Studying bitcoin involves learning something about damn near everything. For me, I was introduced to computer science, coding, and cryptography, none of which I knew much about before falling down the rabbit hole. You will also learn about history, law, monetary theory and economics, all stuff I was interested in since the 1970s. My purpose here is to briefly explain a few economic concepts you may have never heard of before. If you start reading articles about bitcoin or listening to podcasts these terms will be thrown around as if they’re common knowledge.
I hope this short guide helps to flatten the learning curve.

Fiat Currency

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines fiat money as “money (such as paper currency) not convertible into coin or specie of equivalent value.” This is another way of saying that it is money not backed by an asset. Fiat money is money that is created by “fiat”, or decree of a governmental entity. The word fiat is defined as “an authoritative or arbitrary order.” I like to think of it as Joe Biden, or whichever grasping, ambitious insect has fought its way to the top of the dung heap when you’re reading this, standing at the peak with a crumpled dollar bill displayed in its outstretched hands shouting, “This is money!”
So, the next time some wiseass says to you “bitcoin isn’t backed by anything”, you can respond: “neither is [fill in the blank with your favorite government money]”.
The conversation will not likely end there.
The fiat fan will say: “that’s not true, it’s backed by the full faith and credit of the [United States] government.”
You then stare at him open mouthed and ask if he’s serious.
This points out the peculiar nature of the current fiat based system. There was a time not so long ago when the U.S. was considered creditworthy. Every nation in the world wanted to buy U.S. treasury bonds, which are really just fancy IOUs. Not any more. Guess who buys U.S. debt now? The U.S. government buys back its own debt. That’s a little oversimplified. U.S. pension funds and various mutual funds and ETFs also have to buy U.S. debt pursuant to their mandate. Here’s the interesting thing, though. For years, and probably even now in some circles, a U.S. treasury bond has been considered the world’s “risk free asset.” Check out this quote from the Smart Asset web site:
A risk-free asset is an investment with a guaranteed future value and virtually no potential for loss. Debt issued by the U.S. government (bonds, notes and Treasurys) is one of the most well-known risk-free assets. While these assets are no longer backed by gold assets, they are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Investors shift their portfolios into risk-free assets during periods of uncertainty. U.S. Treasury bills are generally regarded as the safest investment in the world, which is why domestic and foreign investors buy so many during a downturn.
Ponder, if you will, the insanity of this quote. In the upside down, crazy world fiat money creates, the IOUs of a government that has shown no constraint in debasing its currency is considered a risk free asset?
That’s probably why all those banks and insurance companies loaded up on U.S. treasuries these past few years. It never occurred to them that Jay Powell might start jacking up interest rates in a futile attempt to tame inflation. The value of those “risk free assets” plummeted as interest rates climbed.
We won’t know how this all ends for a while, but it won’t be pretty.
To sum up, fiat money is debt.

Seigniorage

Seigniorage is another word you should learn. It is defined as:
the difference between the face value of money, such as a $10 bill or a quarter coin, and the cost to produce it. In other words, the cost of producing a currency within a given economy or country is lower than the actual exchange value, which generally accrues to governments that mint the money.
The goal of all governments is to maintain positive seigniorage, that is, making sure the cost to produce the money is less than the face value of the money. The difference is pure profit.
Have you picked up a U.S. penny recently? It’s lighter than air. Compare one to a 1950s penny, if you can find one (see Gresham’s Law). They are light as a feather. As the government debases the U.S. dollar, it’s nearly impossible to keep the costs of producing a penny below its face value, but they try. The government isn’t too worried, though, because it more than makes up for it in the switch to digital dollars. Hardly anyone uses coins in the United States anymore. They don’t even need to spend much on ink and paper for the old one dollar bill. Everyone uses credit cards or debit cards or paypal or venmo to pay for even the smallest items. There is negligible cost in mouse clicking billions of dollars into existence.
Governments love seigniorage.

Cantillon Effect

Richard Cantillon was an 18th century banker and philosopher. He articulated the principle that “the flow of new money through the economy is beneficial to parties that receive the funds first, and less beneficial to those that receive it later on. The individuals and institutions closest to the central bank – banks and asset owners – are granted financial advantages at the cost of those least connected to the financial system.”
What this means, in essence, is that it’s good to be close friends with the guys printing the money. That’s because, in a fiat system, money can and will be created whenever the government feels like it. Since there’s no real cost involved to make this money, there is no reason for the government to stop issuing it.
When more money is pumped into the system, the price of goods and services eventually rises, since each unit of fiat is worth less, so you need more of them to buy that bagel or new car. But, the guys who get the new money first get to use it and spend it BEFORE the inflation sets in.
A good example of this is the U.S. banking system. Nowadays, new money doesn’t really get printed by the government. What happens is that the big banks with the political power get to borrow money from the federal reserve at what’s called a “discount rate.” So, if you want to get a new mortgage, these banks don’t pull money out of their vaults and lend it to you. Instead, they borrow it from the federal reserve at, let’s say 4 percent interest, and then they lend it out to you at, say 7 percent interest. So, the banks get all that profit, when they have really done nothing but create this money you use to buy your house out of thin air. They literally borrowed the money into existence. The consumer has to pay the retail interest rate set by the banks while the banks get the special, insider discount.
Another example of this was on display during the “Covid Crisis”. The U.S. government decided it needed to create more money to stimulate the economy it destroyed by shutting down businesses. But, the government didn’t shut down all businesses. Some could remain open. It’s good to be friends with the king. So, churches were closed down, but liquor stores could remain open, because they provided a vital service. The government next began to issue covid loans to help the businesses it just destroyed. Makes sense. Big, powerful corporations with lots of employees got PPP loans for each employee on the payroll. This was free money because the loans were all forgiven. The businesses got this money even if they were allowed to remain open, as many large businesses (like Amazon) were. Lots of politically connected businesses with powerful connections in Washington D.C. got this free money. Unfortunately, little mom and pop businesses were forced to shut their doors, and their PPP loans didn’t help much, since they only had a few employees. Too bad. They should have made friends with the king before the “pandemic” hit.

