Episode #88: 🍭 The Libra Hearings

David Z. Morris from Fortune comes on to talk about the weird viewing experience that was the Libra hearings

Coin Talk
Coin Talk
Aug 5, 2019 · 21 min read

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Show Notes

  • Congress is surprisingly crypto-literate?


Aaron Lammer: So, if you’ve been listening to Coin Talk you know that I’ve been pretty obsessed with Libra. I just think it’s a really interesting moment. It’s an interesting flashlight to shine on the whole world of crypto and bitcoin. And I never really thought that it would become so literal as watching David Marcus get grilled by Congress. I almost felt like I was in a dream where crypto Twitter and the US government just got jumbled in a can and shook up. Tell me about your overall impression of what surprised you about these.

David Z. Morris: I think that what surprised me the most was actually, the positive was just how on top of this stuff, especially the House Finance Committee, seemed to be. I mean, there was some discussion of it from a technical perspective that was pretty solid, but also I think that the House Committee seems way ahead of Facebook itself on understanding how this works as finance. So that’s why, in my eyes, and not everybody agrees with this assessment, but it really to me looked like Marcus was getting kicked around quite badly. Mostly because he just could not give good answers to a lot of the finance regulatory and risk questions, especially in the House today.

Aaron Lammer: I totally agree. My very first note here was Congress seems very well briefed. I’m just going to say a shout out to all the Congressional staffers who struggle even talking to people from Coin Center. Regardless of your feelings about bitcoin and crypto, I think everyone would like to see informed decisions getting made. And it really felt for the first time like Congress knew a lot more about bitcoin than many of my own friends.

David Z. Morris: Hm. Yeah, that was impressive, and then the other big surprise, in a less positive way, I think. I think we have to give a shout out to the wildest moment of the hearings which was when California Representative Brad Sherman said, I’m gonna paraphrase here but he started off by saying that we celebrate innovators. Osama bin Laden was an innovator when he flew two planes into the twin towers, but I think Libra might be a bigger threat to America. That was, I think, the not so great big moment of the hearings for me just from pure shock value. [crosstalk 00:05:19]

Aaron Lammer: That had the distinct feeling of a best man toast going rapidly awry. It had that, I assume most people ran their questions by their staff, and that was the guy who came late and started writing his toast on a napkin and was like, oh, this will go over like gangbusters!

David Z. Morris: Yeah. It seemed ill-considered, let’s put it that way. But it was representative of something… I mean, it was the most extreme point of the sphere, and behind it was definitely a lot of other reps and senators who were understandably, extremely skeptical, and even I would say hostile towards Facebook as an entity and Marcus as a representative of that. So the tone was very skeptical.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah, it reminded me a little bit of a teenager who just got a DUI asking for a raise in their allowance or something. It was kind of like… You’re coming to us with this now? Your reputation is at an all-time low. You’ve failed to deal with problems that are far simpler than running an economy and building a currency, how could you possibly be bringing this now? I think that’s an interesting question because I didn’t realize until these hearings that David Marcus came from PayPal, and he’s been at Facebook for five years. We don’t really know how long Facebook has been planning this. I think it’s safe to say that when they started the Libra project, Facebook was in better governmental graces than they are at this juncture.

David Z. Morris: Absolutely. And I mean, the point about Marcus’s arc, the other thing to know is that as soon as they brought up his PayPal was that he went to Messenger, right? So he ran Messenger for a couple of years and the specific… And Marcus even made this point himself by way of sort of trying to scare people with we’re not gonna be able to compete with China. The reference point for Libra, a lot of people sort of connecting those dots and saying that what they’re trying to do is build an American version of Alipay or WeChat or one of these Chinese platforms where you have integrated payments with chat that also, oh by the way, at least in China, is highly controlled by the authorities. So, the arc that Marcus’s career describes, and whether you can fairly draw that conclusion or not, but it seems to track to some larger interpretations that are happening.

