaurants, churches and museums, and banned weddings and funerals. Nonetheless, the country’s death count continues to rise.
The United States is slowly following suit. International flights are all but banned, but not domestic ones. California has ordered all residents to stay at home; New York was to shutter all nonessential businesses on Sunday evening.
On Friday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said he advocated restrictive measures all across the country.
In contrast to the halting steps taken here, China shut down Wuhan — the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak — and restricted movement in much of the country on Jan. 23, when the country had a mere 500 cases and 17 deaths.
Its rapid action had an important effect: With the virus mostly isolated in one province, the rest of China was able to save Wuhan.
In a vast, largely closed society, it can be difficult to know what is happening on the ground, and there is no guarantee that the virus won’t roar back as the Chinese economy restarts.
But the lesson is that relatively unaffected regions of the United States will be needed to help rescue overwhelmed cities like New York and Seattle. Keeping these areas at least somewhat free of the coronavirus means enacting strict measures, and quickly.
Stop transmission within cities
Within cities, there are dangerous hot spots: One restaurant, one gym, one hospital, even one taxi may be more contaminated than many identical others nearby because someone had a coughing fit inside.
Each day’s delay in stopping human contact, experts said, creates more hot spots, none of which can be identified until about a week later, when the people infected there start falling ill.
To stop the explosion, municipal activity must be curtailed. Still, some Americans must stay on the job: doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers; police officers and firefighters; the technicians who maintain the electrical grid and gas and phone lines.
The delivery of food and medicine must continue, so that people pinned in their homes suffer nothing worse than boredom. Those essential workers may eventually need permits, and a process for issuing them, if the police are needed to enforce stay-at-home orders, as they have been in China and Italy.
People in lockdown adapt. In Wuhan, apartment complexes submit group orders for food, medicine, diapers and other essentials. Shipments are assembled at grocery warehouses or government pantries and dropped off. In Italy, trapped neighbors serenade one another.
It’s an intimidating picture. But the weaker the freeze, the more people die in overburdened hospitals — and the longer it ultimately takes for the economy to restart.
South Korea avoided locking down any city, but only by moving early and with extraordinary speed. In January, the country had four companies making tests, and as of March 9 had tested 210,000 citizens — the equivalent of testing 2.3 million Americans.
As of the same date, fewer than 9,000 Americans had been tested.
Everyone who is infected in South Korea goes into isolation in government shelters, and phones and credit card data are used to trace their prior movements and find their contacts. Where they walked before they fell ill is broadcast to the cellphones of everyone who was nearby.
Anyone even potentially exposed is quarantined at home; a GPS app tells the police if that person goes outside. The fine for doing so is $8,000.
British researchers are trying to develop a similar tracking app, albeit one more palatable to citizens in Western democracies.
Fix the testing mess
Testing must be done in a coordinated and safe way, experts said. The seriously ill must go first, and the testers must be protected.
In China, those seeking a test must describe their symptoms on a telemedicine website. If a nurse decides a test is warranted, they are directed to one of dozens of “fever clinics” set up far from all other patients.
Personnel in head-to-toe gear check their fevers and question them. Then, ideally, patients are given a rapid flu test and a white blood cell count is taken to rule out influenza and bacterial pneumonia.
Then their lungs are visualized in a CT scanner to look for “ground-glass opacities” that indicate pneumonia and rule out cancer and tuberculosis. Only then are they given a diagnostic test for the coronavirus — and they are told to wait at the testing center.
The results take a minimum of four hours; in the past, if results took overnight, patients were moved to a hotel to wait — sometimes for two to three days, if doctors believed retesting was warranted. It can take several days after an exposure for a test to turn positive.
In the United States, people seeking tests are calling their doctors, who may not have them, or sometimes waiting in traffic jams leading to store parking lots. On Friday, New York City limited testing only to those patients requiring hospitalization, saying the system was being overwhelmed.
Isolate the infected
As soon as possible, experts said, the United States must develop an alternative to the practice of isolating infected people at home, as it endangers families. In China, 75 to 80 percent of all transmission occurred in family clusters.
That pattern has already repeated itself here. Seven members of a large family in New Jersey were infected; four have already died. After a lawyer in New Rochelle, N.Y., fell ill, his wife, son and daughter all tested positive.
Instead of a policy that advises the infected to remain at home, as the Centers for Disease and Prevention now does, experts said cities should establish facilities where the mildly and moderately ill can recuperate under the care and observation of nurses.
Wuhan created many such centers, called “temporary hospitals,” each a cross between a dormitory and a first-aid clinic. They had cots and oxygen tanks, but not the advanced machines used in intensive care units.
American cities now have many spaces that could serve as isolation wards. Already New York is considering turning the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center into a temporary hospital, along with the Westchester Convention Center and two university campuses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Saturday that state officials were also considering opening isolation wards.
In China, said Dr. Bruce Aylward, leader of the World Health Organization’s observer team there, people originally resisted leaving home or seeing their children go into isolation centers with no visiting rights — just as Americans no doubt would.
In China, they came to accept it.
“They realized they were keeping their families safe,” he said. “Also, isolation is really lonely. It’s psychologically difficult. Here, they were all together with other people in the same boat. They supported each other.”
Find the fevers
Because China, Taiwan and Vietnam were hit by SARS in 2003, and South Korea has grappled with MERS, fever checks during disease outbreaks became routine.
In most cities in affected Asian countries, it is commonplace before entering any bus, train or subway station, office building, theater or even a restaurant to get a temperature check. Washing your hands in chlorinated water is often also required.
“They give you a sticker afterward,” said Dr. Heymann, who recently spent a week teaching in Singapore. “I built up quite a collection.”
In China, having a fever means a mandatory trip to a fever clinic to check for coronavirus. In the Wuhan area, different cities took different approaches.
Cellphone videos from China show police officers knocking on doors and taking temperatures. In some, people who resist are dragged away by force. The city of Ningbo offered bounties of $1,400 to anyone who turned in a coronavirus sufferer.
The city of Qianjiang, by contrast, offered the same amount of money to any resident who came in voluntarily and tested positive.
Some measures made Western experts queasy. It is difficult to imagine Americans permitting a family member with a fever to be dragged to an isolation ward where visitors are not permitted.
“A lot of people’s rights were violated,” Dr. Borio said.
Voluntary approaches, like explaining to patients that they will be keeping family and friends safe, are more likely to work in the West, she added.
Trace the contacts
Finding and testing all the contacts of every positive case is essential, experts said. At the peak of its epidemic, Wuhan had 18,000 people tracking down individuals who had come in contact with the infected.
At the moment, the health departments of some American counties lack the manpower to trace even syphilis or tuberculosis, let alone scores of casual contacts of someone infected with the coronavirus.
Dr. Borio suggested that young Americans could use their social networks to “do their own contact tracing.” Social media also is used in Asia, but in different ways.
China’s strategy is quite intrusive: To use the subway in some cities, citizens must download an app that rates how great a health risk they are. South Korean apps tell users exactly where infected people have traveled.
When he lectured at a Singapore university, Dr. Heymann said, dozens of students were in the room. But just before he began class, they were photographed to record where everyone sat.
“That way, if someone turns up infected later, you can find out who sat near them,” Dr. Heymann said. “That’s really clever.”
Contacts generally must remain home for 14 days and report their temperatures twice a day.
Make masks ubiquitous
American experts have divided opinions about masks, but those who have worked in Asia see their value.
There is very little data showing that flat surgical masks protect healthy individuals from disease. Nonetheless, Asian countries generally encourage people wear them. In some cities in China where masks are compulsory, the police even used drones to chase individuals down streets, ordering them to go home and mask up.
The Asian approach is less about data than it is about crowd psychology, experts explained.
All experts agree that the sick must wear masks to keep in their coughs. But if a mask indicates that the wearer is sick, many people will be reluctant to wear one. If everyone is required to wear masks, the sick automatically have one on and there is no stigma attached.
Also, experts emphasized, Americans should be taught to take seriously admonitions to stop shaking hands and hugging. The “W.H.O. elbow bump” may look funny, but it’s a legitimate technique for preventing infection.
“In Asia, where they went through SARS, people understand the danger,” Dr. Heymann said. “It’s instilled in the population that you’ve got to do the right thing.”
Preserve vital services
Federal intervention is necessary for some vital aspects of life during a pandemic.
Only the federal government can enforce interstate commerce laws to ensure that food, water, electricity, gas, phone lines and other basic needs keep flowing across state lines to cities and suburbs.
Mr. Trump has said he could compel companies to prioritize making ventilators, masks and other needed goods. Some have volunteered; the Hanes underwear company, for example, will use its cotton to make masks for hospital workers.
He also has the military; the Navy is committing two hospital ships to the fight. And Mr. Trump can call up the National Guard. As of Saturday evening, more than 6,500 National Guard members already are assisting in the coronavirus response in 38 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
High-level decisions like these must be made quickly, experts said.
“Many Western political leaders are behaving as though they are on a tightrope,” said Dr. David Nabarro, a W.H.O. special envoy on Covid-19 and a veteran of fights against SARS, Ebola and cholera.
“But there is no choice. We must do all in our power to fight this,” he added. “I sense that most people — and certainly those in business — get it. They would prefer to take the bitter medicine at once and contain outbreaks as they start rather than gamble with uncertainty.”
Produce ventilators and oxygen
The roughly 175,000 ventilators in all American hospitals and the national stockpile are expected to be far fewer than are needed to handle a surge of patients desperate for breath.
The machines pump air and oxygen into the lungs, but they normally cost $25,000 or more each, and neither individual hospitals nor the federal emergency stockpile has ever had enough on hand to handle the number of pneumonia patients that this pandemic is expected to produce.
New York, for example, has found about 6,000 ventilators for purchase around the world, Governor Cuomo said. He estimated the state would need about 30,000.
The manufacturers, including a dozen in the United States, say there is no easy way to ramp up production quickly. But it is possible other manufacturers, including aerospace and automobile companies, could be enlisted to do so.
Ventilators are basically air pumps with motors controlled by circuits that make them act like lungs: the pump pushes air into the patient, then stops so the weight of the chest can push the air back out.
Automobiles and airplanes contain many small pumps, like those for oil, water and air-conditioning fluid, that might be modified to act as basic, stripped-down ventilators. On Sunday, Mr. Trump tweeted that Ford and General Motors had been “given the go-ahead” to produce ventilators.
Providers, meanwhile, are scrambling for alternatives.
Canadian nurses are disseminating a 2006 paper describing how one ventilator can be modified to treat four patients simultaneously. Inventors have proposed combining C-PAP machines, which many apnea sufferers own, and oxygen tanks to improvise a ventilator.
The United States must also work to increase its supply of piped and tanked oxygen, Dr. Aylward said.
One of the lessons of China, he noted, was that many Covid-19 patients who would normally have been intubated and on ventilators managed to survive with oxygen alone.
Hospitals in the United States have taken some measures to handle surges of patients, such as stopping elective surgery and setting up isolation rooms.
To protect bedridden long-term patients, nursing homes and hospitals also should immediately stop admitting visitors and do constant health checks on their staffs, said Dr. James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
The national stockpile does contain some prepackaged military field hospitals, but they are not expected to be nearly enough for a big surge.
In Wuhan, the Chinese government famously built two new hospitals in two weeks. All other hospitals were divided: 48 were designated to handle 10,000 serious or critical coronavirus patients, while others were restricted to handling emergencies like heart attacks and births.
Wherever that was impractical, hospitals were divided into “clean” and “dirty” zones, and the medical teams did not cross over. Walls to isolate whole wards were built, and — as in Ebola wards — doctors went in one end of the room wearing protective gear and left by the other end, where they de-gowned under the eyes of a nurse to prevent infection.
Decide when to close schools
As of Saturday, schools in 45 states were closed entirely, but that is a decision that divided experts.
“Closing all schools may not make sense unless there is documented widespread community transmission, which we’re not seeing in most of the country,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former C.D.C. director under President Barack Obama.
It is unclear how much children spread coronavirus. They very seldom get sick enough to be hospitalized, which is not true of flu. Current testing cannot tell whether most do not even become infected.
In China, Dr. Aylward said, he asked all of the doctors he spoke to whether they had seen any family clusters in which a child was the first to be infected. No one had, he said, which astonished him.
That leaves a quandary. Closing schools is a normal part of social distancing; after all, schools are the workplaces for many adults, too. And when the disease is clearly spreading within an individual school, it must close.
But closing whole school districts can seriously disrupt a city’s ability to fight an outbreak. With their children stuck at home, nurses, doctors, police officers and other emergency medical workers cannot come to work.
Also, many children in low-income families depend on the meals they eat at schools.
Cities that close all schools are creating special “hub schools” for the children of essential workers. In Ohio, the governor has told school bus drivers to deliver hot meals to children who normally got them at school.
China’s effort succeeded, experts said, in part because of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The government declared a “people’s war” and rolled out a “Fight On, Wuhan! Fight On, China!” campaign.
Many people idled by the lockdowns stepped up to act as fever checkers, contact tracers, hospital construction workers, food deliverers, even babysitters for the children of first responders, or as crematory workers.
