Through our conversation we explore the possibilities and limitations of different metaphoric frameworks for understanding money, paying special attention to the pitfalls of figuring money as blood-like fluidity. Scott’s own comparison of financial operations with the functioning of the central nervous system prompts further discussion of the temporal and physical realities of modern money. We also discuss how awareness of the principles of monetary design clarifies the need for physical cash and the perils of privatized and surveilled forms of digital money.
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The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.
William Saas: Brett Scott, welcome to Money on the Left.
Brett Scott: Good to be here. Thanks for having me on.
William Saas: It’s wonderful to have you. It’s been a long time coming. Last time we saw you was at the first international MMT conference at UMKC in 2017. And before that you worked in finance and had been writing about money and crypto for a while. Could you share a bit about how you ended up at that MMT conference and maybe catch us up on what you’ve been up to since then?
Brett Scott: Sure thing. It’s actually quite a funny story about how I ended up at the conference. I was invited to another conference in Delft in the Netherlands. It was called Reinventing Money. And it was run by these… I want to say quite libertarian Dutch monetary reformers. And I don’t know how much time you guys have spent in the Netherlands scene, but there’s actually quite a long tradition of this quite conservative monetary reform people there. And I think the Netherlands in general has this vibe, which is… it’s one of the first capitalist trading nations. So it has this long tradition of liberal economic thinkers.
And anyway, I ended up at this conference, one of these Dutch managed monetary reform people, some of whom were quite right-wing. Quite like “gold bug” types. And I ended up on this stage and I was super jet lagged. I had very low blood sugar, partly because I’d actually been blocked from buying a Coca-Cola from this cashless vending machine that refused to take my card. So I decided to start talking about this on stage. But how this machine had stopped me from engaging in a market transaction. And so I kind of ranted on the stage. And right in the front row was Stephanie Kelton, who had also been invited to this since the first time, I guess, she had seen me and then we spoke over dinner. And then she said, “hey, come to this event that we’re doing”. And that’s how I ended up at the MMT conference. It was great. That’s a really cool event.
William Saas: So how’d you end up in the Netherlands at that conference, talking to the “gold bugs” and sharing your market grievances?
Brett Scott: Yeah, so actually in monetary reform circles, there’s a bunch of different traditions, as I’m sure you guys have come across. A lot of the anti-fractional reserve banking, sometimes an anti-credit creation of money people like that sort of one tradition and monetary reform. And so I think that’s quite a sort of strong tradition in the Netherlands. There’s groups like ons geld, which campaign against banks being able to create money. And so I think that Netherlands scene I was… I had new people in that scene, and also new people in the crypto scene. So there’s also this kind of crossover between the anti-bank creation of money, people with this sort of crypto currency, Bitcoin people.
So yeah, the guys who got me there are kind of in the middle of that world. And actually, the guys who arranged the conference had tried to start the first full reserve bank in the Netherlands. And we’ve kind of, I think it failed, it hadn’t managed to get a banking license, but there was quite an interesting effort. They were trying to create this fully backed bank. They also made a board game about the evils of bank creation of money. So it’s quite an interesting scene. And actually, I remember actually once going into the MMT conference, and some of those anti-fractional reserve people turned up at the MMT conference as well. And so there’s an interesting political dynamic between the MMT movement and the sort of… what would you call those? What do you call those guys? Like the sort of…
Scott Ferguson: Positive Money?
William Saas: Positive Money?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, although they’ve… certain Positive Money groups have really changed, I think in relationship to the MMT movement.
Brett Scott: Yeah.
Scott Ferguson: So I don’t want to blanket call them all the….
Brett Scott: You know, I knew Ben Dyson, who started Positive Money in the UK. [He] sort of then moved away from it and actually became a central bank digital currency researcher at the Bank of England. But, Positive Money has always had this kind of interesting dynamic in the UK where it actually was trying to position itself as a left-wing monetary reform group, but would often attract these people from the sort of political right. You had these conspiracy theories about the banking sector. And I know Fran, who is still the director of Positive Money has always had this trying to sort of distance herself or distance the organization from the more right-wing elements that often crowd around monetary reform.
But, that’s what partly what makes monetary reform quite an interesting area politically is it actually does attract these different ideological groups who sense that there’s something in the monetary system that needs to be addressed. Yeah, I guess I kind of span between these. But I’ve noticed over the years, there’s been more sort of Positive Money type of community getting into MMT is getting more on board with it.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that we’ve definitely noticed that as well. So we brought you here today, we invited you here to speak with us about your new book, which is titled Cloud Money: Cash Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets, which is just out last month with Harper Collins. But before this book came out, you published a regular newsletter that was called Altered States of Monetary Consciousness. And you, even before that, were blogging about finance. And I guess, just to kind of frame our conversation, we’re wondering if you could talk to us about, really, how did you come to be thinking about money and publishing about money and advocating in these various kinds of circles? And how has your approach or your rhetorical strategies changed over time?
Brett Scott: Sure, there’s a lot I could say there, actually. The kind of broad brushstrokes of my trajectory, as it was, I have a background in Anthropology and History. But also quite left-wing politics. And I decided to do this experiment. Well, let’s say adventure. I like to call it an adventure, where the side I’ll go into the financial sector and sort of explore it. Or perhaps embody it. I like to experience things with my… to feel the emotions of things. And so I went, in the midst of the financial crisis, I went and worked in this derivatives brokerage. And so for a while, I was actually involved in high finance and over the counter swap contracts. So basically exotic derivatives in the midst of the financial crisis. But coming from this left-wing political background, and that made… it was quite an interesting experience, learned a lot of stuff about the high finance world.
But also realized how little people knew about the monetary system in high finance, often because you don’t actually need to know anything about the monetary system, often when you’re working in very specialized finance. And after that experience, I went and I wrote a book for activists, which is called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money, which is basically a sort of simple guide to finance for people who had some intuitive concerns. And people, for example, got involved in the “Occupy” movements, I was actually asked to write it in the wake of the “Occupy” movements. And you know, that was kind of published by a small left wing press, Pluto Press, a London based publisher.
And since then, I worked in lots of financial reform campaigns and these other types of financial activism, you might call it, but also got involved in alternative finance, which is thinking about alternative currencies, alternative banking, and so on. But fast forward, you know, into the present day, I also got heavily involved in looking at the intersection between tech and finance, big tech and finance. And my newsletter, which is what you mentioned, Altered States of Mandatory Consciousness, I actually started that amidst the pandemic.
And it’s still going on, it’s temporarily been paused. Because my book right now, Cloud Money… my new book is taking up lots of my time. But yeah, Altered States of Monetary Consciousness, the basic idea was, I was tired of writing. I’d written for many journalism outlets, or big media publications and so on, but I always find them quite constrained. And what I can say in those publications, they always want some sort of… you have to attach everything to the news, and you have to spin everything in a certain type of way. And what I was actually more interested in was writing for an audience who was more interested in sort of meditating upon the monetary system without having to have it attached to current events.