Aaron Lammer: I think the biggest surprise, comment, for me. I don’t remember who said this. But someone, a congressperson said, “I’ve been talking to the Libra partners.” And we’re of course referring to the 27 node holders who include MasterCard, Visa, Uber, and they said basically, I’m paraphrasing. They are all afraid of Facebook. All of them serious reservations. I shouldn’t say all. The ones he had talked to had serious reservations about Libra, but are basically too afraid to opt out, too afraid of missing out on the market. That’s a pretty audacious statement. Do I know that he’s not making that up, I don’t. But if that is true, and if there is real trepidation on their part, which I would understand. I have always wondered why would Visa and MasterCard be [crosstalk 00:09:21] Libra. You’re basically cannibalizing your own market. Or PayPal. You’re basically creating a future in which PayPal is irrelevant. And ultimately when the Libra debit card comes out, MasterCard and Visa could become superfluous.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, and as far as I understand it, none of them have actually yet paid, whatever the $10 million table stakes are. Markets addressed this today that Facebook is the one how has done all the capital investments. But I think that that’s… I actually missed that particular point, but it does connect to kind of a bigger overarching thing, which is a lot of these claims that Facebook is making about not having direct control over Libra or the Libra Association or whatever, the legislators were pushing back against that really hard.

David Z. Morris: And the Libra Association specifically, I also am forgetting who said this, but somebody said something to the effect of, “Oh, you say this a decentralized organization, but did you pick all of the members?” I would really love if I could pick my constituents, if I could pick the people who voted for me. So I think that a lot of Facebook’s efforts to portray the Libra project as either technically or in terms of government, decentralized, really was blown apart today and yesterday. And that was another major theme with the hearing. Yeah, if you look at exactly why are you putting Switzerland? What is going on here?

Aaron Lammer: And the Switzerland thing got instantly shredded. And I feel like from an optics perspective, we all could have seen that coming. They would have been better off to base this in a country that no one has heard of, but Switzerland. Switzerland just screams out money laundering energy. You might as well [crosstalk 00:11:29]

David Z. Morris: In part because crypto projects have been doing it there for a few years now.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah! [crosstalk 00:11:33] and the Nazis were doing it there in the 40s. There’s a history of [crosstalk 00:11:41] people doing unethical financial things, or doing the thing that is not allowed in their country in Switzerland. This is a thing that Congresspeople are going to know about.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, absolutely. But I think that it’s also funny on a shorter timescale because Libra is taking so many pages from the playbook of these fringy, I mean, relatively fringy crypto projects from, being located in Switzerland, to having this “decentralized organization.” And as soon as you got a moderate amount of scrutiny around those things, and once you [inaudible 00:12:23] to somebody with a sullied [inaudible 00:12:27] Facebook tab, they really fell apart. So it was kind of funny just watching Facebook follow in the footsteps of all of these crypto people who said, “Oh, this is all completely fine.” And Facebook is bringing up the rear, and just gets the full machine gun fuselage that somehow all these smaller projects had evaded. So I’ll be honest, I was entertained by that.

Aaron Lammer: I was entertained also. If you look at all the evidence that Libra is not just a Facebook project, it’s basically… It’s not just us, but there’s 27 other people. That got shredded. It’s not in America, it’s Switzerland. That got shredded. And the final one, which I didn’t totally see coming, is how is this a nonprofit? Idea that a nonprofit is going to turn a profit for not just Facebook but all of the partners is a very valid concern. And I understand how many of these crypto projects, the Zcash Foundation are nonprofits. But the Zcash Foundation did not come out of a publicly traded American company.

Aaron Lammer: It’s almost as if Facebook felt like it could completely rebrand itself here in the manner that these crypto projects have. And I see a little bit of… I kind of wander if Mark Zuckerberg just got really into crypto, and was like, “Hey, we should do like a crypto thing like that. We’ll just be a foundation in Switzerland!” And it’s a totally, totally different proposition for this to come out of Facebook, and its like a totally valid question of, if this is going to benefit Facebook, A, it should be in America, and it shouldn’t be a nonprofit.

David Z. Morris: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s a pretty more than reasonable thesis, as well as Zuckerberg [inaudible 00:14:23] just really decide everything that goes on. And I think it’s also, again, just from a base [inaudible 00:14:31] perspective, I think it’s really interesting looking at the contrast between him and not just the Winklevoss twins who are other sort of rivals of his, but him and Jack Dorsey who with Square has sort of just quietly decided we’re going to do some bitcoin immigration, we’re going to support the protocol. And so he’s got the cash out, which I’m sure making a decent amount of money just buying and selling bitcoin. And nothing even close to this has happened. Obviously, it’s not quite as ambitious. But in my entirely subjective perspective is sort of going about it the “right way.”

