Redefining Money: America’s digital currency dilemma

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Redefining Money: America’s digital currency dilemma

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the United States House Financial Services Committee marked up two bills to curb the issuance of a central bank digital currency (CBDC). One of the bills would stop the Federal Reserve from running any test programs on CBDCs without congressional approval, while the other would stop federal banks from using CBDCs for some services and products. 

The principal political adversaries to a digital dollar are heavyweights such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who have thrown their hats into the ring to become president a year from November.

In July, DeSantis said that CBDCs would never happen under his administration, citing concerns over consumers losing power over their own money. Kennedy, on the other hand, a known proponent of Bitcoin, is rallying against the digital dollar as it will “vastly magnify the government’s power to suffocate dissent by cutting off access to funds with a keystroke.“

In May, Cointelegraph reported that according to its own research, more than 130 countries were at some stage of research into a CBDC, and only eight had rejected the idea outright. These countries are diverse, from France and Switzerland to Haiti and Bhutan. So, the question must be asked: Why would a country like the United States be so opposed to having its own digital currency?

The idea of a CBDC in itself is nothing too taxing. In essence, digital dollars would be based on blockchain technology rather than having traditional dollars moving around between accounts. That would dramatically decrease transfer times, cut fees, and do away with the “middlemen” — the intermediaries along the way who slow things down and take a cut for themselves.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found that in 2021, there were still 5.9 million “unbanked’ households in the United States, a massive number by any standard.

A CBDC would mean that the Federal Reserve would effectively oversee all the bank transfers in the country, as there would be no alternative. And having everything under one roof means one mistake or failure would affect everyone rather than be limited to one bank, for instance.

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But perhaps the biggest argument against a CBDC is that, for cryptocurrency purists, having a central institution overseeing a currency is the very thing crypto was designed to avoid. Why now make a U-turn?

Political motivations play a significant role in the discussion in the United States. In March 2022, President Joseph Biden said his administration would “place the highest urgency on research and development efforts into the potential design and deployment options of a United States CBDC.”

This provided fodder for the Republican party to come out against the plan, citing invasion of privacy and claiming it was another form of government control. DeSantis even came out with an Orwellian prediction of the government stopping its citizens from buying fossil fuels or guns if such legislation were in place.

This is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked into a CBDC, as it has extensively.

In 2020, the Federal Reserve launched Project Hamilton to study the viability of a CBDC. By 2022, it had developed a system that took elements from the workings of Bitcoin but moved away from its rigid blockchain backbone. The result was a system that can process 1.7 million transactions per second, light years ahead of the Bitcoin blockchain and quicker even than Visa, which can deal with about 65,000 transactions per second.

David Millar, data center coordinator at Santander, told Cointelegraph: “The leaps forward they made during Project Hamilton were truly staggering. When we heard of the progress they were making, we believed that our entire infrastructure would need to be completely revamped within the next five years.”

Nevertheless, the project completed its initial phase in December 2022 and went no further. Once again, voices of dissent from Congress attacked the project, saying it had been carried out solely with academics and the public sector in mind and the average citizen would not benefit. Millar added:

“The time and effort that went into Hamilton and the results they produced; it’s a tragedy that most of it will never see the light of day.”

The issue of privacy is one of the most prominent foes of the digital dollar. The main argument of the dissenters is that if there is to be a digital dollar, it should effectively be like the cash dollar is now, with its benefits of anonymity coupled with the power and speed of a cryptocurrency. Those who favor a digital dollar argue that we already have such a thing, but it’s just not called that yet. Credit card money is digital for all intents and purposes, and are any of us mailing cash to Amazon to pay for things?

The world is moving toward a cashless society, and the U.S. is no exception. In 2022, only 18% of all U.S. payments were made in cash, down from 31% in 2016.

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The U.S. is also a country of strange contradictions. While it surges ahead in many areas, such as technology, its banking system remains rooted in the traditional, with check payments still being the norm. Dragging a whole nation away from that is a tall order.

So, what does the future hold for a potential U.S. CBDC? Well, very little. Project Hamilton closed with no indication of a second phase, and according to Darrell Duffie, a professor of finance at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, while work is continuing, it has slowed to a snail’s pace, and “nobody is charging ahead openly.”

It seems for the foreseeable future, this will be one part of the cryptosphere where the U.S. is not a pioneer.