And the newsletter basically enables me to do that. And one of the big things I was trying to do in the newsletter is to help people visualize systems that are invisible. Sometimes by literally trying to draw them. And sometimes by using metaphor, because metaphor is seen as a kind of like visual technique, in a way, it’s like you have an invisible system. So, you create a visible metaphor, that person can picture in their mind as a way to sort of help them to grasp this otherwise intangible type of thing. And the monetary system in the financial sector more generally, often very hard to conceptualize, which often is why people feel so alienated.
And so I’m very highly motivated to do the newsletter precisely because I’m interested in, how can you kind of de-alienate, help people to sort of feel these systems more, picture them more, and then, from that perspective, be able to perhaps do more effective action on them? But if nothing else, just be able to understand their position in the economy better.
William Saas: Subscriber to your newsletter, here. I’ve appreciated it for multiple reasons, but one in a kind of academic and pedagogical sense as somebody who teaches and thinks about rhetoric, it’s, what you’re describing is a project of teaching, through different and adaptive, rhetorical strategies. And I think that that’s part of what has drawn me in and I think lots of others, to the MMT project, which is the insistence on… there’s almost a kind of resistance to metaphor. I mean, it never really works.
There’s always metaphors running throughout the financial system, and the way that people are thinking about things, but the creation of concepts and systems that are deliberately resistant to popular understanding, esoteric, and so the process of translating that stuff and making it apparent like that bringing before the eyes making visible the structures and systems.
Brett Scott: And metaphors are quite… I find metaphor very fascinating, because it’s also quite dangerous. There’s limitations to metaphors. And what I’m often doing in the newsletters is experimenting to see how certain metaphors work and where they fail as well. And with the monetary system this always becomes an interesting task. So actually, talking about MMT, I did a piece, which was called MMT is a Language of Ants, Not Squirrels. And I was talking about how you got to understand the worldview of a squirrel is like, you’re racing around trying to find acorns. And this is the kind of like, sort of “money user” mentality. The person who experiences money just manifesting in front of them and trying to grab it.
Scott Ferguson: It’s very Lockean.
Brett Scott: Versus the experience of the actual oak tree or these ants who issue these acorns, and actually want them to spread. And I like this metaphor, to some extent. It kind of shows us the dynamic between users and issuers, but then it has all these other limitations to it. So, in my book, Cloud Money, I’m using a variety of different metaphors, but it’s always like, trying to sequence metaphors together in the right order and not let them clash with each other, is always an interesting artform.
William Saas: But there can be something telling or instructive or constructive about mixing metaphors in a way that you might mix chemicals and see what happens. Some kind of reaction to it. So you mentioned the squirrels and the ants. Is what we find in Cloud Money, sort of representative of your best efforts and successes in this sort of metaphor, experimentation that you’re doing in the newsletter? Or do you feel like you might have hit upon something new that you could share with us now?
Brett Scott: Well, Cloud Money has a very particular agenda. I’m talking about the politics of the states or government cash system versus the commercial bank, digital money systems, and what it’s focused on and the crypto world. It doesn’t necessarily go super deep into some of the more… just more generalized understanding of money, perhaps. So in my newsletter I want to do is these deep dives. And I know you’ve probably seen these nervous system metaphors I use. So, my editors in Cloud Money, I had these whole sections, but I’m just trying to do this huge, like nervous system metaphors for the monetary system.
And they cut it down quite a lot. Because it’s an I can go into the metaphors but… I think Cloud Money has some great metaphors, but it doesn’t have my entire repertoire. I think I’d like to do another book where I go way, way deeper into some of the kind of different approaches to understanding monetary systems, and particularly this nervous system metaphor I’d like to build upon.
Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can pause here and give you an opportunity to talk about the key contrast of metaphors that you put in the beginning of the book. And that’s the blood metaphor, which is very, very old. You can find that in Hobbes. And then this nervous system metaphor and understanding that no metaphor is perfect, and that you are always experimenting with metaphor. What is that contrast help you argue and help you make visible for the reader of Cloud Money?
Brett Scott: Sure, yeah. So at a deep level for monetary systems, in general, I’m using this metaphor of money as a nervous system, rather than a circulatory system. So in many typical economics discourse, there’s this idea of the financial system as some kind of circulatory system, money is blood. And actually, when I used to work in finance, you’d actually find many financiers had the self image of the financial sector as a kind of heart of the economy. So it’s like then they’ll say things like, “without us, these industries wouldn’t wouldn’t get funding, they wouldn’t get the lifeblood that they need to live as it were”. So there’s lots of this idea that money itself has some kind of substance of value that sort of pumps around, and I’m not claiming to be some expert on the human circulatory system.
But you have this idea of these little blood cells that carry nutrients or carry things to tissues and you can have the same sort of metaphoric understanding of money. This idea of money is somehow carrying value to people. This is the very typical sort of what I often call a commodity orientation to money, it’s sort of like the imagination of money as some kind of mystical substance of value that flows around. Which he finds very typical in many… basically, I’d say the mainstream economics is very typical.
Implicitly, it’s the underlying kind of mental model of monetary systems. Then I think that blood metaphor is deeply flawed, because in my worldview, nothing can actually, I would say… in the MMT worldview, as well, but more generally, in people who understand the concept of money as credit. It’s understood the actual underlying value and an economy, the underlying sort of substance, as it were, resides in human beings and the natural ecosystem. This is what all economies are is human beings applying themselves to the earth, and building things. And that’s where your value it.
And it’s not like, the unit of money is carrying that around somehow. But what units of the monetary system is often doing is activating people and particularly people who are locked into very large scale into interdependent meshes. And so if you sort of zoom out, the nervous system metaphor is much more accurate in the sense that nervous impulses activate tissues. But if I’ve been rock climbing all day, and my arms are exhausted and I’ve basically just totally pumped out my arms, no amount of me sending impulses to my arms is going to make them work. And this is like quite a useful thing to be thinking about sort of monetary systems. If you’ve just maxed out the actual labor and resources, new economy, no amount of like issuing money is going to sort of make them work.
But if you haven’t, if you have a bunch of sort of excess capacity or the sort of underlying substance, you actually can. I think nervous system as the metaphor is good. And also particularly for the financial sector, when you start to think about large scale financial institutions, what they often are doing is… I kind of think about them as a sort of motor cortex. So again, I’m not like a neuroscience expert, but very crude terms, the motor cortex is the part of your brain that translates thoughts into action. So I think, “I want to move my arm” and the motor cortex will translate that into action. I think the financial sector can often be thought about that.
