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But it's certainly made things much, much worse. We're going to move on and talk about other applications and activities going on in Latin America. Before I do, I'm just curious: Where did you get the idea for this story? This particular crazy mix of price controls and subsidies and entrepreneurship?

Well, I actually was in Brazil doing reporting on a couple of different stories, and I ended up meeting with and interviewing members of the Bitcoin community in Brazil. And there's actually, and we can talk about that in a moment--there are actually some parallels to what's happening in Brazil with Bitcoin and what's happening in Venezuela.

And it was through a contact there named Fernando Ulrich, who is really a terrific writer about Bitcoin. He's a Brazilian who turned me onto the fact, just in conversation, that Rodrigo Souza, who runs Surbitcoin, the biggest Bitcoin exchange in Venezuela, works about a mile from where I live in Brooklyn--that he's actually in Brooklyn.

Again, it points to the fact that this is a borderless technology; it doesn't matter where you are. And Rodrigo is--he actually runs a company called Blinktrade, a former NY Stock Exchange software developer who has mimicked the kind of exchange, broker-exchange relationship that the NY Stock Exchange has, where he runs, he has a liquidity pool; he runs the software; and then he interfaces with a variety of countries: Vietnam, Brazil--he runs the biggest exchange in Brazil--Surbitcoin in Venezuela; there's an exchange in Chile.

And there's sort of--there are local brokers who are essentially hooking up his exchange to a bank. And that's sort of how this technology works. And it's right here in Brooklyn. And allowing people to trade in their own domestic currency from bitcoin, which would otherwise be--when you land in Caracas and you go to the--if there is a foreign exchange window there; I don't know if there is--but there is usually a Bitcoin opportunity there.

Well, and I was just going to say, also--when I started to talk to Rodrigo--and he was telling me, again, probably some people who first hear about this: I was having trouble wrapping my head around it--and, you know, how people are mining in Venezuela? I mean, isn't there an electricity shortage there? Anyway, Rodrigo led me to a bunch of other sources and then this story started to unfold.

So, you mentioned Brazil. Talk a little bit about Brazil if you'd like. What else is going on in Latin America, and to what extent does it mirror what's going on in Venezuela? Obviously, not every country has price controls and empty shelves and therefore people are importing food from Miami.

But there are some situations where public policy in Latin America, and Bitcoin is involved in those. There's a lot of currency speculators. Foxbit is the big exchange. The practical use, though, is similar to Venezuela. There are not the same currency controls.

There is not a fixed exchange rate. However, there is an enormous amount of protectionism. If you want to bring money into the country--and these are very complex rules for exactly how much you'll pay--but you might end up paying an income tax and bringing that money into the country of about If you are a Brazilian and you want to use your credit card to buy something from the United States, or you come to the United States and you want to use your credit card for your hotel, you are going to pay a 6.

So, there's an enormous amount of protectionism, sort of. Bitcoin, similar to how Venezuela, it allows you to route around the fixed exchange rate--Bitcoin allows you to route around these punitive taxes. So, for example, if you want to bring an Apple laptop into the country, you get whoever is selling it to you to write you a bill of sale for maybe half the amount, something to show at Customs.

You pay the tax on that amount. And then you pay the rest of the bill in bitcoin. And you pay nothing. So, let's try to understand that.

That's a little puzzling to me. So, let's say--there are a number of ways I could buy a foreign product in a country. I can go to a store that has imported it for me; and usually a store has trouble avoiding, evading tariffs, because they've got a concrete, brick-and-mortar presence and they've got to pay taxes and they've got receipts; and it's just a little more challenging to smuggle goods in.

But, I can also--you know, I can just have somebody ship me--if I have a relative in America, I can ship it. And of course that product shows up at the border--that package--and they inspect them, and things get confiscated or taxed at the border, depending on what's in them. So, I don't understand how Bitcoin is helping me--I mean, I can kind of direct order it.

I don't know if Apple sells direct order to Brazil or other companies do. But how is Bitcoin helping me? I don't quite understand that.

