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[Table] I am Antony Davies, associate professor of Economics at Duquesne University, columnist, and sometime tech entrepreneur. AMA!

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Date: 2013-05-22
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What say you about the Austrian School of Economics? As an econometrics guy, you don't seem to have that in common, but you have seemingly come to largely the same conclusions, i.e. free markets, free trade, etc. I am new to Austrian economics. I got all the way through undergraduate and PhD work and had never heard of Hayek, Mises, or Rand. When I finally heard the Austrian perspective, I was amazed -- using philosophical tools, the Austrians reach the same conclusions that I reached using econometric tools. I believe economics should be taught, at the undergraduate level, from an Austrian perspective. The graphs and equations that populate the standard undergraduate texts speak only to small subset of students. The Austrian approach, however, speaks to a broad audience and provides a solid intuitive understanding of economics that is very difficult to get from a picture.
What specific public policy change in the US do you think would most benefit society in the short and long term? What the US needs to do is something like the following (I've run the numbers, so what I'm about to say is approximately correct)...
(1) Cut federal spending by 10%. If you want to avoid cutting something (e.g., Social Security), then cut something else by more, but the total must come out to a 10% cut. (2) Hold spending constant (no adjustments for inflation) for four years. (3) At the end of year 5, we'll have a balanced budget. From that point forward, the growth in government spending must not exceed the growth in real GDP.
Why would getting a balanced budget help us in the short term? The problem is the debt. As it continues to grow, we approach a point at which the interest payments eat so much of our tax revenue that there is little money left to do the things government needs to do.
Balancing the budget would cause the debt to stop growing.
The CBO estimates that in the next decade, interest payments as a percent of GDP will be no higher than it was during the Bush years. Tell me again why getting a balanced budget will help us in the short term? I've done an analysis of historical CBO forecasts. Of the available 170+ times they have forecasted, they overestimate tax revenues 75% of the time, underestimate spending 80% of the time, and underestimate the debt 90% of the time.
Thank you for all the work you do over at Learn Liberty and for doing this AMA. I don't agree. Sometimes, the economy is like a tube of toothpaste. The government can push down on one end and all that happens is that the other end bulges. In this case, there is no question that the bailout saved jobs in Detroit and saved us the immediate pain of car companies and their suppliers and finaciers going bankrupt.
Today, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the financial and automotive industry bailouts bailouts averted an even worse crisis and saved us from an awful depression. However, what the bailout ultimately did was to keep a large chunk of our scarce resources tied up in industries that have demonstrated their inability to use those resources in the best possible way. So, a decade or two or three from now, we're going to be right back to the dealing with the same problem because we didn't address the disease. We addressed the symptom.
What is your position on the bailouts? And what do you believe would have happened if they had not been implemented? Think of it as a law of conservation of economic pain. The government can't make the pain of wasted resources go away -- it can only shift the pain to the future.
I've seen some of your videos concerning the national debt/budget deficits. What's your prediction on the outcome? Will we see any policy changes before it's 'too late'? And what does it look like when it is, in fact, 'too late'? High inflation? Hyperinflation/currency crisis? A major change in the way government works? I'll give you my personal prediction, though I'm not yet comfortable enough in it to write about it in the press.
I predict the following sequence of events: (1) The economy begins to pick up and the Fed, fearing inflation, starts to let interest rates rise; (2) The federal government -- the largest borrower in the U.S. -- can't afford higher interest payments, so it puts pressure on the Fed to hold interest rates low; (3) Some compromise is reached and the result is a mix of some increase in interest rates and some inflation; (4) Let simmer for a while; (5) Government spending reaches a point that there is no option left by monetizing the deficit (i.e., the Fed prints money to fund deficit spending); (6) The dollar ceases to be the global reserve currency; (7) We start to talk about replacing the dollar with a New Dollar.