We’re doing large scale financing of big projects, you’re kind of activating 1000s of workers into action. And those workers are what creates the thing, but the financial sector is able to sort of coordinate that action. And this sort of turns the financial narrative on its head to some extent. It’s not like those workers are unable to… the source of value comes from those work. That’s not from the financial sector. But certainly in an interdependent economy where you’re dependent on money, the financial sector has the ability to activate them. That’s basically the metaphor. And I don’t know how well I explained it. But that’s kind of it.
William Saas: I think it’s great. And it calls to mind, there’s a particularly grisly metaphor that’s sort of in the ether right now around inflation. And it recalls the actions of Paul Volcker and the Volcker shock in the early 80s, as breaking the back of inflation. I don’t know how considerate that metaphor is, but they talk about it as thinking, will Jay Powell now break the back of inflation, just like Paul Volcker? But in a way I don’t think it’s thoughtful in the way that you’re thinking, but it lines up nicely with what you’re talking about. What are they talking about in breaking the back of inflation? They’re talking about deactivating all these circuits and modes of action.
Brett Scott: I mean, I think this sort of stuff becomes very important. I haven’t necessarily thought huge amounts about inflation metaphor. But, certainly, for example, one of the things you’ll find in the commodity imagination of money, this is where you’re imagining money is somehow metaphorically carrying stuff with it. A lot of the inflation scare mongering stuff imagines it almost evaporating out of space. You have this idea that it’s almost a gas leaking out into the atmosphere, some other money is disappearing, it’s floating away. So again, it carries the implicit underlying idea that somehow something is inside the money itself that’s escaping. And it’s not thinking about the full sort of circuitry of an actual interdependent network, where all the actual value lies in human beings.
So this is very partial descriptions of complex systems. And this is often how you do scaremongering or misinformation around what’s going on. I mean, you see this all over and monetary systems, it’s a big, big thing. During another completely different example, during Brexit in the UK, there was all this kind of scaremongering with them saying, “now we’re spending all this money on the EU”. It’s almost like they had this idea that money was sort of evaporating away or floating away, like some substance. And this idea is well, what do you get for that thing? These are complex systems with these multi-directional flows. It’s not like you just find these singular…
Yeah, I haven’t explained it very well. But I think there’s a huge amount of this very partial sighted descriptions of monetary systems. And often what I’m interested in doing is showing people like the interconnections and interdependent nature of monetary systems.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, the blood metaphor. There’s a version of blood speak here too that sees money as hemorrhaging. Which is such a misleading way of understanding. Like we hemorrhage money and we hemorrhage jobs and free trade contracts or whatever. I think of Ross Perot you know, on the campaign trail, and these are like you know NAFTA might be a problem, but it’s not because of hemorrhaging. It’s not because of this unstoppable outflow.
Brett Scott: Another fascinating one and monetary speak is when people talk about money going into things, for example, when people say huge amounts of money are going into the crypto market and…
Scott Ferguson: They’re getting pumped.
Brett Scott: They’re getting pumped into the crypto market and I’m like… So what are you saying? Because this is quite bizarre because you’re basically handing money to somebody else to buy a token from them, but now it’s exiting. So, this is a very strange idea that somehow it gets captured inside something rather than it’s within an interdependent system that’s moving around all the time. So we had this very strange partial vision idea, you know modern economics is full of this kind of bizarre sort of partial vision on monetary systems.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah I really appreciate your reflexive experimental approach to metaphors and money because it is so taken for granted and it’s a constant challenge. I think we find and you know we often need to appeal to physical things and physical perceptible entities that we can that we can understand, but they very often run us in all these problematic directions.
William Saas: We start to forget that they are metaphors. That’s part of the reason why you can tell the success of a metaphor, by how few people actually recognize it as one.
Brett Scott: Yeah. I think those machines are made to sort of show a Keynesianism that’ll be like water wheels, and… have you guys seen those machines that they use?
Scott Furguson: Yes.
Brett Scott: Who’s the guy who designed that? But that’s all water metaphors for money and weirdly, the Bank of England has also used water metaphors which isn’t actually that far from the…
William Saas: Filling the tub.
Brett Scott: Blood metaphors. And again, it’s a useful… it’s an easy kind of one, but it carries with it the oldest dangerous sort of commodity imagery for me.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah it’s so fascinating just to kind of keep going down this path. You’ll find those metaphors even in MMT as a popular explanatory strategy. I believe it’s this guy who writes into the pen name JD Alt. Who created all these diagrams of these bathtubs being filled up with you know fiscal spending. I think there are deep limits to those metaphors, but it just goes to show that you can tweak liquid metaphors and they can have a different valence. Even if I would say that I don’t really like them, they’re certainly a lot better than mainstream economics or the financial sector.
Brett Scott: I’ve also used them. Actually that’s my concern about my MMT article that I did about squirrels and ants was precisely… it was somewhat acorns it was just commodity imagery. So I’m dealing with these things that have an actual inherent sort of… and I know that I say this in the article, this is the limitation of this… can show you the difference between an issuer and the person who is a user of money, but it will give you the wrong… give you a commodity metaphor of money at the same time, so that’s that’s a kind of trade off on that metaphor.
William Saas: When you’re also with the ants too, there’s the whole… the rest of the baggage of the narrative of the story…of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit and all that stuff. Okay, so if the ants are… where are they in the cosmos of the Lord of the Rings universe relative to others?
Brett Scott: We should start a mandatory metaphor school or something.
William Saas: I think so! Or at least we have a publishing space on our website, if you want to riff or whatever, but what I like too is that… so talking about breaking it down to there’s a circulatory system which is ultimately a fluid metaphor, that that can be talked about in sort of bathtub terms, as I think JD Alt does, but what we get with the nervous system is another kind of physical system in electricity. And neurons and impulses and things like that, that are coordination at a distance almost simultaneously as possible in a way that the physical water fluid metaphor there’s a slowness to it. One of the things– talking about metaphors– I gotta shout out Scott’s when we’re talking about the central nervous system.
We were writing about University currency system, and he talked about the Fed as a “choreographer of credit” in one of the things that we wrote together. And it strikes me as like there’s all sorts of modes of performance available if we think about the system as a set, a nervous system there’s clumsy coordination and then there’s fluid coordination, choreography.
Brett Scott: One of the reasons why I call my newsletter Altered States of Monetary Consciousness is that it has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it could just mean helping people think differently about money. But actually, it is sort of deeper meaning when you go into that sort of more nervous system metaphor. I’m actually literally thinking about manifests as a type of planetary level consciousness. An actual sort of… one of the big things many people intuit about, if you have to imagine the economic system as a kind of super organism, that we’re all connected together and an interdependent mass. In a sense we are the body of the economy. And then the sort of monetary systems, are sort of embedded in that as a kind of nervous system.
And then the financial system, you can almost think about as more a central part of the nervous system is able to activate stuff. And if you think about critiques of the financial sector, often one of the biggest critiques is how sort of numb it is to its body, as it were, if you think about the superorganism concept. During the financial crisis, you’ll find this extreme disconnection between the actions of the financial sector and the reality of what’s happening on the ground.