See if you can help me understand that, again. So, Apple, I don't believe would direct-order to Brazil. But, you know, you'd have a third-party company working with Apple that might do that. And, in terms of, bringing that good into the country, when that laptop or phone or whatever you are buying from that re-seller in the United States--that item has to cross Customs.

And you need to produce a Bill of Sale. And the Bill of Sale will show how much you paid. And they are going to make sure that you have paid the tax, the import tax. You have paid the tax, the import tax. So, um, because it's a good, you can't pay for the item through Bitcoin, through this, by circumventing it. So you have to pay for part of it. But then, with Bitcoin, what you can do is you can pay half of it. You can work out a deal with the reseller--and there are many Brazilians who are doing this sort of thing--work out a deal to make up a Bill of Sale for half the price.

And then you are going to--it's tax evasion, essentially. Let me see if I can get this. So, I'm the reseller. So, the Customs' people see a computer. They go, 'Okay, that's reasonable. And that's what's going on. Is that what's happening?

And because you are going through a Bitcoin exchange--in the case of Brazil it's likely going to be Foxbit--it's not going through the banking system. It's not--same thing with just moving money into Brazil.

Where you might be hit depending on the amount, it's fairly complicated. But you might be hit with--if you want to, if you are a company and you want to pay some employees in Brazil, you might pay a Well, you can actually route all that money through a Bitcoin exchange; and then you are not working through a bank bureucracy, which is a sense is in partnership with the Brazilian government.

So therefore you are circumventing that tax. Now, you might say, 'Well, why doesn't the Brazilian--this is happening out in the open? Why doesn't the Brazilian government crack down on this and stop Foxbit from this use? You know, what--are they just making an exchange for other reasons. So that's hard to tell. They could shut down Foxbit entirely.

They could do that. But again, Bitcoin--and this is one of the reasons I'm so optimistic about Bitcoin--it is at its core a peer-to-peer technology. And the technology around Bitcoin has been improving so rapidly that in the near future, these peer-to-peer transactions will be as convenient as working through one of these exchanges. And when Bitcoin is truly peer-to-peer, as it was intended, if you go back to Satoshi Nakamoto's original paper, it is very, very difficult , virtually impossible for anyone to interfere with the movement of money.

Um, and that is, um--that was--short of shutting down the Internet. But I'm curious how the--I'm thinking about that reseller.

They can't--do they advertize? How does that transaction, how does information about this opportunity happen? We'll both be better off.

Because we won't have to pay the tariff. Well, for example, the company called Bit. One, which is moving money into Brazil to get around the tax--they are, I believe, using the Foxbit exchange.

What it is, is that there are some companies to facilitate this process. It's word of mouth. More people in the know are learning about it. And it's not--at this point, I think that big a phenomenon. It's really kind of--what interests me so much about it is what it points to. And of course, like you, given our philosophical preferences, I love the idea that--other people would say that, 'Well, that's horrible. They are breaking the law. And shame on them. And the government should crack down on it.

Well, I would also say to those people that, um, that there has been a black market in getting around these punitive tariffs already. Bitcoin is a much safer way of doing it.

Makes me think a little bit of Silk Road. You know, the Online Drug Bazaar. Which was ultimately shut down by the Feds. You know, it made selling drugs kind of safe and reliable online. You take that away and you give it back to sort of a less predictable, more violent spear of--economy--you know, actors. Of course, my recent interview with Sam Quinones on Dreamland suggests it was some innovations in the deliveries of drugs that are less violent.

It's not that comforting, given what it seems to be leading to. But that's a different topic. Let's talk about the underlying technology of Bitcoin and some of the applications you've noticed in Latin America. Again, it's a fascinating example of an end-around an ineffective or corrupt government system. So, underlying Bitcoin is the Blockchain technology. Describe that, and talk about how people are using that, outside of Bitcoin. I think the easiest way to understand a blockchain is it's a database that nobody controls but everybody can trust.

It is--it is the--right, it so it sort of undergirds Bitcoin. It's basically the ledger. It's similar to the ledger that your bank would hold about when--when Jim Epstein pays Russ Roberts, you know, through a bank transfer, the bank transfer is updated.

