James Altucher would like to remind us of the math behind cryptocurrency: Two hundred billion dollars in supply. Two hundred trillion dollars of potential demand, even more if you throw in contract law. There’s 10,000 man-years of science behind it. The investment opportunity is bigger than you think, and trust him, he knows. “More than trading, more than charts, more than, like, investing—I run a hedge fund, I’ve been a day trader, I run a bunch of hedge funds, I’ve seen every trade in the book, I’ve written the book! It’s called Trade Like a Hedge Fund. Don’t buy it, I wrote it in 2004 … I worked with Jim Rogers a long time, he hates it—but, but, what you have to ask is, not these little trading things, but what is going on? Why does bitcoin even exist? Why do cryptocurrencies even exist?” he tells a crowd of around 60 people crammed into a comedy club on New York's Upper West Side1.
I’m in the crowd to watch Altucher, a self-help guru, author, and podcaster, participate in a debate. His pale face, framed by crooked, rimless glasses and topped by a fluffy mop of curls, is instantly recognizable from the banner ads that have stalked me around the web for the last couple of months. Altucher, according to the ads, is the “crypto-genius” who will unveil the next bitcoin. Never mind criticisms that he directs his followers to invest in risky small-cap stocks and cryptocurrencies, leading to a temporary bump in their prices followed by a sell-off. Never mind the complaints from some customers that the newsletters and research papers he hawks via publishing company Agora Financial offer obvious information that’s otherwise freely available online. (Altucher and Agora Financial CEO Doug Hill have disputed these complaints.) Tonight he’s introduced as “the bitcoin baron,” “Mr. Bitcoin,” and even “the bitcoin babe.”
The debate topic—Which is a better investment, gold or bitcoin?—is mostly a farce, since both present opportunities for people eager to make a quick buck. (Tonight, it’s just a room full of New Yorkers, but online the supply of suckers is infinite.) Anything in the world can be twisted into a get-rich-quick scheme with the right buzzwords, charisma, and $2,000 newsletter subscriptions. And no one knows this better than James Altucher.
The crypto-genius enters the stage wearing a shiny blue boxing robe over a baggy cardigan over a baggy button-up over a white T-shirt that says “i’m fine.” He just turned 50 and bought a stake in this very comedy club. He relishes in celebrating his failures and counterintuitive rejections of things like college and 401(k)s. Lately, he’s been all-in on digital currency, an area that’s blazing with hype, greed, breathless speculation, and fear of missing out but is poorly understood by most people. Digital currencies are worth something because people value them as worth something, and Altucher’s endorsement can boost the price of the tiny crypto tokens. In that way, his predictions become self-fulfilling—his saying a token is valuable could actually make it so. For a couple of days, at least.
Agora Financial has used Altucher’s messy hair (geniuses don’t primp!), crooked glasses (geniuses don’t care!), and distant stare (geniuses think complex thoughts!) to market his financial advice via ubiquitous banner ads. Despite looking like a stereotypical geek genius, Altucher possesses something most of them don’t—charm, wit, the ability to entertain, and the ability to sell. Just buy this newsletter subscription, and then this research report, and then this video.
Debate opponent James Rickards, who is also a member of Agora Financial’s network of financial forecasters, dons an appropriately gold boxing robe. He is an equally cartoonish physical embodiment of his investment philosophy with a combover and navy sport coat that screams “your grandfather’s safe investment tip.”
Altucher predicts the price of bitcoin will reach $1 million by 2020. Rickards predicts the price of an ounce of gold will go to $10,000 in the same time frame. “So, who’s right?” the opening speaker asks as a rhetorical lead-in.
“JAMES!” someone yells from the audience, though it’s not clear which James he means. Perhaps he means both—neither prediction necessarily negates the other. Early in the debate the Jameses agree on one point: They hate banks and paper money. Altucher notes that paper money requires working with banks, which have endless fees and potential for human error every step of the way. He adds, “Probably most people in here don’t like banks. That’s why you’re here.”
