Reflections of a Monetary Maximalist

I founded Thesis to build and grow projects that protect and reclaim fundamental individual rights.

Finance is key among those rights. I believe the right to finance and commerce is inseparable from the right to free speech and organization. I believe that we should wield cryptography and decentralization as tools (and sometimes weapons) to defend these rights. And while I believe Bitcoin is the best asset to bring these ideals to life, the technology is far from “done”.

This view—my “monetary maximalism”—is the result of a decade spent evolving and growing alongside the cryptocurrency movement.

This view—my “monetary maximalism”—is the result of a decade spent evolving and growing alongside the cryptocurrency movement.

My journey through crypto, from Bitcoin to tBTC

My journey began with a dilemma. In 2011, I found myself with over $300 in Starbucks gift cards. Unfortunately, I didn’t drink Starbucks coffee. Given their incredible popularity, I suspected there was a market to be made somewhere on these gift cards. I started looking for ways to sell my unwanted cards, and my hunch proved right. Soon my little venture was successful enough to build an app to manage the operation.

I needed a payments platform to run the operation, so I turned to the most cutting-edge thing we had in 2011: PayPal. As it turned out, though, reselling gift cards was against the company’s terms of service. PayPal’s centralized enforcers ejected my business from the network— and so did their competitors.

I began using Bitcoin because it solved a problem

Skeptics sometimes complain that crypto is a solution in search of a problem. That has always mystified me, since the reason I turned to Bitcoin at all was that it was the only technology, app, network, or currency that addressed my needs as an entrepreneur. Bitcoin was the only one that didn’t turn me away. Naturally, once I discovered it, my interest quickly grew. And as I learned more, I liked what I saw.

In 2014 I started cardforcoin.com, a website where I continued to buy and sell gift cards—but now in exchange for BTC instead of USD. Eventually, that side-hustle evolved into Fold, which today offers users cash back in BTC when they spend money through popular merchants like Amazon, Target, and Uber by leveraging that same gift card market I first discovered in 2014.

As I became more familiar with the edges of our financial system—gift cards, prepaid cards, money orders—I realized that I’d enjoyed a level of financial access many didn’t. I learned more about the “unbanked”, and began to buy into a popular narrative at the time. If Bitcoin could help me be my own bank, perhaps it could extend financial access everywhere? While access to basic financial services wouldn’t lift the world out of poverty, it would restore rights to marginalized people, give the oppressed a tool against exploitative regimes, and “export” the rule of law globally, making the world safer for commerce.

In late 2016, it started to become clear that Bitcoin as it stood was becoming too popular to be used for payments. The Bitcoin community grappled with itself. We were divided between conservative engineering and short-term business interests, what “governance” might mean for resilient decentralized money, and the narratives of “hard money” versus “tech money”.

2016 was a frustrating time for someone who had built a payments business on bitcoin. I had a crisis of faith in our movement as I started to understand that my "cheap on-chain payments" were relying on a negative externality—an onus on node operators via a quickly growing blockchain—at the eventual expense of decentralization.

Though I had supported Bitcoin forks in the past, I stayed on the sidelines of the SegWit2x debate. I realized that while my business as it stood needed cheap, low-trust payments, that wasn’t the most important aspect of Bitcoin. Bitcoin shouldn’t be “governed” by a few companies in a backroom deal for short-term interests, even my own—that’s exactly how the capture of traditional finance operates today.

Simultaneously, the promise and narrative of BTC as a store of wealth, with implications for all areas of finance, grew larger. I wanted to support this vision, even as it conflicted with my payment business.

Bitcoin shouldn’t be “governed” by a few companies in a backroom deal for short-term interests, even my own

In search of a new ideal

As I grappled with this cognitive dissonance, I rethought everything. I struggled to reconcile my own technological optimism with the real need for stable, uncaptured tech to support a budding store of value. I thought a lot about finance and where it fit into my broader worldview and philosophy. And in the discomfort, I realized other uncomfortable truths.

Even if payments on the Bitcoin blockchain were cheap, and we succeeded wildly—then what? If we were building a decentralized economy, didn’t my success mean we would become the new middleman? Was it possible to build the same sort of gift card marketplace run by Fold, without involving us at all?

This idea stuck with me. I began to explore models like those of OpenBazaar and Bisq. As I thought about escrow mechanics and incentivizing participation, I revisited the ideas behind colored coins and other “Bitcoin 2.0” tech. Finally, I finally landed on Ethereum.

This was a radical step: few things are more triggering than the BTC-ETH schism, and for an early Bitcoiner like me, the learning curve and cultural divide was steep. There was also a catch: Ethereum couldn’t handle transactions privately, utterly lacking a native concept of private transactional data—a riddle that led to the design of Keep, a bridge between public blockchains and private data.

This was a radical step: few things are more triggering than the BTC-ETH schism, and for an early Bitcoiner like me, the learning curve and cultural divide was steep.

As a form of speech, finance is a human right

Through this evolution, I began to think beyond simple apps and small marketplaces to the importance of money and the forces that shape it. This thinking led me to many of the convictions that drive my efforts today.