In the same way, the Bitcoin ledger lives on this database, call it a blockchain. And it has this ingenious architecture, which allows it to be distributed. So, um, there are copies of the blockchain on computers all over the world. They are updated every 10 minutes with the most recent transactions. You can search any transaction. It can't--what is in the blockchain can't be changed.

So, this, what, pretty soon after Bitcoin arrived on the scene, a lot of very smart people figured out that you could use this underlying this technology of the blockchain for all sorts of applications separate from exchanging currency.

Um, and some of the most exciting applications are in a place like Latin America. You know, what excites me most is actually this idea of putting Land Titles on the Blockchain. I live in New York City. You can look up who paid what for what plot of land, and you can check out the history.

It's not really a problem. Bitcoin doesn't solve any problems here so much. But then you take a country like Honduras, where--and I haven't done my own reporting, but I am told that land records were kept on dusty books in a government office.

You could have people come in and cross out a name and put a different name down. Very difficult to figure out who owns what. It's a complicated legal process. And many of your listeners might be aware of, there's a book called, The Mystery of Capital , by Hernando De Soto, where he talks about this problem in Peru, of insecure ownership of land. And how detrimental that is to an economy. The historian Sam Bass Warner once said that the most important thing that a government does is keep track of who owns what land.

And the fact of the matter is, is that outside of the United States the government has done a fairly poor job of doing that. And this has created all sorts of problems. So, the blockchain offers an opportunity to--you can, in a sense, upload the transactions when a piece of land is traded between to individuals to the blockchain.

There is some complexity there. The blockchain can't--you can't put all the information into a blockchain. But people have come up with ways of creating sort of digital representations of the information of when one person trades a piece of land with another.

So, therefore, you could go onto a blockchain and see, make sure that nobody is coming in and falsifying a record. You can prove the integrity of a transaction. And this has enormous implications. Honduras, which I mentioned--there's a great company out of Austin called Factom which was close to a deal with the government of Honduras to put their land titles on the blockchain.

The project has stalled. There is a project in the Republic of Georgia to put land records on the blockchain. So, you know, it's beginning to happen. There's growing interest in this, at least. There's also--I interviewed a Brazilian entrepreneur who has got a startup that attempts to put notary services on the blockchain.

Now, in the United States, notaries aren't really such a big deal. In Brazil, like a few other Latin American countries, every time you do any transaction, you've got to go to a notary, in person, and they are going to check your signature against a book they have of signatures. It's a very arduous process. If your signature isn't in the store where you happen to be, that's problematic. My understanding is it's cartelized to some degree, the right to run one of these notaries has been handed down through generations; you can't break into this industry.

There's just so much red tape that hurts the economy in Brazil. So, the idea there is if instead of checking a signature, you can upload a document, a representation of a document, to the blockchain. You can then later take the document, check the blockchain, and prove that it's the same record. There's some--I'm trying to avoid some of the technical complexity here. But again, the basic idea is that this database that everyone shares can bring the trust that is missing and is crippling to a lot of these economies.

Well, it's a really interesting example because in economics--well, in policy, we talk very casually about what we call property rights, as if they are straightforward.

There's private property--the right to own stuff. And usually what we mean by that is if the government comes along, it won't confiscate your stuff. You won't come home to find that your house has been turned--in the United States--into some house for a government official. And of course we have eminent domain, which kind of a problem, an interference, with private property.

It's seizure of property. At least there is the idea that you'll be compensated; it's not always done fairly, of course, and the outcomes are not always healthy. But we have basically what we would call private property in the United States. One more footnote--we have zoning and other things. But when I want to sell my property in the United States, it's pretty straightforward--we don't think of that as a problem.

Of course, it is a problem. There is a huge transaction cost with selling a property. Turning a house over, selling it to someone and buying a new house, has thousands of dollars of transactions costs just to prove that it is your house, in deed--literally "in deed"--that you own the house. That the property borders of the house are what you claim they are to the new buyer.

