Spain turns to Bitcoin, prompting incoherent discussion on Today

There are problems with the currency. But not those problems.

Wired's Ian Steadman reported yesterday about the surge in downloads of Bitcoin apps in Spain, noting that:

Three iOS apps – Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Ticker and Bitcoin App – each jumped up the App Store charts in Spain, all on the same day, as the news broke from Cyprus. Compare their download histories to those from a country like the UK and it's clear that the upward trend is more pronounced in the more at-risk nation. Bitcoin Gold's all-time high ranking of 83 in Spain came on 17 March; for Bitcoin Ticker, 68 on 17 March; Bitcoin App reached a high of 147 on 19 March. The highest rankings for those apps in the UK are lower – 293, 201 and 48 –and they were all records set months or even years ago.

That surge has been noticed by others, too – including Radio 4's Today Programme, which had a little interview with an economist about the fledgling currency. Sadly, they didn't really do themselves proud. A choice excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: A currency supply has to be limited, otherwise it can be devalued and copied. Who limits it? Who controls it, if there's no central bank?

INTERVIEWEE: Well, it's all controLled by users of the bitcoin community, and that's the reason why it has become so popular in recent years.

INTERVIEWER: What, they're all unbelievably virtuous, they all control it? What's the mechanism?

INTERVIEWEE: Any currency, and any asset class, is basically predicated on trust. We trust the central bank, we have full faith in credit, so we go into a shop and we trust that our £20 note is freely exchangeable for £20 of goods.

Now, heaven knows I'm not the biggest fan of the digital currency, but this is doing it an enormous disservice.

The reason why gets a bit technical, but if you want to know more about the currency, it's worth learning how it works. If not, skip the next five paragraphs.

The heart of bitcoin is based on something called public-key cryptography. This technique – used throughout the web, whenever security is needed – uses very large prime numbers to create a form of encryption where the key used to lock data is different from, but related to, the key used to unlock it. What that means is that you can send copies of the first key far and wide, and so long as you keep the second key hidden, other people can encrypt information which only you can then decrypt.

But there's a second thing the technology allows. If you use your private key to lock the data, then anyone can unlock it with your – and only your – public key. That lets you sign messages in a way which, so long as people are certain that it really is your public key they have, proves it was you who wrote it.

A bitcoin is, in its purest form, a list of past transactions signed with private keys and verified with public keys. So long as you keep your private key secret, it is impossible for other people to "spend" bitcoins which the network knows are held by you, because those transactions wouldn't be accepted.

It bitcoin were a centralised currency, that would be that. But it's decentralised, and that means that there's a second problem to overcome. I could send one bitcoin to Alice with her key added to the end, and the same bitcoin to Bob with his added on. Until the two of them spoke, they wouldn't know who had the "real" coin and who had the fake one.

The way bitcoin solves this is the really clever part of the whole thing. All transactions are broadcast throughout the network, and then certain computers – called "miners", analogously to gold – work to group them into a timestamped block every ten minutes. Multiple computers do this at once, because the calculations required to make a new block are, deliberately, very difficult. Honesty is therefore enforced by the fact that the easiest group to co-ordinate is the one telling the truth about which transactions came first.

OK, back to the non-tech stuff. How is this linked to inflation? Well, if your computer is the one which solves the puzzle and makes the block, you get some free bitcoins. Currently, it's 25 every block, but that number halves every four years until it drops to 0.00 in the year 2140.

And that's it. That's the only way new coins are created, and there's just over 1.25 million made each year. So there's nothing to do with "trust" in the whole system: low inflation is inherent to the entire idea. In fact, that's actually one of the things used to attack bitcoin; orthodox economics holds that a low level of inflation is good, because it encourages people to spend rather than horde. If there was a bitcoin economy the size of a nation, it would be in a permanent state of recession, and there would be no possiblity of monetary policy saving the day.

The worst thing is, the interviewee apparently knew this, because later on in the segment, he said:

They're so popular because they offer a little bit of something new, a little bit of security, an anti-inflation side of things, as well, because they've built something into the trading algorithm which means that it actually deflates over the cause of the lifetime.

Bitcoin might or might not work as a currency – you can tell what side I come on – but if Today is going to cover it, they ought to cover it well.

Of course, none of what Today actually discussed helps address the real question: are the panicky Spanish savers doing the smart thing by moving their money into bitcoin? (That's assuming they actually are; as Steadman points out, iOS is small fry in Spain, and three apps increasing their sales figures does not an exodus make.) It depends what they are fleeing.

If the fear is that the Spanish banks might implement a Cypriot-style deposit tax, then bitcoin would help. As a potentially anonymous currency, it's a tax avoider's – and tax evader's – dream, but only insofar as taking money out of the bank and keeping it in cash under the bed is. You can keep your money hidden from the tax man, but when you come to spend it, you're going to raise questions. In fact, the whole thing comes back full circle, because with Cyprus on lock-down, money laundering got a bit harder to do.

If your fear instead is Spain exiting the euro and devaluing, then bitcoin is a slightly better choice – but again, only so good as holding your money in dollars in a safe. But the exchange rate matters here. If I'm right, it's actually considerably worse than holding dollars in a safe. The bubble will burst, the exchange rate will plummet, and your bitcoins, measured in a currency you can actually use to buy food in, will lose all their value.