So if you sort of think about this metaphor, seriously designed to think about literally, how kind of like disassociated the sort of system is, and then if you think about alternatives, you start with thinking about how do you make the monetary system more responsive to the reality of its actual… the underlying body of the economy as a world terms of resources, and people? Now think, for example, the MMT movement, in listening to the mainstream policy circles, thinks far more about that kind of stuff, saying, “you guys are fixating upon this abstract stuff about how much money there is, or whatever”. But in reality, we should be thinking about what’s the underlying reality of the economy?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and people and employment and suffering and ecological collapse. Yeah. So let’s pivot and really get into the key critical argument that you’re making in Cloud Money. So, you’re positioning your book and yourself against this dominant and largely taken for granted narrative, that’s surprise surprise, coming out of the banking sector. About digital finance, and that we’re moving kind of in this inevitable evolutionary progressive way, from this old bad thing that we call physical cash to this clean, efficient digital payment system? What’s wrong with that narrative? Descriptively, politically, and whatever else you had to say about it, and what are you sort of offering as an alternative or a counterbalance?
Brett Scott: Yeah. So in some ways, what I’m… there’s a few different things I’m trying to do in the book. But, one of the big ones is to cut through the inauthentic narrative about why we’re seeing declines in the cash system around the world. Now, the typical narrative is very much this idea that it’s something that we’ll want, and we’re driving it through our ordinary everyday actions. And it’s also driven from the bottom up. It’s very, very typical, you’ll find this language if you look at a newspaper article, which says something like, “customers move towards digital payments”. There’s all these articles, you’ll see them in the store. Well, they’ll say “banks shutting down ATMs as people move towards digital payments”.
The agency is always imagined to exist in the sort of small individual. Everyone’s just collectively acting like this and this is why this is happening. And all the big institutions are then following what the everyday person is doing. So the bank is shutting down its ATMs because all of its customers don’t want the ATMs anymore. All right. Now, that’s a very, very typical narrative. Whereas what I’m doing is sort of filling in the other side, the top down part of that story, saying, “actually, if you look at this, what’s been going on, there’s been a huge amount of top down pushes against the cash system”.
And actually, the move away from cash is frequently far more in the interests of very large tech and finance companies than it is in the interest of everyday people. And if we go back to the more broad points we were making earlier about an economic system being a huge interdependent network of different players. One of the political questions you ask yourself is who has the most power In the economies that we find ourselves in? We’re all dependent upon each other. And we’re also locked in these huge webs with each other. But also, we’re often operating via these sort of huge corporations. And actually, their economic actors as a collective, they often have a lot more power than ordinary people do.
So if, for example, you got oligopolies or banks and tech companies who are moving in a particular direction, they’re able to actually alter the whole nature of the overarching economic system. What’s called “the War on Cash”, sometimes, about these types of top down actions with these oligopolies of players are all moving against the cash system at the same time, and pulling people along with them. Now, it’s true that there might be some people who willingly go along with that trend or perceive themselves as you know that it’s in their interests. But in the long term, that’s sort of irrelevant.
What’s most relevant is that these players are going to do it anyway. And their main job is to either initially convince enough people through sort of ideological techniques and marketing techniques. But they don’t need to convince everyone, they just need to convince enough people that they can set in motion the changes that will then force everybody else to make the change. And if you imagine in some sort of hypothetical future state, it wouldn’t… in countries like Sweden right now, where this process has gone far enough ahead, it’s no longer a choice. These companies no longer have to sort of spin stories saying, “oh, people are choosing to do this”, because they know people no longer have a choice.
So Cloud Money, I’m basically looking at the… cutting through the spin of why these changes happen. And also pointing out that if you zoom out and look at the trajectory of corporate capitalism, what’s happening is, big tech and big finance are fusing together. Increasingly, Amazon, all these players are saying they can’t operate unless they are fusing with transnational digital finance infrastructures. And then the capitalist system, when you try to maximize profit, your overarching sort of impulse is going to be towards increasing scale speed, interconnection, complexity, acceleration. And cash basically is antithetical to that. Cash is a thing that sort of slows stuff down and creates friction.
So even if individual human beings who are physical and on the ground actually resonate with the cash system, the overarching economic system they find themselves within, those corporate players doesn’t. Alright, so this is why people will often have this the story in their head, that the end of cash is inevitable. And for that matter, the end of anything that’s not automated or not sort of digitized. That’s the sort of the basic overarching thing in the book. And then I’m also looking at then how the cryptocurrency movements perceive themselves in relation to that growing tech finance vortex. That’s the broad brushstrokes.
Scott Ferguson: Can we dig a little bit deeper into what we might say is your defensive cash? Why cash? Why cash at all? What do people resonate with when we are talking about physical cash? Why is the narrative, the mainstream corporate narrative that is destined to be outmoded. Why is that so problematic?
Brett Scott: Sure bear in mind, cash is still the most widely used one payment in the world. Yet the narrative in the sort of public domain imagines that it’s some kind of thing that’s just obviously destined to disappear. So in terms of actual everyday usage around large parts of the world remains the biggest form of payments, but definitely the ideological tide is against it. And so that’s just one sort of meta point to make. But in terms of it’s the appeal of cash, I’m not saying people have some sort of self conscious love of the cash system, often these are unconscious types of systems.
But either way, I will describe the cash system as a public utility, or I can describe it as the kind of the public bicycle system of payments. It’s got this public utility aspect to it. It doesn’t require any type of interaction with large formalized institutions. It just works, has immediate finality. A lot of people when they are asked on the Central Bank’s surveys about why cash, there’s a kind of hierarchy of reasons why they prefer cash. One of the immediate ones is that you know the transactions done. So this concept of finality, this immediacy to the transaction. Another big one is budgeting purposes. So there’s a very, very big correlation between the use of cash and income levels. So, and there’s lots of interesting studies about this.
But cash basically slows down spending. And for people who are already on low incomes, this is important. So it’s in terms of… many people will cite it as an important budgeting tool. They know how much they have, they’re not getting into debt. And actually, one of the things that visa will actively market to businesses is that people will spend more with digital money, so they can spend up to 25% more actually, often. So in terms of going to that point about acceleration in economic systems, you spend more digital money systems on digital systems in general. So in terms of the overarching capitalism possible, more profit accumulation, digital systems were just far more ideologically aligned.
But there’s also a lot of… there are some people, like libertarians, who like the privacy aspect of cash, right. So this idea that you don’t need to watch what I’m doing. But as you know, many people like that. I’m in Germany right now, and Germany has a big historical tradition of valuing privacy. Especially in the context of the Stasi, lacks surveillance by states and sort of valuing financial privacy. So that’s one aspect, but also distrust of institutions. You’ll find very high cash usage in places where institutions are distrusted. So by contrast, in places where institutions are very highly trusted, you will find quite high digital payments.