Aaron Lammer: Yeah, I was just going to say, I feel like there’s a funny alternative timeline where Facebook rejected the idea of Libra, and was like, it would be smarter for us to put a bitcoin wallet in every Facebook account. And probably there are still Congressional hearings about it, but those Congressional hearings would have been really entertaining.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, well, I think they would have been more complicated, and frankly I think they would have been more two sided. Because one of the things that you wouldn’t necessarily… I think I missed maybe one or two points where it was explicitly spelled out. But implicitly there were some statements being made that really did speak to the strengths and both legal and, for at least people on some sides of the aisle, moral advantages of bitcoin over Libra. Because another one of the best pieces of questioning was from this guy Sean Duffy, who’s a representative from Wisconsin.

David Z. Morris: And he started off seeming like he was going to be one of the pro people. There were a couple of, mostly people on the Republican side of the aisle, they said, “Oh, this is great; this is innovative.” And Duffy started off this morning saying, “Oh, this absolutely brilliant and innovative.” That’s the quote. And the very next thing he said was, “Can Milo Yiannopoulos or Louis Farrakhan use this system? If I’m a gun dealer, can they use their system? So obviously the point there is, is this going to be censorship [inaudible 00:16:51]? And whatever else you think about them, some of the debates of speech on Facebook are highlighting some of the problems with platforms having this much power over speech, much less money. So it was [crosstalk 00:17:08]

Aaron Lammer: And this is already one of the defining ways that people talk about how bitcoin is different than PayPal. I mean, Marcus should have been better prepped for that question. [crosstalk 00:17:21] see him, [inaudible 00:17:21]. Like this is the big question of the moment. He should have expected that someone was going to ask a deplatforming question. [crosstalk 00:17:32] it could have been a Democrat asking it the other way, which is, is Libra going to fund hate groups? The funny thing about this thing is that it was almost a weird bipartisan… Like, almost every criticism kind of cut both ways.

David Z. Morris: Exactly. And I mean, Democrats, or whoever it was, did bring up the issue of terrorist financing. And not necessarily gun stuff, but the terrorist financing for sure. And I mean, this is why major America corporations don’t launch their own cryptocurrency. Is because there’s a good reason that these are decentralized. And every good reason that [inaudible 00:18:15] disappeared. And was synonymous. Which was the way these are set up is not to really necessarily please anybody. And I think it was hard to watch on some level because it really seems like Facebook has not thought all that hard about these fundamental issues.

David Z. Morris: Which, not thinking hard about fundamental issues is that something that Facebook could easily patent, but it really… There’s this… I don’t know. There’s a horns of a dilemma that if you own a cryptocurrency, you have to solve, that if you don’t you can just put it out there and kind of let it be a thing. But cuts both ways. And so I don’t think there’s any solution to those questions that’s going to actually make people on either side as long as there’s somebody they can responsible for it.

Aaron Lammer: Well, I think if bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies didn’t exist, Facebook could justifiably say, this is the way of the world. We need to bank the unbanked. Basically give a bunch of the reasons that I think bitcoin is important. Collapsing economies. People putting their money in, foreign remittances, people sending money home. But it has all the problems, and somebody has already solved all those problems, and they’re copying the thing that solved them.

David Z. Morris: Yeah.

Aaron Lammer: I didn’t realize that bitcoin would actually be mentioned so often in these hearings. This was almost equally about Libra and bitcoin and did seem like people, including even the oldest members of Congress, were able to see the differences, and I would say overall people sounded more positive about bitcoin. And so this whole idea that Facebook has that they would come in as a cartel, basically. And say, “Hey, if you don’t go for this regulated Libra stuff, you’re going to get the raw dope over here. You don’t want.” [crosstalk 00:20:21] on its face.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, and I mean, I sort of read that implicit message. I think that Marcus was also saying, if you don’t approve Libra, you’ll somehow wind up with Alipay, and China will control it in the United States, which may be a bit of a stretch. But yeah, it was definitely implicitly or explicitly a lot of stuff about the, maybe not necessarily the benefits of bitcoin universally, but certainly it was about what bitcoin is and what Libra is not. [crosstalk 00:21:02] interesting.

