A long, long time ago—Tuesday to be exact—I went to the polls to vote for a new mayor of New York City. I bubbled in Eric Adams without much thought. What were my other choices, the dude with the despot-red beret who fought the poll workers in the very election he was trying to win while holding his cat? I like my politicians with a touch of crazy, but Curtis Sliwa’s wild-eyed vigilantism seemed a bridge too far. And despite hearing murmurs that Adams was awfully cozy with various monied interests in New York real estate and finance—and that, somewhat bizarrely, no one seems to be precisely sure where he lives—he seemed, in the grand tradition of recent American elections, like the least bad option.
Two days later, Mayor-elect Adams proudly proclaimed on Twitter that he would accept his first three paychecks in Bitcoin. He had to, you see, because the other “Bitcoin bro” mayor, Francis Suarez of Miami, had already said he’d take one of his paychecks in the volatile cryptocurrency. Since Adams had previously vowed to stake out New York as the center of crypto innovation—whatever that might mean—his ego had been challenged. It was time to one-up his Bitcoin-worshipping colleague from South Florida.
Leaving aside the fact that, no, you cannot actually dictate to your employer the currency in which you get paid (“I’d like my fee for this article in gold doubloons if you please, Slate”), this was still an embarrassingly stupid move on the incoming mayor’s part. The grasping for publicity by any means is to be expected—his message was likely appreciated by visitors in town this week for an NFT conference—and the braggadocio is par for the course. But the crypto gloss being overlaid on municipal politics is something relatively novel and more than a bit troubling. Pledging fealty to the Bitcoin cult, promising to become a low-tax crypto playground, laying out the red carpet for the venture capitalists investing in this industry—these are rapidly becoming table stakes for tech-forward mayors. Besides showing a general obsequiousness to the tech industry and an ignorance of people’s real financial problems, it’s worth thinking about the examples being set by Adams, Suarez, and their peers. The message boils down to this: I’m going to take my public salary and gamble it on a speculative store of value, and you should, too! And to further grease the journey into crypto-gambling dystopia, Adams even wants New York to establish its own cryptocurrency, as Miami recently did with MiamiCoin.
Adams’ motivations are unclear, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Wall Street loves a good party (volatility is king and crypto has plenty of it) and that Adams wants to keep those with deep pockets happy. That still doesn’t make it a good idea for a public servant to promote gambling with one’s entire paycheck in what is essentially an unlicensed, unregulated casino. Like many barely considered crypto ventures, Adams’ burgeoning Bitcoin boosterism is dumb and it will end badly. Whenever the crypto bubble pops—the recent stablecoin report issued by the Biden administration may have signaled “last call” to those paying attention—regular people who invested/gambled on crypto are most likely going to be the ones left holding the bag. The least we can ask of the leader of our city is not to encourage such irresponsible behavior, especially since, for people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, playing the crypto lottery is tempting enough already. And just like the lottery, statistically speaking, it’s a loser’s game.
Unfortunately, despite huge countervailing signals that something is deeply wrong with this industry—federal criminal investigations, regulatory fines, a seemingly endless number of scams—the crypto bubble only grows, now hovering around $2.7 trillion. (Whether all that digital funny money is actually worth $2.7 trillion—or closer to zero—is a whole other, but equally important, matter.) Celebrities and other influencers keep signing on to shill crypto (despite us very politely warning them not to in this very magazine!). If you watch sports at all, you have probably been deluged with commercials of Matt Damon telling you, the couchbound fan, that if you don’t man up and buy some crypto, you’re a coward with no sense of destiny. (Think I’m being uncharitable? Just watch the ad.) Crypto is being sold, rather misleadingly, as a fun and futuristic get-rich-quick opportunity with almost no downside. The next mayor seems to be happy to take up this line.
Despite its frequently populist messaging, crypto has big money behind it. Last week, the New York Times published a piece about Andreessen Horowitz—a leading venture capital firm sinking billions of dollars into crypto startups—blitzing Capitol Hill with prewritten, industry-friendly bills presented by slick-talking company officials (some of whom were only recently hired from government regulatory positions). There’s plenty of other money, and influence, splashing around. That Matt Damon ad is part of a $100 million campaign by Crypto.com that will feature other celebrities and pro athletes. This week, almost three years to the day after he was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Securities and Exchange Commission for his role in promoting a cryptocurrency scam, boxer Floyd Mayweather unveiled a purchasable token based on his name. It may all seem a bit ridiculous (and grifty), but to keep things in perspective, one of the biggest industry stories this week was about a man who lost a million dollars of “Bored Ape” NFTs. It’s all very bizarre, but the possibility of fresh money—even digital funny money—may be intoxicating for an eccentric, eager-to-please mayor-in-waiting.
We have big problems in this city, the severity of which Adams, as a Black man, former cop, and victim of NYPD abuse as a minor, is no doubt aware. Let’s focus on those—COVID, homelessness, how to get rid of the BQE, to name a few. But if we want to lessen income inequality, something Adams claims he wants to do, more gambling is not the answer. But just as a thought experiment, if you really believe in this crypto stuff so much, Mayor-elect Adams, why not agree in writing to convert all of your paychecks for as long as you serve into Bitcoin, no matter what price it may fall to in the future? That would be committing to the bit, a test of whether all this crypto worship is merely a performance designed to please tech donors or something you truly believe in.
Anyway, I doubt Sliwa’s economic program would have been any more inspiring or grounded in the concerns of everyday New Yorkers. He also promised to make New York a crypto city. But at least he likes cats.