The First National Cryptocurrency is Here. But is it Working? 6 6359

A few months ago, Venezuela became the first nation to adopt a crypto as their primary currency.

Announced in December 2017 and launched in February, the Petro became official legal tender on April 9th. Unlike many tokens, the Petro is reportedly backed by natural resources. And it’s not gold. Each token sells for the price of a barrel of oil (about $74). President Nicolás Maduro claims to have raised $735 million in the initial sales of pre-mined coins, but has offered no supporting evidence.

The maneuver could pave the way for other countries to officially adopt cryptocurrencies. But the unstable situation in Venezuela makes the Petro’s future far from certain, even by crypto standards.

Petro’s Problems

The Petro, which ICO bench rates at a dismal 1.4 out of 5 stars, is “an instrument for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s economic stability and financial independence.”

Though allegedly backed by the country’s estimated 5 billion barrels of oil, the Petro’s legitimacy on global markets is shakey. President Trump reinforced US sanctions with Venezuela by signing an executive order to ban all US citizens from dealing in Petros. US officials were quick to call the cryptocurrency a scam, and some major media publications have stepped up to circulate that party line.

Vote for Petro

The Petro also faces resistance within Venezuela, notably from the opposition-lead National Assembly, part of the government’s legislative branch. The Assembly declared the ICO illegal and unconstitutional, saying Maduro did not receive their approval to launch it, a step made necessary by Venezuela’s own laws. They went even further, warning potential investors of threat. National Assembly deputy Marialbert Barrios publicly decried Petro promoters as “smoke peddlers,” while fellow deputy Jorge Millán stated “this is not a cryptocurrency, this is a forward sale of Venezuelan oil. It is tailor-made for corruption.”

So who voted this in? President Maduro, who some say fraudulently re-elected himself in May for another 6 year term, pushed the program through himself. He hasn’t pretended the Petro isn’t a way to circumvent international sanctions, calling it a crypto that can take on “Superman” (e.g. the US). But critics aren’t buying it. Some assert that in addition to not really being a cryptocurrency, Petro isn’t even backed by oil.

Can Petro Feed Venezuela?

The ICO is ostensibly a last ditch effort by the Maduro regime to salvage Venezuela’s destitute economy, which has been teetering toward total collapse over the past few years. Inflation went up 4,068 percent in 2017. Some hungry Venezuelans are crafting handbags out of the worthless banknotes they can no longer use to buy food and medicine, trying to literally weave some value out of their paper money.

The people of Venezuela continue to protest, flee the country, or struggle to survive ordinary life. Jonathan Wheeler, a former Goldman Sachs employee and Bitcoin enthusiast, has taken it upon himself to “teach Venezuelans ‘how to fish’” by sending them a Bitcoin infusion.

Clearly, a solution needs to arrive yesterday. Petro may or may not be it.

The World’s Eyes on National Cryptocurrencies

If the Petro doesn’t work, does that mean national cryptos generally won’t work? Not exactly.

Japan already accepts Bitcoin as legal currency, and many stores accept it as payment. Russia, China and Israel are all exploring the potential of a national crypto.

Tunisia was early to the table. Though not a cryptocurrency, it launched a digital form of its national currency in 2015. Sweden is developing the e-Krona for release next year.

The Petro will be a coin to watch not because it’s a good investment, but because of the larger implications it could have on the international stage. When other nations are putting the blockchain to work, we’ll get a clearer picture of the intersection between global governance and decentralized currency. But for now, we have Venezuela as the world’s first example.

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I grew up in the Silicon valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. I'm a proud member of the Choctaw Nation, I've lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and I now write in the Pacific Northwest.


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Kenya Looks to Blockchain for Affordable Housing Project 9 10800

The “Silicon Savannah” is moving deeper in direction of tech. The Kenyan government has announced a plan to manage the property allocation and funding of 500,000 affordable housing units with blockchain technology.

The units, which the government aims to build by 2022, will be set aside for households with an annual income below 100,000 Kenyan Shillings, about $990 USD. The World Bank estimates Kenya’s gross national income per capita at $1,290, according to Business Daily.

Blockchain will help ensure that the affordable housing is in fact going to those who fall below the average income bracket. Land title fraud has caused problems for Kenyans, as land grabbers target homes and even schools for illegal sales and development. Blockchain’s ability to store verifiable proof of title could help safeguard against fraudsters.

“Kenya will use blockchain technology to ensure the rightful owners live in government funded housing projects,” said Principal Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Charles Hinga, speaking with the World Bank on Monday.

Hinga said the plan will be financed by the National Housing Fund, which will raise over $59.5 million per month to get the project underway. But Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development James Macharia said it will take $31.7 billion to build a million homes, each of which will cost between $3,000 and $30,000. Macharia called for support from private sector financing.

