比特币:还是克鲁格曼说得好

投机比特币是历史倒退
保罗•克鲁格曼 2013年12月25日

这是三个钱坑的故事,也是货币退化的故事——很多人都有这种奇怪的决心,想把时钟往回拨几个世纪,回到很多进步发生之前。

第一个钱坑是真正的矿坑——巴布亚新几内亚的波尔盖拉(Porgera)露天金矿,世界最大的黄金出产地之一。这座金矿在侵犯人权和环境损害方面臭名昭彰——保安人员犯下强奸、殴打和杀人罪行,大量可能有毒的尾矿被倾入附近的河流。但是,黄金价格虽然近期已经从高位回落,却仍然是10年前的三倍,所以他们还是得继续开采。

第二个钱坑要古怪得多:冰岛雷恰内斯拜尔的比特币矿。比特币是一种数字货币,它之所以有价值是因为……哎呀,确切的原因其实很难说,但是目前有人愿意买,因为这些人相信别人会愿意买。从设计上说,它是一种虚拟黄金。所以和黄金一样,比特币可以开采:你可以挖掘出新的比特币,不过只有通过解决非常复杂的数学运算才能做到,这就需要耗费大量的计算能力,也需要大量的电力为电脑供电。

在冰岛的雷恰内斯拜尔,有水力发电提供的廉价电力,也有充足的冷空气来冷却飞快运转的电脑。即便如此,仍然有很多真实的资源,被用来创造这种没有明确用处的虚拟物品。

第三个钱坑是假设的。1936年,经济学家约翰•梅纳德•凯恩斯(John Maynard Keynes)提出,实现充分就业需要增加政府开支。但是和现在一样,此类建议在当时也遭遇了强烈的政治阻力。所以,凯恩斯就异想天开地提出了一个替代方案:政府把装满现金的瓶子埋在废弃的矿洞里,让私营部门自己花钱去把那些现金挖出来。他表示,更好的办法是让政府修建道路、港口和其他有用的东西——但即便是毫无用途的开支,也会带来经济亟需的提振作用。

真是聪明——但凯恩斯还没说完。他接着又指出,现实中的黄金开采活动很像是他的思想实验。毕竟,黄金矿工们做的事情就是不遗余力地把钱从土里挖出来,虽然用印刷机印钞票可以制造无限量的现金,而且基本上也没有什么成本。然后,挖出来的金子被迅速埋藏,地点包括纽约联邦储备银行(Federal Reserve Bank of New York,简称FRBNY)的金库。在那些地方,成千上万根金条在闲置着,没有什么特别的用处。

我想,如果凯恩斯知道过去六、七十年里的变化如此之少,可能会觉得既嘲讽又有趣。用公共支出对抗失业的理念仍然遭到敌视;矿工们仍然在破坏地理景观,以便增加闲置黄金的囤积量(凯恩斯把金本位制度称作“野蛮的遗物”)。比特币更加突显了这件事的玩笑性质。毕竟黄金还有一些真正的用途,比如说填补蛀牙,而现在,我们却在耗费大量资源去创建“虚拟黄金”,它只不过是一些数字串。

我觉得,亚当•斯密(Adam Smith)会感到沮丧。

斯密常常被视为保守派的守护神,确实也是他最早论断了自由市场的必要性。但现在较少被提及的是:斯密也极力主张对银行进行监管,而且他还为纸币的优点谱写了一曲经典赞歌。他明白,钱是促进贸易的一种方式,而不是国家繁荣的源泉。有了纸币,一个国家无需把很多财富变成白银和黄金这样的“死库存”,就可以开展商业贸易。

那么,我们为什么要为了增加黄金的死库存而开采巴布亚新几内亚高地,甚至更古怪地,无时无刻不运行着强大的计算机,只是为了增加一个数字的死库存?