Aaron Lammer: I think a lot of the stuff about the differences, the contrasts between Libra and bitcoin, it’s difficult to make that case without a Libra. Like, Libra is actually a very good foil for bitcoin. In all the ways that people would say, “Well, why do I need that? Why can’t I just use PayPal?” Now that there’s a an actual centralized cryptocurrency. Not a different payment thing that really is based on bank accounts.

Aaron Lammer: I mean, it really can mean PayPal and Venmo are just a layer on top of bank accounts. Now that there’s a true, the PayPal of crypto, and Libra, I think people are actually seeing that these aren’t theoretical, like guy who’s into the block chain and proof of stake kinds of issues. But they’re central issues that come up immediately when you apply digital currencies to the hot button issues of today, like deplatforming, like [inaudible 00:22:08]. Right? And I think the biggest one that actually people really understand is this idea of surveillance that Facebook is basically going to have a one stop shop of information about you that goes from your paycheck to every dollar you spend.

Aaron Lammer: There’s no… You know, on the show I make a joke about making a [inaudible 00:22:31] case for everything? And I have made a [inaudible 00:22:34] case for Libra, because I actually do think they could take off. But there’s no upside to that. Like, there’s no way that you can make the case that putting your life on the Libra network makes it more convenient. It’s all downside.

David Z. Morris: Yeah. And I want to… There were two other things that the representative this morning in particular really saw through that I think it’s important to hit one. And one is, and I’m just thinking from memory here, as far as data goes. Because you mentioned that. What I got from Marcus’ testimony was that Calibra is the wallet that Facebook will control. And that wallet will collect data. And he acknowledged that pretty clearly a couple of times today. So again, you’re back pretty explicitly to the point of we’re Facebook, trust us that we won’t do bad things with this data. And the idea that they don’t control the network, even if that’s false, then becomes irrelevant to the discussion. So that one was several people kind of prepped him on that. And if he laid out the fact that yes, this Calibra wallet, it will collect data.

David Z. Morris: Another important thing just again, I was impressed by the reps really pushed back on that. But implicitly what he admitted was that the Calibra wallet that Facebook controls will be closely integrated with existing Facebook functions. So, whether you’re a seller on Facebook or whatever, the Calibra wallet will be the one that’s there by default. And he said, he used the word interoperable with third party wallets. He said that Libra will be interoperable with third party wallets. And that means the currency will. But several times people pressed him on will you be able to use a third party wallet on Facebook? And on that point, he was very cagey. So it really seems like he got backed into a corner as far as what Facebook’s strategy is. And they’re still going to collect the data through the Calibra wallet. I mean, this is just my impressions. But I think that’s what came through today. So I feel like I walked away on that particular point feeling more skeptical about Libra than I was earlier. Because he got pressed on those points that were a little bit unclear to me at that point.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah, it reminded me a little bit of the history of the Twitter clients.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, exactly.

Aaron Lammer: Where in the early days, anyone could make a Twitter client, and it was like a wide open platform. The API was out there, and people built these great clients. And then you could kind of tell that Twitter was a little less comfortable with the other clients, and they were like, you can build a client, but you got to obey these rules. And then finally there’s a great purge, and they made it very, very hard to make third party clients. And the reason that they did that was that those third party clients would not do all their rich ads and tracking, which is how they made their money.

Aaron Lammer: So for the case of Facebook, I just can’t believe that there’s going to be third party wallets either outside or inside Facebook that make Facebook as much money as their own wallet. And for that reason, it just doesn’t make sense to me that there’s actually going to be a thriving market for third party Libra wallets. Like, I’m using… What is this? Atomic wallet, a Mac desktop crypto wallet. Now, it would be trivial for Facebook’s engineering talent to add Libra here, they have a bunch of shit coins on here so they could certainly figure out how to connect Libra to it. But once you leave Facebook’s ecosystem, unless you have extremely strange restrictions on how these wallets are implemented, it’s much more wild west. And they can’t really regulate all the money laundering that your customers [crosstalk 00:26:47] that they did within the system. So it becomes a catch-22 where I predict is what they’re going to say is, “Yeah, we wanted to do third party wallets, but the money launderers would have used them.”

