You Can Laugh At 95% of This
The other 5% should probably be reserved for pity.
Cryptocurrency is tanking.
Last November, Bitcoin and Ethereum—arguably the two biggest cryptocurrencies—hit record-high values, but it’s been mostly downhill since then. Bitcoin’s current price sits at $29,716.50 (down 56.1% from November), while Ethereum is at $1,766.79 (down 63.34%). And they’re among the lucky ones.
A month ago, 1 Terra coin was worth over $96; today, it’s worth $0.00009. TerraUSD, Terra’s so-called “stablecoin” variant—meaning it’s tied to the U.S. dollar and therefore, theoretically immune to market volatility; 1 TerraUSD coin is always supposed to cost $1, regardless of market conditions—dipped to $0.98 on May 9th, was “de-pegged” from the U.S. dollar on the same day, and is now worth $0.18, otherwise known as “not $1.” (Not for nothing, but I thought the whole point of crypto is to move away from fiat currency like the dollar; if that is indeed the case, doesn’t a coin that solely exists as “the U.S. dollar, but crypto” basically render that idea null? I’ll take my answer off the air.)
Anyway, this is all very funny for a few reasons. First, crypto has always been incredibly stupid; there are some 18,000 different kinds of cryptocurrency out there right now, yet only two (Bitcoin and Ethereum) have managed to gain any real traction as a functional alternative to real legal tender—and even those have had mixed results. Bitcoin and Ethereum are head and shoulders above the competition because their purpose is only 95% theoretical: they may be a clunky and awkward alternative to fiat currency, but they are able to be used as such, albeit in very limited and specific circumstances. The same can’t be said for the other 17,998 cryptocurrencies, for which we presently have zero functional use in the real world. You can’t buy groceries with PancakeSwap(?), and you can’t pay your mortgage in Dogecoin.
The problem isn’t so much that they’re speculative investments, because those are everywhere—there’s a market for Manganese futures, for Christ’s sake. But Manganese derives its value from the possibility that it could potentially be used for something in the future; the same cannot be said for 99.99% of cryptocurrencies. In fact, calling their value “entirely theoretical” feels overly generous. It’s like saying paint fumes have “theoretical value” as an alternative to oxygen because maybe humans will evolve to be able to breathe paint fumes, can’t rule it out!
Cryptocurrency is so deep into the weeds of theoretical value that it’s had to create shit—NFTs, SPACs, Web3, the Metaverse, and so on—just to give people a way to use it, which in turn helps them justify having it in the first place. The whole enterprise runs on hype and empty promises, and no matter how hard crypto evangelists try to convince others (and themselves) that we’re standing on the precipice of a new financial order, the reality is far less glamorous. It’s just a multi-level marketing scam on a massive scale: you get rich by convincing some other suckers to buy in, they get rich by convincing other suckers, and on down the line until the last sucker is left holding the bag.
What makes this funny is that most people recognized that cryptocurrency was bullshit from the moment it came into existence, and they collectively took it upon themselves to spend millions upon millions of hours trying to warn crypto die-hards. And what did they get for their efforts?
Then the crypto market started tanking, and while investors watched their savings and their financial futures evaporate before their very eyes, people were lining up to laugh and gloat about it. And they were 1000% right to do so, because it is extremely funny. Imagine if some smug douchebag spent years laughing in your face and bragging that “I got in line early for the Wallet Inspector and you didn’t, and now you’re gonna have to wait for him to inspect alllll these wallets before it’s your turn, you loser!” You’re gonna tell me you wouldn’t enjoy the absolute hell out of the moment it finally dawns on them that they’ve been had? Bullshit.
It’s fine to laugh at all this, I think, but I also think a small sliver of our reaction—somewhere in the neighborhood of five percent—should be reserved for pity; crypto freaks haven’t exactly been beacons of empathy and compassion, so it’s hard to argue they deserve more than that.
Yes, it’s hilarious that people would stake their financial futures on magic beans (actually, not even magic beans, just the idea of magic beans). But people don’t buy the idea that magic beans are the most viable path to financial security unless they already feel they can’t get there any other way. Cryptocurrency is a lie; the vast majority of people buy into it because they’re desperate and they want to believe they still have a chance. And there’s something very sad about that.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the traditional path to financial security—go to college, graduate, get a good job, work hard, retire comfortably—seemed not only possible, but reasonable; easy, even. I knew I might have to take out some student loans, but I also knew I could limit how much I’d need to take out in loans if I got a job on campus. Working 25 hours a week at the Student Health Center at $7.25 an hour nets me $577 a month after taxes (minus $400/month for rent); that should be plenty, right?