As a liberal type of guy I often look at talk of hyperinflation and debt crises in general as a lot of hot air. However, I also understand theoretically how extreme debt can cause a number of problematic issues, including high levels of inflation. What are some real world examples of Western/Industrialized economies that succumbed (or almost succumbed) to hyperinflation in the post-WWII era? Think of borrowing and saving as moving consumption and income across time. When I borrow, what I am really doing is consuming now money I will earn in the future. When I save, what I am really doing is consuming later money I earn now.
When a country does this, it is transferring the consumption and income of the taxpayers across time. So, by accumulating $16 trillion in debt, what the US has really done is to take $16 trillion of consumption away from future taxpayers and give it to today's taxpayers. IMHO, that's an extreme example of taxation without representation.
How would you look at the returns on that $16 trillion dollar consumption? Like surely our military spending, infrastructure or any spending now, has a return for the citizens down the road. You are correct, sometimes it is better to borrow and buy things now because the benefit we get from having the things now outweighs the cost of paying for them later. For an individual, college loans are a good example. For a country, military spending is probably a good example. There are probably others.
There is a serious difference, however, between the decision the individual faces and the decision the country faces. The individual compares the benefit of consuming now to the cost of paying later and judges whether to borrow or to save. At a country level, we can't do the same thing because the people who borrow are not the people who are paying back. It would be like your neighbor deciding whether he should borrow to buy a new car, knowing that he would be able to use the force of law to require you to pay back the money he borrowed.
Professor Davies, Thanks for taking time to do this AMA! What do you think current Federal monetary policy & financial law says about citizenship in America today? Duties? Expectations? Allowed Behavior? It seems to me that the duty of an American citizen is to respect other people's property rights (I use the term "property" broadly to include not just people's objects but their lives and well-beings). To that end, anyone who is willing to come here and so live should be considered a citizen.
If you could automatically remove one United states policy what would it be and why? Also if you could make one United states policy what would it be and why? As a homerun, I would remove the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. As a second best, I'd repeal the 17th Amendment so that Senators would be appointed by the state legislatures. A third idea I've been wondering about recently is how things would be different if the states appointed the Supreme Court Justices -- e.g., election by the fifty state governors.
A freshman econ major here, just so you know. I've noticed in some of your articles you've been critical of Obama's economic policies, notably his stimulus package. However, it seems you fail to address some of the benefits of the stimulus, such as its investment in human capital and the effect it had on aggregate demand and consequently the recession as a whole. Taking these into account, doesn't it lend some merit to Obama's decision? Furthermore, do you believe that the economy would be better off now if Obama had gone with austerity instead? The question is never does a policy have positive effects (which is the way politicians describe policies), but rather, do the positive effects of a policy outweigh the negative effects of that policy. I tell my students that economists don't care about individuals. What I mean by that is, economic policy is not designed for individuals but for the economy as a whole. So, when an economist thinks about policy, he has to think about the effect on the economy as a whole.
If people measured one's preferred form of governance on a scale of 0 to 100 (0= anarchy, 100= dictatorship), what would be your number? My preference is 0, though I could live comfortably with the 1 to 10 range.
On a scale of one to ten, how dumb are you? On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you need me to pay your phone bill this month?
Do you think that financial crisis like the fall of the banks is an intrinsic part of a growth based economy, or was that just a hiccup that we can fix? And if we can fix it, what steps should we take to make sure that doesn't happen again? The financial crisis was very much the result of government intervention. Since the 1970s, Congress has been pressuring banks to extend loans to low-income and risky borrowers. The banks (because they had to bear the cost of failed loans) largely resisted. That all changed when Congress ordered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to ramp-up.
The way it is supposed to work is that banks have a profit motive to loan money and a loss motive to avoid loaning money to people who won't pay it back.
Here's how it did work. Banks would lend money to people. FM and FM would immediately buy the mortgages from the banks. End result: The banks had still had a profit motive to loan money to people, but they no longer had the loss motive to avoid loaning money to risky people. By purchasing the loans, FM and FM took the risk away from the banks. Since FM and FM were backed by the US government, that risk got foisted on taxpayers.
