THE ERA OF GLOBALIZATION is drawing to a close. Evidence of that has been made clear by President Trump’s withdrawal from global affairs, his attempt to build an economic and physical wall around the United States. It’s a clumsy attempt to express the genuine concerns of Americans who have been left out of the prosperity reaped by a few.
Two billion people around the world have no access banking. They are unable to make loans to start small businesses; they have no credit, and no means of sending or receiving money.
And what the rest of us have is a rigged banking system. We are nickeled and dimed in every banking transaction and pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.
We are told that a healthy banking system is fundamental to a healthy economy. Yeah, right. Banking funnels money into the pockets of the rich who have so much that it just lays around in piles, uninvested, while worthwhile social programs and enterprises go threadbare.
When U.S. banks failed during the Great Recession of 2008 — because of bad business practices — they were bailed out with taxpayers' dollars. They were rewarded for bad investments while homeowners who couldn’t pay bank-approved mortgages were thrown out on the street.
Not only is there an asymmetrical relationship between banks and clients in terms of wealth distribution, there is also an imbalance of transparency. While banks know exquisite details about us, we know practically nothing about them. Social scientist Shoshana Zuboff calls this one-sided, extractive interaction “surveillance capitalism.”
The technology of blockchain holds promise to restore balance and eliminate excessive fees through use of a universal digital currency, or cryptocurrency.
The first digital currency, Bitcoin, leaves people wondering. It has a reputation of being highly speculative. But there are many versions of cryptocurrencies that would work and many possible versions of blockchains — the digital ledger which records transactions.
The advantages of cryptocurrencies over banking are that your money is held in a digital wallet and easily accessed. Credit card payments are quicker and less expensive, you remain relatively anonymous (pseudonymous) with minimal information shared — you are the master of your money. There are no banks or boundaries to the flow of money.
If it all seems to be too good to be true, there are hurdles. One is just who controls access to your digital money. If banks control applications that access cryptocurrency wallets, we can expect business as usual. Cultural anthropologist Natalie Smolenski explains:
“This is the crux of blockchain’s catch-22: the public won’t use blockchains without user-friendly applications. But user-friendly applications often achieve that ease through centralization, which replicates the conditions of control that blockchains sought to circumvent (Scientific American, January, 2018)”
A new era would bring public control of cryptocurrencies. As Bitcoins have demonstrated, we already have a blockchain that is open-source and maintained by a global network of volunteer core developers. We have a network of individually-owned computers that process the indelible transactions; a process called “bitcoin mining.”
“Creating digital identities whose existence is independent from governments and corporations is the next grand challenge that blockchains both pose and could help solve,” says Smolenski.
With the dawn of the era of a “Universal New Deal,” cryptocurrencies could redistribute wealth and put money in the hands of those who will spend it.
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