At a guest lecture at a military academy when the price of a single Bitcoin neared $60,000, I was asked, as finance professors often are, what I thought about cryptocurrencies. Rather than respond with my usual skepticism, I polled the students. More than half of attendees had traded cryptocurrencies, often financed by loans.
I was stunned. How could this population of young people come to spend time and energy in this way? And these students were hardly alone. The appetite for crypto has been most pronounced among Gen Z and millennials. Those groups became investors in the past 15 years at previously unseen rates and with exceedingly optimistic expectations.
I have come to view cryptocurrencies not simply as exotic assets but as a manifestation of a magical thinking that had come to infect part of the generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession — and American capitalism, more broadly.
For these purposes, magical thinking is the assumption that favored conditions will continue on forever without regard for history. It is the minimizing of constraints and trade-offs in favor of techno-utopianism and the exclusive emphasis on positive outcomes and novelty. It is the conflation of virtue with commerce.
Through hostile cities and unfriendly towns
Thirty pieces of silver, no money down
Maybe someday, you will understand
That something for nothing is everybody’s plan
Bob Dylan, "Maybe Someday"