My early conviction in Bitcoin stemmed from a desire to “bank the unbanked”. In my case, I’d built an alternative finance app that traditional banks didn’t want to touch. Outside my experience, though, over 1.7 billion people are acutely suffering the real-life implications of a lack of basic financial access.

Finance is a human right. And like free speech, it is an individual right that must be protected against collectivist forces.

Without access to finance, you can’t get a loan, buy or rent a home, start a business—not to mention how difficult it is to migrate to a new city or country in search of better opportunities. Traditional finance is controlled by human gatekeepers. Credit reporting agencies, banks, and various lenders can and do shut their doors to millions of people every day. These people have no recourse in the current global financial system built on debt.

Finance is a human right. And like free speech, it is an individual right that must be protected against collectivist forces.

No institution better represents those forces than today’s central banks.

Central banks are the real competition

Central banks are a relatively new invention in human history. The oldest in the world is the Bank of England, established just over 300 years ago. The United States didn’t even have a true central bank until the 20th century.

But today, central banks are treated as “normal”. It’s normal that our free markets are listening, rapt, to every utterance of the US Federal Reserve. It’s normal that our savings lose their buying power, year after year, while we’re told “inflation is under control”. It’s normal that only the privileged, who can keep their savings in the stock market, avoid invisible taxation.

Central banks’ ability to dilute the money supply means they can impose a tax on all currency holders. This isn’t a tax governed by the people, or voted on by the representatives of the people. Instead, it’s often managed by a small board of appointees of the economic priest-class.

Eroding this ability by providing an alternative means a return to normal, and bucking a central axis of control in all of our lives.

That alternative is Bitcoin.

A monetary maximalist, not a Bitcoin maximalist

The term “Bitcoin maximalist” was coined by Vitalik Buterin to troll people he saw as irrationally BTC-or-bust. The Bitcoin community promptly appropriated and co-opted the term, making it a kind of badge and occasional purity test. There’s a strength to the term, and the emerging ideology.

Today, the world knows about Bitcoin. Bitcoin accounts for two thirds of the total cryptocurrency market, and has the strongest claim as an alternative to central banks. To many Bitcoin maximalists, talking about any other chain undermines their core message, and is a distraction at best.

In a real way, I agree with the Bitcoin maximalists. I don’t believe an upstart will take Bitcoin’s place as a central bank challenger, and every day it survives that claim becomes stronger.

Bitcoin, the asset, offers the best alternative to central banks— regardless of the success of Bitcoin, the technology.

Unlike many Bitcoin maximalists, however, I don’t believe the technology is “done”. Above all else, my belief in the primacy of individual rights and a person’s right to finance drives me to push the edges of the protection technology can extend.

This deep-set belief is why I call myself a monetary maximalist. Bitcoin, the asset, offers the best alternative to central banks— regardless of the success of Bitcoin, the technology.

I love bitcoin. It filled a need for my business nearly a decade ago, and ever since, my belief in it as revolutionary money has been continuously affirmed.

Most of today’s new technologies and cryptographic techniques, however, aren’t being built on Bitcoin. Instead, they’re built on more experimental chains with fewer assurances than Bitcoin, and in communities more welcoming of new ideas.

The cross-chain rivalries, as fun as they are, are ultimately a distraction. As a monetary maximalist, my sights are set elsewhere.

A way forward

My journey led me from my initial discovery of Bitcoin, through many iterations of our business, and to an ultimately deeper understanding of the technical and social movement Bitcoin represents. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been to build opt-in tech that defends individuals’ rights.

The products and protocols we’ve built will help individuals take back their power. Our ongoing work can help rejuvenate (in some places) and replace (in others) institutions and systems like credit agencies, retail banking, and all the associated infrastructure in a way that’s “rent free”—nixing middlemen, and replacing them with an impartial system that respects individual liberty at its foundation.

While Bitcoin aims to replace central banks, work today on Ethereum has the potential to replace retail banking. There is a dedicated community of developers experimenting on Ethereum, but so far to a fairly limited audience. And there are Bitcoiners who want to put their BTC to work as hard-money collateral, earning lower-risk yield.

There’s a clear need on Ethereum for better collateral, and a clear need on Bitcoin for greater functionality and the opportunity for yield.

How?

To satisfy this need, our team at Keep, alongside Summa, the newly-formed Cross-Chain Group, and a slew of others, have been building tBTC.

tBTC turns Ethereum into a Bitcoin sidechain, bridging Bitcoin and Ethereum. The sidechain allows the trust-minimized minting of a Bitcoin-backed ERC-20 token, allowing BTC holders to put their sound money to work on the Ethereum blockchain. The project is now live on both Bitcoin and Ropsten testnets. All anyone needs to get involved and use tBTC is a basic knowledge of Bitcoin and Ethereum. If you have that, and a little BTC, you’re good to go.

tBTC means bringing down the walls between the two chains—and I hope between the two communities. Maybe I can convert a few people to my brand of monetary maximalism along the way.

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