This is an opinion editorial by Dan, cohost of the Blue Collar Bitcoin Podcast.
A Preliminary Note To The Reader: This was originally written as one essay that has since been divided into three parts. Each section covers distinctive concepts, but the overarching thesis relies on the three sections in totality. Part 1 worked to highlight why the current fiat system produces economic imbalance. Part 2 and Part 3 work to demonstrate how Bitcoin may serve as a solution.
Part 1: Fiat Plumbing
The Reserve Currency Complication
The Cantillon Conundrum
Part 2: The Purchasing Power Preserver
Part 3: Monetary Decomplexification
The Financial Simplifier
The Debt Disincentivizer
A “Crypto” Caution
Unprecedented debt levels that exist in today’s financial system spell one thing in the long run: currency debasement. The word “inflation” is tossed around frequently and flippantly these days. Few appreciate its actual meaning, true causes or real implications. For many, inflation is nothing more than a price at the gas pump or grocery store that they complain about over wine and cocktails. “It’s Biden’s, Obama’s or Putin’s fault!” When we zoom out and think long term, inflation is a massive — and I argue unsolvable — fiat math problem that gets tougher and tougher to reconcile as decades march on. In today’s economy, productivity lags debt to such an extent that any and all methods of restitution require struggle. A key metric for tracking debt progression is debt divided by gross domestic product (debt/GDP). Digest the chart below which specifically reflects both total debt and public federal debt as relates to GDP.
If we focus on federal debt (blue line), we see that in just 50 years we’ve gone from sub-40% debt/GDP to 135% during the COVID-19 pandemic — the highest levels of the last century. It’s also worth noting that the current predicament is significantly more dramatic than even this chart and these numbers indicate since this doesn’t reflect colossal unfunded entitlement liabilities (i.e. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) that are anticipated in perpetuity.
What does this excessive debt mean? To make sense of it, let’s distill these realities down to the individual. Suppose someone racks up exorbitant liabilities: two mortgages well outside their price range, three cars they can’t afford and a boat they never use. Even if their income is sizable, eventually their debt load reaches a level they cannot sustain. Maybe they procrastinate by tallying up credit cards or taking out a loan with a local credit union to merely service the minimum payments on their existing debt. But if these habits persist, the camel’s back inevitably breaks — they foreclose on the homes; SeaRay sends someone to take back the boat out of their driveway; their Tesla gets repossessed; they go bankrupt. No matter how much she or he felt like they “needed” or “deserved” all those items, the math finally bit them in the ass. If you were to create a chart to encapsulate this person’s quandary, you would see two lines diverging in opposite directions. The gap between the line representing their debt and the line representing their income (or productivity) would widen until they reached insolvency. The chart would look something like this:
And yes, this chart is real. It’s a distillation of the United States’ total debt (in red) over gross domestic product, or productivity (in blue). I first saw this chart posted on Twitter by well-known sound money advocate and tech investor Lawrence Lepard. He included the following text above it.
“Blue line generates income to pay interest on red line. See the problem? It’s just math.”
The math is catching up to sovereign nation states too, but the way the chickens come home to roost looks quite different for central governments than for the individual in the paragraph above, particularly in countries with reserve currency status. You see, when a government has its paws on both the supply of money and the price of money (i.e. interest rates) as they do in today’s fiat monetary system, they can attempt to default in a much softer fashion. This sort of soft default necessarily leads to growth in money supply, because when central banks have access to newly created reserves (a money printer, if you will) it’s incredibly unlikely debt service payments will be missed or neglected. Rather, debt will be monetized, meaning the government will borrow newly fabricated money1 from the central bank rather than raising authentic capital through increasing taxes or selling bonds to real buyers in the economy (actual domestic or international investors). In this way, money is artificially manufactured to service liabilities. Lyn Alden puts debt levels and debt monetization in context:
“When a country starts getting to about 100% debt-to-GDP, the situation becomes nearly unrecoverable … a study by Hirschman Capital noted that out of 51 cases of government debt breaking above 130% of GDP since 1800, 50 governments have defaulted. The only exception, so far, is Japan, which is the largest creditor nation in the world. By “defaulted,” Hirschman Capital included nominal default and major inflations where the bondholders failed to be paid back by a wide margin on an inflation-adjusted basis … There’s no example I can find of a large country with more than 100% government debt-to-GDP where the central bank doesn’t own a significant chunk of that debt.”2
The inordinate monetary power of fiat central banks and treasuries is a large contributor to the excessive leverage (debt) buildup in the first place. Centralized control over money enables policymakers to delay economic pain in a seemingly perpetual manner, repeatedly alleviating short-term problems. But even if intentions are pure, this game cannot last forever. History demonstrates that good intentions are not enough; if incentives are improperly aligned, instability awaits.