如果你跟那些看涨黄金的人聊一聊,他们会告诉你,纸币是政府发行的,不能指望政府不会令货币贬值。但奇怪的是,尽管如此,货币贬值的情况却越来越少见。在对通胀失控的警告持续了多年之后,发达国家的通胀水平如今明显不是太高,而是太低。即使从全球来看,真正高通胀的情形也非常罕见。尽管如此,有关极度通货膨胀的骇人言论仍然不绝于耳。

比特币的吸引力似乎或多或少也来源于此,再加上它的高科技和算法属性,所以人们认为,比特币必定是未来的趋势所在。

但是不要被华丽的表象所愚弄:事实是,我们正在毅然决然地走向这样一个时代:钱意味着可以在钱包里叮当作响的东西。无论是热带还是苔原地带,在挖矿的同时,我们也在挖着一条回到17世纪的路。

翻译:土土、王湛

Bits and Barbarism
By PAUL KRUGMAN December 25

This is a tale of three money pits. It’s also a tale of monetary regress — of the strange determination of many people to turn the clock back on centuries of progress.

The first money pit is an actual pit — the Porgera open-pit gold mine in Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s top producers. The mine has a terrible reputation for both human rights abuses (rapes, beatings and killings by security personnel) and environmental damage (vast quantities of potentially toxic tailings dumped into a nearby river). But gold prices, while down from their recent peak, are still three times what they were a decade ago, so dig they must.

The second money pit is a lot stranger: the Bitcoin mine in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland. Bitcoin is a digital currency that has value because … well, it’s hard to say exactly why, but for the time being at least people are willing to buy it because they believe other people will be willing to buy it. It is, by design, a kind of virtual gold. And like gold, it can be mined: you can create new bitcoins, but only by solving very complex mathematical problems that require both a lot of computing power and a lot of electricity to run the computers.

Hence the location in Iceland, which has cheap electricity from hydropower and an abundance of cold air to cool those furiously churning machines. Even so, a lot of real resources are being used to create virtual objects with no clear use.

The third money pit is hypothetical. Back in 1936 the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that increased government spending was needed to restore full employment. But then, as now, there was strong political resistance to any such proposal. So Keynes whimsically suggested an alternative: have the government bury bottles full of cash in disused coal mines, and let the private sector spend its own money to dig the cash back up. It would be better, he agreed, to have the government build roads, ports and other useful things — but even perfectly useless spending would give the economy a much-needed boost.

Clever stuff — but Keynes wasn’t finished. He went on to point out that the real-life activity of gold mining was a lot like his thought experiment. Gold miners were, after all, going to great lengths to dig cash out of the ground, even though unlimited amounts of cash could be created at essentially no cost with the printing press. And no sooner was gold dug up than much of it was buried again, in places like the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where hundreds of thousands of gold bars sit, doing nothing in particular.

Keynes would, I think, have been sardonically amused to learn how little has changed in the past three generations. Public spending to fight unemployment is still anathema; miners are still spoiling the landscape to add to idle hoards of gold. (Keynes dubbed the gold standard a “barbarous relic.”) Bitcoin just adds to the joke. Gold, after all, has at least some real uses, e.g., to fill cavities; but now we’re burning up resources to create “virtual gold” that consists of nothing but strings of digits.

I suspect, however, that Adam Smith would have been dismayed.

Smith is often treated as a conservative patron saint, and he did indeed make the original case for free markets. It’s less often mentioned, however, that he also argued strongly for bank regulation — and that he offered a classic paean to the virtues of paper currency. Money, he understood, was a way to facilitate commerce, not a source of national prosperity — and paper money, he argued, allowed commerce to proceed without tying up much of a nation’s wealth in a “dead stock” of silver and gold.

So why are we tearing up the highlands of Papua New Guinea to add to our dead stock of gold and, even more bizarrely, running powerful computers 24/7 to add to a dead stock of digits?

Talk to gold bugs and they’ll tell you that paper money comes from governments, which can’t be trusted not to debase their currencies. The odd thing, however, is that for all the talk of currency debasement, such debasement is getting very hard to find. It’s not just that after years of dire warnings about runaway inflation, inflation in advanced countries is clearly too low, not too high. Even if you take a global perspective, episodes of really high inflation have become rare. Still, hyperinflation hype springs eternal.

Bitcoin seems to derive its appeal from more or less the same sources, plus the added sense that it’s high-tech and algorithmic, so it must be the wave of the future.

But don’t let the fancy trappings fool you: What’s really happening is a determined march to the days when money meant stuff you could jingle in your purse. In tropics and tundra alike, we are for some reason digging our way back to the 17th century.

(原文见http://cn.nytimes.com/opinion/20131225/c25krugman/