American Myth: Get Rich on Bitcoin

Bag holders seldom make good history

My grandparents migrated to California from Oklahoma after the Dust Bowl. They are honest and simple people, with a deep respect for authenticity (if they did not use so many words). They believe televangelists are preaching for God’s sake, not their credit line’s. They settle for nothing less than a good deal and could never understand why people would pay for “brand.” The elaborate and invisible rules of “class” are not just ridiculous, but also offensive artifice. Why are you acting like you’re better than us and what are you up to anyway? In a way, it’s a very Protestant attitude, reaching all the way back to the Pilgrims’ resentment of the Church and value of honesty, simplicity, and all-around “goodness.” In another way, it’s a distinctively rural American ethos: trust your neighbors and no one else (Local politicians seem especially contentious in these settings. On one hand, they are your neighbor. On the other, they are your leader. I think this is why the California governor is often hated so much more than the President back home.) When my father passed away, that side of the family showed up in blue jeans in an otherwise black sea, not out of disrespect, but out of humility, honesty, and “realness.” Wearing black to a funeral is just another one of those high-horse rules that puts a wall between you and everyone else there, another way you’re trying to act differently than who you really are. Artifice.

This distrust of banks and the “centralized financial system” goes back centuries. America has a troubled history with financial institutions and I think a lot of people, owing to a lack of real-world experience with certain segments of rural America, don’t realize the extent of this. We tend to think of the 2008 financial crisis as if it were the sole and singular time banks had failed in this country. In reality, anyone who took more than regular high school U.S. history will tell you there have been countless “panics,” “crashes,” and “booms” and, if anything, instability is just about the only thing you can count out from a bird’s eye view.

As cryptocurrencies rise and fall to stunning new levels, it’s clear to me that a lot of this speculative frenzy is driven by a particularly American idea of “getting rich quick.” I sense I’ve already stirred the pot on two accounts so let me clarify.

First, this is not truly a 100% uniquely American experience. However, I do think America’s class system is unique in its invisibility and youth, priming the grounds for the idea of the American Dream: someone who can suddenly and miraculously climb to the higher classes “by their bootstraps” with hard work and foresight. Other class systems in other countries are generally much more visible and much older, with a less idealistic take on upward mobility. Second, of course there are those who are interested in cryptocurrency on philosophical and political levels, with a genuine hope that they can curb institutional corruption and help liberate people from financial dependence. That said, I think it’s obvious there are two camps: those who got into cryptocurrency early based on belief they can change the world (and who just so happen to maybe have made a lot of money as a “reward” for their early adoption) and those who got into cryptocurrency to make a buck (or several million). If everyone was the former, I don’t think we would see the extreme volatility and speculation in the markets that we do now. So, it’s clear there are at least two rough camps in this space.

This speculation is sustained by hope that you too can “get rich quick.” After all, so did Vitalik Buterin. So did the developer who “bought his dream house with crypto profits.” So did the youngest crypto millionaire ever. And “so can I!” you think as you watch the price of Bitcoin climb to $60,000 during one of the worst years in memory. You too can get rich quick. All it takes is a wise investment and some nerve. The man (yes, it’s always a man) who “struck gold” is a particular American myth, driven by:

In short: the American Dream. “Anyone can make it here.” Cryptocurrency puts a nice, new, mathematical sheen over it, but it’s the same idea that inspired The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and snake oil salesman. Oops, I just lost the crypto advocates.

Remember, I am not talking about those into decentralized finance on hopeful ideals. I am talking about Michael Saylor; I am talking about Anthony Pompliano; I am talking about Chamath Palihapitiya. I am talking about those who profit from insincere calls to American Dream, those who tweet “HODL” as they cash out for millions. Of course, saying “The American Dream” is a bit too cliché at this point, so it’s given a distinct post-2008 twist. “They don’t want us to win.” “The establishment is against us.” “The media will never stop.” In a word: Okie. I see the same distrust I see in my father’s side of the family. I see cash under mattresses. I see those simultaneously hurting and hoping for the American Dream: “I can, or should, be as rich as them because I work hard and I am an individual, not like the ostriches with their heads in the sand.”

The American myth of “getting rich quick” speaks to all of us, even though we laugh at the idea on its face. “What a stupid idea,” we say. Obviously, that can never happen. Getting rich takes hard work, savvy, and grit. Working for years when no one believes in you. Eating top ramen in a studio apartment while reading Buffett. Buying Bitcoin in 2017 and building up a Twitter following you can preach to, thus making your own holdings thousands of times more profitable. And we believe it. Surely, if it happened to them, I can do it too. I’ll know when to get out before the crash. I’m smarter than that. This isn’t Joel Olsteen, no. Look at the numbers. Numbers don’t lie. We’re rebuilding the future taken from us by Wall Street, by bankers. I can sell when the numbers are good, and I’ll be richer for it. I too can get rich quick.

FUD, you declare. I’m a FUDster who doesn’t understand the real power here. I’m shilling, I’m reaching, I’m a boomer with his head in the sand. It’s an interesting word, that: FUD. It originally came from the same “centralized” financial system in the 1960s cryptocurrency advocates critique. It was used by marketers and salespeople to describe the customer’s reluctance to purchase something. The customer was scared of being duped, uncertain about the truth, and doubtful of the salesperson’s intentions. As a marketer, you need to overcome FUD. You need to make people believe that you aren’t selling them something at all. The goods are there and you can buy if you want to. You can buy if you have the money, if you want the status, if you’re getting a good deal, if you’re smart enough to do so, if you believe in the decentralized future, if you want to get rich quick. What an easier way to dispel all accusations of FUD than to lob some yourself. What an easier way to dispel all criticism than to cry FUD at any at all.

The truth is, I won’t deny it, I suppose I do have FUD. I think everyone does. It would be hard not to when you see prices rise and fall in multiples every month. It’s easy to say that if I were intelligent, I would have full trust in the future. I would know exactly how cryptocurrency is going to be received or regulated by governments and institutions. But I don’t. I have no idea how the centralized banking system, which we have established is consistently volatile, is going to react to being pushed out of the system it helped build. I have no idea if Bitcoin is going to be pennies or millions next month, or next year, or next decade. What I do know is that a lot of people are profiting from this uncertainty by providing the illusion of not only certainty, but of capital. Not just returns on your investment capital, but of buying your dream home capital or taking a private jet to your island capital. We believe them, we believe in “getting rich quick” despite all our protests that we don’t. We believe in the American myth of the hard-working, quick-thinking common man turned millionaire. And we don’t just believe, but we identify with him too. That’s gonna be me, if I jump in now. If I buy low and sell high. If I outsmart Wall Street.

The more I come back to my grandparents, the more I feel for those who feel hopeless against a system that’s supposed to make them happy, but never seems to get around to it. I feel for the Twitter accounts wanting to get back at the banks by buying a house, or paying off loans, or taking care of their parents. I don’t blame their distrust of the traditional financial system, for all the countless crashes and burns it has inflicted on us all. I don’t blame their want to believe that cryptocurrency is the future, that they will get rich quick, and that this will be their turn. But as I see the speculative frenzy, the pushers and peddlers, and all the appeals that we’re “all in this together,” the more I realize; you don’t buy into the American myth. You live or die by it.

Coder, writer, dreamer, memer, and former Webizen.

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