Lamentably, the threat of harmful currency debasement and inflation dramatically increases as debt levels become more unsustainable. In the 2020s, we are beginning to feel the damaging effects of this shortsighted fiat experiment. Those who exert monetary power do indeed have the ability to palliate pressing economic pain, but in the long run it’s my contention that this will amplify total economic destruction, particularly for the less privileged in society. As more monetary units enter the system to ease discomfort, existing units lose purchasing power relative to what would have transpired without such money insertion. Pressure eventually builds up in the system to such an extent that it must escape somewhere — that escape valve is the debasing currency. Career-long bond trader Greg Foss puts it like this:
“In a debt/GDP spiral, the fiat currency is the error term. That is pure mathematics. It is a spiral to which there is no mathematical escape.”3
This inflationary landscape is especially troublesome to members of the middle and lower classes for several key reasons. First, as we talked about above, this demographic tends to hold fewer assets, both in total and as a percentage of their net worth. As the currency melts, assets like stocks and real estate tend to rise (at least somewhat) alongside money supply. Conversely, growth in salaries and wages is likely to underperform inflation and those with less free cash quickly start treading water. (This was covered at length in Part 1.) Second, middle and lower class members are, by and large, demonstrably less financially literate and nimble. In inflationary environments knowledge and access are power, and it often takes maneuvering to maintain buying power. Members of the upper class are far more likely to have the tax and investment know-how, as well as egress into choice financial instruments, to jump on the life raft as the ship goes down. Third, many average wage earners are more reliant on defined benefit plans, social security or traditional retirement strategies. These tools stand squarely in the scope of the inflationary firing squad. During periods of debasement, assets with payouts expressly denominated in the inflating fiat currency are most vulnerable. The financial future of many average folks is heavily reliant on one of the following:
- Nothing. They are not saving nor investing and are therefore maximally exposed to currency debasement.
- Social security, which is the world’s largest ponzi scheme and very well may not exist for more than a decade or two. If it does hold up, it will be paid out in debasing fiat currency.
- Other defined benefit plans such as pensions or annuities. Once again, the payouts of these assets are defined in fiat terms. Additionally, they often have large amounts of fixed income exposure (bonds) with yields denominated in fiat currency.
- Retirement portfolios or brokerage accounts with a risk profile that has worked for the last forty years but is unlikely to work for the next forty. These fund allocations often include escalating exposure to bonds for “safety” as investors age (risk parity). Unfortunately, this attempt at risk mitigation makes these folks increasingly reliant on dollar-denominated fixed income securities and, therefore, debasement risk. Most of these individuals will not be nimble enough to pivot in time to retain buying power.
The lesson here is that the everyday worker and investor is in desperate need of a useful and accessible tool that excludes the error term in the fiat debt equation. I am here to argue that nothing serves this purpose more marvelously than bitcoin. Although much remains unknown about this protocol’s pseudonymous founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, his motivation for unleashing this tool was no mystery. In the genesis block, the first Bitcoin block ever mined on January 3, 2009, Satoshi highlighted his disdain for centralized monetary manipulation and control by embedding a recent London Times cover story:
“The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.”
The motivations behind Bitcoin’s creation were certainly multifaceted, but it seems evident that one of, if not the, primary problem Satoshi set out to solve was that of unchangeable monetary policy. As I write this today, some thirteen years since the release of this first block, this goal has been unceasingly achieved. Bitcoin stands alone as the first-ever manifestation of enduring digital scarcity and monetary immutability — a protocol enforcing a dependable supply schedule by way of a decentralized mint, powered by harnessing real world energy via Bitcoin mining and verified by a globally-distributed, radically-decentralized network of nodes. Roughly 19 million BTC exist today and no more than 21 million will ever exist. Bitcoin is conclusive monetary reliability — the antithesis of, and alternative to debasing fiat currency. Nothing like it has ever existed and I believe its emergence is timely for much of humanity.
