More than 10 years on, decentralized finance is still bullshit

I generally want to avoid talking about the news, but the GameStop fiasco this year has renewed a push for decentralized systems of stock ownership and exchange. And armchair economists who misunderstand how money and inflation works are hyping crypto and decentralized finance as a panacea to looming “hyperinflation” that has supposedly been just around the corner for about a decade. And these inflation truthers are never wrong, its just “the official stats are manipulated,” and what about the price of lumber?

Where was I?

Right – the problem is most of the promised benefits of DeFi still amount to illusory hand-waving [1]. The first and most obvious problem with “DeFi” as a concept is that everyone will end up operating through a centralized exchange (a la Coinbase) for convenience anyway, defeating the purpose of “decentralization.” And if you don’t, we’re going to lose all the mechanisms that protect us from ourselves and that we take for granted in our current financial system:

  • Forgot your password? Customer service can help you regain access.
  • Added an extra 0 to your order? Transferred your money to the wrong recipient? No problem, transactions can be reversed due to mistakes.
  • Your five year old got on and accidentally traded your net worth for doge? No problem, call in and fix it.

The main problem/feature of the blockchain that breaks finance is that it attempts to completely dissociate technical rules from legal ones. It is well established that you cannot legally keep money that was sent to you by accident. Most blockchains though, are irreversible by design, even in cases of obvious fraud. This poses real problems for law enforcement and umm, anyone who cares about fairness. Dealing with exceptions, reversing mistaken & fraudulent transactions, and the whole web of “human judgment and intermediaries” is treated like unnecessary baggage….and the collateral damage is treated with a shrug. Until those are solved, we’re trading one set of problems for another. But crypto enthusiasts refuse to even acknowledge the tradeoffs – at least until they (or their exchange) get hacked, and they learn the actual meaning of “irreversible.”

And its frustrating because there could be real and tangible benefits to cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Perhaps the greatest embarrassment of 21st century human technology is that we haven’t yet solved cross-border payments yet. We might as well try a different approach with crypto.

It’s just that very few people are actually working on solving real problems like this with blockchain. Overt manipulation, tax avoidance, speculative bubbles, organized crime, and crazy volatility seems to be par for the course. You might think “it seems kind of silly to try and build a financial system on top of such a foundation” and I wouldn’t blame you. Luckily, almost nobody is even trying: crypto is mostly used for crypto. Speculative investments, “yield farming,” exit scams, and money laundering seem to be the main use cases. Almost every Ethereum project is either an outright scam or Yet Another Way to Manage your Cryptocurrency Wallets. It would be as if the bittorrent inventors could only think of “transferring bittorrent clients to each other over bittorrent” as their main use case.

It’s a sad joke.

[1] The one possible exception: if it drags the world financial system into the modern age without changing anything else, it will be an unalloyed good. There’s no real reason money transfers can only occur on weekdays, or for stock trades to take 2 days to settle.

pcai

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