Nouriel Roubini Versus Blockchain: Notes from the Senate Floor

Normally, there is very limited room for drawing legitimate comparisons between a Senate hearing and an Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight. Yet the hearing entitled “Exploring the Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Ecosystem,” which took place on October 11, 2018 on the US Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs’ floor, definitely bore quite a few similarities to a hyped sporting event that had made big waves just a few days ago. Two witnesses who were brought to testify on issues and promises of crypto stood by polarising views on the subject matter, albeit they expressed these views with varying intensity.

On the pro-crypto side, there was Peter Van Valkenburgh, Director of Research at Coin Center, a reserved yet very articulate speaker. In the opposite corner, there was Nouriel Roubini. Roubini or “Dr. Doom”, whose reputation is mainly founded on the prediction of the 2008 housing bubble crash, would be the fighter who does trash talking. In the buildup to the hearing, he fired a long series of vehement tweets, bashing blockchain and its supporters, picking local fights and bragging about having debated best crypto gurus and “beating them by a wide margin”.

Into the hearing

Chairman Mike Crapo, a Republican Senator from Idaho, opened the proceedings with a statement that gave a nod to Bitcoin’s unique status as the first ever digital asset, and highlighted how the bulk of the latest news on crypto has been negative, including falling prices and regulatory woes. Ranking member Sherrod Brown of Ohio weighed in to point out that it was almost Bitcoin’s tenth anniversary, yet the space is still rife with fraud and misconduct, while tangible applications are scarce. He mentioned regulatory issues and referenced the famous statement by Jay Clayton, the chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the recent report by the Attorney General of New York that was anything but complementary to biggest crypto exchanges. Brown implied, however, that blockchain could be potentially useful for improving the lives of the unbanked and underserved.

Roubini’s testimony

In his speech, the New York University professor followed rather closely the rambling argument presented in his 30-page written statement. In addition to a constellation of derogatory terms – it is quite likely that for many senators this became the first encounter with terms like ‘shitcoin’ – Roubini developed several central talking points that he would reiterate dogmatically throughout his testimony and on to the Q&A session. He argued that the whole crypto ‘asset class is imploding’ now, following the steep decline of prices compared to late 2017, and educated senators on the study that identified 80 percent of initial coin offerings (ICOs) in the same year as scams. He added that digital assets are useless as currency, since they are unable to serve as unit of account, means of payment, or store value.

A recurrent theme in Roubini’s account was superiority of centralized payment systems to blockchain-based ones. Several times he brought up the claim that the Bitcoin network’s throughput is only five transactions per second, while Visa can process up to twenty-five thousand transactions per second. Other attacks included assertions that ‘nobody uses it for transactions,’ except for criminals and terrorists, while mining is an ‘environmental disaster.’

Roubini also offered a rather unconventional view of what constitutes the realm of fintech. He claimed that, indeed, there is a revolution in the financial services industry currently going on, yet it has nothing to do with blockchain. Instead, it is allegedly powered by artificial intelligence, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT), and displays in proliferation of centralized digital payment systems.

Meanwhile, the crypto libertarian dream of total decentralization is ‘utter nonsense.’ In fact, Roubini claims, ‘crypto land’ is subject to the opposite trend: heavy centralization of mining - which is apparently controlled mainly by Chinese and Russian oligopolies, trading at the hands of centralized exchanges that are ‘hacked daily’, and development reserved for a narrow tech elite that arbitrarily changes code and forks coins whenever things go wrong.

Against this background, massive manipulation permeates the ‘crypto land,’ where pump & dump schemes, spoofing, and insider trading call the shots. In Roubini’s view, stable coins exist for the sole reason of manipulation; security tokens break all security laws, and utility tokens pave the way back to the Stone Age, where barter was prevalent. According to Roubini, even the “Flintstones knew better,” as they used clams as a universal currency.

Finally, corporate permissioned ledgers received their fair share of beating: according to Roubini, they are no more than ‘glorified databases,’ and they have no relation to the concept of blockchain.

Van Valkenburgh’s testimony

Right after Roubini’s furious charge, a composed account that Coin Center’s Van Valkenburgh delivered sounded almost soothing. The crypto advocate decided not to overcomplicate things, and dedicated a huge share of his time to explaining what Bitcoin is, what it does, and why is it revolutionary. Unlike cash, which only works face-to-face, Bitcoin is the world’s ‘first globally accessible public money.’ It is not yet ‘perfect or stable,’ yet it is working. Similar to the early years of the internet, the technology is full of loopholes and inefficiencies, but this is by no means a reason to abandon it.

Various kinds of human interactions, Van Valkenburgh maintained, are riddled with state or corporate chokepoints. Like the internet had removed such chokepoints from the realm of communication, blockchain’s promise is to do away with single points of failure that are inherent to other interaction systems’ designs – such as that of monetary transaction systems. Giant private corporations are increasingly prone to security failures, such as electronic bank robberies and massive personal data leaks. The rise of IoT makes such concerns even more grave, as even cars and pacers can now be targeted. According to Van Valkenburgh, no critical infrastructure has to have a single point of failure, and to achieve that, we need a ‘light-touch, pro-innovation’ policy in place.

Questions

Chairman Crapo opened up the floor for questions on where the crypto markets are headed next year, and what conditions need to converge in order for them to stabilize. Van Valkenburgh responded that volatility is raging due to the markets having a hard time with finding a level, a fair price for something very new and disruptive. However, institutional money have already brought some sense of stability: it’s been beneficial to have  Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) regulated crypto derivatives enter the market, but it would be even better if the SEC allows the trading of crypto-based exchange-traded funds. Having a nationally chartered bank for crypto custody would bring even more rationality to the market.