Rent Seeker

You hear this term a lot when learning about bitcoin. It is always spoken with derision, which really confused me at the beginning. I was a landlord for many years, and I was always seeking rent. Hey, I had to pay my bills too! What are we, communists? Why was this a bad thing?
Investopedia has a nice definition of rent seeking:
The concept of rent seeking was established in 1967 by Gordon Tullock and popularized by Anne Krueger in 1974. It evolved from the studies of Adam Smith, who is often regarded as the father of economics. The concept is based on an economic definition of “rent,” defined as economic wealth obtained through shrewd or potentially manipulative use of resources.
So in this context, rent seeking means that a business entity seeks to gain wealth without having to do any actual work. This is a lot different than the rent I collect, since I have to pay mortgages, taxes, repair expenses, etc. There’s nothing free about that rent.
Rent seekers gain this wealth by seeking favor from the government. Lobbyists spend most of their time “rent seeking” for their clients. The bigger the business, the more lobbying power it has.
Here are some examples of rent seeking:
  • A bank getting a lower discount interest rate to then turn around and lend to borrowers (see Cantillon Effect Above)
  • Government subsidies
  • Grants
  • Tariffs
  • Good old fashioned political bribes
  • Manipulating the legal system to create barriers to entry and limit competition (law licenses, CPA licenses, barber licenses, taxi licenses, real estate broker licenses)
Tullock noticed that rent seekers usually get a great deal. In other words, they get an enormous financial gain at a proportionately very low cost. This is known as Tullock’s Paradox.
I always wind up thinking about proof of stake(POS) shitcoins as being analogous to rent seeking. The stakers seek to earn money solely due to their advantageous position as holders of a large quantity of coins. They may likely have obtained this hoard as a result of an unfair pre-mine, where insiders got a special low price. Their financial rewards are not related to any productive work being done. They merely benefit from having a large stake.
This is the opposite of bitcoin, where proof of work (POW) is always required to gain more bitcoin. It requires time, effort, and energy.

Gresham’s Law

Sir Thomas Gresham was a British merchant and financier who lived from 1519 to 1579. He wrote about the value and minting of coins. Gresham's law is a principle that states that "bad money drives out good."
When I was a kid in the 1960s I used to help my father out in his pharmacy after school. One of my chores was to go through the cash register at the end of the day and take out all of the pre 1964 silver coins. In 1964 the U.S. government removed all the silver from dimes, quarters, and half dollars. I would look for the telltale brown ring along the edge of the coin. If there was no ring, I would take that coin out of the register and place it in a brown paper bag. We stored those bags in the attic. This is what Gresham’s Law is all about. My dad knew the silver coins were “better money” than the crappy alloy slugs the U.S. mint began issuing after 1964. So, he would save the good money, and get rid of the bad money by using it as change for his customers. Now, governments aren’t completely ignorant of Gresham’s Law. They combat this by forcing their citizens to use their fiat money. That’s why taxes usually must be paid with “official” money. This theory also played a role in the U.S. courting Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, agreeing to financially and militarily support the kingdom in exchange for establishing the U.S. dollar as the currency for all international oil trade. In essence, governments use force to protect their officially approved currency. Every time I see an article about bitcoin adoption that laments long term hodlers refusing to spend their bitcoin, I think of Gresham’s Law. There are many articles marveling about how the percentage of bitcoin that hasn’t been spent in years keeps growing. Why would anyone spend good money when they can trade depreciating fiat for the goods and services they need? It’s a struggle for me too. I would much rather spend and rid myself of the depreciating U.S. dollars I own than my precious bitcoin. I have to force myself to load up my bit refill Dunkin Donuts gift cards. This is a factor to consider when evaluating the pace of bitcoin adoption.