And until you've sold a house you don't realize that that's actually quite complicated. Even in the United States, which has a pretty good functioning legal system and a pretty good respect for private property, proving that you own something is not free. That you are not a squatter. That you are not living in someone else's house. That the land that you've developed, built something on in the back yard, isn't on your neighbor's property, when it conveys to the new buyer.

And so that's just fascinating to me. And of course in a less developed country, a country with a more poorly functioning legal system, that very fact is up in the air. It's like you say--there could be a drawer somewhere of books somewhere with some register or record of who owns what that's very ambiguous.

And that has an enormously costly effect--as De Soto and others have explored. So the idea of improving on that, not just a little bit but potentially getting almost all the transaction costs out of that transaction is a fabulous thing.

Just to chime in on the efficiencies of the system in the United States: If a property has been foreclosed upon and it's being auctioned, in many cases you have to show up if you are interested in that property. You need to show up in person at a certain time and place to make a bid. And have a bank check ready to put down on that.

That's another--and of course what that does is it, you know, it severely narrows the market. Many more people might be interested in bidding on that property; the price would go up significantly.

Bitcoin and the blockchain are a perfect solution to that problem. Well, you call it efficiency: And the legal system is one way--and often the cheapest way--to solve that problem, of getting rid of the ambiguity or the lack of trust that I might have when you represent yourself as a legitimate buyer with credit. And I represent myself as a legitimate seller with the product--that is, the land--that I claim to own.

Or that I own it free and clear, which may not actually be the case. So, all this complexity we are talking about, it's just a reality of the fact that the world is complicated. People don't always tell the truth. And of course sometimes it's not dishonesty--it's just ignorance. Sometimes you might not know about that you share a driveway with the house next door, because you never paid attention to it; when you sold the house you didn't tell that person that that was the case. So, these are just realities.

What's interesting to me about the blockchain is that it does possibly have the potential to just reduce these inevitable costs to a much, much smaller level. I want to mention one more example.

To cut to Mexico, there's a company called Volabit in Mexico; actually up till now it's been serving as a Bitcoin broker. And they are now exploring technology to put Mexican promissory notes--which there has to be a physical paper now, according to the rules in Mexico--putting those on a blockchain.

So that it's easier to prove that you have a loan. Digitizing, in effect, that. The other--Mexico is also interesting as well--let's cut back to Bitcoin for a moment. You know, Mexico doesn't have currency controls. It's easy to move money--it's easy to do a Remit if you are a Mexican in the United States and you want to send money home to your family in Mexico, that corridor is very well developed. You are not going to pay very big fees. In contrast to Venezuela.

And in my piece I talk about one--there's a woman who is sending money home to her family in Venezuela; she was literally having a family member walk cash across the border. Now she's using Bitcoin, because again, it circumvents those controls. But in Mexico, you don't have that advantage, so people were really like, 'Ehh, Mexico is really not going to take off with Bitcoin.

Actually, with the election of Donald Trump, the volume of bitcoin trades in Mexico went berserk. The Mexican peso has just performed terribly in And it's hard--just like in Venezuela--it is hard to get your money into dollars.

You can't keep dollars in a Mexican bank account. So, bitcoin, although still somewhat volatile, not nearly as reliable as the U. Dollar, is a good refuge from inflation. It's also, in Mexico, the people on the exchanges in Mexico have noticed that you have teenagers who want to play video games; they participate in a platform called Steam.

They can now pay in bitcoin. People who don't have access to banking infrastructure. And this is true throughout Latin America. Lots of towns in Mexico don't have a single branch bank. People don't have banks. And there's policy expert, trying to figure out: What can we do about the un-banked? Poor people don't used banks. They use check-cashing places. And it's very expensive. Bitcoin is beginning to show signs of a solution to this--that it is a solution to this problem. Well, my guest today has been Jim Epstein.