So for example, in Sweden and Norway and places where basically everyone finds it massively surprising that you might distrust the banking sector or the state, this is where they sort of find it feel that it’s somehow obvious that you should want to transition and have been absorbed into large institutions. And you’ll see this in the States probably politically, I haven’t done any sort of detailed ethnographic research. But if I was guessing, I’m going to say, kind of like your urban yuppies are going to find digital payment systems, un-problematic because they’re sort of steeped in this institutional mentality.
You get easy access to credit, you’re basically viewed as a high status member of society. Whereas if you’re not in that demographic, you’re probably much more likely to use cash. And I’m imagining this goes from like your libertarian rancher doing farming through to your kind of ethnic minorities who don’t trust the banking sector who don’t feel that Bank of America represents them. So there’s lots of…
Scott Ferguson: Or they can’t afford the fee.
Brett Scott: Yeah, there’s also a bunch of these sort of more immediately practical things like the fact that some people can’t get these accounts or actually, they will get them on detrimental terms. But I think that’s fairly well known in some ways. But so in some ways, I push this idea about the sort of cultural dimensions more because it’s less thought about. In much of the debate around cash, you’ll find this idea that, at least in the mainstream, that if only people could get access to the digital systems, they would obviously want to transition to that. But they face barriers, and that’s the only reason why they don’t. Whereas I feel it’s important to push out this idea that actually within many parts of society, there’s an inherent distrust of formal banking institutions and so on.
And this is actually one of the things that’s going on underneath the surface if you think about gentrification. This is one of the things you immediately noticed with gentrification is gentrified places automatically are the ones that are most prone to being quote unquote “cashless”. AKA being dependent upon using very large corporations for their payments. So yeah, there’s lots of the sort of cultural dimension. I could go into this further, but you know there’s… does that resonate? Does that make sense?
William Saas: Totally.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah. Resonates.
William Saas: Yeah. And in what you’re describing with the certification, sounds like it’s probably very similar in most countries.
Brett Scott: I was on NPR Wisconsin a few days ago and it was quite interesting taking calls from listeners who called in and they said a lot of the stuff. The idea that the tangibility is important to me, the budgeting. Also fears about the system going down in length. This is one thing that’s seen in the States is quite important for weather events. This is you know, this is kind of the sort of black swan events. But a lot of people intuitively have this realization that offline forms of money are more resilient. And this is why this metaphor, which is a different metaphor now because the cash is the public bicycle system of payments, actually is very effective.
Because often what people are told when they’re being shamed for using cash is they’re told you’re using the horsecart of payments, you’re using this old stupid form, what’s wrong with it? Where as soon as you switch to this bicycle metaphor, suddenly it’s like, oh, this makes sense. Actually, bicycles are actually a pretty advanced form of transport, even though they’re technologically simpler than, say, the Uber system. And digital payments are very much like the Uber of payments. And I think this is like a great way to get people to think about this. There’s reasons why we value simple system operators because they just work.
William Saas: Do they have public bicycle systems in Wisconsin? I don’t think we have any down here in Louisiana.
Brett Scott: I don’t know. I mean.
William Saas: Sounds great.
Scott Ferguson: We have lots of privatized bikes…
William Saas: Yes, you can rent them. But you have to use a card usually.
Brett Scott: Yeah. But also what’s interesting about the cash system for me is politically, it actually appeals to a whole bunch of different players. So if you zoom out and look at the current state of global capitalism, there’s actually a sort of weirdly anti-capitalist element to the cash system. And what I mean by that is in an earlier phase of capitalist systems, cash would have been at the leading edge. It would have been the thing being used to expand market systems.
Scott Ferguson: This is why Marxists say they formulate their critique in terms of the Cash Nexus. The cash Nexus is like the cradle of evil.
Brett Scott: Imagine an early pre-capitalist society, and then there’s some kind of sovereigns trying to sort of move in. One of the first frontiers is going to be the issuance of these units of cash. That slowly infiltrate the communities and break down their local networks and integrate them into a larger economy. So it’s one point in time relation, yeah, the cash system would have been this on the frontiers of capitalism. But in the current phase, it’s this thing that slows it down. So in a weird way, it’s become this break upon the system. And in this context, it has a sort of anti-capitalist element, especially because it actually enables all the many sort of marginalized people in the system to participate without getting watched by the main institutions of capitalism.
So this is what’s called the black economy or whatever, the sort of the margins of the economy. So that’s one. So it has this kind of anti-capitalist part to it, but also from a centrist perspective, you speak to these various sort of like policy wonk types, they realize that the stability of the monetary system kind of depends upon people having access to government money. So this is a very center political argument. And then also on the right, you’ll find all this sort of nationalist type stuff, where it’s like, I want my national money, and I don’t want to, screw the banks, and give me the actual dollar and so on. And it’s quite fascinating from a political spectrum perspective, seeing who resonates.
William Saas: One of the things that I like, and I think it might be the final paragraph or so of your book, you sort of insist on and defend and advocate for cash precisely because it is dirty and inefficient. And you want to maintain the right to that sort of thing. And I love this idea of cash as anti-capitalist. Part of our project is at Money on the Left and Money on the Left Editorial Collective is to sort of recover democratic public potentials of money. And so I guess I want to say that one of the interesting things about reading your book and engaging with your work, is that it seems like you’re into that, too.
But you’re also– correct me if you think that I’m wrong– like somebody could read Cloud Money and think that you’re sort of after a post money world, you’re partisan for cash, you’re defending it. That’s not necessarily saying money itself is good and could be used and mobilized in an affirmative ways.
Scott Ferguson: And just to clarify, we’re not saying money is good.
William Saas: Oh, yeah.
Scott Ferguson: Or that the system now is good. But we’re saying that it is certainly not just flatly evil. And that it is a powerful and capacious medium for collective transformation and democratization.
Brett Scott: Bear in mind, I don’t have a sanctimonious take on monetary systems like many monetary… they’re are parts of the sort of monetary reform community who had this almost visceral sort of puritanical disgust about money and so on. I don’t have this at all. I see the world in contradictions. I understand that we’re stuck in systems that often we don’t quite know how we’ve ended up in these systems. And there’s trade-offs built into these systems. So for example, in large scale monetary systems, one of your trade offs is that you’ve increased the scale of your economy, and thereby actually gives you access to more and more stuff, but simultaneously increases your alienation, your distance from each person. And you can even imagine, the opposite of this is extremely small scale economies, where you might not even have monetary systems where you have very low amounts of stuff, because you’ve got very low labor pools we’ve connected together. But you have a very, very strong idea of who you are and where you are in the economy. If you picture your sort of quintessential hunter-gatherer type of setting you’re under no illusion as to what your position in that economy is and how you survive. Whereas of course, if you go to an extremely large scale economy, held together by large scale monetary systems, you’re in this much more sort of alienated state, and yet, you have access potentially, to incredibly high end things because you’re tapping into gigantic pools of global labor that you can’t see.
