Meet Patrick Byrne: Bitcoin Messiah, CEO of Overstock, Scourge of Wall Street

patrickbyrne10 Feb 2014 / Wired – Patrick Byrne says the zombie apocalypse is coming, and there’s one thing that can save us: bitcoin.

He tells me this during a phone call from his car, a black Tesla Model S that’s winding its way through the mountains above Salt Lake City, on its way to Byrne’s home in the Utah ski country. Byrne is the CEO and chairman of Salt Lake’s Overstock.com, one of the world’s largest online retailers with more than $1.3 billion a year in sales, and he’s about to place an enormous bet on bitcoin, the digital currency that exists only on the internet.

In the estimation of many leading economists, bitcoin is a fatally flawed idea shaped by people who don’t really understand how money works. But Byrne is an unorthodox thinker, a three-time cancer survivor with a PhD in philosophy who’s never been afraid to fight for what the rest of the world sees as complete madness. Though he runs a company that’s publicly traded on Wall Street, he spent much of the last decade accusing Wall Street’s biggest brokers of widespread corruption — not to mention Wall Street hedge funds, analysts, reporters, and government regulators — arguing in the most grandiloquent terms that their greed would eventually bring the country crashing down. It’s no surprise that his maverick career would collide with the equally iconoclastic bitcoin. It’s as if his whole life has been leading to this.

‘Someday, either zombies walk the Earth or something close to that. Bitcoin is the solution’

— Patrick Byrne

As he drives to his mountain cabin, Byrne reveals that his company is a week away from accepting payments in bitcoin, and he sees this as a small but important step toward a financial revolution the world so desperately needs. He has long warned that our economy is hurtling toward another massive recession — what he calls the zombie apocalypse — and he believes bitcoin can shelter us from the fallout.

If the digital currency reaches its true potential, he tells me, it might even avert this apocalypse all-together. “Someday, either zombies walk the Earth or something close to that,” says Byrne, the son of the man who built the GEICO insurance empire, Jack Byrne, and a protege of Warren Buffet, the most successful investor in the history of Wall Street. “Bitcoin is the solution.”

In recent months, countless others have floated bitcoin as a panacea for the world’s financial ills. But like Marc Andreessen, one of the founding fathers of the web browser, who has also put his weight behind the digital currency, Byrne brings more than highfalutin metaphors to the table. The 51-year-old has proven that, beneath his wonderfully entertaining and often perplexing way of describing the world, he has a knack for seeing where things are going before others do.

The problem with the modern economy, Byrne says, is that it rests on the whims of our government and our big banks, that each has the power to create money that’s backed by nothing but themselves. Thanks to what’s called fractional reserve banking, a bank can take in $10 in deposits, but then loan out $100. The government can make more dollars at any time, instantly reducing the currency’s value. Eventually, he says, laying down a classic libertarian metaphor, this “magic money tree” will come crashing down.

But bitcoin is different. It’s like online gold: The supply of the digital currency is controlled by software running across a worldwide network of computers, and its value is decided not by the feds or the big banks, but by the people. “It can make our country more robust,” says Byrne, a disciple of the Austrian school of economics, which holds that our economy should rest on the judgments of individuals, not a central authority. “We want a money that some government mandarin can’t just whisk into existence with a pen stroke.”

Zombies. Magic money trees. Mandarins. As Byrne admits, it’s a ten-dollar answer to my ten-cent question about his plans for the future of Overstock.com, and although I know the man well, I can’t help but wonder how much of this is just him calling attention to himself. But a week after this phone call, Byrne will make good on his promise, as Overstock becomes the first major online retailer to accept payments in bitcoin, letting you buy everything from patio furniture to smartphone cases with the fledgling digital currency. And the following month, during Overstock’s quarterly earnings call, he will reveal that he has personally converted millions of dollars into bitcoin. The Overstock CEO is placing more than one big bet on an unpredictable future, but Byrne has proven himself prescient before — about the internet and the media as well as the economy.

It’s only natural that Overstock would be the first big-name company to embrace bitcoin, and you can bet that Byrne is serious about pushing the digital currency into the everyday world. On one level, Overstock is your basic bargain retailer, a company that will sell you just about anything on the cheap. But under the leadership of Byrne — who’s not only a doctor of philosophy but a onetime amateur boxer — this is also a company that’s seven years into a lawsuit that accuses venerable investment banks Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch of a “massive, illegal stock market manipulation scheme.”….. Read more

http://www.wired.com/business/2014/02/rise-fall-rise-patrick-byrne/

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