I notice most audience members are sporting an off-duty banker look: Blue-checked button-downs, fleece vests, expensive haircuts, and shiny dress shoes. There are a few shady-looking characters in the back (ahem, neck-tattoo guy). But I see no hoodies, no signs of stereotypical bitcoin bros. Are these (likely) bankers here because they hate the institutions that they (likely) work for? Perhaps they’re just hoping for a hot crypto investment tip. One of them begins taking notes after Altucher name-checks Zcash and Monero, two cryptocurrencies that are well-known among enthusiasts.
The few attendees I meet are either curious lookie-loos trying to learn about bitcoin or fans of one or both Jameses. The fans consider themselves technophiles, even if they don’t work in tech. They’re also investment geeks, even if they don’t work in finance. They’re libertarians, even if they don’t use Reddit. And they’ve bought into bitcoin, even if they don’t actually own that much of it. Bitcoin is now a lifestyle brand and personal identity choice in the same way a Prius signifies environmental awareness or a New Yorker tote shows you’re an aspiring member of the intelligentsia. Getting into crypto shows you support a set of ideals: decentralization, anti-institution, revolution. The social movement is so strong that true believers don’t mind the influx of greed-driven mercenaries in the sector. They don’t even care about the silly stuff like CryptoKitties or Dogecoin, or the ridiculousness of two stock-tip newsletter writers pimping investment ideas in boxing robes. Anything that gets more people involved is a net positive.
Altucher keeps things loose in his opening arguments. We’re in a comedy club, after all. His comedy club. Why not start with a little crowd work? Who here owns bitcoin? Hands fly up, but not every hand, and Altucher zooms in on a woman named Beverly. “So, you’re the only woman in this place who owns a bitcoin. Bitcoin is usually owned by men,” he says, which isn’t true of the bitcoin community, much less of the hands in the air in front of him. He does not seem concerned about the tech industry’s gender disparity or how such comments may perpetuate it.
He puts us at ease by ensuring he won’t get too technical. He’s not here to talk about economics or technology, he says, because “economics is boring, and technology is even more boring.” Buzzwords connect to pat narrative arcs, which connect to punch lines, which connect to applause lines. Everything he says feels Tweetable, except when I go to do so, I realize I’m not exactly sure what it means. Did I miss a word? It certainly sounded good. Altucher delivers a flip explanation of the history of gold as a currency, stating that around 5,000 BC, humans turned gold into coins, which meant gold was no longer a necessary form of currency. By the following year, he says, “it was a rock.”
“It’s a metal, actually,” Rickards quips. Details, details.
The audience laughs when Altucher tells a story about the time he used bitcoin to pay for lap dances at his bachelor party. (At current prices, the bitcoin he used to pay for lap dances would be worth $17 million, so the point is: Don’t worry about volatility.) He gets some laughs noting that the only use for lawyers in the future will be to deal with DUIs. He says his two teenage daughters are “somewhat below average,” adding, “on a scale of zero to 10, [they’re] maybe a three or four in intelligence. And yes, they use digital currencies, but they don’t have the slightest clue about bitcoin. I can explain to them whatever which way, they’re like, ‘Dad, just, we’re too stupid to listen to you.’”
Altucher and Rickards banter over the history of bartering, whether the US government can use cryptocurrency to pay off Afghan warlords, and whether bitcoin mining is a form of the rich stealing from the poor. Rickards jokes that he “needs a net to scoop up all the red herrings” that Altucher released, before declaring bitcoin is a “fraud, a Ponzi, and a bubble all at the same time” and touting 2 billion views on a related Facebook video of his. (Rickards hinted that he is a fan of other cryptocurrencies. Indeed, last week he hawked “the $0.70 crypto that could make you rich in 2018” in a members-only online group called Rickards’ Crypto Profits.)
After the debate, the comedy club’s cofounder shows me a photo of himself with Tracy Morgan, taken at the bar minutes earlier. He tells me that while the rest of us were hitting our two-drink minimums listening to a couple of middle-aged internet personalities promote themselves and their investment tips, Morgan stopped by, saw it wasn’t a normal standup night, and held court at the tiny bar for 30 minutes. Suddenly all the attraction and revulsion and fascination I’ve felt toward the world of cryptocurrencies in recent months makes me dizzy. There’s only one conclusion to draw, and it’s that life is a series of sexist jokes and fake boxing matches, then you die. HODL on for dear life.
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1 CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the comedy club that hosted the debate was on New York City's Upper East Side. It is on the Upper West Side.