Bitcoin is a profound gift to the world’s financially marginalized. With a small amount of knowledge and a smartphone, members of the middle and lower class, as well as those in the developing world and the billions who remain unbanked, now have a reliable placeholder for their hard earned capital. Greg Foss often describes bitcoin as “portfolio insurance,” or as I’ll call it here, hard work insurance. Buying bitcoin is a working man’s exit from a fiat monetary network that guarantees depletion of his capital into one that mathematically and cryptographically assures his supply stake. It’s the hardest money mankind has ever seen, competing with some of the softest monies in human history. I encourage readers to heed the words of Saifedean Ammous from his seminal book “The Bitcoin Standard:”
“History shows it is not possible to insulate yourself from the consequences of others holding money that is harder than yours.”
On a zoomed out timeframe, Bitcoin is built to preserve buying power. However, those who choose to participate earlier in its adoption curve serve to the benefit the most. Few understand the implications of what transpires when exponentially growing network effects meet a monetary protocol with absolute supply inelasticity (hint: it might continue to look something like the chart below).
Bitcoin has the makings of an innovation whose time has come. The apparent impenetrability of its monetary architecture contrasted with today’s economic plumbing in tremendous disrepair indicates that incentives are aligned for the fuse to meet the dynamite. Bitcoin is arguably the soundest monetary technology ever discovered and its advent aligns with the end of a long-term debt cycle when hard assets will plausibly be in highest demand. It’s poised to catch much of the air escaping the balloons of a number of overly monetized4 asset classes, including low- to negative-yielding debt, real estate, gold, art and collectibles, offshore banking and equity.
It’s here where I can sympathize with the eye rolls or chuckles from the portion of the readership who point out that, in our current environment (July 2022), the price of Bitcoin has plummeted amidst high CPI prints (high inflation). But I suggest we be careful and zoom out. Today’s capitulation was pure euphoria a little over two years ago. Bitcoin has been declared “dead” over and over again through the years, only for this possum to re-emerge larger and healthier. In fairly short order, a similar BTC price point can represent both extreme greed and subsequently extreme fear on its road to escalating value capture.
History shows us that technologies with strong network effects and profound utility — a category I believe Bitcoin fits in — have a way of gaining enormous adoption right underneath humanity’s nose without most fully recognizing it.
The following excerpt from Vijay Boyapati’s well known “Bullish Case for Bitcoin” essay5 explains this well, particularly in relation to monetary technologies:
“When the purchasing power of a monetary good increases with increasing adoption, market expectations of what constitutes “cheap” and “expensive” shift accordingly. Similarly, when the price of a monetary good crashes, expectations can switch to a general belief that prior prices were “irrational” or overly inflated. . . . The truth is that the notions of “cheap” and “expensive” are essentially meaningless in reference to monetary goods. The price of a monetary good is not a reflection of its cash flow or how useful it is but, rather, is a measure of how widely adopted it has become for the various roles of money.”
If Bitcoin does one day accrue enormous value the way I’ve suggested it might, its upward trajectory will be anything but smooth. First consider that the economy as a whole is likely to be increasingly unstable moving forward — systemically fragile markets underpinned by credit have a propensity to be volatile to the downside in the long run against hard assets. Promises built on promises can quickly fall like dominoes, and in the last few decades we’ve experienced increasingly regular and significant deflationary episodes (often followed by stunning recoveries assisted by fiscal and monetary intervention). Amidst an overall backdrop of inflation, there will be fits of dollar strengthening — we are experiencing one currently. Now add in the fact that, at this stage, bitcoin is nascent; it’s poorly understood; its supply is completely unresponsive (inelastic); and, in the minds of most big financial players, it’s optional and speculative.
As I write this, Bitcoin is nearly 70% down from an all-time high of $69,000, and in all likelihood, it will be extremely volatile for some time. However, the key distinction is that BTC has been, and in my view will continue to be, volatile to the upside in relation to soft assets (those with a subjective and expanding supply schedules; i.e. fiat). When talking about forms of money, the words “sound” and “stable” are far from synonymous. I can’t think of a better example of this dynamic at work than gold versus the German papiermark during the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. Soak in the chart below to see how tremendously volatile gold was during this period.