Besides, even if I didn’t get a job while I was in school, I didn’t think I had to worry: that Bachelor’s degree I was working on would make me a hot commodity among potential employers, so I could command a good salary at my first job out of college—nothing crazy, maybe in the $50,000–$60,000 range—and I’d be able to pay those loans off in no time. Easy-peasy!
It wasn’t until I graduated from college, moved to Charlotte and started looking for work that I began to realize just how fucked I was. The Great Recession was in full swing, so the only interviews I could get were for straight-commission sales jobs; the first offer I got was for a job that entailed driving around (in my own car, using my own gas) and bothering business owners about switching their landline phone service to AT&T. I “shadowed” their top rep for a full day—unpaid, of course—and watched as he failed to generate even the slightest interest from any of the people whose days he interrupted, let alone make a sale. At the end of the day, the hiring manager said “I never do this, but…I like what I see. I’m gonna hire you.” When I told him I wanted to think about it he started pressuring me to give him an answer right then and there. When I said “Okay, then my answer is no,” he started yelling that I didn’t have what it takes, I was making a huge mistake, and he was going to make sure [I] don’t get a job in this town. I’m sure he had more to say, but I just left while he was yelling. Hell of an introduction to the big-boy workforce.
I’d left college expecting—reasonably, I thought—$50,000–$60,000 a year. After a month, I was convinced I was pricing myself out of jobs by asking for $40,000; by the six-month mark, I was daydreaming about a job that paid $30,000 a year, as long as it was salaried and I didn’t have to work on commission.
Six months: that’s how long it took for $30,000, half of what I initially thought I’d be making, to sound like Rockefeller money. Six months is all it took for me to convince myself that I didn’t deserve more than $30,000 a year anyway because I didn’t have Experience™, as if answering the phone and typing notes into PeopleSoft was some kind of mystical skill that can only be learned by forsaking all your earthly possessions and traveling to a Tibetan cubicle farm for years of intensive study at the feet of the masters. If someone had told me back when I was living on mayonnaise sandwiches that I could get insanely rich by investing in a confusing scheme involving decentralized currency and computers solving equations? I don’t know, man.
It took six years for me to cross the $50,000 threshold, which meant that I spent six years slowly accumulating debt, because being broke is expensive. In 2009 or so, my ‘99 Chrysler with almost 250,000 miles on it inevitably started to shit the bed, and I didn’t have the financial flexibility to just go out and buy a new car. I couldn’t just take the bus to work every day until I found a new car because I lived in Charlotte, a city whose entire public transit system consists of a handful of buses running twice a day and a light rail that runs on a single track from Uptown Charlotte to a field somewhere near the South Carolina border and back again. Disney World has better public transit than Charlotte. So I had to try and get the car fixed—only I couldn’t afford the repair cost on my own, so I had to put it on a Tire Kingdom credit card with a 29% APR. And they didn’t even fix the fucking car! I spent $1,100 for them to shrug and go Well it worked fine when we drove it around! I ended up selling it to a scrapyard for $500, plus I had to borrow $5,000 from my parents to buy a new car.
If I’d had the money in my bank account, I could have bought a new car right away and put the $500 I got for the Chrysler towards that cost, so in total it would have cost me $4,900: $5,400 for the car, less $500 for what I got for selling the Chrysler. But I didn’t have the money, so I ended up spending $6,500 to wind up in the exact same position (since I was still broke, I could only afford to pay down $50 a month on the Tire Kingdom credit card, so by the time I paid it off, I’d paid $500 in interest on top of the initial $1,100).
Being broke just in that single instance cost me an additional $1,600. And that was just one time; there were plenty of similar scenarios over the years. As a result, passing the $50,000 threshold didn’t mean I suddenly had more money than I knew what to do with. It was basically just enough to make me feel a little more comfortable answering my phone because I wasn’t ducking as many collection agencies. I spent six years digging a hole because I had no choice; I spent the next four years slowly climbing out of that hole. Then, in March 2016, I got hired as a project manager for a “digital marketing agency.” I negotiated my ass off and got them to offer me $78,000 a year plus bonuses, and I thought This is it. I’m finally gonna get out of this hole. Easy Street, here I come!