And this is a sort of contradiction we find ourselves in modern economies. And so I’m not really trying to say that we could live without the monetary system at all. But you know, kind of going back to the nervous system metaphor, there’s a part that didn’t actually make it into the book. That was extending the metaphor. Actually, it did make it in a little bit of a conclusion. But what am I arguing in terms of the cash system and the nervous system metaphor, as I say, in the human body, the nervous system is split into a central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is a realm of like the brain and like the spinal cord, it’s a very conscious part of you. Whereas the peripheral is a sort of well, as the name says, is peripheral, right.
And I’m kind of arguing that if we’re taking this metaphor, seriously, the financial sector, and all these kind of digital systems that are connected into it, are part of the sort of central system whereas the cash system can be understood as a the peripheral nervous system, is the movement of this money depends on the sort of person to person contact. Now, I don’t have to go deeply into that metaphor, but the basic idea is that if you’re interested in creating a balanced monetary system, you’ve got to think about how all these different parts intersect.
And if you think about alternative forms of money, like the mutual credit system that you’re mentioning, the sort of rippling credit systems or local currencies, you can almost imagine those as kind of an…I don’t want to go like too deeply into this nervous system metaphor, but part of the autonomous nervous system is kind of like semi autonomous things that like act by themselves, and I kind of like only partially integrated into the central system. And so I’m interested in future… to think about, okay how do you know, because what we call the “cashless society” would essentially be a type of system where you’re completely always plugged into the central system.
You’re always going by the banking sector, and the sort of big tech companies. And the cash system actually is maintaining this kind of lack the ability to stay out of that central system whilst remaining within the overarching economy. And that’s what’s kind of the political dynamic of it. But then in terms of the actual political message of the book, the main message is to protect the cash system. But there is a part of me that’s maybe this is for a different book, which is arguing for people to build different systems entirely the sort of like alternatives, and you know, I can go into those if you’d like me to.
Scott Ferguson: Well, maybe we’ll have you on again to talk about that future book. But I think we would be doing a disservice to this book if we didn’t ask you to talk about cryptocurrency. But so what’s your… Yes, crypto tokens, not currency. What’s your experience with crypto tokens? What’s your assessment of crypto tokens? And also, what are your thoughts about the recent cascading crashes in those crypto markets?
Brett Scott: Yeah, I mean, crypto, I could say so many things about crypto. Well, the first thing I’ll say is that actually I was involved in early, early Bitcoin back 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, which was quite a different time in the modern world where it was far more innocent in a sense. It hadn’t turned into a giant, grotesque, speculative marketing/grifter scene. It was an interesting moment to be in it. I kind of got involved in that, because I was… I’d written this other book, the other The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance that was coming out back in 2013. But I was interested in general in people’s attempts at building alternative forms of economy. And obviously, crypto was one of these attempts. So my inner anthropologist was really fascinated by this, and as you know, doesn’t have any potential. But what became very, very apparent to me, and that’s the crypto world or the Bitcoin world in particular, was that you had this sort of political problem, which was that the actual underlying technological architecture was quite radical.
The core technological feat is basically that it enables large networks of people who don’t know each other to coordinate action between themselves without a central player. Now, that politically is interesting. And actually, a lot of groups can agree that that’s interesting. And, in particular, it was about these people being able to issue tokens, or at least for the system to issue tokens. And then for them to be able to move those tokens between themselves. And this is where all the problems started to emerge, because that was a sophisticated technological architecture, but a very, very crude token system implemented on it. But many people who had no training in any kind of like monetary stuff, visually the token sort of like superficially resembled monetary system.
And actually, in many ways the imagination that Bitcoin is a monetary system was created through linguistic hacks and visual hacks. So the very term cryptocurrency was the first one of those, but the fact people just started calling it crypto currency. And journalists would report on it as if it was this currency. And then all the visual imagery that was pasted over it as being a monetary system, and many people just sort of took it for granted. They’re like “well, this is a new monetary system”. And what was particularly interesting with it, when it started getting $1 price, the thought of getting price, this in a way kind of just confirmed for people somehow that this was a monetary system, which is very, very fascinating. Because many things that have prices, people don’t perceive as money.
So it’s not like if I have a ceramic vase, and it gets a price on the market, I don’t fully think about it as a monetary system. But if I take that ceramic vase and I paint monetary imagery all over it, and make it very small and sort of like a disc shaped, suddenly you can be like, “well, it’s money, isn’t it?” And this is actually sort of psychologically literally what was happening in the Bitcoin world, you had these digital objects, which were kind of pasted with this monetary branding and which had a price, and which then superficially, kind of started to resemble a monetary system. And since then, I started writing this about how crypto counter trade works. I don’t know if you guys have sort of seen me doing that.
But it’s basically saying, well, what’s happening in the crypto markets is you basically have these digital objects that are created, that are then traded on speculative markets, and which get a price on those markets. And once I have a price, you can then swap them with other things that are prices. Which is essentially a way of clearing that sort of money priced things against each other which is counter trade. Now, if I did that with two objects that obviously weren’t money… so for example, if I took a $500 vase and I swapped it for a $500 guitar, nobody would say to me, “oh, the vase is a monetary system”.
What they would say is you’ve swapped something that’s worth $500 for something else that’s worth $500, implicitly, what you’ve done is you’ve sold the vase to the person who has the guitar, and then you’ve given them the money back to buy the guitar from them. So you’ve had these separate monetary transactions that have been superimposed over each other, giving rise to the barter-like scenario. Okay. I don’t know how clear that is. But that’s concentrated and the whole Bitcoin world works like that. And I know this, because I used to do. I used to buy, quote, unquote, “buy things” with Bitcoin. And this is exactly what you do. You take its current dollar price, compare it to the price of the thing you’re trying to, quote unquote, “buy”, and then you would work out the ratio from that. And this is countertrade.
And I think this is really, really fascinating actually, because what the Bitcoin system effectively is, is a type of parasite. It’s a kind of monetary parasite. And if we, you might want to think about the US dollar system as being like a host, in a sense. It can’t actually survive unless it has this pricing. The ones that have it, it’s able to sort of do the sort of money-like kind of thing within that system. And I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting design and in a way, that’s not even a critique. I’m sort of saying, well, kudos in a sense. You’ve designed a monetary parasite. That’s very interesting.
Scott Ferguson: But you can expand this out and say, from an MMT framework, at least, there are degrees of moneyness that exist in all kinds of credit systems. So we often will refer to airline miles, which have different degrees of receive ability and liquidity. So, to a certain extent, you can kind of de-exotisize size, if that’s even a word. De-exotisize crypto, it’s just sort of another, dependent system that depends on this larger system. And then it becomes a question of, but how does this system work? What are its values? What are its social and ecological consequences?