Dylan LeClair has said the following in relation to the chart above:
“You’ll often see charts from Weimar Germany of gold priced in the paper mark going parabolic. What that chart doesn’t show is the sharp drawdowns & volatility that occurred during the hyper-inflationary period. Speculating using leverage got wiped out multiple times.”
Despite the papiermark inflating completely away in relation to gold over the long run, there were periods where the mark significantly outpaced gold. My base case is that bitcoin will continue to do something akin to this in relation to the world’s contemporary basket of fiat currencies.
Ultimately, the proposition of bitcoin bulls is that the addressable market of this asset is mind numbing. Staking a claim on even a small portion of this network may allow members of the middle and lower classes to power on the sump pump and keep the basement dry. My plan is to accumulate BTC, batten down the hatches and hold on tight with low time preference. I’ll close this part with the words of Dr. Jeff Ross, former interventional radiologist turned hedge fund manager:
“Checking and savings accounts are where your money goes to die; bonds are return-free risk. We have a chance now to exchange our dollar for the greatest sound money, the greatest savings technology, that has ever existed.”6
In Part 3, we’ll explore two more key ways in which bitcoin works to rectify existing economic imbalances.
1. Although this is often labeled as “money printing,” the actual mechanics behind money creation are complex. If you would like a brief explanation of how this occurs, Ryan Deedy, CFA (an editor of this piece) explained the mechanics succinctly in a correspondence we had: “The Fed is not allowed to buy USTs directly from the government, which is why they have to go through commercial banks/investment banks to carry out the transaction. […] To execute this, the Fed creates reserves (a liability for the Fed, and an asset for commercial banks). The commercial bank then uses those new reserves to buy the USTs from the government. Once purchased, the Treasury’s General Account (TGA) at the Fed increases by the associated amount, and the USTs are transferred to the Fed, which will appear on its balance sheet as an asset.”
2. From “Does the National Debt Matter” by Lyn Alden
5. Now a book by the same title.
6. Said during a macroeconomics panel at Bitcoin 2022 Conference
This is a guest post by Dan. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
El Salvador Takes First Step To Issue Bitcoin Volcano Bonds
El Salvador’s Minister of the Economy Maria Luisa Hayem Brevé submitted a digital assets issuance bill to the country’s legislative assembly, paving the way for the launch of its bitcoin-backed “volcano” bonds.
First announced one year ago today, the pioneering initiative seeks to attract capital and investors to El Salvador. It was revealed at the time the plans to issue $1 billion in bonds on the Liquid Network, a federated Bitcoin sidechain, with the proceedings of the bonds being split between a $500 million direct allocation to bitcoin and an investment of the same amount in building out energy and bitcoin mining infrastructure in the region.
A sidechain is an independent blockchain that runs parallel to another blockchain, allowing for tokens from that blockchain to be used securely in the sidechain while abiding by a different set of rules, performance requirements, and security mechanisms. Liquid is a sidechain of Bitcoin that allows bitcoin to flow between the Liquid and Bitcoin networks with a two-way peg. A representation of bitcoin used in the Liquid network is referred to as L-BTC. Its verifiably equivalent amount of BTC is managed and secured by the network’s members, called functionaries.
“Digital securities law will enable El Salvador to be the financial center of central and south America,” wrote Paolo Ardoino, CTO of cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex, on Twitter.
Bitfinex is set to be granted a license in order to be able to process and list the bond issuance in El Salvador.
The bonds will pay a 6.5% yield and enable fast-tracked citizenship for investors. The government will share half the additional gains with investors as a Bitcoin Dividend once the original $500 million has been monetized. These dividends will be dispersed annually using Blockstream’s asset management platform.
The act of submitting the bill, which was hinted at earlier this year, kickstarts the first major milestone before the bonds can see the light of day. The next is getting it approved, which is expected to happen before Christmas, a source close to President Nayib Bukele told Bitcoin Magazine. The bill was submitted on November 17 and presented to the country’s Congress today. It is embedded in full below.
How I’ll Talk To Family Members About Bitcoin This Thanksgiving
This is an opinion editorial by Joakim Book, a Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, contributor and copy editor for Bitcoin Magazine and a writer on all things money and financial history.
That’s it. That’s the article.
In all sincerity, that is the full message: Just don’t do it. It’s not worth it.