Exactly 90 days later, they fired me.
In fairness, I should never have been hired in the first place, because I didn’t know the first thing about website design or whatever the hell they did. (And apparently neither did my boss, because she got shitcanned a few months after I did. She deserved it, though—she was a colossal asshole and bar none the worst boss I’ve ever had, and I spent five years working at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Laura, if you see this: you fucking suck and I hope you’re miserable wherever you are. Also, thank you for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe.) So I decided to get my Master’s in Journalism, and what a fucking shambles that’s turned out to be. I added a cool $100,000 to my pile of debt to learn absolutely fuck-all about journalism that I didn’t already know from reading the “Sausage” vertical of the old Gawker website. Oh, and 20% off my subscription to Adobe.
168 months have passed since I finished undergrad, and for 165 of those months I’ve felt at least some nagging worry about money. (Even now, despite a pretty steady list of freelance clients, there’s always the fear that the work is going to dry up.) The only reprieve I’ve had from that worry is the 90-day stretch between when I was hired and when I was fired.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
I was lucky that my parents could afford to lend me money for a new car when I was in Charlotte. I was lucky that Enterprise let me transfer up to NYC so I’d have a job right away. I was lucky that my oldest friend Harley gave me a room in his tiny Lower East Side apartment for $600 a month, and it was right near C&C Prosperity Dumpling (4 dumplings for $1). When they raised the rent on the apartment in LES, I was lucky that our other roommate Kevin found a great place in Brooklyn, and I was able to move in with him. My credit was dogshit and my parents had just gone through bankruptcy, and I was lucky that Harley’s parents were generous enough to co-sign the lease. I’m lucky that my landlord is cool and, in exchange for me being the unofficial super in our building, has only raised the rent $200 in the ten years we’ve been here. I’m lucky that my wife is a brilliant clinician who makes good money, and I’m extremely lucky that she encouraged me to keep doing my freelance work and has never once pressured me to go back to a “real” job with more steady income. It was extremely easy to go into debt after I finished undergrad, and I’ve only been able to prevent it from getting worse—to say nothing of actually making a dent in my debt—because of all these lucky breaks.
I’m also lucky that I entered the workforce before the “gig economy” took off and companies realized that, by doing away with frivolous things like “full-time employees” and “benefits,” they could maximize revenues while desperate people are forced to fight over progressively smaller pieces of the pie. I’m lucky that I didn’t grow up in the #grindset era where not wanting to work seven different low-paying gigs means you must not have That Dog In You and therefore you deserve to be broke. In a weird way, I’m lucky that people still worked hard to maintain the illusion of capitalism when I was growing up, because I got to spend my childhood believing that all I had to do to achieve financial security is work hard and go to college. Sure, it turned out to not be true, but at least I didn’t have to grow up watching the ocean burn and hearing some pundit on CNBC go Listen, charred sea otters are Good for the Economy!
That’s what younger generations have had to grow up with: a system that doesn’t work and will never work for them, one that everyone knows is a sham but persists anyway, propped up by the select few who actually benefit from it. A system that tells anyone under the age of 50 that the reason they’ll have a landlord for the rest of their lives—provided they don’t end up homeless—is because they spend too much money on their danged apps and avocado toasts! A system that allows someone like Nancy Pelosi to punt on something as simple as Medicare for All because Kyrstyrn Sinema put a cute little button saying “Single NAYer!” on her sleeveless denim vest. A notionally “left” electorate that hems and haws whenever the opportunity arises to do a single fucking thing to help poor people and says shit like “We can’t just help, we gotta VOTE more!” because it doesn’t actually make a difference to them one way or another. A crumbling society, where the rich suck the last drops of blood from a dying planet solely for the purpose of having those drops in their possession and nobody else’s.
Millennials and Gen Z make up 94% of all cryptocurrency buyers for one simple reason: because this is the world they grew up in. I don’t blame them for looking for a way out, and I can’t fault them for trying—even if their big moonshot is something as patently harmful and hilariously stupid as a JPEG of a cartoon ape.