David Z. Morris: Yeah!

Aaron Lammer: So we had to do it all in-house, and now it’s actually just in the WhatsApp and Instagram and all these places where we completely control the environment. And if there are third party implementations, my guess is that they will be sort of dumb implementations that can just transfer in or out, but you actually need like a hub wallet. Like, I don’t think you’ll be able to get a third party wallet if you don’t already have a native wallet. I can imagine them creating sort of anchor wallets and then satellite wallets, but you’re going to need a mothership anchor wallet. And that mothership anchor wallet has to have an insight into where all of your Libra is.

Aaron Lammer: Because this is even true, even bitcoin, every single wallet attaches to the chain. Everything is logged. Facebook is never going to create a situation where Libra allows you to do things that are hidden from them. And it’s kind of unclear to me, is Libra a blockchain? Will there be Libra analytics from third parties? All this stuff gets very hairy. And pretty much what I heard Marcus say, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, was that Libra would be a superior law enforcement tool because they could just give people direct access, and you wouldn’t have to go through the banks like you do now.

David Z. Morris: Yep. Yeah, I think that the messaging… This was sort of confusing, frankly, from Marcus. Because there was a question, and I again, forgetting the… I don’t have the notes on exactly people’s quotes, but one of the reps this morning, I think, asked, and he used this exact phrase. Is Libra an anonymous bearer instrument? Which, those of us who are “in the space” know that that means, is it cash?

Aaron Lammer: [inaudible 00:28:59] great name for a band, if anyone’s looking.

David Z. Morris: And it’s a great thing. Right? It’s a very useful thing to be in certain ways. And again, I was shocked by the lack of preparation. Because Marcus really went back and forth. At first he said, it’s not. And then he said it is. And this was sort of part of a longer string of answers that he gave the whole day when people asked about KYC/AML, terrorist funding, drug dealers, that whole nexus of things. But he said, and this tracks really well with your theory about the game plan, or at least what would probably happen.

David Z. Morris: He said, “KYC and AML know your customer and anti-laundering stuff. It’s all going to happen through on and off ramps.” So he basically said, wallets and exchanges, with they already said exchanges are going to host Libra. Wallets and exchanges will bear full responsibility for making sure that you’re not a bad person, was my takeaway from the testimony. Which is kind of insane if they’re trying to say, okay, we’re going to start this network and we’re going to play by the rules, but we’re going to outsource the most important part of playing by the rules. And so I don’t understand how any of this squares. It just doesn’t quite add up. And it was just another… It was puzzling how unconvincing some of the things he was [inaudible 00:30:32].

Aaron Lammer: Yeah, there’s a very real belief going on, at least crypto Twitter, that Libra will never launch. And that the whole thing was a sham. And I don’t necessarily by that rumor, but I do buy that some of the things that they’re presenting, like having individual third party wallets police your customer and anti-laundering regulations, are destined to fail. And they know they destined to fail. So you could say that one possible explanation, and this does fit with what we were talking about earlier about them not really intending to have third party wallets, is that they are including several very objectionable parts that people will rightly object to. Those will be cut out, and the whole thing will become smaller, more sanitized, and basically will look like Zuck Bucks on the WhatsApp and Instagram network, which is all Facebook really wants in the first place. I don’t think they really want to revolutionize world money. I don’t think they want the responsibility of it.

Aaron Lammer: It’s cool to imagine a world, and we’ve talked about it on the show, a world where people don’t even remember what Facebook is, and they’re like, “Wow! They started off as a social network, and now they’re the money of the world?” But a much more realistic outcome than the Zuck Bucks outcome, where this is just [inaudible 00:31:57] for Facebook. It’s interoperable with [crosstalk 00:32:02]. It doesn’t really change anything. The Swiss part gets dropped. The nonprofit part gets dropped. And [crosstalk 00:32:10] smaller-

David Z. Morris: The consortium gets dropped.