The end result was predictable. Notice that the problem wasn't greed. Banks were greedy before. The problem was that the government removed the penalty for greed (loan defaults) so as to encourage banks to make loans that they otherwise would not have made.
What do you think about the role of "Bitcoin" in society? Bitcoin is absolutely the right idea. It is an easily stored and exchanged currency that can't be inflated. It also has the astoundingly beautiful property of being untraceable. If bitcoin (or something like it) takes hold, it will be a huge blow to government controls everywhere.
As far as I know, it isn't strictly untraceable. Also, the exchange rates can still wildly fluctuate, as we have recently seen with the popping of a bitcoin bubble. How do we know that it is the value of the bitcoin that is wildly fluctuating or the value of the dollar? :)
Do you view taxation as a necessary evil? Wow. That's a hard question. Any tax that pays for something that could otherwise be provided by the private sector is probably an evil tax. So, school taxes are evil. Transportation taxes are probably evil.
So, I suppose the question boils down to, "is there anything the government does that could otherwise be provided by the private sector?" I don't know. I think of myself as a "soft anarchist." By that, I mean, while I'm not ready to say that we can survive without government, I haven't yet heard a compelling argument as to why we do need government.
Do you count the national defense as something that could otherwise be provided by the private sector? Private companies already can fulfill many if not most functions of our military. Probably not. However, the "we need government because we need national defense" argument ends up being circular. (1) I need government because I need an army. (2) But, I only need an army to protect me from your army. (3) You are able to have an army because you have a government. Conclusion: The purpose of government is to protect you from government.
What would you say is the book that everyone should read to understand economics? I always recommend The Armchair Economist (Landsburg, Freedom Press) and Eat the Rich (O'Rourke). The former can be read as individual chapters; the latter is a narrative. Both are excellent.
Will the dollar collapse? And if so, when and why? Also, what are your thoughts on the origin of natural rights?? Most explanations I've read from people like Locke tend to explain it through God which seems like a cop out to me. There are good arguments for the origin of natural rights that don't invoke God. Being a theist, I find the ones that do invoke God more satisfying. I find the philosophical discussion fascinating, but I'm not adept enough to be able to reproduce it.
1) Do you think Keynesian multipliers ever exceed 1? I haven't done the calculations myself, but I've seen estimates in studies that range all the way down to less than one. I'm not a fan of the multiplier, but in its defense, it has been abused by politicians. Politicians quote Keynes' prescription for increasing government spending so as to spur economic growth. But they don't quote Keynes' next statement which is, after the economy picks up, return government spending to its original level.
2) What are your thoughts on the Chicago School vs. the Austrian School? I dislike the idea of "schools." It gives the impression of mutually exclusive sets. There's a lot in the "Chicago school" that is good, so too in the "Austrian school." There's also error in both. My tendency is to approach economics from the Austrian school because the Austrians begin with a first principle (people own themselves), and then construct subsequent principles by applying logic to the first principle. I like that approach.
3) There is quite a bit of derision in the /Economics sub about the Austrian school as being outdated and not quantifiable. What would you say in response to that criticism? I disagree. My training is in econometrics and I find a wealth of quantifiable stuff in Austrian economics.
Do you think cutting entitlement spending could ever be politically viable? There seems to be entire blocks of voters who base their entire vote on 'don't touch my medicare'. The interesting thing here is that whether it becomes politically viable is moot. We are going to reach a point (my guess is not sooner than 5 years nor later than 20) at which it becomes mathematically impossible to continue entitlement spending as it is now. At that point, it won't matter whether there is a political will to cut spending any more than it matters whether there is a political will for gravity to pull downward.
What single math principle would you want all politicians to understand? I believe the problem isn't understanding but communication. I would want no politician to offer something to voters without clearly defining the costs. For example, to ask, "Do you want the government to provide you with health insurance?" is (to many people) a no-brainer. But the question doesn't capture the reality of what's being asked. What's really being asked is, "Do you want the government to provide you with health insurance in exchange for lower quality health care and increased unemployment?"
