What's bitcoin's future?

A lot of booms and busts until it dies for good.

In the course of a little under seven hours, the price of Bitcoin in US dollars fell by over sixty per cent on Wednesday, to $106 a coin. Since then, it's fallen further, and is currently trading at $85 $80 $78 $80 a coin on a downward trend.

If the price doesn't recover, it seems like the beginning of the end for the speculator's bubble. The nature of such a bubble is that it can't hold steady for particularly long, since speculators must sell to realise their gains. Selling depresses the price, which sparks more selling, and so on.

But as bitcoins trend back to a low price, conversation is turning to their future. If the era of the bitcoin millionaires is over, does that mean that the era of bitcion being actually useful is upon us?

That's what I suggest in my piece in this week's magazine (a 180-page centenary spectacular, available in all good newsagents (the magazine, not the piece)), but there's more difficulties standing between there and here. The big one is that, even if bitcoin plunges further and the speculators market is destroyed, the deflationary problem will never go away.

The very nature of bitcoin is designed to encourage hoarding. That's what deflation means: if you hold currency, that currency will be more valuable next year than this year. For the last month, its not just been in deflation but hyperdeflation, a symptom of its meteoric rise.

But suppose bitcoin falls back to $10 a coin, and the absence of speculators returns a degree of stability to the market. A few online traders might decide that it makes sense to offer the currency as an alternative to Paypal, and find that, freed from the hyped-up claims that it is the future of all currency, it actually works quite well for cheap and easy transfers of money online.

But.

The minute bitcoin starts to be useful, the deflation problem rears its head again. If a sizeable number of online retailers are taking bitcoin, then it makes sense to buy a lot now and hoard them until you need them, because both the deflationary underpinnings and the expectation of an increase in the USD/BTC exchange rate mean that they'll be worth more in the future.

But once you start hoarding them, the supply goes down, and other people who need them for transactions have to pay more for them. That increases the exchange rate; and so there's more incentive to hoard; and so the exchange rate rises further – and suddenly it's back in another bubble, which eventually pops, and people again lose money.

This volatility, in other words, is inherent to the platform. That's a major barrier to widespread uptake, and a reason why I'm bearish on the future of bitcoin full stop. Once it's dead, I fear it's dead for good.

BOOM and bust.

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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.