Conclusion

I hope some of you found this article useful. If it whet your appetite to learn more about Economics, I recommend a book called Economics In One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. This is a good introduction to the Austrian School Of Economics. We have been force fed Keynsian Krap in the west for too long.
You will discover Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek if you are interested in learning more. Saifedean Ammous wrote a book called The Bitcoin Standard, which is widely considered the best introduction to bitcoin. Recently he wrote another book called Principles Of Economics. It is a university level textbook that teaches economic theory from an Austrian perspective. You might also want to give this book a read if you’re really interested, but be prepared to work hard. It can be a bit overwhelming.
Great write up!
Rent seeking is one of the less intuitive concepts in economics, partly due to the name not applying to most modern rental arrangements. It's also mistakenly taken as an inherently bad thing for society, when it's quite context dependent.
In a more technical sense, rent is the amount you're able to charge above your marginal costs, in equilibrium. Sometimes this is bad (subsidies and barriers to entry), but sometimes it's just a feature of the world. Setting aside government favors, Iowa farmers extract huge rents because their land is extremely well suited to growing corn, but the corn price is set by marginal growers in drier states with worse soils. That allows farmers in Iowa to persistently sell at a price greater than their marginal costs.
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Very true. I didn't discuss beneficial rent seeking in my article. Excellent example.
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Very nice write up. I learnt stuff. And you stole my comment in your last paragraph. I was going to suggest "Economics in One Lesson" but, boom, there it is.That book is so strong, so right.
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You're so right. I read it years ago. It is so well written, and without jargon. He explains complicated concepts in elegant, simple language.
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This is a good writeup! I notice towards the end the recommendation of Austrian economics texts. For those who have taken an interest in economics through their interest in bitcoin, here are some good economics resources to dive into to find an educated alternative to the strictly Austrian perspective:
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Thanks! The Cato debate you linked is particularly good, I think.
I think a lot of bitcoiners who go down the rabbit hole beyond just buying some sats on Coinbase come away thinking there's two kinds of economics, econ for shithead scammers, and Austrian econ, and that a new era of enlightenment will be revealed once the former is discarded in favor of the latter. The sources you posted add a lot of nuance.
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I have to force myself to load up my bit refill Dunkin Donuts gift cards. This is a factor to consider when evaluating the pace of bitcoin adoption.
Do you not do Spend & Replace?
Or do you mean just the fact that you have to load up a gift card?
Then I am to blame too, lol. I could use bitcoin for a lot more too when I consider using bitrefill as spending bitcoin.
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Good question. Yes, I always do spend and replace. I also overcame my laziness in filling the card. It's just that I wind up thinking, "if I just replaced twice without spending I would have more bitcoin!"
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Here's a foundational economic term most bitcoiners don't even know: STANDARD OF VALUE.
The unit in which one denominates a contract for a future exchange or series of exchanges e.g. a supply chain contract, a debt, a rental agreement, or a salary.
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Well done sir.
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Good write up siggy!
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I only know Gresham’s Law and fiat currency. Thanks for this. Bookmarking it to savour later
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way to shoehorn some light covid disinformation into an otherwise very well written essay on financial terms. putting pandemic in quotes was a nice touch too. was there not enough room to really dig in to the vaccine conspiracy theories, or did it just seem too ham-fisted in retrospect?
also, on a personal note, i'd just like to go on record that liquor stores are absolutely more vital than churches, pandemic or no.
otherwise i thought it was an excellent writeup. rant over
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Thanks for both your kind words and your criticism. One of the things I love about Stacker News is that you can have civil discussions with people you completely disagree with. Right after I hit send I read over my post to see if there were any last minute mistakes I could correct during the edit window. When I got to the covid stuff I chuckled and said to myself that if this could be considered propaganda to someone on the left. I used to enjoy reading the New Yorker magazine. I liked the quality fiction and long, detailed investigative stuff. At some point I couldn't take what I saw as the political propaganda woven into what otherwise should have been a straight factual topic (if there is such a thing). I stopped reading the New Yorker. Your reply has really made me think. I assure you what I wrote flowed quite naturally. I wasn't trying to shoehorn anything. I believe what I wrote with all my heart. I also can see how someone with your perspective would think otherwise. I have done the same thing when reading an article, many times. We differ on covid. I have read a lot about it and try to keep an open mind. You probably don't believe me. That's okay. Matt Odell said something like "remember, probably only half of what you believe is accurate and have of what the guy you're arguing with is accurate." We'll never know. The polarization we face is real. I have to address your aside about agreeing that churches should have been closed and liquor stores remain open. Regardless of your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, this country was founded to a large extent on religious freedom. It is a specific constitutionally protected right. The fact that the executive branch, without judicial or legislative backing, executed emergency powers to shut churches is outrageous to me. As a kid we were taught how the first thing the godless communists did was close the churches. 70 years later, here we are. Anyway, let's just say that I guess one man's truth is another man's propaganda.
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I'm not the GP, but appreciate the spirit of your response here.
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i appreciate your thoughtful response, and i completely agree that civil discussion with those you disagree with is a huge benefit of this site. it just hit me exactly as you described your experience with the new yorker, a little political propaganda sprinkled in to an otherwise unrelated topic. but covid differences aside, i really did think it was an excellent writeup, and appreciate you taking the time to post it
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Thank you
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