What got you into economics? My mother. She told me to study it. Always listen to your mothers.
What is the most mind-blowing economic fact/theory that you know? Link to www.antolin-davies.com
Have any post WWII Western/post-industrial economies collapsed as a result of debt or inflation? Not to my knowledge, though Cyprus and Greece might become the first examples.
Hello Dr. Davies, what are your thoughts on the Gold Standard? Any system that holds the supply of money relatively constant is good. It doesn't have to be gold. A water standard or a land standard might work just as well. Many advocates of the gold standard go awry when they claim that we need a gold standard because gold is inherently valuable and we need something with inherent value to back the dollar.
This is incorrect. The reason a gold-backed dollar has value isn't because it is backed by gold. It has value because you can hand it to a bartender and he'll give you a beer.
Would prosecuting the ring leaders of the biggest banks, or breaking the too big to fail banks up have a significant impact on the economy? Or is Holder just lying...again? The ring leaders were Congress and the Federal Reserve. Absolutely, banks were acting like corner drug pushers. But it was Congress and the Fed that were the drug cartel.
Do you think the national debt can be repaid without heavy inflation to reduce its effective size? No. For the moment, it is political impossible. In about five or ten years, it will become mathematically impossible.
Which economic school do you lean towards more? Chicago? Austrian? Austrian -- no question.
Whose your favorite George Mason Economic Professor and why? Rob Raffety. He adjuncts in the law school and was a student of mine as an undergrad.
What do you like best about your job? Variety. It's most of the joy of being self-employed without the risk. Probably only half of the educating I do now is done in the classroom. The rest is via videos, opeds, invited lectures, and venues like this. It's gotten even more interesting in the past couple of years as people seem to be waking up to classical liberal thought.
Regarding public policy, what is your stance on immigration? What is your utopia with respect to immigration, and then what kinds of reforms should Congress seek that are practical with today's government and/or society? Peaceful people should be allowed to cross boarders freely. Immigration is really a violation of your economic freedom. Suppose I own a house and a person from Mexico wants to buy it. Were it not for immigration law, we could come to an agreement and freely transact the exchange. When the government prevents the person from coming into the country, it has the same effect as telling me to whom I can and cannot sell my property.
If you had the chance to scrap our tax system, would you? what system would you go to? Absolutely. I'd replace it with an 18% consumption tax -- no exceptions. I'd also accompany it with a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Historically, regardless of tax rates, the government collects total revenue equal to about 18% of GDP. So this tax would generate the same revenue as the government has now. The balanced budget amendment would force politicians to make tradeoffs among spending rather than tradeoffs between spending and tax increases.
What is your response to criticisms of the Austrian School of economics? Also, should children be a part of the free market? Do infants have self-ownership? I would also like to know if you have any responses to this or this. To my knowledge, no philosophical system has yet been able to deal with the "children" question. A philosopher friend of mine once said that parents don't own children, they own the right to parent the children. The way I explain it to my own children is that I make for them the decisions I believe they would make for themselves if they had my knowledge and experience.
Professor I have a question for you. I'm Braziliand and we have a conditional assistance program. We don't give welfare to everyone, in fact the only welfare people get is through work, but we do have free healthcare. Technically, you don't have free healthcare. Rather than paying hospitals for healthcare, you pay the government and the government pays the hospitals.
Anyway we have a program that distributes between 20-80 dollars per family below the poverty line, which is substantial for many of them, and costs a bit more than our outrageous senate. I'm usually skeptical of inequality concerns though not of poverty concerns. No one every died of inequality, but far too many people die of poverty.
Link to en.wikipedia.org. I believe that every person has a moral obligation to care for the poor. But to coerce action is to remove the moral component. If a government forces its people to care for the poor, then you have indeed fed the poor, but the feeding is not a moral act since moral actions require free will.
