In the fall of 2008, a credit crunch led to a deep recession following the bankruptcies of several large financial institutions. There are many perspectives on the causes of these events, but the effects are clear: multi-trillion dollar bailouts for the large investment banks which held “toxic” sub-prime mortgage-backed securities, housing foreclosures for the sub-prime borrowers, and widespread un- or under-employment due to layoffs after the credit crisis. It has been almost six years since Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and while the stock market is up, so too are unemployment numbers. At the root of this great conundrum is a concept that seems so certain as to be virtually unexamined and unquestioned in mainstream society: scarcity.
The entire social science of economics is predicated on the idea that resources are scarce, and humans must therefore make tough decisions about how to spend their time acquiring and protecting those scarce resources. Through a complex evolutionary process, humans began to discover that some scarce commodities were more widely accepted as valuable than others, and these began to be used as currency to facilitate trade, solving the problem of the “double coincidence of wants.” While it was not uncommon for credit to be used as currency within a tight-knit community, trade with outsiders relied on scarce commodity currencies which could transfer value already earned in the past, as opposed to the credit currencies which only transferred expected future value (debt). As trade networks expanded, currencies gave way to “money” - scarce commodities that were widely accepted, easily divisible, value-dense, and fungible. Money formed from precious metals such as gold and silver became dominant in trade throughout the world. Empires would rise and fall with their control of money, and countless lives would be lost defending it. All due to that basic economic principle, scarcity.
The U.S. dollar, the prevailing legal tender of the United States of America, is a fiat currency which has features of both scarcity and debt. USD is brought into circulation through the creation of debt, and because the supply of USD is scarce, this debt tends to carry interest that borrowers must pay over time. Interest is an economic indicator of time-preference and opportunity cost; someone with money will only lend it out if they can collect interest to make up for the opportunity cost of not investing the money in some other productive endeavor, and a borrower will only accept the interest rate if they have a preference for taking the money now at a cost rather than saving for it later. The problem with this scenario, which is perfectly reasonable given naturally-scarce goods, is that fiat currency is artificially scarce: there is no law of nature dictating its scarcity, but rather laws of man which restrict its supply and give control over the money supply to a special class of people known as “bankers.” These bankers then use their privilege to charge interest on money they create out of thin-air, leading to a financial game of musical chairs where there is always more debt than money and someone is always left with not enough money to pay their debt. Thus, the credit crunch and other historical business cycles of boom and bust.
In late 2008, a pseudonymous entity calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto posted a whitepaper to a cryptography email list titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” It detailed how various cryptographic techniques could be used to create a p2p protocol for transferring scarce digital tokens called “bitcoins,” using a distributed ledger called the “block chain” to keep track of ownership. On January 3, 2009, the “genesis block” of the Bitcoin system was released, with the message “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks” eternally encoded within it. The reason for including this news headline is up for debate, but it is commonly speculated that Satoshi included the headline to not only timestamp the date of the genesis block, but also to signal an important transition in the history of money, from fractional-reserve banking to true digital scarcity.
Economist and author Bernard Lietaer refers to these scarcity-driven currencies as “Yang” currencies, associating them with competition, linearity, hierarchy, and central authority. Opposite to Yang currencies are complimentary currencies. He refers to these as the “Yin” currencies, and associates them with cooperation, sustainability, egalitarianism, and mutual trust. In his writings on Yin and Yang currencies, Lietaer points out that while patriarchal societies have historically tended to favor Yang currency systems, matrifocal societies tend to favor dual currency systems which use Yang currencies for long-distance trade where there is low trust, and Yin currencies for local community trade. He points to a corn-backed complimentary currency used for over a millennium in Egypt as one such example of a currency with Yin characteristics in a matrifocal society. In today's patriarchal society, it is easy to see the dominance of Yang currencies, from the precious metals-based currencies that lasted through the industrial age to the fiat currencies of the 20th century. Now today, cryptocurrencies represent the next evolution of the Yang currency, albeit towards value based not on interest-bearing debt and fiat declarations but rather on mathematically-enforced scarcity.
But what if human society thought of value altogether differently, relying less on scarcity-based money to transfer value and more on interest-free trust-based currencies? This is the idea behind “mutual credit” systems. In a mutual credit system, a network of people create varying lines of credit with one another based on expectations of future value production, and each person creates new currency at the time of a transaction within the network. In return for remitting goods based on this transfer of credit, the seller expects the buyer to provide an equivalent amount of value to the network at some time in the future. This debt can be settled with future value production or by simply buying back the complimentary currency with hard money. In effect, mutual credit eliminates scarcity as we understand it with traditional credit and currencies by eliminating artificial interest rates. Such a system is the basis of the Ripple protocol, which was first developed by Ryan Fugger and has since been expanded upon by Ripple Labs, a financial technology company based out of San Francisco. While Ripple also has a scarce digital token like bitcoin built into the system called “ripples,” the protocol also has built into it a way for users to express “trust” for one another, enabling the creation of cryptographically secured mutual credit systems which use a globally distributed public ledger to hold debtors accountable.
Mutual credit is not likely to be the be-all-end-all of currencies in the future, and is not intended to be so, which is why it is often referred to as a “complimentary currency.” Because such systems are based on debt, they are vulnerable to defaults, and are not well-suited for low-trust trade. But with the increasing transparency of social society through the use of networked reputation systems and social graphs, mutual credit is becoming a more attractive possibility for communities of all sizes. While bitcoins are great for transferring value in low-trust situations online, and could very well become the standard for a global “money-like information commodity,” it's important to remember that currency doesn't have to be scarce for scarcity's sake. For each “yang” there is a “yin,” and mutual credit can go a long way towards offering economic opportunity where there otherwise would be none, and a chance at economic progress which artificial scarcity denies.