You’re not an excited teenager anymore, in desperate need of bragging credits or trying out your newfound wisdom. You’re not a preaching priestess with lost souls to save right before some imminent arrival of the day of reckoning. We have time.
Instead: just leave people alone. Seriously. They came to Thanksgiving dinner to relax and rejoice with family, laugh, tell stories and zone out for a day — not to be ambushed with what to them will sound like a deranged rant in some obscure topic they couldn’t care less about. Even if it’s the monetary system, which nobody understands anyway.
If you’re not convinced of this Dale Carnegie-esque social approach, and you still naively think that your meager words in between bites can change anybody’s view on anything, here are some more serious reasons for why you don’t talk to friends and family about Bitcoin the protocol — but most certainly not bitcoin, the asset:
- Your family and friends don’t want to hear it. Move on.
- For op-sec reasons, you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to the fact that you probably have a decent bitcoin stack. Hopefully, family and close friends should be safe enough to confide in, but people talk and that gossip can only hurt you.
- People find bitcoin interesting only when they’re ready to; everyone gets the price they deserve. Like Gigi says in “21 Lessons:”
“Bitcoin will be understood by you as soon as you are ready, and I also believe that the first fractions of a bitcoin will find you as soon as you are ready to receive them. In essence, everyone will get ₿itcoin at exactly the right time.”
It’s highly unlikely that your uncle or mother-in-law just happens to be at that stage, just when you’re about to sit down for dinner.
- Unless you can claim youth, old age or extreme poverty, there are very few people who genuinely haven’t heard of bitcoin. That means your evangelizing wouldn’t be preaching to lost, ignorant souls ready to be saved but the tired, huddled and jaded masses who could care less about the discovery that will change their societies more than the internal combustion engine, internet and Big Government combined. Big deal.
- What is the case, however, is that everyone in your prospective audience has already had a couple of touchpoints and rejected bitcoin for this or that standard FUD. It’s a scam; seems weird; it’s dead; let’s trust the central bankers, who have our best interest at heart.
No amount of FUD busting changes that impression, because nobody holds uninformed and fringe convictions for rational reasons, reasons that can be flipped by your enthusiastic arguments in-between wiping off cranberry sauce and grabbing another turkey slice.
- It really is bad form to talk about money — and bitcoin is the best money there is. Be classy.
Now, I’m not saying to never ever talk about Bitcoin. We love to talk Bitcoin — that’s why we go to meetups, join Twitter Spaces, write, code, run nodes, listen to podcasts, attend conferences. People there get something about this monetary rebellion and have opted in to be part of it. Your unsuspecting family members have not; ambushing them with the wonders of multisig, the magically fast Lightning transactions or how they too really need to get on this hype train, like, yesterday, is unlikely to go down well.
However, if in the post-dinner lull on the porch someone comes to you one-on-one, whisky in hand and of an inquisitive mind, that’s a very different story. That’s personal rather than public, and it’s without the time constraints that so usually trouble us. It involves clarifying questions or doubts for somebody who is both expressively curious about the topic and available for the talk. That’s rare — cherish it, and nurture it.
Last year I wrote something about the proper role of political conversations in social settings. Since November was also election month, it’s appropriate to cite here:
“Politics, I’m starting to believe, best belongs in the closet — rebranded and brought out for the specific occasion. Or perhaps the bedroom, with those you most trust, love, and respect. Not in public, not with strangers, not with friends, and most certainly not with other people in your community. Purge it from your being as much as you possibly could, and refuse to let political issues invade the areas of our lives that we cherish; politics and political disagreements don’t belong there, and our lives are too important to let them be ruled by (mostly contrived) political disagreements.”
If anything, those words seem more true today than they even did then. And I posit to you that the same applies for bitcoin.
Everyone has some sort of impression or opinion of bitcoin — and most of them are plain wrong. But there’s nothing people love more than a savior in white armor, riding in to dispel their errors about some thing they are freshly out of fucks for. Just like politics, nobody really cares.
Leave them alone. They will find bitcoin in their own time, just like all of us did.
This is a guest post by Joakim Book. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
RGB Magic: Client-Side Contracts On Bitcoin
This is an opinion editorial by Federico Tenga, a long time contributor to Bitcoin projects with experience as start-up founder, consultant and educator.