If I'm wrong, and the 100 per cent month-on-month increase continues, or even just levels off, then moving all your money into it could leave you rich. Who knows? That's the gamble you're taking

But fundamentally, the reason for switching to bitcoin from any other currency is that you have lost trust in the very concept of governments looking after money. If you are sitting in the eurozone at the moment, that might be an understandable belief. But I still have very little hope that switching from a currency with bad monetary policy to a currency where monetary policy is deliberately impossible will help matters to any great deal.

Spaincoin! Bitspain? Spitcoin. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Hern

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

One Day Without Us reveals the spectre of Britain without immigration

Imagine a country without its NHS workers, its artists and even its consumers. That's why immigrants are striking today. 

What’s the best way of making yourself heard in politics? Protesting in the street, or contacting the media? Writing to politicians? A badge?

One option, of course, is to walk out - and give people a chance to recognise what they’d be missing if you weren’t there. In the labour movement, that’s long been an option – a last-case option, but an option nevertheless – when your contribution isn't being recognised.

A strike is a tit-for-tat negotiation and a warning shot. “I’ll work properly when you employ me properly”, it says, but simultaneously: “Here’s what you’d lose if I stopped”. Done right, the worker’s absence can shift the power balance in their favour.

Normally, people strike according to their role, in pursuit of certain conditions – the tube strikes, or last year’s teacher's strike.

Yet there is also a long and rich history of walk-outs whose terms are broader and boundaries hazier. One of the most famous is surely the 1975 Women's Strike, in Iceland, during which 90 per cent of the country's women refused to participate in either paid or unpaid work.

In 2016, the formula was repeated in Poland, where women went on strike to protest against a draconian change being proposed to the country's already-strict abortion laws. (It worked.)

Immigrant strikes, too, have a history. In 2006, for instance, a coalition of Los Angeles Catholic groups, unions and immigration reform groups proposed a boycott in opposition to a bill which, among other things, called for new border security fences to be built between America and Mexico. (Ahem.)

The action grew to become a national event, and on May 1, the “Great American Boycott” took place, with immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere leaving work, skipping school and refusing to buy or sell goods.

Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and Brexit looming, some have decided it’s time for another strike. Enter “One Day Without Us”.

Today, immigrants here in Britain will strike not for pay conditions or holiday allowances, but for basic recognition and respect. Across the country, businesses will close and immigrants will leave work, many of them to take place in alternative actions like rallies or letter-writing campaigns.

The name of the protest pulls no punches. This, it says, is what it would be like if we all went away. (Subtext: “like some of you want”.)

Because – and let’s be honest here – it’d be bad. In hospital this summer, I was treated by migrants. After 24 hours in NHS, I took a count, and found that only about one in five of the staff who had treated me were identifiably English. Around 4.6 per cent of NHS staff nationally are from the EU, including 9 per cent of doctors. Immigrants clean buildings, make our food, and provide a whole host of other vital services.

One Day Without Us, then, could do Britain a huge favour - it provides us with a quick preview function before anyone ups and leaves for good, taking the heart of our health service, or our food supplies, with them.

In recognition of this, some businesses are actively giving their workers the day off. One 36-year-old owner of a support services company, for instance, is giving her staff a paid holiday.

“Not all my colleagues are taking up the offer not to come in”, she explained. “Some, both British and foreign-born, would prefer to work. That’s fine, I wanted to give colleagues the freedom to choose.

 “It will cause some inconvenience and I’ve had to explain to clients why we aren’t offering all our services for one day, but I feel doing this is the only way to show how much this country relies on migrants. I may be a businesswoman, but I’m a human being first, and it hurts my heart to see how foreign-born colleagues are being treated by some people in the current political climate."

The woman, whose staff is 65 per cent foreign born, has asked her company not to be identified. She’s heard her staff being abused for speaking Polish.

Of course, not everyone is able to walk out of work. I write this from Chicago, Illinois, where last week activists participated in an American predecessor to One Day Without Us called “Day Without Immigrants”. Type “Day Without Immigrants" into Google followed by the word "Chicago" and you will find reports of restaurants closing down and citizens marching together through the city.

But search for just "Day Without Immigrants", and the top stories are all about participants being fired.

One Day Without Us, then, encourages any form of engagement. From human chains to sessions during which participants can write to their MP, these events allow immigrants, and supporters, to make themselves known across the country.

Businesses and museums, too, are involved. The Tate, for instance, is offering free tours showing visitors artworks created or influenced by migrants, showing Londoners which of the paintings that they’ve seen a dozen times only exist because of immigration.

Because paintings, like people, come from everywhere, whether or not you remember. Britain is a mongrel country, and so its art and culture are as mongrel as its workforce: a persistent thread through the country’s history.

We risk a lot forgetting this. At its best, assimilation provides a way of integrating without forgetting one’s own unique identity. In a world where immigrants risk threats or violence, however, invisibility can be the best option. For some, it is better not to be recognized as an immigrant than be abused as one.

Those of us who don’t risk threats have a duty to recognise this. I dislike the glibness of “we are all migrants” – maybe, technically, but we’re not all getting slurs shouted at us in the high street, are we? Still, I also don’t like anyone forgetting the fact that their existence, in all probably, is contingent on someone once being given clemency in a place that was their own. The movement of people is woven into the fabric of society.

Of course, it is impossible to say how successful One Day Without Us will be, or how many people’s lives will be directly affected. But I hope that, even as a gesture, it works: that people think of what would be missing from their lives without immigration.

We ignore it at our peril.

You can view all the One Day Without Us events on the organisers’ website, or contribute to a fund to support businesses which are closing for the day here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland