Macro/Micro: Now accepting bitcoin

You can’t use your Visa. And they won’t take American Express. But my local flea market has started accepting bitcoin. Yes, that’s right. Here in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, you can buy vintage clothing, leather-bound books, Depression-era glass and much, much more with a fake, internet currency.

For those of you unfamiliar, bitcoin is the world’s trendiest non-money. I call it non-money because even though you can buy stuff with it, bitcoin is not a lawfully regulated currency. But unlike the days of the bartering system when my great-grandfather taught piano lessons in exchange for a pig, a bitcoin’s value is assigned and agreed upon uniformly by its entire community of users. As of this writing, according to conversion site, a single bitcoin is worth 82.57 USD. That’s a pretty impressive trade value if you ask me.

To be honest, I’m not really sure how the exchange rate itself is determined. Unlike the US dollar — which at one time was backed by proverbial gold in Fort Knox — there is no commodity backing bitcoin. From what I do know, a developer working under the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto just randomly woke up one day and thought, “Why not develop a currency?” As a result, bitcoin has no country, no legislation or regulation and no one even knows developer Satoshi’s real name — except maybe his mother. It’s free, like the internet it’s traded on, and bitcoin can be purchased or sold by anyone using any computer or smartphone anywhere. New bitcoins are created by computer geniuses who crack the encryption from their parents’ basements (possibly joking about the basement) and every ten minutes, up to twenty-five new bitcoins may be created. But unlike real money, there’s a limit. When we want more money in the United States, the government takes the paper and prints it. Granted, the US Treasury has to worry about devaluing the dollar every time it does this, but technically, it can be done. The bitcoin program, though, is written so that once there are 21 million bitcoins in the world, there will be no more created, ever. In this way, it’s a currency that self-stabilizes without ever touching a bank or a bailout.

It’s kind of cool in that hippie-dippy-trippy sort of way. If money is power, then by placing control of money back in the hands of the people, bitcoin in turn gives power to the people. Part of me kind of wishes I’d thought of it. I’ve known about bitcoin for a while now. I’ll admit, the new un-money first got my attention when it was featured on the “Finding Mr. Bitcoin” episode of the CBS show The Good Wife on January 15, 2012. But April 12, 2013, bitcoin became something non-Good Wife fans couldn’t ignore. It wasn’t just a plotline for a sexy courtroom drama; it was a swinging currency. In the two days prior to April 12, the value of the bitcoin high-peaked, then plunged over 70%. Investors in bitcoin lost more than $2 billion combined. This meant everybody who had a little bitcoin something-something on the side tried to shake off his holdings like an ex-girlfriend Valentine’s date. The servers at Mt. Gox, the Japanese firm where 80% of bitcoin trading happens, shut down from the unexpected increase. I won’t liken the bitcoin rush to Black Tuesday, but it was the internet’s own version of when the citizens of Bedford Falls charged the bank in It’s a Wonderful Life.

That same April, entrepreneur Jeff Berwick announced to CNN Money that he’s developing the world’s first bitcoin ATMs with plans to place the machines in Cyprus and Los Angeles. I won’t get into the obvious underpinnings that the rise of bitcoin says about our apparent, global inability to trust government. From the United States to Japan, we’ve learned worldwide that currency strength can be difficult to maintain. And don’t even get me started on the euro. MultiLingual is a translation magazine, after all, and you definitely don’t want too much financial advice from the girl who barely eked out a C in Economics 101.

But the not-so-obvious question here is when translation companies will start seeing freelancer requests for payment in bitcoin. Or when we’ll start having clients who want to pay that way. After all, bitcoin originally began as an effort to minimize the fees that Visa, PayPal and others charge when it comes to making and spending money across country lines and that’s pretty much what translation companies do — send and receive money across every border imaginable. Paying and receiving the price of translation in bitcoin definitely wouldn’t be without its benefits, especially if tax evasion is your thing. Remember, no governments! But in all seriousness, before the Internal Revenue Service reads this and I have to call Willie Nelson to bail me out, there are a few more substantiated reasons why bitcoin should at least be considered by the world of translation.

The first of these that I thought of is purely humanitarian. Perhaps it’s because I originally entered the language industry as an interpreter working in refugee resettlement, but to me, bitcoin may be the all-too-obvious answer that so many female translators need. There are still many fundamentalist societies — yes, I’m looking at you, Somalia — where women are not allowed to work unless the men in their families are employed. And even then, in many families, the men have to be employed at the same or at a higher level than the woman for the woman to have permission to work. Bitcoin operates independently from banks and is much less traceable than any regulated currency. Payment in bitcoin could make it easier for these women to secretly save and to therefore obtain economic independence. Of course, this is assuming that they not only have the technical know-how but the basic computer equipment required to receive and trade bitcoin, but a woman with the capability to sell her translation online may be more equipped to manage what she’s paid for it in an online environment as well, especially when you think of the rise of mobile in Africa. By making it easier for these women to work independently or to hide their work from overly patriarchal societies, we would also open up the number of possible translators out there for minority languages.

Turning from humanitarian reasons to practical ones, as the owner of a translation company now dealing in the US dollar, the pound and the euro, I’ve got to admit the logistics can be a headache. And despite the constant weighing of one currency against the other, there’s still part of me that feels like we’re underserving our Swiss clients by not offering them rates in the franc. We do pay all of our translators in US dollars — we are American, after all — but accepting payment in the most convenient currency for our clients is a given customer service issue. It’s just every now and then, I think, man, would a universal currency simply be easier to deal with. Again, I only got a C in Economics 101, but even I know the euro’s way of unifying international currency has been nothing short of problematic. So I’m not saying we should do it as a world, but maybe my accountant would be happier if we did it as an industry.

Of course, I really just write about ideas here. “Macro/Micro” was never intended as an end-all, be-all, but rather as a jump-off point. I’m simply trying to create dialogue, to get you thinking more than anything. I look out at the world and I see what I see and I try to figure out how it might impact translation. And last Saturday, I happened to see a sign in the flea market that says they’re now accepting bitcoins.