Criticisms thrice told

Roubini responded to this point with the argument that cryptocurrencies are not scalable, not decentralized, and not secure, seasoning his response with the same points about five transactions per second, widespread oligopolies, and no authority to go to in case if one’s funds get stolen. Crapo pressed on, asking what hinders faster development of decentralized computing technologies’ real-world applications. Van Valkenburgh deflected this with a reference to email, which first appeared in 1972 and took a couple of decades before going mainstream, while Roubini said that no government or corporation will use permissionless decentralized systems. The idea of decentralization, he maintained, “won’t fly, because it’s nonsense”.

Ranking member Brown inquired whether there are blockchain-based applications ‘on a broader scale,’ which Roubini took as a chance to dismiss permissionless blockchains again, grudgingly admitting that there is some useful innovation in the sphere of private distributed ledgers. Again, he lauded payment systems like Paypal, China’s WeChat Pay, and African M-Pesa as the ‘real revolution,’ dismissing decentralized crypto systems as being losing users and transactions. While the internet had a billion users after a decade in existence, he added, cryptocurrencies command the following of just 22 million.

As Senator Brown asked to describe a typical crypto investor, Van Valkenburgh painted a portrait of a young, tech-savvy person, and quickly moved to a more policy-relevant conversation. After praising the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s (FinCEN) trailblazing efforts in laying the groundwork for crypto investors’ protection, he criticized the current state-by-state approach to money transmission licenses’ issuance to crypto enterprises, and called for federal licensing system.

Bridging gender gaps & standing up to totalitarians

Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana demanded how the world got better since cryptocurrencies came into existence. Van Valkenburgh offered a story of an Afghani female entrepreneur who used crypto to pay her mostly female employees’ wages, which was the only way to do it in a society where women are especially underserved by banks, while few accounts that exist are often controlled by male relatives. Roubini, once again, brought up superiority of centralized payment systems and Bitcoin’s meager five transactions per second. He then went on to complain about concentration of miners in places like China, Russia, and – for some reason – Belarus and Georgia, claiming that these nations will use their alleged oligopolistic dominance to manipulate the US.

Van Valkenburgh retorted that with payment infrastructures like the Chinese WeChat Pay, users’ transaction records and personal details reside without encryption in centralized repositories, ready to be hacked or surveilled by the government, if needed. Such systems, he argued, are ‘tools for totalitarians.’

A word on security

Doug Jones of Alabama was concerned with the extent to which ‘bad guys’ and rogue nations can exploit the decentralized design of public blockchains. Van Valkenburgh noted that every worthy technology, especially at the early stages of development, gets exploited by shady characters – if it does not, it is probably not very useful. At the same time, he contended, US law enforcement is already quite comfortable for tracking illicit transactions on open ledgers. Roubini took to bemoaning the dangers of blockchains’ anonymity.

Potential for scaling

Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey jumped in, showing off his intimacy with blockchain fundamentals and jargon. He said that while crypto assets are riddled with flaws, central banks do not have a flawless record of frictionless operations either. He suggested that an asset being a currency or not is just an issue of scale, and asked whether cryptocurrencies are fundamentally not scalable. Toomey was also interested whether the oligopolistic tendencies in mining really mattered for cryptocurrencies’ capacity to operate securely.

Van Valkenburgh delved into an overview of various scaling solutions, particularly highlighting the potential of batch settlement. He added that with oligopoly, you cannot really do much more to the network than denial-of-service attacks. Roubini’s response was anything but surprising:  five transactions per second, centralized mining, not secure. He explained that 51 percent attacks are a reality – they happen ‘every day’ with minor coins. Transactions costs “have gone through the roof,” while massive economies of scale implicit to mining operations incentivize cartelization.

ICO woes

Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was wondering how the theft of an aggregate $1.1 billion in the first half of 2018 was possible, as well as what could be done with the 80 percent rate of scam ICOs.  Van Valkenburgh explained that most of the funds stolen were in obscure alternative coins from overseas exchanges that failed to scale up their security systems to match the value they came to store. He also said he was on the same page with those who identify ICOs as securities, but added that it is entirely possible to have an ICO and comply with all the relevant securities regulations.

Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen appeared to be marginally interested in crypto affairs specifically. He lamented how the Fed was sluggish in moving towards a real-time payment system, blockchain-based or not, and moved on to solicit Roubini’s advice on the overall state and near perspectives of the US economy. The famed economist did not sound optimistic, suggesting that it’s possible that growth would stall by 2020.

Global KYC standards

Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada was the last to pose questions. She asked if there are any provisions in the bitcoin protocol that enable detection of payments that go to human trafficking, drug trafficking, or money laundering. Van Valkenburgh responded that policing such activities is incumbent upon the businesses that operate on top of the blockchain, as well as law enforcement. Roubini noted that such policing won’t be efficient unless there is a globally ratified set of rules in place. Van Valkenburgh agreed that such a unified approach to know your customer (KYC) procedures are needed, marking a rare moment of solidarity with the opponent.

Finally, Cortez Masto asked Roubini whether he believed in blockchain technology’s successful applications beyond finance, to which he responded, once again, that no serious government or corporation would ever entrust an open, trustless, permissionless distributed system with any sensitive information. ‘It’s just nonsense!’ – he concluded.

Chairman Mike Crapo reminded senators that additional questions to witnesses, if any arise, are due within one week, and adjourned the hearing.