The Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous

Published by Wiley Publishing. April 24, 2018

I had seen quite a few quotes from this book on #cryptotwitter (just go to Twitter and type in that hashtag) and most of what I had seen or heard had been broadly favorable. I’d avoided reading any in depth reviews because I knew that I would get around to reading it. When the book came out there was quite a bit of buzz – most of it positive – and also a fair amount of grumpy grumbling from non-Bitcoin-maximalists and those who see a future for other coins and tokens besides Bitcoin. It took me a while to get around to ordering it but finally in late August of 2018, I had a copy in my hands and dove in. I didn’t want to rush so spent about a week going through it.

My first impression. It’s a dog’s breakfast. What a mess. I’m not talking about the contents per se, but more about the lack of a bibliography, the lack of sourcing, the confusing mixture of history and opinion, and the several passages that are repeated word for word in different sections of the book. While I didn’t see any glaring grammar, spelling, or syntax errors – there was a decided lack of professional editing. I’m not sure what Wiley’s editing process is, but they need to improve it.

Professor Ammous needs an editor and he needs one badly. A good editor would have fixed the issues above and also forced Ammous to declare whether he wanted to publish a rambling opinion manifesto or a scholarly work on bitcoin and the history of money. Unfortunately, because that decision was never made – The Bitcoin Standard ends up being simply a rambling opinion manifesto masquerading as a scholarly work. The design of the book is masterful. The cover, the typeset, the layout. It simply lacks anything resembling authority.

It’s hard to take anything Ammous says seriously after reading his scathing and ignorant attacks on Mark Rothko and modern art (not to mention music) or when he calls Milton Keynes, an important economist, a homosexual pedophile as a way of discounting his work. A good editor would have removed those passages and in the process given Ammous some much needed credibility and authority. As it stands, by the time he starts describing Bitcoin and how it can be used, the threats to it, and why it is important – the reader is fatigued and ready to take anything Ammous says as opinionated bullshit – which is unfortunate.

The last three chapters of the book are quite good. Ammous shows why Bitcoin has survived, why it will continue to survive, and why it is the prime candidate to eventually be the world’s main digital currency. Unfortunately, these are just three out of ten chapters. These three chapters would make a good afternoons reading in a quiet place with no distractions. There will be several things repeated (DAO for instance) but overall, that is simply more bad editing.

If I were to guess what happened with this book it would be that Professor Ammous got an advance on a book deal after writing these three chapters and then he was scratching his head wondering how to get the other 80,000 words he needed. He started with the history of money (which is incomplete, but still quite good) and then moved on into his belief in a gold based currency (Austrian School of Economics) and how Bitcoin could become the new ‘Gold Standard’ for the planet. After this, his publisher was pushing him for the other 30-40,000 words and after months of pushing and prodding (because I’m betting the deal was signed near the end of 2018) they finally managed to get him to start submitting more writing and rather than throwing more money into a project that had already passed it’s prime (during the crypto boom from November to February) they just took whatever he sent, had a copywriter go over it, and then published the book. It just has that Frankenstein sort of feel to it – and I don’t mean in a timeless classic sort of way.

I don’t want to mislead anyone. I’m a Bitcoin Maximalist. I think Bitcoin will eventually become our species’ main store of value – on that Professor Ammous and I agree. I also think that centralized banking, the birth of the military-industrial complex, and fractional reserve banking are all three great evils which Bitcoin has the potential to disrupt. The point where we diverge is on whether history is actually a collection of facts or a collection of interpretations. I would go with facts. Ammous tends to go towards interpretations.

On the positive side – I enjoyed his history of money sections and his great explanations of sound money and time preference. Time preference might be the most important concept this book goes into. His explanations about why and how Bitcoin has survived are worthwhile.

On the negative side – the whole middle of the book where he is trying to show he is right by showing that Keynes was wrong. Totally misguided and almost unreadable. Also, despite his obvious expertise on Bitcoin – Ammous demonstrates time and time again that he knows almost nothing about other cryptocurrency and blockchain projects – he simply dismisses them out of hand without naming anything besides Ethereum. I would have enjoyed a deeper dive into the technical aspects of the code.

My recommendation: Read it but get it from the library. Read the first three chapters and then skip to chapter eight and read the last three chapters. Don’t bother looking for a decent bibliography and don’t worry about keeping this as a reference for the future.

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