The term “smart contracts” predates the invention of the blockchain and Bitcoin itself. Its first mention is in a 1994 article by Nick Szabo, who defined smart contracts as a “computerized transaction protocol that executes the terms of a contract.” While by this definition Bitcoin, thanks to its scripting language, supported smart contracts from the very first block, the term was popularized only later by Ethereum promoters, who twisted the original definition as “code that is redundantly executed by all nodes in a global consensus network”
While delegating code execution to a global consensus network has advantages (e.g. it is easy to deploy unowed contracts, such as the popularly automated market makers), this design has one major flaw: lack of scalability (and privacy). If every node in a network must redundantly run the same code, the amount of code that can actually be executed without excessively increasing the cost of running a node (and thus preserving decentralization) remains scarce, meaning that only a small number of contracts can be executed.
But what if we could design a system where the terms of the contract are executed and validated only by the parties involved, rather than by all members of the network? Let us imagine the example of a company that wants to issue shares. Instead of publishing the issuance contract publicly on a global ledger and using that ledger to track all future transfers of ownership, it could simply issue the shares privately and pass to the buyers the right to further transfer them. Then, the right to transfer ownership can be passed on to each new owner as if it were an amendment to the original issuance contract. In this way, each owner can independently verify that the shares he or she received are genuine by reading the original contract and validating that all the history of amendments that moved the shares conform to the rules set forth in the original contract.
This is actually nothing new, it is indeed the same mechanism that was used to transfer property before public registers became popular. In the U.K., for example, it was not compulsory to register a property when its ownership was transferred until the ‘90s. This means that still today over 15% of land in England and Wales is unregistered. If you are buying an unregistered property, instead of checking on a registry if the seller is the true owner, you would have to verify an unbroken chain of ownership going back at least 15 years (a period considered long enough to assume that the seller has sufficient title to the property). In doing so, you must ensure that any transfer of ownership has been carried out correctly and that any mortgages used for previous transactions have been paid off in full. This model has the advantage of improved privacy over ownership, and you do not have to rely on the maintainer of the public land register. On the other hand, it makes the verification of the seller’s ownership much more complicated for the buyer.
How can the transfer of unregistered properties be improved? First of all, by making it a digitized process. If there is code that can be run by a computer to verify that all the history of ownership transfers is in compliance with the original contract rules, buying and selling becomes much faster and cheaper.
Secondly, to avoid the risk of the seller double-spending their asset, a system of proof of publication must be implemented. For example, we could implement a rule that every transfer of ownership must be committed on a predefined spot of a well-known newspaper (e.g. put the hash of the transfer of ownership in the upper-right corner of the first page of the New York Times). Since you cannot place the hash of a transfer in the same place twice, this prevents double-spending attempts. However, using a famous newspaper for this purpose has some disadvantages:
- You have to buy a lot of newspapers for the verification process. Not very practical.
- Each contract needs its own space in the newspaper. Not very scalable.
- The newspaper editor can easily censor or, even worse, simulate double-spending by putting a random hash in your slot, making any potential buyer of your asset think it has been sold before, and discouraging them from buying it. Not very trustless.
For these reasons, a better place to post proof of ownership transfers needs to be found. And what better option than the Bitcoin blockchain, an already established trusted public ledger with strong incentives to keep it censorship-resistant and decentralized?
If we use Bitcoin, we should not specify a fixed place in the block where the commitment to transfer ownership must occur (e.g. in the first transaction) because, just like with the editor of the New York Times, the miner could mess with it. A better approach is to place the commitment in a predefined Bitcoin transaction, more specifically in a transaction that originates from an unspent transaction output (UTXO) to which the ownership of the asset to be issued is linked. The link between an asset and a bitcoin UTXO can occur either in the contract that issues the asset or in a subsequent transfer of ownership, each time making the target UTXO the controller of the transferred asset. In this way, we have clearly defined where the obligation to transfer ownership should be (i.e in the Bitcoin transaction originating from a particular UTXO). Anyone running a Bitcoin node can independently verify the commitments and neither the miners nor any other entity are able to censor or interfere with the asset transfer in any way.
