A Negative Peace
October 8, 2020 3:58 PM   Subscribe

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong announced last month that social activism was no longer welcome at the “apolitical” tech company, offering severance to those who disagreed; so far, 5% of employees have accepted. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham praised Armstrong, predicting “most successful companies will follow”, while Casey Newton thinks banning politics from the workplace is easier said than done. Erica Joy believes the move is retaliation against Coinbase engineers who walked off the job in June because Armstrong wouldn’t say “black lives matter”.
posted by adrianhon (73 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
What a schmuck. Coinbase is an explicitly political company working on a cryptocurrency libertarian wet dream. At least they acknowledged that in their followup, although not in a thoughtful way. Somehow they plan to draw a line where "libertarian economic politics: OK" but "any other politics: not OK". Good luck with that.

I also appreciated this commentary on the demographics of who has quit:
In other news, people with less economic freedom less likely to quit their job while they have one in a pandemic.

To be fair to Brian, he does run a cryptocurrency startup, so it's understandable that economics aren't his subject.
posted by Nelson at 4:09 PM on October 8 [70 favorites]


My Surprised Face
posted by Windopaene at 4:21 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


Our company is engaged in campaign to help with our 'values' without defining that subtle concept of course. Most recently there was a discussion of 'courage' as a value: no corporation wants courage from its workers, that is so far down the list of traits that are rewarded, it's invisible.

I connect these events to the posted article in that they share the idea that corporations should behave as if they can actually extract and repurpose fundamental aspects of humanity from workers. Very frustrating.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:25 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


there is no. such. thing. as an apolitical process conducted by a person or people.

there are apolitical objects. sure!
apolitical concepts in the ultra-abstract.

but if people do it (or ultimately at the limit even talk about it) it is inherently political.
posted by lalochezia at 4:27 PM on October 8 [24 favorites]


"Banning politics in the workplace" does not mean banning politics, it means banning disagreements with the company's leadership's politics. It can be impressive how many aspects of life that ends up reaching. I'd be impressed if labor law allows this ah fuckit, there's probably already a precedent set during or after Scalia's tenure in the Supreme Court.
posted by at by at 4:48 PM on October 8 [40 favorites]


Coinbase’s office used to have signs indicating that employees can use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable. Those signs were deemed too political and were removed.
posted by icebergs at 4:52 PM on October 8 [23 favorites]


Their entire company revolves around computers shouting Numberwang while wasting enough resources to power a city. There are politics there, they just don't see them.

I miss the old days, when cryptocurrency was just people cobbling together video cards in weird rigs, and not some monster ego who thinks the world will really change because of yet another ICO.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:54 PM on October 8 [42 favorites]


5% seemed kind of low to me at first, but I on reconsideration I guess that the kind of person who goes to work for yet another cryptocurrency startup probably skews libertarian to begin with.
posted by axiom at 5:04 PM on October 8 [3 favorites]


By social activism, of course, he simply means accountability and dissent. It is the cryptolibertarian vision, ultimately; to be free of both.
posted by mhoye at 5:06 PM on October 8 [20 favorites]


There are politics there, they just don't see them.

This needs to be smacked into every tech bro's head with a clue-by-four.

We straight white men continually bathe in our own cultural hegemony to the point where apolitical basically means the continuation of that hegemony, not any absence of political thought or considerations.

It's stuff like Kyle hires his best friend Brad instead of promoting a perfectly competent women from within. The fact that Brad hired his straight white male friend while ignoring the more qualified woman was absolutely a political action but they see it as apolitical because it's the default of how things are done and to consciously hire a woman instead of a man would be a political statement.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 5:06 PM on October 8 [66 favorites]


'Neutrality' in the face of oppression is support for the oppressors.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:37 PM on October 8 [28 favorites]


Is this legal?
posted by Lyme Drop at 5:38 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Why wouldn't it be? Political affiliation isn't protected.

Somehow they plan to draw a line where "libertarian economic politics: OK" but "any other politics: not OK".

Right: libertarian means "do what you want," so no criticizing anything that results from it.
posted by rhizome at 5:42 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Sure, blockchain technology is one way to approach a collective action problem, using techniques that are available to anyone, living one's politics and beliefs in the company of other people of a like mind, and embodying a particular ideal of the good life in one's workplace, but kids, do you know what's even cooler? Joining a trade union. Do it today!
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:42 PM on October 8 [8 favorites]


California law does not allow retaliation against employees for their political beliefs. They can require "no political talk in the office," and define that pretty much however they like, but taking any action against people for their at-home political activities can set off lawsuits. And it's possible that rules against "politics in the office" are subject to the same laws as allowing union talk in some circumstances; can't stop people from talking on their breaks.

Some states protect employees' rights to political beliefs/activities; some don't. Coinbase's main center is San Francisco, which has some of the strongest employee protection laws in the country. They've basically just put up a huge target that says "We intend to discriminate against people based on their political views."

So... this is going to be interesting.

I'd really love to see what his definition of "apolitical" is.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:43 PM on October 8 [14 favorites]


I'd really love to see what his definition of "apolitical" is.

Merely asking that question is political. You're fired.
posted by clawsoon at 5:45 PM on October 8 [23 favorites]


This ends like that scene in A Bug’s Life, doesn’t it. “You’re fired! You’re fired!”
posted by mhoye at 5:59 PM on October 8


And over here at everyone's favorite fruit company, my engineering org is going to offer a workshop literally titled "A World Without Police" as part of our recent inclusion/diversity initiatives. We are the ying to their yang.

My circle of "tech dudes in semi-bigtime engineering positions" played "skinhead of just bald white dude?" with the CEO when this came out, and I settled on "skinhead" since it's pretty obvious that apolitical just means "Don't email everyone about Black Lives Matter and/or the Green New Deal". If, let's say, the IRS started really putting the screws to people to clamp down on crypto-tax shenanigans, I'm sure Coinbase would be hiring the coaches to take all the employees to protest in front of Congress right out of the company's budget.

Anyway, my thoughts are this will be like how things are with Uber. At some point, hiring managers at other companies will start looking at ex-Coinbase resumes and judge them on when they left and wonder what type of employee would stick around after certain news came to light.
posted by sideshow at 6:06 PM on October 8 [6 favorites]


Sometime shortly after George Floyd's murder, there was an email that the HR department where I work sent out to everyone, with the subject line simply reading "protests". I opened it expecting to see some kind of polite-but-firm CYA thing stating that if people wanted to attend a protest, please do not wear anything with the corporate logo or say anything that would lead people to think you represented the company and blah blah blah.

This is not what it said.

It said first that it respected and valued each employee's right to protest or express themselves. And so, if any of us wanted to leave work early at any time because they wanted to go attend a protest, feel free - just make sure you let your manager know and let us know, and stay safe.

....I will follow this company to my grave.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:15 PM on October 8 [73 favorites]


Well, in the late 1980s, I was hired to the best-paying job of my life at a 'financial' firm that lived (and ultimately died) with the Junk Bond craze despite me totally not believing in the concept. After the company collapsed and I was laid off with the most golden parachute I'd ever experienced, I took my time to find something at a company doing something I could believe in and ended up doing beancounting for ten years at a company that did "environmental engineering" alongside an engineer who lost his own business because of one customer who refused to pay his bills because he didn't believe in what he was doing... you may have heard of him; Donald Trump. Two lessons I learned... you can't separate the politics from the rest of your life, and in America, you just can't win.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:17 PM on October 8 [6 favorites]


They can require "no political talk in the office.

Isn’t that what they’re doing here? Not that this is so trivially defined or enforced but it’s the nominal thrust of the statement. This is a definite break with a lot of tech companies, which are as sideshow says. I mean they are chill with the expression of a general social progressivism - even in, say, recruiting emails - anyway. Probably a little less so if you started talking about things that hit closer to home!

Anyway I think Paul Graham is wrong here even from a purely competitive standpoint. I think it probably just turns Coinbase into, you know, the GMU Econ of companies (if they aren’t already).
posted by atoxyl at 6:18 PM on October 8


I guess what I’m trying to say is - tech companies trying to be all “look we’re not a regular soulless corporation” is, of course, kind of a sham on some level. But this feels like one of those things that amounts to announcing “actually we’ve decided to be more of a regular soulless corporation” and that doesn’t tend to go over well.
posted by atoxyl at 6:28 PM on October 8


Metafilter: I think Paul Graham is wrong
posted by Nelson at 7:35 PM on October 8 [20 favorites]


Boy was I surprised to get to the end of that Medium post and see that it had been authored by a white man.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:51 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


You can't stand still on a cryptographic train.
posted by geoff. at 8:15 PM on October 8


I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments...They want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world.
And of course it's not the people *doing* racist shit--people who divide the world into groups and treat those groups unequally--who are "divisive." No, it's the people who point out that this division exists who are "divisive."

