Willis Asks Kevin About Digital Currency Stuff

Here’s another digital-age story. Last month, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced plans for a “sovereign cryptocurrency.” It will be known as the “petro” because it’s backed by crude oil. Maduro says Venezuela will raise $5.9 billion by issuing 100 million units of the new digital coinage at $59 apiece. Venezuela’s opposition-led Congress says this is illegal.


I don’t get it, and I’m not sure Nicolas Maduro does either, but apparently Russia, China, Iran, India, and Estonia are also considering some form of sovereign digital currency. I better ask Kevin Allison what’s going on.

Hey Kevin, what’s a sovereign cryptocurrency?

Good morning, Willis. It’s digital money that uses clever computer code to let people buy things without going through a bank or other financial intermediary. Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was created as an alternative to government-issued fiat money. But a sovereign digital currency would be issued by the state — in the case of the petro, a government in Venezuela that has presided over disastrous hyperinflation.

How is a cryptocurrency different from the money in my wallet?

Your cash, known as fiat money, is backed by a central bank, which can fire up the presses and print more. Cryptocurrencies are backed by code, which makes their total supply a design decision. The total number of Bitcoins that can ever be “mined” was hard-wired into the programming from the start. Other currencies, like Ethereum, don’t limit the number, but that could change. Governments will have to decide whether their cryptocurrencies’ supply would be fixed or variable.

Why would a government want a sovereign cryptocurrency?

To revolutionize commerce and governance by creating a decentralized, tamper-proof method of registering changes in — OK, just kidding. Venezuela’s government probably just wants to raise cash, evade sanctions, and counter US influence. By cutting out financial middlemen like banks, cryptocurrencies exist outside the global payments system, which runs on the US dollar. While some countries are eyeing other benefits, there’s a reason why it’s Venezuela, Russia, and Iran that are most aggressively investigating sovereign cryptocurrencies.

Why would I want to buy a sovereign cryptocurrency?

You’re right to wonder. Is the cryptocurrency secure? Is it easily convertible into cash? Would transactions be anonymous, or would they be tracked? These are open questions.

Should I care about this?

It will create financial opportunities that might not be available today in countries with underdeveloped banking systems. We should all care about that. On the flip side, national cryptocurrencies might also make it easier for governments to track what you buy and sell. That should worry anyone who cares about privacy.

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It's actually all about the mission. It sounds a little stereotypical to say that but the work is so important and there just isn't a do over. I mean, if you mess something up and you have to do it over, often you can do that. But there's just - you could be doing other really useful things. In the case of something like capturing a 16-ton supply ship with the robotic arm, there really isn't a do over and I find it's the mission but it's also kind of just saying, you know, "I have done everything I can to be ready." If you've done your best. No one can ask anything more than that. So you're ready.

Do you apply that to your work life now here on the ground?

I do that, you know, but often I'm like, I will say an example of TED here, I was a little worried about giving a talk and forgetting, or not saying everything I meant to say, and that was all wrapped up in me and then I went to the first night of talks here and I realized that everyone's here because they have something to say and people are here to listen. And that was the important mission, as opposed to me worrying about how I felt about it, and that got me through.



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Why should we stop using the term "fake news"?

I refuse to use it to such an extent that I actually say "f*** news." And the reason is because it's just a completely useless term for describing the complexity of the situation. None of this really masquerades as news. It's content, social posts, videos and most of it isn't fake. Most of it is misleading or old content used out of context. So it's not helpful. And more importantly, it's used to attack a free and independent press - globally. Politicians, not just Trump, many politicians on the left and the right use it to attack a free, independent press. Any reporting that they don't like they dismiss. And actually, when journalists keep using it like, "Oh yeah, but that's what the audience uses." Well, they're using a weapon that's used to attack them. There are many words that we no longer use because we know that they're harmful. This is a harmful word and so we should just stop using it. We can say lies, rumors, conspiracies, propaganda. What is it that we're talking about? Because we don't need to use this phrase!