I’m very pleased to have joined the Bitcoin Foundation as Global Policy Counsel. I write today to introduce myself here on the blog and share some early thinking about the work I’ll be doing.
You can anticipate that I’ll post here routinely about issues large and small. I also plan to be a good citizen on the forums, so if you want to interact with me, plan to do so there. (I can’t promise you all-day, every-day, of course.) If you want a window onto what interests me and a chance to read my peculiar comments about random things, my Twitter handle is @Jim_Harper. If you want to hang out, by all means come to Bitcoin 2014 in the Netherlands May 15 through 17. Everyone who is someone in Bitcoin will be there.
My first interaction with the foundation was back in April of last year when General Counsel Patrick Murck sent me a note complimenting a blog post I had written entitled “What is the Value of Bitcoin?” I was riffing on excitement about a Bitcoin price spike against the U.S. dollar to try to get people thinking more carefully about money. (I still think that post is pretty good, but I know more now than I did then.) Patrick’s kind words began a conversation that lead to my becoming a member of the foundation, serving as an informal advisor, joining Patrick and other foundation leaders in briefing U.S. federal financial regulators, and now coming on board at the foundation.
That post was on Cato@Liberty, the house blog of the , where since 2004 I’ve been director of information policy studies. Prior to Cato, I had my own lobbying/consulting firm, and prior to that, I worked on Capitol Hill, serving in a number of roles including as counsel to committees in both the U.S. House and Senate. I’m a California native, and the sad, sad joke, which gets sadder every year, is that I’m nineteen years into my two-year stint in Washington, D.C…
The issues I’ve handled at Cato include privacy, telecommunications, intellectual property, cybersecurity, government transparency, and counterterrorism policy (so often non-transparent and privacy-invasive). I’ll be continuing as a senior fellow. On Monday, my Cato colleague Ilya Shapiro and I invited the Court to use a sound Fourth Amendment framework to protect data held on cell phones. In the transparency area, I run a web site called WashingtonWatch.com.
I’ll save you time doing your own research: My personal philosophy is libertarian. That means a lot of things, and the opportunity for worldwide advancement of liberty is definitely one of things that got me engaged with Bitcoin. But what really excites me—what tugs at my heartstrings—is Bitcoin’s potential to improve global financial inclusion. There are billions of people who, through no fault of their own, can’t access formal financial services, so they have a harder time earning, a harder time saving, a harder time feeding their families, and a harder time educating their children.
Think about that phrase: “global financial inclusion.” Why on earth, in this day and age, should anyone be “excluded” from participating in economic activity that improves their lives? It’s kind of galling to look at the status quo for so many people in the world when you know how things could be. Bitcoin may help.
I also find galling the effect of inflation on the poor. Smarties like you and I can invest our way out of inflation’s gravitational pull, but even in rich countries, inflation acts as a constant drain on what wealth the poor and under-educated can pull together. Productivity growth should naturally cause the price of goods and services to fall, making wage-earners better off whether they get a raise or not. But when inflation is at its best, keeping prices steady, that delivers the benefits of productivity growth to business owners rather than workers. How is that fair?
I understand the argument that money supplies should be managed, and that they can be managed well. All I need is for people holding that position to accept an empirical test: Let Bitcoin compete.
OK. That “why I care about Bitcoin” stuff brushed up against just a few of the many public policy issues that face Bitcoin itself, Bitcoin businesses, and the broader Bitcoin community. We do not lack for things to do that might protect and defend Bitcoin. My plan is not to do them all, but rather to prioritize well, and to do the things that remove the most significant impediments to Bitcoin’s success.
To that end—prioritizing—I have already begun a study of the risks that Bitcoin faces and their severity, how to address them and, when possible, how to measure success or failure. I expect to publish this study soon, I’ll present it at Bitcoin 2014 (have you signed up yet?), and I hope to repeat it regularly with input from the foundation’s membership. I think this methodology will cause the Bitcoin Foundation to rise above other organizations working in public policy because, frankly, most public policy work doesn’t follow a methodology at all.
While managing the issues that exist now, I’ll look out on the horizon for issues we can head off before they become fires in the Bitcoin ecosystem. We’ll use all the tools we need, but we won’t take lobbyists’ advice on how much we should lobby. We’ll use the power of the Bitcoin community more than the money of the Bitcoin community. And I don’t plan to measure our success by counting up the number of meetings we’ve had with politicians and regulators, by tallying the money we’ve spent on lobbying, or—heaven forfend—by counting how much in donations we’ve delivered to politicians.
There are good politicians out there, and I’ll salute U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) for his early and even-keeled handling of Bitcoin as chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. His hearing on Bitcoin last fall set the tone for the entire Washington, D.C., Beltway and increasingly for the nation as a whole: the United States is going to seek the benefits of Bitcoin while mitigating the risks.
Senator Carper didn’t act in a vacuum, of course. Patrick Murck was in Washington countless times over many months meeting with officials in various federal offices to educate them about the Bitcoin protocol and its many potential uses, to make clear that there are sophisticated investors and business-builders coming into the Bitcoin space, and to help hammer out where Bitcoin fits into existing legal rules. (Don’t let them tell you Bitcoin is “unregulated.”) Marco Santori, Brian Klein, and Mike Hearn have been doing their part, too, as chairs of relevant Bitcoin Foundation committees.
With news coming out regularly about various governments and agencies “cautioning” their people about Bitcoin, often reported in dramatic terms, you might think things are going badly. Well, you haven’t thought about how bad things could be. The relatively favorable climate for Bitcoin in Washington, D.C. is largely attributable to Patrick’s work, which has gone largely unsung, and Jinyoung England’s tireless communications work, aided by Amy Weiss in recent months. I step into my role with the Bitcoin Foundation on strong footing compared to where we would be if not for the foundation’s good work.
While maintaining and increasing the gains we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., I’ll be branching out. I plan to work on policy issues at a level of abstraction high enough that my work can be translated for use by the foundation’s growing roster of international partners and affiliates. Is Bitcoin anonymous, pseudonymous, privacy-protective, or privacy-destructive? Policymakers around the world need to understand these concepts. What’s the interaction going to be between Bitcoin and law enforcement? That’s an issue every country will grapple with. What protects consumers when they use Bitcon for payments, or when they store Bitcoins with a service provider? Consumers around the world obviously need to know.
The idea is not to make Bitcoin a big deal in political capitols. Bitcoin is a non-political currency. The idea is for Bitcoiners to build technologies and businesses that solve problems, create wealth, and deliver Bitcoin’s benefits far and wide.
Events in the last few months have shown the acute need for better security, sounder and more mature Bitcoin businesses, and wider consumer adoption. We all have our part to play. My goal is to keep you, the Bitcoin community, free to make those things happen—free to transact on your own terms.