He says he wants a refuge from division but he means he wants a place where he can pretend division doesn't exist.

I can't deny that ignoring externalities and other forms of denial can sometimes be a successful business model, but sticking your head in the sand and pretending the world is something it isn't is also how a lot of companies fail.
posted by straight at 8:26 PM on October 8 [7 favorites]


As usual, I am reminded of my favorite-ever quote about libertarians, from Malcolm MacLachlan in the Summer 1998 edition of In Formation.:
There is nothing particularly innovative about short-sightedness and lack of compassion. Nevertheless, the way libertarians combine these elements is innovative.
posted by bixfrankonis at 8:55 PM on October 8 [45 favorites]


At this point when I see the word “division” I know it means “pushback to white supremacy” and “male hegemony.” I don’t know a single right-thinking person who is worried about “division.” Division is not an issue in itself. It’s evidence of resistance to correcting injustice.
posted by Miko at 9:20 PM on October 8 [18 favorites]


what struck me about this was how simply childish it is. the idea that you can divorce politics from the workplace is silly. but like much of the valley and "companies" like coinbase nothing makes much sense. to be honest, though, i thought the severance package was very generous and if'd worked there i'd have probably taken it regardless (excellent use of VC money). as long as they don't get paid in bitcoin that is.
posted by iboxifoo at 9:22 PM on October 8


But hey, it's totally fine for them to drop $200,000 in 2019 on lobbying expenses!
posted by brookeb at 9:40 PM on October 8 [10 favorites]


Corey Robin (2014) on libertarianism and workplaces:
Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:07 PM on October 8 [6 favorites]


In other news, people with less economic freedom less likely to quit their job while they have one in a pandemic.

Hands up all those who don't want to be crucified here!
posted by Cardinal Fang at 11:30 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Coinbase’s office used to have signs indicating that employees can use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable. Those signs were deemed too political and were removed.

Are you allowed to punch senior management in the face? No? Why not? Because of a law? Passed by politicians? That sounds too political to me.
posted by Dysk at 11:35 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


Can't believe cryptocurrency is still a thing. Stop trying to make crypto happen. It ain't gonna happen. Congrats to the 5% of employees who escaped these Ponzi-scheme enablers, and I hope they all find jobs that are much more valuable and where they are valued.

Also I'm going to go right ahead and assume "organising a union" would be a political statement in the workplace?
posted by Jimbob at 12:14 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


There have been a lot of difficult events in the world this year: a global pandemic, shelter in place, social unrest, widespread protests and riots, and west coast wildfires. On top of that we have a contentious U.S. election on the horizon.

The execution of Black people and others by police officers is notably but unsurprisingly absent from that list. Miko, your comment flagged as fantastic. Those folks pretending to care about division are the same ones who helped create it by steamrolling over our democracy, among other things. The entrepreneurs and VCs in Silicon Valley like to talk about finding employees who are a good cultural fit for their companies. And by that they usually mean white and sometimes libertarian, with various other things depending on the quirks of any given particular set of founders. The quirks often include racism and misogyny.

I was once a contractor at a famous fruit company, which had a very elaborate structure to avoid making contractors employees. The bus driver on the particular corporate bus I used most frequently had to work two jobs to make a living. All of the people I saw on the cleaning staff were people of color. I don’t doubt that the privileged employees at that company have a fair amount of freedom to be more political for a given flavor of political that fits comfortably within the corporate culture. But I promise you that if any union organizers show up, that progressive facade will disappear instantly.

That place was lovely. I was super happy to work there. It was not Coinbase. But profit-making companies have essentially one job, and they don’t give a shit about marginalized and oppressed people except to the extent that they may feel the need to murmur sweet nothings into the ears of highly paid talent in order to reassure and/or comfort them during “divisive” times. TL;DR: the capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy sucks.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:13 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


What a heinous glob of oblivious, self-centered, management-speak bullshit. I hope so many employees take the severance package option that the company is bankrupted, except that that won't happen because the company is run on magic sky money.

I particularly enjoyed this plum from the follow-up to the "stop disagreeing with the CEO's politics at work" memo:
Does Coinbase just stand for making a profit?

No, we stand for accomplishing the mission and for creating a great place to work. Growing revenue and profit is the only way [...] to accomplish the mission.
So basically they do just stand for making profits, but with extra steps.
posted by mmcg at 2:08 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


So basically they do just stand for making profits, but with extra steps.

It's the centuries-old logical fallacy, retooled to fit a mission statement.

Do we stand for A? No, we stand for B. Doing A is the only way to do B.

Mr. Logic: So, Mr. Leghorn, do you intend to cross the road?
Mr. Leghorn: No, I intend to get to the other side. Crossing the road is the only way to get to the other side.
Mr. Logic: Why not use the overhead bridge?
Mr. Leghorn: AAAAAH, SHADDAP!
posted by Cardinal Fang at 4:00 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

Or, as Milton Friedman put it, the element of a capitalist society is not the individual but the family.
posted by acb at 4:57 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Their entire company revolves around computers shouting Numberwang while wasting enough resources to power a city.

To be fair, you can trade both Stellar Lumens (XLM) and Ripple (XRP) on Coinbase. Both of these use consensus-based algorithms for deciding which blocks become approved for tacking onto the blockchain rather than proof-of-work, which means they don't involve burning electricity at country scale for no good reason.

That said, there is indeed a lot more BTC and ETH being traded than anything else, and both of those do waste unconscionable amounts of energy per transaction.

Even so, it's really time to stop trying to pretend that crypto "isn't happening". Sure, BTC is virtually useless as an actual currency right now; too expensive and too slow. But XLM and XRP both work very well indeed. Both networks offer very cheap transactions that usually settle in under ten seconds.

Though not much chop as a currency, as a speculative investment gamble BTC has paid off bigtime for those who got in early. I bought AU$600 worth very early on for curiosity's sake, then frittered them away on buying random stuff and trading them for $AU on MtGox; and if I'd had a lick of sense and kept my BTC balance in my own wallet after the novelty wore off instead of being gullible enough to give Mark fucking Karpeles the opportunity to steal them all, I'd actually be a multimillionaire right now.

Sure, the value of a Bitcoin is completely arbitrary. But since we are all trapped in the Stupidest Timeline, the going rate for trading them has been hanging about in the US$10k ballpark for the last two years. Personally I have no intention of buying back into BTC because I strongly object to wasting electricity at country scale and would love to see them crash; but enough people do hold them now, and have enough experience with making money on their volatility, that the likelihood of a total value crash is really very low. They're really not a bubble any more.

I have been both holding and trading XLM, mainly because I got a Keybase account which makes that a super easy thing to do. They go up, they go down. When they look kind of cheap I buy them. When they look kind of expensive I sell them again. And at the cost of almost no effort on my part, this has already made me more money than reason would suggest it has any right to.

But I don't trade on Coinbase because they're run by a pack of fucking arseholes.
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


What an excellent endorsement of cryptocurrency as a casino! You left out the other reason for crypto trading though, money laundering for Chinese citizens. Globally too.

The funny thing about Coinbase is they're the one crypto related company that's at least trying to be legitimate. Their business doesn't involve direct scams or money laundering or creating a black market. They're like the legit crypto company, and if anyone is going to be central to turning magic beans into a real currency it's them. I just think that's a dumb mission to hold up as your sacred reason for being. And pretending you can do that without touching politics is absurd. Also trying to avoid the political situation of today in America means you're allying with the white supremacists.
posted by Nelson at 7:07 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


There are politics there, they just don't see them.

First thing that came to mind was techbros who make shooty shooty bang bang video games that are all focused on killing and using violence to solve problems claiming that their games don't contain political messages.

In 2020, anyone who says their business is apolitical is lying in their self-interest.
posted by deadaluspark at 7:29 AM on October 9


The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-wing Extremism, by David Golumbia, makes a good case.

Also, a good takedown of cryptocurrency/blockchain/smart contracts is David Gerard's Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. Gerard asserts that if you took away the grift and the sketchy Libertarian ideology, there'd be nothing of note left.
posted by acb at 7:34 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


"it's really time to stop trying to pretend that crypto "isn't happening""

I was really looking forward to finally getting an explanation of what it's useful for.

"Both networks offer very cheap transactions that usually settle in under ten seconds."

How cheap? Is "under ten seconds" good? How does that compare to the systems that banks already use to process billions of transactions daily?
posted by bfields at 7:54 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


XRP: dunno, I don't use it.

Current XLM performance
Stellar nodes now online

Is "under ten seconds" good?

I've never experienced it as onerous.

How does that compare to the systems that banks already use to process billions of transactions daily?

From an end user point of view? Stellar has always felt faster, to me, than Paypal or Stripe. I will be interested to see how sustainable that is as popularity grows, if it ever actually does.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 AM on October 9


It sounds to me like they're anticipating a trump victory and are signaling eager compliance with what they expect to be the new political/cultural regime for the foreseeable future. The petty and cruel and bathroom sign removal really cements that for me.
posted by treepour at 8:26 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


It sounds to me like they're anticipating a trump victory and are signaling eager compliance with what they expect to be the new political/cultural regime for the foreseeable future. The petty and cruel and bathroom sign removal really cements that for me.

It's a libertarian tech company so 50-50 they had complaints from the few women they do actually employ about dudebros going into a bathroom saying "AS AN ATTACK HELICOPTER I AM MOST COMFORTABLE USING THE WOMEN'S BATHROOM".
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:33 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


As ever, n-gate's webshit weekly — a sarcastic weekly round-up of the top stories on HN — captures this perfectly:
Coinbase offers exit package for employees not comfortable with its mission
September 30, 2020 (comments)

Bitcoin Idiots, LLC announces that their leadership team is sufficiently rich and non-black that they no longer need to care about anything except making money (actual) off of the gullible children who play with the company's money (pretend). Anyone unwilling to ignore trivial externalities such as human rights violations is invited to fuck off immediately. Hackernews is not rich enough to make such proclamations, but hopes one day to be, and thus gives this garbage person a standing ovation. Hackernews then posts one thousand comments griping about all the horrible times that someone other than Hackernews has had the audacity to express an opinion about human society, and the disastrous effect said utterance immediately had upon the Important Business Activities that Hackernews cares about. One Hackernews explicitly compares "endangered species conservation" to "American police murdering an unarmed man in broad daylight," and finds them to be equivalently political topics. In cadence, every other Hackernews lists the specific human right they want to ignore, but can't because their coworkers will hate them.
(In ww parlance, "a Hackernews" is one who comments in HN threads.)
posted by scruss at 8:56 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


This statement is dressed up to be about politics but it's really about morality. They might as well come out and tell their employees they'll screw them over without a thought because they don't care about them. I feel really fortunate to work for a startup with the diametrically opposite perspective and unlike Coinbase who is still in the investor-fed-ponzi-scheme stage of semi-survival, being politically active and standing up for our employees has proven to be the foundation of our unexpectedly massive success, especially during covid. Might as well send out an email saying oh yeah those options we promised you really are worthless because we found out we could take a few million off the table in a funding round. Additionally, this just says to me the company is majority white male and will never be anything else. We support BLM because we have a lot of black employees, for example.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:58 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


A rule of thumb: if you feel that your existence is or can be apolitical, you are probably the baddies.
posted by klanawa at 9:27 AM on October 9 [8 favorites]


I was really looking forward to finally getting an explanation of what it's useful for.



It’s useful for buying drugs, jeez.
posted by atoxyl at 9:58 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


It's useful if you're concerned your local currency will be/ is losing value and you can't get a bank account for USD/EUR or a similarly stable currency.

For example, South America has notably embraced because their home currencies are unstable (at best) and only the most affluent have access to banks, let alone a bank that holds a stable currency. Link .

It's not all good and it's not all bad, and if you dislike fiat currencies/capitalism you'll HATE crypto but there are plenty of uses.
posted by Braeburn at 12:36 PM on October 9


For example, South America has notably embraced because their home currencies are unstable (at best)

Except when you read that article, it gives next to no indication of how popular crypto is compared to real money. It’s just a bunch of vague anecdotes. Burger King accepts crypto in one country now! Brazil had $3bn in crypto transactions! (In a country with a $2 trillion GDP - the article doesn’t mention that). 55% of adults have mobile phones!

That’s not “embracing”, that is slightly above the average of the same close-to-zero adoption you see everywhere.

