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Bitcoin was created in part out of a distrust of centralized authorities like the Federal Reserve. Now a symbol of the cryptocurrency’s growing threat to the Fed stands on Wall Street: a giant, inflatable rat covered in crypto code.
The bitcoin rat, first noted on Reddit, was created by Nelson Saiers, an artist and former hedge fund manager, according to Coindesk. The art installation, which appeared earlier this week and is temporary, is intended as much as a tribute to bitcoin’s creator Satoshi Nakamoto as much as it is a condemnation of the Fed and critics of cryptocurrencies.
“The sculpture’s supposed to kind of reflect the spirit of Satoshi and what he’s trying to do,” Saiers told Coindesk, who noted the rat image was inspired in part by another titan of traditional finance. “Warren Buffett called bitcoin ‘rat poison squared’ but if the Fed’s a rat, then maybe rat poison is a good thing,” he said.
Fed officials have made comments on cryptocurrencies that range from the critical to the conciliatory. Last December, former Fed Chair Janet Yellen called it a “highly speculative asset” that “doesn’t constitute legal tender.” In April, one Fed official claimed bitcoin couldn’t replace the dollar, while another conceded it’s “like regular currency” in that it has no intrinsic value.
Inflatable rats have become a staple of union protests during the past quarter century, so much so that a few companies specialize in renting them out to organizers. “Rat” is not only an epithet thrown at nonunion contractors, it symbolizes greedy, unscrupulous behavior ascribed to companies opposing unions.
“This is a very iconic image for protest,” Saiers told blockchain news site Breaker. “Somewhere in the heart of bitcoin is a bit of protest of big bank bailouts.”
That idea appeared to be lost on some Redditors, who claimed they spotted the bitcoin rat in the wilds of Wall Street but didn’t immediately see its significance. “I walked past it today,” one wrote. “Had no idea it was about Bitcoin.” “It’s cool, but people walking by won’t understand it,” said another. “I don’t even understand it. Needs a BTC logo or something.”
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has provided some high-profile validation for a core premise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. A blog post this week based on an earlier Fed research paper said that “bitcoin units have no intrinsic value” – but added that currencies “such as the U.S. dollar, the euro, and the Swiss france . . . have no intrinsic value either.”
The post, titled “Three Ways Bitcoin is Like Regular Currency,” doesn’t precisely endorse Bitcoin or cryptocurrency. In another recent report, the St. Louis Fed was critical of Bitcoin’s inefficiency. Cryptocurrency has also become rife with scams since its surge in value last year, and may constitute a global risk because it enables clandestine money laundering, capital flight, and tax evasion.
But the St. Louis Fed has provided a credible rebuttal to one of the most widespread and misguided criticisms of cryptocurrency: That, because it isn’t tied to a particular real-world commodity, it should have a monetary value of zero. As Fed researchers point out, since decoupling from the gold standard in the early 1970s, almost all global reserve currencies rely on nothing but trust to function as a media of value exchange.
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In the case of the dollar, that’s mostly trust in the U.S. government and economy. For Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it’s trust in computer code and, at least to some extent, developers.
Surprisingly, the Fed’s new statement also echoes one of the predominant arguments that cryptocurrency fans use to disparage government-backed currency – though in a rather roundabout way. The post argues in part that “there’s a limited supply” of both cash and Bitcoin. The libertarian boosters at the heart of the crytpocurrency movement have often argued that Bitcoin is better than government currency because central banks can devalue national currencies through inflation, while Bitcoin has a strictly fixed supply. Though the Fed’s post points out that it doesn’t actually print cash – in the sense of physical notes – it acknowledges its ability to expand the money supply.