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Stigmatized money

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Published : August 07th, 2019
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Some payments systems are so awkward they scare away the average user. The only people with the patience to stick around must have a motivation for doing so. These include ideologues with an ax to grind, hobbyists who happily embrace complicated features, and criminals/weirdos who are shut out of everything else.

Here are a few examples of awkward payments systems:

-Local Exchange Trading Systems, or LETS
-Bitcoin/Dogecoin
-Labor notes
-Stamp scrip

When usage of a payments system is confined to a narrow group of like-minded individuals, this may stigmatize these systems, scaring away mainstream users. Stigmatization only compounds the initial awkwardness. After all, if fewer venues accept the stigmatized payments option then it becomes harder for the small band of users to make purchases. A vicious circle has been created. Initial awkwardness leads to stigma which leads to more awkwardness etc.

While this vicious circle is the death knell for a payments system, it is less of a problem for other products. You can make a decent living by targeting a small niche of consumers, say communists who eat vegan food. Every big city needs a communist vegan restaurant. But a payments network is only as good as the size of the payments pathways that it facilitates. A payments entrepreneur won't get very far by building a platform that only allows communist vegans to pay other communist vegans. 

How to evade the awkwardness-stigma spiral? What is needed is a frictionless, non-awkward payments system. With little to learn, everyone—not just nerds and those with an ax to grind—can quickly start using it. Think M-Pesa or Visa or Octopus.

Even the haters will get onboarded. Gold bugs and bitcoiners may rail against banks and fiat money. But because everyone else is using these relatively simple systems, the bugs and the bits have no choice but to go along. By bringing the vast hoard of normies on board along with the weirdos, these systems avoid all connotation. They are safe for broad consumption. No stigma can attach to them. And so the vicious awkwardness-stigma circle I described gets sidestepped.

I'd argue that LETS are an example of a system that suffer from the awkwardness-stigma spiral. LETS are a pain to use. This article on the famous Comox LETS and its founder Michael Linton, an earlier proponent of LETS, explains some of the problems. And so the only people who use LETS will be those willing to put up with the awkwardness: folks who self-identify as leftist with anarchic views. Those who don't share those views might feel weird joining a LETS. So LETS remain small and fragile, or as Linton says, they're like "sandcastles on the beach."

You see the same awkwardness-stigma cycle at play in bitcoin. Bitcoin is an awkward payments medium. The stuff is so volatile that retailers don't like to accept it. Risk averse consumers don't want to hold it. So only a subset of the population will ever feel comfortable using bitcoins for payments.

This subset has developed its own norms and codes. Bitcoin steak dinners are a good example. A large group of predominately male bitcoiners will get together to eat meat while avoiding vegetables, then broadcast it on Twitter:

Thank you @pierre_rochard for organizing the Bitcoin Steak Dinner last night! It was a pleasure and a blast meeting with so many bitcoiners! Tag yourselves so we can connect on Twitter 😎 pic.twitter.com/UzD40SNqF6

— Gustavo J. Flores E. (@GustavoJ_Flores) March 10, 2019


I'm sure it's a lot of fun. But these sorts of traditions will inevitably be perceived as weird by the majority. And so the majority will go out of their way to avoid bitcoins for fear of being tarred as an oddball. Other niche groups who can't sympathize with male carnivores, say lesbian vegans, will avoid bitcoin payments on principal. This stigma cuts down on the potential pool of bitcoin payees, which only makes bitcoin more annoying to use.

Mastercarders don't have their own set of traditions. For instance, you won't see Mastercard users setting up meetups to eat organic food and talk about the latest development in tokenization technology. The Mastercard/Visa user-bases are devoid of culture and character. This lack of a class consciousness is one of the features that makes them such effective  payments networks. Systems without norms and traditions never face the risk of falling into the stigmatization hole.

Facebook's Libra has attracted plenty of attention over the last few months. But Libra risk encountering the same awkwardness-stigma cycle as Bitcoin and LETS. Unlike other social media-based  payments tools (Wechat, Kakao, Line etc), Libra's architects have chosen to create a new unit of account rather than marrying Libra tokens to existing units like the dollar or euro.

But as I suggested in a previous post, it's a pain to learn a new unit of account, just like it's a hassle to learn a new language. So only a certain type of motivated person will bother using Libra, just like only motivated people—language nerds—learn Esperanto. This weirdo factor could stigmatize the system. Hey, look at those Libra-using elitists! What snobs! By crowding out normies (and the massive number of potential payment pathways they bring to the table) Libra runs the risk of never self-actualizing as a payments system. Better to take the safe and boring route of linking Libra to dollars and yen and whatnot. 

The vicious awkwardness-stigma cycle has already started to hit cash. In places like Sweden, cash is being stigmatized. When the middle and upper class are convinced that only the poor and criminals use coins and banknotes, many of them will go out of their way to avoid using cash. Cash becomes "grungy and unsexy," as Brett Scott puts it. Unfortunately, an ever narrower base of cash users will only make the stuff more expensive for retailers to handle, leading to a rise in cashless stores (especially ones that cater to the rich), leading to more awkwardness and stigma, leading to less users, etc.

David Birch has an interesting parable from William Gibson's Count Zero that illustrates what happens when this stigmatization is brought to its logical conclusion. Basically, cash is still around in Gibson's imagined future, but it has disappeared from "polite society". And so the story's protagonist, Bobby Newmark, describes it as unspendable:

William Gibson imagined a future where 'polite society' won't accept cash. From 'Count Zero' ht @dgwbirch pic.twitter.com/Bh9ZKVDmJz

— JP Koning (@jp_koning) October 3, 2016


If cash is to avoid a Gibsonian future, it needs to be de-stigmatized. But this requires that it re-attracts many of the people and businesses that have deserted it because it is no longer convenient. In a post  at the Sound Money Project (and earlier on this blog) I suggested paying interest on cash. Thus individuals and businesses would be compensated for the relative inconvenience of note storage and handling. And with a wider range of people using notes, any stigma that they have attracted would dissipate.

Stigma is dangerous for a payments system. A system will become stigmatized if it attracts a clique rather than a broad group of users. Cliques kill a payments system since they suppress the system's connectiveness. To avoid the potential for clique-ization, systems should try to be as easy to use and accessible as possible.

 

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John Paul Koning works in the financial industry. He also designs wall charts, available at Financial Graph & Art.
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