And, by the way, Keybase adopting Stellar Lumens instantly turned into a spam-filled joke. Everything crypto touches turns to shit.
posted by Jimbob at 12:59 PM on October 9


It's not all good and it's not all bad, and if you dislike fiat currencies/capitalism you'll HATE crypto but there are plenty of uses.

Don’t a lot of crypto people hate fiat currency? That’s why Bitcoin is pseudo-scarce.
posted by atoxyl at 1:05 PM on October 9


Is there any meaningful push in the crypto community to retire Proof of Work for Proof of Stake or other consensus algorithms? They're brought up as rebuttals to the environmental damage but best I can tell the most hyped currencies still lean heavily on useless hash challenges. Usually, they'll then say conventional banking also hurts the environment because [insane overestimation of how much electricity a bank chain uses] and that Bitcoin was really the proof of concept and the future is the coin they just bought.

It feels like Clean Coal, an iffy solution hyped up to distract from a continued pattern of harm.

If the exchanges gave a shit about the environment, they could stop trading Proof of Work coins. Since it's hard to establish an exchange, this would lower the price of Bitcoin, scale back mining, and they'd have little competition to take them out. Honestly, from what I've seen, an influx of Bitcoin exhiles might just knock out other exchanges because of the challenges of scaling while managing high stakes security.
posted by ikea_femme at 1:05 PM on October 9 [3 favorites]


It's useful if you're concerned your local currency will be/ is losing value and you can't get a bank account for USD/EUR or a similarly stable currency.

Right, that's the international money laundering thing. Most of the time folks doing that are illegally bypassing local laws that prevent them from exchanging local currency to USD. I mean sure, a black market currency is great for that! But it is unsavory at best.
posted by Nelson at 1:12 PM on October 9


So okay, I'm an adult and am now old enough to have seen the era before cryptocurrency, nascent cryptocurrency, and the state of things today. My question for those better informed than me: is there an actual use for this stuff beyond crime, or speculation, or a theoretical stateless fiat currency which will be so awesome just as soon as the bubble pops?

And don't get me wrong -- I'm a fan of crime, speculation, and statelessness in certain contexts. Extralegal financial transactions can have their place in an otherwise well-tuned society. There is some theoretical argument to be made for capital to propel itself forward as a perpetual value machine. Smashing the state with crypto is the hottest cypherpunk trend of 1996.

With all of that taken as granted is there, right now, today, a reason to pour money, effort, or time into cryptocurrency, aside from hoping it increases in value or pure faith in better living through asymmetrical hashing algorithms?

Theoretically, if I agree to stay schtum about my own feelings and beliefs and throw all-in as a Coinbase employee, what exactly would I be working towards?

I just cannot for the life me understand why someone would do that. Perhaps my perspective is too limited.
posted by mmcg at 2:20 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]


With all of that taken as granted is there, right now, today, a reason to pour money, effort, or time into cryptocurrency, aside from hoping it increases in value or pure faith in better living through asymmetrical hashing algorithms?

The biggest problem is that non-cash payments are being oligarchized. If you want someone to pay you online, without a cryptocurrency you are pretty much at the mercy of the Visa/MC duopoly.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 2:43 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Right, sure, but hasn't my ability to exchange value, even with cash, always been oligarchized? Prior to crypto I had government-issued fiat currency, fungible goods and specie or whatever, all essentially controlled by a greater power than myself or my peers.

Further, I can pay lots of people online without a payment processor or intermediary. I can ship them cattle in exchange for something else, or issue a contract saying I'll provide them with some work in six months in exchange for equivalent effort. This is ridiculous of course but possible.

What makes online transactions so special? We've gotten very used to using payment processors as essential intermediaries in our commercial lives, but I don't see the practical difference for me, the individual, if it's MasterCard taking whatever percent versus the blockchain eating value and spitting it out as a mining reward.
posted by mmcg at 3:11 PM on October 9


I think cryptocurrencies have been around long enough that it's pretty clear what their applications are in practice: speculation/gambling/Ponzi schemes, black markets, money laundering, evading capital controls, and ransomware. Maybe also turning electricity into money, but that overlaps with evading capital controls (buy electricity with local currency, mine Bitcoin, sell Bitcoin for foreign currency).