Under the financing plan, working Kenyans will contribute 1.5 percent of their salary, which will be matched by their employers. “On affordable housing one should not spend more than 30% of their disposable income for housing,” Hinga tweeted yesterday. “Anything above 30% is not affordable.”

A Trustless Relationship Between People and Government

The initiative represents a considerable push to solve housing and title problems for the nation’s lower income families. But how will the government decide to whom the housing units will go? With so much talk about financing underway, people are already calling on the government to outline a plan for how they’ll distribute the affordable housing units.

The government will need to deliver the housing projects in a time when, Hinga acknowledges, the public is skeptical. Earlier this year $78 million went missing in a corruption scandal involving the National Youth Services. Where there is little trust between the people and their government, Kenya hopes to establish transparency through the blockchain’s distributed ledger system.

Kenya’s Move Toward Tech

In March, Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology appointed a blockchain taskforce to explore the ways the nation could use blockchain technology in the public and private sectors. They called it the Distributed Ledgers and Artificial Intelligence taskforce, and by September its chairman, Bitange Ndemo, was calling on the government to tokenize the economy.

Ndemo also proposed government implementation of blockchain to certify the authenticity of retail goods, so consumers can be sure of where their food is coming from, for example.

Governor of Kenya’s central bank Patrick Njoroge has also voiced support for the use of blockchain technology to strengthen service delivery, although he’s opposed the use of tokens and digital currencies.

But the affordable housing initiative could be the Kenyan government’s first real world implementation of the blockchain.

There’s an Inflatable ‘Bitcoin Rat’ Staring Down the Fed 94 11567

Someone has put a giant inflatable rat outside the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

It’s covered in Bitcoin code, printed in rainbow colors, and is apparently a piece of installation art aimed at subverting the federal institution that controls the US dollar. Or is it pale, puffed-up pariah a commentary on Bitcoin bros themselves? Or does it have something to do with Warren Buffett, who earlier this year called Bitcoin “rat poison squared”? According to CoinDesk, who first reported on the inflatable rat, the meaning is intentionally ambiguous.

The artist behind the puzzling prank is Nelson Saiers. He describes his own work as “mystifying” and “singularly original”, notwithstanding the long history of rats being inflated as protests or used as economic and political icons in art and entertainment around the world.

“It’s art, so I hope they’re entertained by it,” he said, apparently implying that art is entertainment. “It’s informative, I hope people will learn [and] I’m hoping it’ll at least help people understand bitcoin better and be kind of faithful to what Satoshi would have wanted,” he added, citing the mysterious pseudonym of Bitcoin’s founder with a touch of reverence.

A $50 Million Artist

Saiers, a phD in theoretical mathematics, was a hedge fund manager who did that thing where you give up all the money to chase your dream of being an artist.

His financial experience includes a stint as managing director at Deutsche Bank’s prop trading desk, before becoming CIO of Saiers Capital, the hedge fund that bears his name. His creative career gives credence to the theory that working as an artist is more and more a privilege of the very wealthy.

CNBC estimated Saiers’s wealth to be around $50 million at the time of he departed from the financial industry to pick up his paintbrushes.

The Rat Joins a Tradition of Sculpture-as-Commentary in FiDi

The Bitcoin rat, which stands on Maiden Lane, isn’t the first pop up sculpture to grace Manhattan’s financial district. Last year, Kristen Visbal’s 50 inch bronze ‘Fearless Girl’ statue made waves by staring down the famous ‘Charging Bull’, to the outrage of ‘Charging Bull’ sculptor Arturo Di Modica. The 3.5 ton ‘Charging Bull’ itself was left on Wall Street in the middle of the night when Di Modica originally created it, obstructing traffic and drawing the curiosity of passers by.

When Saiers placed the Bitcoin rat, he initially set it up on private property and was promptly ushered off by security guards, who he says were good natured about the situation. He expects the sculpture to be more temporary than the aforementioned Wall Street bronzes, and will probably only be around for a few days.

A Critique of the 2008 Bailouts

The placement of the rat on Maiden Lane seems to be no accident, but rather a reference to the Maiden Lane Transactions, more commonly known as that time when the Fed bailed out the big banks after they all caused the 2008 market crash. The Bitcoin crowd’s antipathy towards the Fed and the big banks is palpable in Sairs’s rat sculpture, and while a more specific meaning eludes, perhaps the success of the piece depends upon its ability to start conversations about the state of finance.

We’ll leave it to the viewers to decide who’s the rat—the Federal Reserve, or Bitcoin itself—and what that means for the future of currencies.

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