The obvious question about bitcoins is who invented them. The obvious answer – certainly obvious to me – is that it was not Satoshi Nakamoto. For sure the arcane treatise that launched the bitcoin concept was authored by a person of this Japanese-sounding name. But after nearly 27 years watching the world from a base in Tokyo, I claim some understanding of Japanese culture: my strong instinct is that Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym for someone who is anything but Japanese. Japan is far too regulated for the sort of “freelance activity” involved here. And if Japanese citizens took part at a corporate or governmental level, they would present their role in quite a different manner – taking traceable national credit if they were entirely proud of their role.
All in all, I am convinced that Nathaniel Popper of the New York Times got it right last week in naming Nick Szabo, a Hungarian-American former student at George Washington University, as the real inventor. But this only raises further questions.
Here are some of them:
- Why has Szabo gone to ground? Although by all accounts what he has done is a remarkable achievement, he seems to have avoided all contact with the media — and even with routine acquaintances — for more than a year. (It is hard to imagine Alexander Graham Bell or Guglielmo Marconi, let alone Henry Ford or Steve Jobs being so self-effacing.)
- Has Szabo profited from the invention? If so, by how much? There has been speculation that the inventor might have made as much as $200 million. That is sufficiently serious money to be hard to hide, if only because the beneficiary might want to move to nicer digs.
- Who are the losers from bitcoins? As someone long ago pointed out, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If Szabo and associates have profited, others have lost. At the most obvious level, anyone who bought bitcoins during the late-2013 boom will have lost their shirt. Sellers at that time by contrast have made out like proverbial bandits. But all this may be pocket change compared to what may be in store. In the larger scheme of things the biggest loser may be the U.S. economy. To the extent that bitcoins have already become a rival to the U.S. dollar, they undermine, however marginally at this stage, the dollar’s purchasing power both at home and abroad. The interesting thing is not so much what damage has already been done but how much more damage could be done in future.