Energy Production, Cryptocurrencies & Hidden Agendas

How many times have you read something like this, “Bitcoin uses as much electricity as Malaysia or Sweden or Denmark or Chile….”. What a bore. Have you ever wondered, however, why the comparison is to countries? Why don’t they ever tell you what would seem to be a more natural comparison which is how much “Bitcoin” spends on electricity?

The reason is that electricity is incredibly cheap so Bitcoin electricity expenditures priced in dollars don’t look very large. Bitcoin uses something like 100 terawatt hours (TWH) of electricity annually (depending on the price of Bitcoin) but a TWH costs less than $100 million (10 cents per KWH times 1000000000). Thus, Bitcoin spends say $10 billion on electricity annually. (In fact, it’s less than this since bitcoin miners can be located in places where electricity prices are especially cheap.)

$10 billion in spending isn’t a lot. It’s less than the world spends on toothpaste ($30b), much less than the US spends on cigarettes ($80b), and considerably less than the US Federal government spends in one day ($18.65 billion).”

Alex Tabarrok. “Bitcoin and Electricity.” Marginal Revolution. November 29, 2021

One argument, one that you see everywhere in popular media, is that cryptocurrencies use a lot of electricity, and it’s not a productive use of resources. Rarely, you’ll see apple-to-apple comparisons, such as this response to trying to make a comparison to the electricity use of the VISA network, which is a strange comparison considering all the payment terminals, ATMs, bank mainframes, and many other things are treated as externalities.

“While no one can argue that Bitcoin (and other altcoins) mining consumes a lot of electricity (in absolute numbers) given that you need to run a network of few hundreds or thousands of very powerful computers all the time, the right way to look at this problem is not about the total consumption but to compare how efficient is Bitcoin relative to the alternative traditional centralized systems that we are predominantly using today and that one day crypto might replace.

However, the only comparison that seems to always pop up everywhere is against VISA transaction costs which was included in the article that trigger the above tweet and in other articles as well. As expected, VISA looks way more efficient which adds to the rhetoric that Bitcoin is a very inefficient system and it is just a Ponzi scheme that is polluting the world. In my view, this comparison is flawed and it is not comparing apples to apples. Besides the fact that Bitcoin is not simply a piece of a payment network like VISA but a full currency system, VISA itself requires the banking system for its payment system to work so you need to actually include some of those costs there to make a meaningful comparison. So let’s look first at how VISA works…

…”According to the article that trigger this discussion, Bitcoin annual Twh consumption is 28.67 , so currently more than 3 times more efficient than a very conservative calculation of the cost of the global banking system. Of course you will argue that the banking systems does more than handling a currency which is true but the difference is large enough that I do not think is that relevant. Even if only 30% of banks electricity consumption was the comparable part to Bitcoin, that will still make Bitcoin more efficient.”

-Carlos Domingo, “The Bitcoin vs Visa Electricity Consumption Fallacy.Hackernoon. November 29, 2021

And, the simple fact is that it is very difficult to price in externalities to determine the real price of any energy production.

“All energy production has environmental and societal effects. But calculating them — and pricing energy accordingly — is no easy task.”

-Erica Gies, “The real cost of energy.” Nature. November 29, 2017.

And, this is true when assessing energy use as well. It’s difficult to measure the benefits of energy expenditure. What is the value of street lights relative to the energy and infrastructure required to have them on? This is true of practically everything. What is the true cost and benefit of international shipping and transportation? Of the cement poured for a playground? The establishment of a new church or temple? You could continue this line of questioning down any avenue you like, and the answer is it is impossible to make this kind of calculation beyond the costs and perceived benefits.

Enter cryptocurrencies. The problem with the arguments against cryptocurrencies is that they generally take this form.

1. If an activity provides no benefit and uses resources, it is a wasteful activity.
2. People should not do wasteful activities.
3. Mining Bitcoin provides no benefit and uses resources.
C. People should not mine Bitcoin.

This is the extreme argument. The less extreme argument makes some kind of comparison between the benefit relative to use of resources. But, as we know from the above it is difficult to take into consideration the externalities involved. On the face of it, the argument that mining cryptocurrencies have no benefit is belied by the fact that every day billions of dollars worth of transactions are conducted using cryptocurrencies. None of that has any value? How do we evaluate the benefit relative to resource use or other ways this energy might be used? But, we really cannot make that kind of comparison. What is the relative value of Bitcoin mining versus the amount of power used in casinos on an annual basis? Online gaming? How does one make those kinds of comparisons? Is it even right to make them?