As it turns out these people spend this money in their local environment, local stores, local markets, in the poorer neighborhoods. So, while I can think of several effective ways the government could use its coercive power to fight poverty, I could not say that any of them are legitmate.
Isn't this a legitimate tool for social mobility and a mini-stimulus package which does wonders for the people? I am quite fond of Hayek's theories but in my country we have such an absurd social inequality that initiatives like these make perfect sense to me. One effective way is a negative tax. That is, everyone pays a fixed percentage of their income and everyone receives a fixed check from the government. For example, suppose we all paid 10% of our incomes in tax and received $10,000 from the government. A person with no job would pay $0 in taxes and receive a $10,000 check. A person who earned $200,000 would pay $20,000 and receive a $10,000 check.
econometrics? I've just started a job in econometric modeling so I would love a good reference! The gold-standard is Econometrics by William Greene, but it is extremely heavy mathematically. You need a solid background in linear algebra to get through it.
What do you think of the transaction tax? specifically Link to thetransactiontax.org. One great danger with a tax like this is that if we don't amend the Constitution to get rid of the income tax at the same time that we enact a transactions tax, we will end up with both.
A potential problem is that a transactions tax (as opposed to a sales tax) might require the government to monitor transactions as opposed to sales. I'm not overly comfortable with that.
So let's say we must cut government spending. IMO we should cut off federal funding for states that vote against spending, since they want smaller government. This would probably start with farm subsidies to mid-western states like OK. The free market will provide America with enough food right? What would you cut first? If you're concerned that we won't have enough food because we aren't subsidizing farmers, fear not. We are already paying a lot for our food, but we pay in two forms. One is payment to the farmers when we buy stuff. The other is payment to the government so it can subsidize farmers. Without the subsidies, farmers would get less money from the government and so might have to charge us more. But we would not be paying the government to pay farmers and so our total cost might not be that different. IOW, removing subsidies is less about how. Much we pay farmers than how we pay farmers.
Glad to catch ya mr. davies! Just quick question: If America were to legalize every drug and regulate said drugs, how do you think this would effect the economy? Putting aside drugs that are instantly addictive (they are a problem because they call into question whether the person has freedom of choice), the government would spend a lot less because we wouldn't have a huge portion of our society locked up. Those people who are locked up for drug offenses would then be free to work -- that would be a huge increase in a valuable resource. All told, I believe that economic growth would accelerate.
What are your thoughts on Distributism? I don't know much about it. I understand that it derives from Catholic social thought. CST is often (IMHO) abused by statists. For example, the directive that we have a responsibility to care for the poor is usually interpretted as a call to government intervention. But the Church doesn't say the government has a responsibilty to care for the poor. It says we have a responsibility to care for the poor.
One way to find common ground between Catholic social thought and classical liberal thought is to think of CST not as recipe for how to fix society but as a description of how a fixed society would look.
As someone who just graduated with a bachelors in Economics/ Int'l Business, what do feel is the current atmosphere for new hires? Any specific sector standing out to you? I have an interview with a company in ATL this coming August. I tell my students that employers don't need you to know how to do things. They'll teach you what you need to do. Employers need you to know how to think clearly and communicate concisely. To that end, emphasize your skills in mathematics, statistics, logic, speaking, and writing, and you'll find employers across a broad range of industries will be interested in you.
Where are the checks and balances on deregulated capitalism? At what point does the free market and the desire to maximize profit influence unethical behavior that may impede on the personal liberties of others (i.e. prison profiteering, military contractors, disaster capitalism)? "Deregulated" is a misnomer. All industries are regulated. The question is whether they are regulated by consumers freely choosing to hand over their dollars for the things the industry produces, or regulated by bureaucrats and politicians.