Jim, I love your optimism and these little green shoots of possibility for Bitcoin and the blockchain. It'll be fascinating over the next few years to see what comes of them. There's a bitcoin mining opportunity in the US, if you heat your house with resistive heating as used to be common. Every watt used for anything, fans, TVs, and in particular computers, makes the furnace run one watt less. Everything except light that escapes out the window turns into heat at a watt for watt basis.

So the furnace is only special in that it does nothing useful with the power before it becomes heat. So it's free to run your computer in the heating season. You save the cost watt for watt on the furnace. This doesn't apply if you have a heat pump, which is more efficient than resistive heating when it's not very cold out.

Some computation would tell you when to flip on the computers vs outside temperature. A square foot house in Ohio runs an average of watts continuously to heat, which would be a lot of laptops, around a hundred, if anyone wanted to try for free heating. I wonder how much you'd make in bitcoins; not enough to cover the bill, we know, but what fraction. As we are trying to understand what bitcoin means- a country like Venezuela mining bitcoins with their limited resources.

This is mind boggling and the kind of opportunities possible with this technology. Russ and everyone , if you have questions about life in Venezuela, check out Hannah Dreier, the AP correspondent there. She's been living through the crisis and heroically reporting on the descent into utter societal failure. Venezuela appears to be entering the terminal phase of a mortal disease resulting from the self-inflicted wound of Socialism.

The news is that for a clever few, not just political insiders, Bitcoin allows the government to fail without taking down all its citizens in the process. China too is seeing that there are limits to currency manipulation that strips savers of the value of their saving.

Bitcoin, a classically emergent technology, dramatically alters the calculus of sovereign finance through a relief valve larger than any one country or people.

Economics offers considerable insight into what is going on in Venezuela today, and sadly, how this will play out going forward. I don't think you got you fundamental question answered, Russ, in terms of what Bitcoin is accomplishing in Brazil:.

In order for a Brazilian person to buy something from a US website, you first need to 1 Bring some kind of currency into Brazil that has value in the US and then 2 A Brazilian can use that currency to buy something from a store. Traditionally, this "currency" is the US dollar, which means there were people specializing in step 1, smuggling paper dollars into the US in exchange for Brazilian goods that are smuggled out of the country.

The problem is that a US dollar has limited utility in step 2, since not many Brazilian stores will legally accept US currency. On the other hand, if you use Bitcoin, step 1 becomes much easier, since you no longer have to smuggle US paper bills into Brazil.

Similarly, step 2 becomes a lot easier, because a Brazilian person can acquire Bitcoins in Brazil and then immediately buy a vast array of products with it, since they can use the Bitcoin online in US stores, since they no longer are limited to physical bills that only work on the ground in Brazilian stores. Whether it is via black markets simply inefficient capitalism or via alternative monetary methods from bartering to Bitcoin.

You can't use EBT cards for alcohol or drugs, so there is an inner city currency market for EBT cards with informal market exchange rates. The program consists of two 4-day weeks and a final term paper. While many different institutions work on the settlement part of trading financial instruments, few have looked into the advantages Blockchain can offer for trading of loans.

Campus Studenten aller weiteren Programme Mitarbeiter Alumni. Our Mission The Frankfurt School Blockchain Center is a think tank and research center which investigates implications of the blockchain technology for companies and their business models.

Current Projects Research Joint research project: Ethereum-based smart contract for asset-backed securities Education Lectures for bachelor, master, MBA: Gehe zu Commerzbank AG. Gehe zu Ventum Consulting. Past Projects Joint workshop with Deutsche Bundesbank. Studies on the impact of blockchain technologies.

Proof of concept on trading loans using Ethereum. In a proof of concept we show the following advantages: Easier bondholder communication while keeping holders anonymous Anonymous BWICs and AWICs while trust is established through distribution using the technology layer Smart contracts enable the inclusion of fiat currencies into the transaction flow. Study on patent ownership of crypto currency-related technologies. Serial entrepreneur, having founded and successfully sold four companies in the last 15 years Strong focus on disruptive technologies developed by start-ups Engineer in information and high frequency technology from the Federal Higher Technical Institute for Education and Experimentation in Moedling, Austria MBA from the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.


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