People who pour money, effort, or time into cryptocurrencies mostly either want to speculate/buy drugs/pay ransoms or are okay with supporting that. There are some libertarians that see this as a good thing: legalized gambling, a free market for drugs, and no state control over capital flows are all pretty libertarian. But if you're not interested in those, I'm not sure what's in crypto for you.

The biggest problem is that non-cash payments are being oligarchized. If you want someone to pay you online, without a cryptocurrency you are pretty much at the mercy of the Visa/MC duopoly.

It depends on where you are. Sweden, for instance, has gone almost cashless, and their most popular payment app, Swish, is run by a consortium of Swedish banks, with free transactions for individuals and flat $.10-.30 fees for merchants. The responses to this tweet (esp. this thread and this thread) are a pretty good introduction to how bad the US banking system is compared to other countries.
posted by ectabo at 3:38 PM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Is there any meaningful push in the crypto community to retire Proof of Work for Proof of Stake or other consensus algorithms?

Etherium is moving to a Proof of Stake model. FileCoin is also interesting as it rewards nodes with accessible online storage.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:19 PM on October 9


Don’t a lot of crypto people hate fiat currency?

Isn't it the very definition of fiat currency?
posted by Miko at 6:28 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


This is a very interesting debate for a few reasons.

First off, the Coinbase policy has to be seen in the context of how its competing (for employees) tech companies have dealt with the issue of "politics" in the workplace.

Both Google and Facebook have been hit by controversies with "victims" from the right (James Damore in Google) and the left (alienated Facebook employees).

A good faith interpretation of what Coinbase is trying to do is to just avoid this type of controversy altogether. Companies are the vehicles of capitalism, and it is hopelessly naive to expect them to have "values."

I see Coinbase's approach to this as an imperfect first step to recognising this honestly. This is not their intent, nor is it to be lauded per se: it should be seen as a corporation not pretending to be "virtuous" like "don't be evil" Google (remember that?).

Second, this illustrates that the answer to societal ills is not "corporate activism" or "corporate social responsibility." The answer is a functioning democratic political system that constrains the worst excesses of corporations.

Criticising a corporation for following its corporate interests is missing the point to such a degree that I cannot understand why anyone would engage with this "controversy."
posted by hankmajor at 4:04 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Your cynicism is part of the problem, hankmajor.

First, as to why anyone would engage with this controversy, for me at least it's because I work loosely in the same tech industry as Coinbase. I have friends who've worked there. This attitude is pervasive in many companies and it's garbage and needs to be resisted.

Second, the attitude that companies should be apolitical neutral profit-generators is very off trend these days. The big moment for this change recently was the 2019 Business Roundtable meeting. "It was an explicit rebuke of the notion that the role of the corporation is to maximize profits at all costs." A lot of this energy is centered on climate change, where companies with long visions are realizing that maximizing short term profit will kill the very world they require to operate in. But it's a theme for other issues of human welfare too; wealth equality, social justice (in the US), health.

Back to the tech industry, many tech companies sell a vision much bigger than just doing a job. You're not just punching in for 8 hours doing a mindless job. You're expected to "bring your whole self" and make the company part of your life. There's plenty of reasons to be resistant to that sort of all-enveloping worldview of work. But to the extent it is a thing, to have those same jobs then demand that you ignore the political world is ridiculous and offensive.
posted by Nelson at 5:39 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


I disagree profoundly with your characterization of my view as "cynical."

Your point boils down to "it is unfashionable for corporations to be perceived as pure profit-seeking entities." My point is that, de facto, they are.

To change this you change the system, not the individual corporations.

To do this, you address the political system and the laws.

Why waste your time dissing players when the game is the problem?
posted by hankmajor at 6:12 PM on October 10


You're overlooking the profit-making impact of being seen as a pariah by employees in your industry. You'll struggle to hire the best and the brightest at the same rates as everyone else if a substantial portion of your industry are reluctant to work for you.
posted by Dysk at 9:33 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I'm not overlooking it. In fact, I agree. If a corporation's "values" hurt its profitability, its "values" probably will change. But by making this point you confirm mine: the values a corporation has are always going to be contingent on its profit motive. They will blow with the wind.

Change the political system, not corporations operating within it. Arguing over whether a corporation [x] or [y] is "virtuous" is such a waste of time.
posted by hankmajor at 11:24 PM on October 10


Arguing about whether corporation [x] or [y] has complete failures as human beings in upper management positions might well not be, though.