Aaron Lammer: Yeah. And I don’t, and looks like people are… If those people are negging Facebook behind their backs at congressmen, it doesn’t seem like people are happy about where it’s going.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, and I wonder how people [inaudible 00:32:28] feel about that if and when it happens, when again, I think a really reasonable… Because you just kind of have to engage in some speculative hypothesizing about what is really going on. Like are they, who… They’re actually sincerely trying to push this. Or is there a meta game where they’re kind of angling for a different outcome than what they’re actually stating.

David Z. Morris: And I think that yeah, the idea that they’re just going to shrink it down. Yeah, they tried to do payments on Facebook a few years ago, maybe back in 2012, I think, something like that. They tried to have kind of an internal payment system, and it didn’t work. And I think that, I don’t know, maybe one hypothesis is they’re trying to give it a veneer of not just Facebook, by going through this whole process, and then they’re going to scale it back, and somehow they’re hoping that it will retain this sort of crypto façade for people who are using it, instead of it just being Disney dollars. But I don’t know.

Aaron Lammer: At this point, I bet they do wish they did launch it a couple years ago. But this is the worst possible time to be entering into this. And if it already existed, it would probably be hard to put back in the lab. But I think now, what do you think? What are your odds that Libra ever launches right now in your mind?

David Z. Morris: I don’t think Facebook will tolerate a black eye as big as not doing something. But I don’t know though. Maybe that’s overstating the case. I mean, they have closed products, they have changed things. I mean, maybe they really will just put it back on the shelf, especially after… I mean, this has just been, the last couple days have not been good. Some people disagree, but I really feel like it was a bad showing.

Aaron Lammer: I’ll let you get out of here in a second, but I have one final note here, which is a recurring theme. Which is, I think we can agree that the loser of these hearings was Facebook. And I think the winner is Satoshi Nakamoto. I mean, to see [inaudible 00:34:53] how valuable it would be to have a no leader system. That seems like the smartest thing he did. Of all his decisions, not putting himself in a place to get grilled by congresspeople, very smart move.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that… I missed the second half of the hearings today, but I received some stuff about … Satoshi was actually mentioned in Congress. So I don’t know if that’s a first.

Aaron Lammer: And I think it was Facebook, Satoshi, and shit coins are now in the [crosstalk 00:35:29]

David Z. Morris: Yeah, I saw that.

Aaron Lammer: So that’s a victory. I didn’t realize how much [crosstalk 00:35:35] is actually not about asking questions or getting more information, but putting information into the record.

David Z. Morris: Hm.

Aaron Lammer: So a lot of the questions are not actually questions. They’re just people just wanted to bag on Facebook into the Congressional record.

David Z. Morris: Yeah, I guess I’m not as much of a veteran of listening to those hearings as some people do, were pointing that out. I mean, I was disappointed by… I really thought that Marcus was giving a lot of these edgy answers, and people were cutting him off and moving on to their next point because they thought he was going to not give a real answer. But I guess there is apparently, it seems fair that some people just wanted to spend their time talking.

David Z. Morris: But that being said, even if that was the overriding motivation for the people sitting on the hearings, it still did not look good, from the responses. Not just from what they were saying. Like, it wasn’t just that they were saying negative stuff, it was that Marcus was not adequately responding to the negative stuff.

Aaron Lammer: And I think it’s a win for Congress. I know that there’s probably ardent libertarians out there who are going to say they don’t understand this stuff no matter what. But I was impressed that it seemed like there was a future in which the U.S. government and bitcoin could coexist peacefully and potentially even, it was the kind of thing that could excite them [inaudible 00:37:14] people. So as usual, bullish for bitcoin, from my perspective.

David Z. Morris: Although apparently not from the market. I did not realize we had had such a bad day.

Aaron Lammer: Was it a bad day? [inaudible 00:37:27]. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was a couple of days, perhaps. I think that was more Trump tweets after effects. During the hearings it’s been pretty flat and stable.

David Z. Morris: Well, either way. The happy music, even if the price is down, I think justifies it.

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The official podcast of Bitcoin crashes. Hosted by @aaronlammer and @jaycaspiankang. Mailbag/contact: hi@cointalk.show

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