Brett Scott: In my newsletter, I do a lot of analysis of these different types of… if I’m looking at a voucher, for example, let’s say. Airline miles kind of have a sort of voucher-like vibe because they’re redeemable back for a particular thing. So let’s say I have a voucher for a store for a particular thing. Like, I don’t know, a Starbucks voucher or something. In a sense, it’s tethered into the actual monetary system, right? It’s like you and you kind of like it has an issuer, it has a redemption process. You know what you’re gonna get if you hand the voucher back, so it’s very easy to kind of integrate that, and it’s quite easy to describe how it works.
Scott Ferguson: And the production system, I think as well. It’s tethered into the production system of coffee and of airline vouchers.
Brett Scott: Vouchers are a credit system. There’s an issuer, there’s a redemption process, and particularly, maybe be able to transfer them. So all credit type systems or IOU type systems have this sort of three part process as an issuance process, some of the issues and out as a kind of promise, then they might be able to be transferred depending on what the nature is, and then they’re redeemed back for the thing that they can supposedly can get. Vouchers are like that. Bitcoin is nothing like that. There’s no ability to redeem Bitcoin. It doesn’t actually even have an issuer.
If you look at how it’s structured, what happens is you could sort of argue that the miners and the system are kind of like issuers. But they’re issuing it to themselves, they’re not issuing it as a liability. So what happens, they basically exert energy and then write out a number as an asset for themselves. So they’re basically… it’s literally numbers written out off the exertion of energy, which then are then branded in a particular way. But they’re written out as assets to the person who is successful at maintaining the system. And then it has no redeemability. There is no liability side to a Bitcoin token, it’s just this object. But it superficially has the visual appearance of what you would see in a bank account because it has this number.
So it kind of looks like a bank account, sort of, but it has no actual liability structure. So this is what’s quite interesting. So really, what it ends up being is it’s kind of like branded collectible. With the monetary price which you can swap for things and that does actually have a certain degree of moneyness in the sense of it’s highly swappable. So it’s actually quite like liquid in the way it moves around in a sense. So this is why Bitcoiners get very angry with me when I say it’s not a monetary system. And I don’t have any problem with that. I’m just like, well, it’s not used for pricing. And it very, very clearly… one of the easiest ways to sort of see this like… El Salvador is currently being used as an example of a place where Bitcoin is used.
But if you go into an El Salvadorian restaurant right now, I would love to see an El Salvadorian restaurant where they put up a fixed menu on the wall with fixed prices in Bitcoin for things. They won’t do this because actually the stuff there is priced in US dollars to work out the quote unquote “Bitcoin price”, they’re always gonna have to constantly check what the US dollar price of Bitcoin is, and then work out a countertrade ratio. So actually, if you go to eat a meal in this restaurant, the price of a meal, you’ll quote unquote, “Bitcoin price” of this meal will change constantly. Because the actual price is in US dollars and it’s constantly being refracted through Bitcoin. That’s a kind of complicated way of saying it. This is a very good example of… clearly the US dollar system is being used here. But you’re kind of disguising it via Bitcoin transaction.
Scott Ferguson: We actually have an episode of one of our other podcasts coming out that’s going to come out before this interview, actually, where we’re interviewing a professor and journalist named Ricardo Valencia, and he is reporting on this Bitcoin situation in El Salvador. And there are protests against this. The president of El Salvador is becoming increasingly authoritarian and wedding his authoritarian politics to this Bitcoin adoption. Bitcoin is not being adopted well in the country. They’re trying all kinds of things, like offering discounts to make it receivable, and people don’t use it. People don’t want it.
Brett Scott: I mean, he’s obviously heavily invested. And actually, it’s quite interesting. I mean, he’s an interesting character, because he’s clearly working the US libertarian scene to get forms of financing and funding, but, probably is doing it with a sort of… probably my intuition was well, we got nothing to lose, we might as well just try and work this angle. I think, in a sense, him aside, the Bitcoin community has quite a lot to lose from backing him.
And I think a lot of them sort of threw themselves into this kind of euphoria, it was like, “ah, it’s become a legal tender, it’s now the official money” and ignoring all these… not only the protests, but also the fact that in reality, it’s the US dollar that is being the actual… it’s happening since this countertrade process. But now it’s becoming politically difficult to the Bitcoin community, because the whole sort of rhetoric has always been around this like stateless money and this whole kind of thing. So the reality of backing this increasingly authoritarian leader is an interesting one.
Scott Ferguson: So do you have a read of the most recent failures in the crypto markets?
Brett Scott: Not really. Actually, I’ve kind of got bored about following all the specifics of it. A lot of my focus has been on critiquing the ideology of Bitcoin, because… and so the broader crypto scene is going out, a lot of people are being involved, and I know lots of people in it, but the actual sort of downturns I don’t follow. I used to work in financial markets. The way I often see these crypto tokens is in typical financial markets, you can do fundamental analysis, and you can do technical analysis. Fundamental analysis, you’re looking at the reality of something or trying to look at the reality of something and saying, “well, this is, this company is overvalued, for XYZ reason, they haven’t actually built the factory that they said they were going to build, nobody’s gonna buy their products”.
So you actually make these little arguments, but it’s actual prospects in the world. And then work out from the projected income streams, and you can sort of work out a theoretical price for a share. That’s a fundamental analysis. And then there’s technical analysis, which is like you watch what other people do, basically. Abstracted through graphs. But basically, technical analysis is just watching what other people in the market are doing. Now, whereas in the crypto world, often the only thing you can do is technical analysis. There’s no way to do fundamental analysis of these objects because they’re not redeemable for any particular thing.
They’re not legal claims upon anything. There’s no way to work out if they’re overvalued or undervalued. They’re just floating objects, which makes them highly prone to these breakdowns. So I’m never surprised when there’s like a massive spike in the price or crash in the price either. Precisely because they’re untethered to slack. But in terms of the stable coins that were breaking down recently, I suppose that’s a slightly different situation. But like yeah, I didn’t… What’s your take?
Scott Ferguson: I don’t have one. I appreciate your blase attitude. I think you you have your eye on the structural, larger anthropological, political, ideological,
Brett Scott: Gets boring.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, rather than following the roller coaster ride and pretending that that’s actually…
Brett Scott: I think what’s probably the best way to analyze it is probably through religious studies. Or like, yeah, a lot of what’s happening in the crypto markets is you have these… And I think there’s interesting sociological ways of analyzing it that are far more interesting than trying to have some economic analysis of why the price has gone up or down. There’s many, many people who feel sort of forms of existential despair in the world who have come to believe that somehow the crypto thing represents some way to escape that and then engage in this fantasy where you can make returns whilst also bringing down the system somehow. So no, actually I empathize with that to some extent.