The main thing I believe that it pays to keep in mind about corporations under capitalism is that from a political point of view they operate as little carve-outs from the very democracies they rely upon to provide them with their freedom to operate.

The power structure inside a corporation is essentially feudal, not democratic. What upper management says goes, and anybody who doesn't like that will pretty quickly find themselves deported (or even, in the case of American corporations whose provision of health insurance genuinely can make the difference between life and death, executed).

Now, one way to make all that a bit more humane would certainly be to introduce more democracy into the corporate structure. Co-operatives do that, and statistically speaking there is indeed less per-capita employee brutalization by management in co-ops than in companies where small numbers of people hold large proportions of shares. Strong worker unions can also help a lot, but only if their own leadership structures remain genuinely democratic.

But there's also much to be said for using social forces as well as arguing for structural reforms in order to shape corporate behaviour. If acting like a complete arsehole is widely understood to incur high social costs, corporate managers have a strong personal disincentive to issue orders that make them look like complete arseholes.

Coinbase the corporation might or might not be considered virtuous. But there's no question at all in my mind that any manager who attempts to stamp out some arbitrarily ill-defined collection of workplace behaviours on the grounds that those are "political" is not only a complete arsehole but desperately stupid with it.
posted by flabdablet at 1:09 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


But by making this point you confirm mine:

No, I'm just saying that even from your flawed perspective it doesn't make sense. I do not agree that pure profit motive is the only motivating factor for management, much as the rest of us aren't rational economic actors.
posted by Dysk at 2:12 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Brian Armstrong isn't alone. Lew Cirne, CEO of New Relic, donates to various deplorable causes including an anti-LGBT school. Also he wishes his employees would just be good little worker drones
Two days later Cirne sent a scolding memo to the entire company, admonishing employees to work harder and warning that New Relic was trailing competitors. Most controversially, Cirne said he was shutting down further internal debate over New Relic’s public response to Black Lives Matter and other civil rights issues. He invited employees to leave New Relic if they disagreed with the company’s approach.
posted by Nelson at 5:52 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


"No, I'm just saying that even from your flawed perspective it doesn't make sense. I do not agree that pure profit motive is the only motivating factor for management, much as the rest of us aren't rational economic actors."

Have you ever worked for a corporation? If it is "cynicism" to state that pure profit motive is the only real motivating factor for a company, then we are really in cloud cuckoo land.

Coinbase is a company that is about to IPO. As a public company, it is about to enter a legal regime that legally mandates it to serve only shareholder interests, i.e. a profit motive. At this point in its existence, more than any, it needs to portray itself as a profit-motivated actor. You can argue around the margins about what the reputational cost of adopting certain stances would be. But Coinbase is doing this to prove to the world that it will not be distracted from making money.
posted by hankmajor at 4:46 PM on October 12


hankmajor: As a public company, it is about to enter a legal regime that legally mandates it to serve only shareholder interests, i.e. a profit motive.

As I understand it - and I Am Not A Lawyer - your "de facto" claim above is more accurate than your "de jure" claim here. Common Misunderstandings About Corporations, from Cornell Law School:
Third, corporate directors are not required to maximize shareholder value. As the U.S. Supreme Court recently stated, "modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so." ( BURWELL v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. ) In nearly all legal jurisdictions, disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be the interest of the business corporate entity, even if this differs from maximizing profits for present shareholders. Usually maximizing shareholder value is not a legal obligation, but the product of the pressure that activist shareholders, stock-based compensation schemes and financial markets impose on corporate directors.
posted by clawsoon at 2:11 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]


Yeah, shareholder supremacy is only a trait of contemporary corporate capitalism, and not law. And before anybody says "but mah fiduciary responsibilities!" know that shareholder suits against executives for spending money wrong rarely happen. Corporate leadership has wide latitude in how they run the company.

They simply don't want to do otherwise than enrich shareholders, and that's merely a choice.
posted by rhizome at 4:46 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]


If it is "cynicism" to state that pure profit motive is the only real motivating factor for a company, then we are really in cloud cuckoo land.

You keep talking about "companies". I said management. Who are humans, with human foibles like prejudices, blind spots, and preconceived notions. And they're also the people who make decisions that then get attributed to "companies".
posted by Dysk at 9:42 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]


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