Since on the Bitcoin blockchain we only publish a commitment of an ownership transfer, not the content of the transfer itself, the seller needs a dedicated communication channel to provide the buyer with all the proofs that the ownership transfer is valid. This could be done in a number of ways, potentially even by printing out the proofs and shipping them with a carrier pigeon, which, while a bit impractical, would still do the job. But the best option to avoid the censorship and privacy violations is establish a direct peer-to-peer encrypted communication, which compared to the pigeons also has the advantage of being easy to integrate with a software to verify the proofs received from the counterparty.
This model just described for client-side validated contracts and ownership transfers is exactly what has been implemented with the RGB protocol. With RGB, it is possible to create a contract that defines rights, assigns them to one or more existing bitcoin UTXO and specifies how their ownership can be transferred. The contract can be created starting from a template, called a “schema,” in which the creator of the contract only adjusts the parameters and ownership rights, as is done with traditional legal contracts. Currently, there are two types of schemas in RGB: one for issuing fungible tokens (RGB20) and a second for issuing collectibles (RGB21), but in the future, more schemas can be developed by anyone in a permissionless fashion without requiring changes at the protocol level.
To use a more practical example, an issuer of fungible assets (e.g. company shares, stablecoins, etc.) can use the RGB20 schema template and create a contract defining how many tokens it will issue, the name of the asset and some additional metadata associated with it. It can then define which bitcoin UTXO has the right to transfer ownership of the created tokens and assign other rights to other UTXOs, such as the right to make a secondary issuance or to renominate the asset. Each client receiving tokens created by this contract will be able to verify the content of the Genesis contract and validate that any transfer of ownership in the history of the token received has complied with the rules set out therein.
So what can we do with RGB in practice today? First and foremost, it enables the issuance and the transfer of tokenized assets with better scalability and privacy compared to any existing alternative. On the privacy side, RGB benefits from the fact that all transfer-related data is kept client-side, so a blockchain observer cannot extract any information about the user’s financial activities (it is not even possible to distinguish a bitcoin transaction containing an RGB commitment from a regular one), moreover, the receiver shares with the sender only blinded UTXO (i. e. the hash of the concatenation between the UTXO in which she wish to receive the assets and a random number) instead of the UTXO itself, so it is not possible for the payer to monitor future activities of the receiver. To further increase the privacy of users, RGB also adopts the bulletproof cryptographic mechanism to hide the amounts in the history of asset transfers, so that even future owners of assets have an obfuscated view of the financial behavior of previous holders.
In terms of scalability, RGB offers some advantages as well. First of all, most of the data is kept off-chain, as the blockchain is only used as a commitment layer, reducing the fees that need to be paid and meaning that each client only validates the transfers it is interested in instead of all the activity of a global network. Since an RGB transfer still requires a Bitcoin transaction, the fee saving may seem minimal, but when you start introducing transaction batching they can quickly become massive. Indeed, it is possible to transfer all the tokens (or, more generally, “rights”) associated with a UTXO towards an arbitrary amount of recipients with a single commitment in a single bitcoin transaction. Let’s assume you are a service provider making payouts to several users at once. With RGB, you can commit in a single Bitcoin transaction thousands of transfers to thousands of users requesting different types of assets, making the marginal cost of each single payout absolutely negligible.
Another fee-saving mechanism for issuers of low value assets is that in RGB the issuance of an asset does not require paying fees. This happens because the creation of an issuance contract does not need to be committed on the blockchain. A contract simply defines to which already existing UTXO the newly issued assets will be allocated to. So if you are an artist interested in creating collectible tokens, you can issue as many as you want for free and then only pay the bitcoin transaction fee when a buyer shows up and requests the token to be assigned to their UTXO.
Furthermore, because RGB is built on top of bitcoin transactions, it is also compatible with the Lightning Network. While it is not yet implemented at the time of writing, it will be possible to create asset-specific Lightning channels and route payments through them, similar to how it works with normal Lightning transactions.
RGB is a groundbreaking innovation that opens up to new use cases using a completely new paradigm, but which tools are available to use it? If you want to experiment with the core of the technology itself, you should directly try out the RGB node. If you want to build applications on top of RGB without having to deep dive into the complexity of the protocol, you can use the rgb-lib library, which provides a simple interface for developers. If you just want to try to issue and transfer assets, you can play with Iris Wallet for Android, whose code is also open source on GitHub. If you just want to learn more about RGB you can check out this list of resources.
This is a guest post by Federico Tenga. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.