With training, volunteers were able to do some ground-level but crucial medical tasks, such as basic nursing, lab technician work or making sure that hospital rooms were correctly decontaminated.
Americans often step forward to help neighbors affected by hurricanes and floods; many will no doubt do so in this outbreak, but they will need training in how not to fall ill and add to the problem.
“In my experience, success is dependent on how much the public is informed and participates,” Admiral Ziemer said. “This truly is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.”
Prioritize the treatments
Clinicians in China, Italy and France have thrown virtually everything they had in hospital pharmacies into the fight, and at least two possibilities have emerged that might save patients: the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, and the antiviral remdesivir, which has no licensed use.
There is not proof yet that any of these are effective against the virus. China registered more than 200 clinical trials, including several involving those treatments, but investigators ran out of patients in critical condition to enroll. Italy and France have trials underway, and hospitals in New York are writing trial protocols now.
One worry for trial leaders is that chloroquine has been given so much publicity that patients may refuse to be “randomized” and accept a 50 percent chance of being given a placebo.
If any drug works on critical cases, it might be possible to use small doses as a prophylactic to prevent infection.
An alternative is to harvest protective antibodies from the blood of people who have survived the illness, said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The purified blood serum — called immunoglobulin — could possibly be used in small amounts to protect emergency medical workers, too.
“Unfortunately, the first wave won’t benefit from this,” Dr. Hotez said. “We need to wait until we have enough survivors.”
Find a vaccine
The ultimate hope is to have a vaccine that will protect everyone, and many companies and governments have already rushed the design of candidate vaccines. But as Dr. Fauci has explained multiple times, testing those candidate vaccines for safety and effectiveness takes time.
The process will take at least a year, even if nothing goes wrong. The roadblock, vaccine experts explained, is not bureaucratic. It is that the human immune system takes weeks to produce antibodies, and some dangerous side effects can take weeks to appear.
After extensive animal testing, vaccines are normally given to about 50 healthy human volunteers to see if they cause any unexpected side effects and to measure what dose produces enough antibodies to be considered protective.
If that goes well, the trial enrolls hundreds or thousands of volunteers in an area where the virus is circulating. Half get the vaccine, the rest do not — and the investigators wait. If the vaccinated half do not get the disease, the green light for production is finally given.
In the past, some experimental vaccines have produced serious side effects, like Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can paralyze and kill. A greater danger, experts said, is that some experimental vaccines, paradoxically, cause “immune enhancement,” meaning they make it more likely, not less, that recipients will get a disease. That would be a disaster.
One candidate coronavirus vaccine Dr. Hotez invented 10 years ago in the wake of SARS, he said, had to be abandoned when it appeared to make mice more likely to die from pneumonia when they were experimentally infected with the virus.
In theory, the testing process could be sped up with “challenge trials,” in which healthy volunteers get the vaccine and then are deliberately infected. But that is ethically fraught when there is no cure for Covid-19. Even some healthy young people have died from this virus.
Reach out to other nations
Wealthy nations need to remember that, as much as they are struggling with the virus, poorer countries will have a far harder time and need help.
Also, the Asian nations that have contained the virus could offer expertise — and desperately needed equipment. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, recently offered large shipments of masks and testing kits to the United States.
Wealthy nations ignored the daily warnings from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general, that far more aggressive efforts at isolation and contact tracing were urgently needed to stop the virus.
“Middle income and poorer nations are following the advice of international organizations while the most advanced nations find it so hard to implement it,” Dr. Nabarro said. “That must change.”
In declaring the coronavirus a pandemic, Dr. Tedros called for countries to learn from one another’s successes, act with unity and help protect one another against a threat to people of every nationality.
“Let’s all look out for each other,” he said.
Investment visionary Kiril Sokoloff, chairman and founder of 13D Global Strategy & Research, draws on his deep knowledge of history and on the interplay between different market forces in order to forecast what’s ahead — and to suggest how savvy investors ought to position themselves today. In this deep-diving conversation with Real Vision co-founder Raoul Pal, Sokoloff helps answer the most pressing questions around markets and the economy. He also provides a read on how other significant minds are making sense of the increasingly powerful forces that are shaking our financial world. Filmed on July 10, 2019 in upstate New York. To learn more about 13D Publications, visit www.13D.com/trial Note: When this interview was filmed, gold was trading at about $1,400 per troy ounce.
There is a trust and debt problem.