Is it true that this year’s deficit is greater than the total taxable income of Americans earning more than $100,000? Not greater than their taxable income, but about equal to the amount of taxes they paid. This year's numbers are still in flux. I believe that last year's deficit was around $1.1 trillion. The latest breakdown of federal tax receipts by income group was for 2009. In that year, everyone earning $100,000 and up paid a combined (approximately) $1.2 trillion in federal income, payroll, capital gains, estate, etc. taxes.
I'm confused by your philosophy on too big to fail. You seem to think congress is to blame for our current economic crisis. But I see congress as more of a symptom of institutions being to big to fail. Congress is paralyzed because the institutions have become so powerful that they control congress. If the institutions were smaller they would not have as much clout over congress. Can you comment on this? I believe you have the causality backward. The problem isn't that institutions are so large that they can control Congress. The problem is that Congress has become so powerful that it is worth controlling.
What's your opinion on the Rogoff/Reinhart situation, and did it cause you to change your philosophy? I haven't read the paper. My understanding is that it was a calculation error that changed the results quantitatively but not qualitatively.
Who do you think was the most handsome economist in history? Lord Acton had a rockin beard. Jeffrey Tucker has a rockin tie.
Y...you think that it's a good idea to repeal the 17th amendment? The point (prior to the 17th) was to encourage separation of power between the federal government and the states by making the Senate answerable to the states.
Hello Mr.Davies, As someone who knows nothing about economics and business (I am a welder), what is the best way to break into such fields of work? Education is a must I assume, but are certain universities more valued? Which degrees or majors are more in demand? Are there specific things to learn, do, or specialize in to stand out? How do mentor ships work? How can I meet a mentor and build a relationship with them? Normally, you'd need a bachelors degree in economics at the least. Typically jobs that carry the title "economist" (as opposed to "analyst") require a minimum of a masters degree. If you want to try and break in without getting the formal degrees, you'd need to be extremely good at higher level statistics (e.g., I'd recommend two semesters of stats, one of econometrics, one of advanced econometrics), mathematics (e.g., minimum calculus II), and basic economic theory (e.g., intermediate micro, intermediate macro). Your writing skills would also have to be top notch. Without the degree, you'd also need a goodly piece of luck because it will be hard to convince an employer to take a chance.
Dr. Davies: Given the the United States has previously held a price floor on wages slightly higher than 30% of GDP/hour worked with no significant disemployment effects, (late 1960s) and Canadian minimum wages are currently in the 20-23% range, and yet manages a higher 16-64 employment rate than that of the United States, can you tell me if you believe that an increase in the minimum wage from 12% to 15%, as the President proposed, would have significant disemployment effects, and if so why? I don't know what "no significant disemployment effects" means. The right way to measure the effect of the minimum wage is to compare the unemployment rate at various points in time with the relative minimum wage (i.e., the minimum wage as a ratio of the average hourly wage) at those points in time.
You can see that comparison here: Link to www.antolin-davies.com
Why do you feel comparing the minimum wage to the average hourly wage is correct? Won't that make attempts to suppress wages generally appear as though the minimum wage is higher in real terms than it would otherwise be? It's the correct measure because what is important is the degree to which the minimum wage is distorting the price of labor. For example, if the average free market wage is $10 an hour, I would expect that a minimum wage of $11 an hour won't have much effect. However, if the average free market wage is $5 an hour, I would expect that a minimum wage of $11 an hour would have a huge effect. Conclusion: What matters is the ratio of the minimum wage to the average wage.
Why would you refer to the labour market, a market characterized by weak monopsony and employer-enforced information asymmetry, as a free market? You are correct. I am using the average market wage as a proxy for the free market wage. It's not perfect, but for our purposes isn't a bad proxy.
Is it pronounced "Du-shane" or "Dju-kane"? Du-Kane.
Is Grove City College a good school? I have no first hand knowledge of the college. I know some of their students and faculty and none has ever failed to impress me as good and intelligent.
I think he's saying that there is still an inflection point where debt/GDP ratio causes negative growth. It might not be at 90%, but it will certainly still exist at some point. You are correct.
Last updated: 2013-05-26 17:05 UTC
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