The reality is people don’t even try to make that sophisticated of an argument. Instead, it is something simplistic like: Bitcoin uses as much electricity as a country, the implication is that people would otherwise use this electricity, or the electricity they do use would be less expensive.

We also don’t make these kinds of calculations for other activities. The reason there’s the difference hinges on a value judgment that the activity, same as the implicit argument above mentioning casinos implies they have no value. But, even casinos have plausible arguments supporting their value.

The interesting thing, for me, in looking at these arguments closely is ho political arguments. The reason that the environmental argument is used is because it can plug into concerns that people have about climate change, and short circuit a reasonable assessment of the claims being made.

Same is true of claims that cryptocurrencies are used only for crime. Criminals may be an innovator in the space, but it isn’t only good for crime, just as it is not true that VHS and internet streaming is only good for porn. Porn pioneered the technology, but it didn’t stop with porn. YouTube isn’t porn.

There’s also a deeper agenda. It’s a simple fact that the more money that makes its way into cryptocurrencies, the less money that will be available to buy stocks, bonds, U.S. Treasury instruments, and so forth. Less money in traditional financial vehicles means lower prices for them.

The Bitcoin “debate”, if we can call it that, really helped me to understand how much of our dialogue is shaped using concepts from our political orthodoxies. A claim like, Bitcoin mining hurts the environment, is an emotional appeal, not a reasoned argument. The anti-Bitcoin argument is above, and it is problematic both because it has benefits and it is difficult to assess the costs and benefits without engaging in motivated reasoning.

Another point worth making here is that it wasn’t until this year that cryptocurrencies emerged that created a marketplace of cryptocurrencies, where they will compete. Network efficiency and cost will be one dimension of this competition, and it will drive both electricity use down and provide for many more benefits. And, where something like Bitcoin’s energy-intensive proof-of-work algorithm is used, it will be because it provides a capability that isn’t available in other approaches that justifies the cost.

When all of that happens, what will be the new reasons people will be against cryptocurrencies? It’ll be the need for regulation, to provide customer guarantees, or something else. But, the one thing that I am certain of is that there will be other reasons, other agendas that these kinds of arguments will be serving to obscure. And, this is how everything is, there’s always another or series of issues hiding behind the one that’s used as justification.

Illiberalism, Cancel Culture, Free Speech, and The Internet

“Bad faith is the condition of the modern internet, and shitposting is its lingua franca. On—yes—both sides. Look: A professional Twitter troll is president. Trolling won. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that despite their centrality, online platforms aren’t suited to the earnest exchange of big ideas.”

—Lili Loofbourow, “Illiberalism Isn’t to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate.” Slate. July 12, 2020.

How to Read Big Books

“…it is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read [big, difficult, flawed, incredibly insightful, genius books]. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach—our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology—is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book. People need to understand what an argument is, and the only way to do that is actually go through an argument—to read the argument and try to make sense of it. People need to be able to tell the difference between an argument and an assertion. People need to be able to do more than just say whether they liked the conclusion or not: they need to be able to specify whether the argument hangs together given the premises, and where it is the premises, and where it is the premises themselves that need to be challenged. People need to learn that while you can disagree, you need to be able to specify why and how you disagree.

The first order task is to teach people how to read difficult books…Teaching them how to read difficult books will stick with them over the years. Knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument—that is a key skill.

…we urge you to focus on the “meta” to the extent that you can: it is not so much the ability to answer the question “what does Marx think about X?” that we want you to grasp, but rather “how do I figure out what Marx thinks about X?” that is the big goal here…

We have our recommended ten-stage process for reading such big books:

1. Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

2. Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

3. Read through the book actively, taking notes.

4. “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.

5. Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.

6. Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading.

7. Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.

8. Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?

9. Decide what you think of the whole.

10. Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.”

-Brad Delong, “A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books…Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality. December 28, 2019

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián

“Tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonourable ones. You cannot treat with the ruined, for they have no hostages for rectitude. With them there is no true friendship, and their agreements are not binding, however stringent they may appear, because they have no feeling of honour. Never have to do with such men, for if honour does not restrain a man, virtue will not, since honour is the throne of rectitude.”

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián

I’ve loved this book since I was in high school.

Classy & Disagreeable

“The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.”

—Paul Graham. “How to Disagree.” paulgraham.com. March 2008.

Classification also helps with determining whether it’s worth talking at all. If you aren’t at DH4 or above, is there any point in continuing the conversation?