There’s part of me that has a certain degree of empathy for people who are caught up in it. Because I have a lot of friends who are caught up in it and they can see this as hope where you can engage in political activism through speculation.
Scott Ferguson: And there’s also a lot of pain and suffering. There are suicides. There are people losing a lot of state money.
Brett Scott: Yeah, and the main concern in the crypto world because… look, bear in mind that speculation has been going on for a very long time of the capitalist system, this has nothing particularly new. And so I could do a critique of speculation. But I’m not that interested in doing that. Other people can critique the mentality of speculation, it’s well established as a phenomenon within capitalist societies as people trying to get rich quick and escape their situations and so on, whatever. My main concern is that in the process of marketing the speculative objects, a particular narrative about money is projected into society. So the Bitcoin community, those objects… the Bitcoin tokens are not actually a monetary system.
They’re this collectible, almost like digital medallions branded as money with a monetary price. But in order to get them to compete upon a market against other assets, like shares, or whatever else you could potentially buy with your disposable income, the proponents of it have to market it as a competing monetary system. So its marketing pitch is that some are competing against the dollar. And in order to market that story, they have to create this conservative story about money where they sort of say, money should be this constrained thing, this commodity that’s held taut and rigid. And so it has a sort of weird, puritanical, hard money ideology that goes along with it, which is very heavily associated with libertarian ideology.
Which is all about engaging in the fantasy that markets exist independently of states. Which requires this fantasy of apolitical money. But you have to have this… the monetary system is somehow natural. And markets are natural, and the states a parasite upon the market, rather than the thing that actually underpins the market with monetary systems. So a lot of the sort of fantasies in the crypto world are about projecting this conservative notion of money, which my concern is that the debt then becomes a big… that’s become the foundation or mandatory training for young people right now.
Interestingly, the MMT movement is one of the counter narratives in terms of like trying to create a different narrative around money, but there’s lots of 16 year olds right now who basically sitting on crypto forums because they believe it’s technologically exciting, and so on, who sort of imbibing like Murray Rothbard, and stuff like that. You know, if you think about if you’re a conservative strategist from the 19th century, you will like be like, “wow, this is like a really amazing way of projecting ideas into society without actually having the monetary system disrupted”. So it really empowers the Conservatives within the ordinary monetary system. So that’s my concern. Long answer, sorry.
William Saas: No, that’s perfect. I love the fundamental versus technical analysis. And I think that that’s… it’s almost like if you have the fundamental mental analysis that I think we all share here, then it sort of makes the technical analysis irrelevant. It’s like okay, this is just going to be a carnival. It’s something to watch. And people are gonna suffer. But they have… there are contending fundamental analyses that do kind of seem to… I don’t know, I guess you can be suspicious here and wonder how many people are actually invested in the fundamental analysis that would enable them to think cryptocurrency is actually a viable alternative to existing monetary systems. What’s your read on how many people are actually sort of wedded to that now versus at the sort of speculation side if we’re not going to speculate about speculation.
Brett Scott: Well, I think it’s contradictory because… actually I actually wrote this piece for CoinDesk, which is one of the big crypto publications, possibly the biggest one, actually. And that CoinDesk actually has… there’s a couple of editors there who actually are quite reasonable, critical and want more critical voices. And I did this piece was just called How to Win a Bitcoin Street Fight. And it was based on the old arcade game Street Fighter. And I basically talked about walking into an arcade, an old arcade game. There’s on the one side, you got Street Fighter on the other side, you have Mortal Kombat now to old school like fighting games, and each one has its own universe. Each one has its own like characters in it. All right, so you know, Street Fighter has… I forget the names of the different people.
William Saas: Ken, Ryu, Blanka.
Brett Scott: Yeah, exactly right. And then you know, more you can do Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat got Raiden and all these other characters. But once you pick a game you can’t use a player from one of them in the other game. So they were sort of sitting in separate paradigms, and they’re in their own universes. And I think in the Bitcoin world, you find this a lot of the argumentation is based on this sort of trickery, paradigm switching trickery. Because on the one hand, it’s marketed as being that who it’s competing against is the dollar. So this is like the monetary story. So this is like one arcade game, right? That it’s like somebody’s competing monetary system. On the other hand, it’s marketed as an asset within a monetary system that has a monetary price that you could trade to get more money. And in that sense, it’s actually competing against things like the Gamestop shares, or the world or whatever else. Because if I’m spending my $5,000 in savings on Bitcoin, I’m not spending it on Gamestop shit, right? So they’re in a sense competing each other.
But what happens in the crypto world is that they often try to blend those two arguments together. They’ll say things like, “well, when the price of the asset is rising, it’s a symbol that in the future, it will sort of invert and become the monetary system”. Which is… I’m like, how did you work that out when other things rise in markets, that doesn’t mean that becomes a monetary system. So there’s lots of this sort of justification. And because the actual object being traded has monetary imagery branded over it, it’s quite easy to actually sit with that cognitive dissonance. And many people in the world constantly sit in the state of cognitive dissonance, where they have a sort of almost millenarian story that at some point, it will invert, and everything will become priced in it.
But in the meantime, we’re trading it for US dollars, and clearly perceiving it in terms of US dollars. And when I say this will happen, you’ll meet some of the hardcore Bitcoiners will be set will say stuff like, “well, I price everything in Bitcoin”. And I’ll be like, well, it’s interesting, because those prices will be constantly fluctuating, right? And what often will say to them is if I’m sitting by a tornado, and there’s like things flying around the tornado, you know, whatever it is… people’s bits of debris, I can psychologically choose to believe that actually, the tornado is flying around the pieces of debris.
I could imagine the pieces of debris being like fixed points and then perceiving the tornado flying around. But that’s like a mental illusion. You can choose to believe that everything is priced in Bitcoin, but it’s a total mental illusion, right? It’s actually priced in the dollar. And if you’re just choosing to try and see it in this way. And this is a lot of what’s going on in that community. Just another metaphor there.
Scott Ferguson: Well, I think that’s a really… let’s finish this conversation on that mind whittling metaphor. Where do our listeners find you? Where Where should they look for you?
Brett Scott: Well, my newsletter is BrettScott.substack.com. Altered States of Monetary Consciousness. My book is Cloud Money: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets. And my Twitter handle is @SuitPossum: S-U-I-T P-O-S-S-U-M. I always get asked how that one came about.
Scott Ferguson: Are you gonna tell us?
Brett Scott: It’s kind of a weird story. I had a musical act, Apocalyptic Possum and then from that a nickname developed called Soul Possum for me. And then when I went to work in the financial sector, I had this girlfriend at the time who said, “now you’re super awesome”. So that’s how it developed but when people see it nowadays, I have no idea what it is. It’s just weird…
Scott Ferguson: Right. That’s great. Well, now all the Money on the Left listeners who have made it to the end of this interview are all cued in. Well, thanks.
Brett Scott: Thanks a lot. Nice chat.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)