Ethereum: Death Through Economic Abstraction?

Cryptocurrency entrepreneur Jeremy Rubin caused quite the stir last week when he declared the collapse of Ethereum to be inevitable. In a TechCrunch article that appeared on Sept. 2, Rubin argued that Ethereum’s scalability issues and failure to adopt more secure contract authoring practices would eventually lead ether to be upstaged by its competitors. Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin took to Reddit on Monday to issue a lengthy response to the article.

Death by Economic Abstraction

The core of Rubin’s argument centers on “economic abstraction,” a term used by the Ethereum community to describe gas payments in a non-ETH asset. Economic abstraction is basically paying smart contract fees through an ERC-20 token instead of Ethereum. In Rubin’s view, allowing smart contract fees to be paid in ERC-20 tokens will eventually make Ethereum redundant, leading to its price collapse.

To illustrate this point, he used the example of “BuzzwordCoin,” a fictional decentralized application that will pay gas in ether. According to Rubin, requiring every BuzzwordCoin transaction to also depend on Ethereum for fees creates significant risk, third party dependency and downward pressure on the underlying token price. In other words, if a user had to sell BuzzwordCoin for ether ahead of time to facilitate a BuzzwordCoin transaction, then the selling will happen before the transaction needs it.

Rubin adds the following:

“Instead of paying for Gas in ETH, we could make every BuzzwordCoin transaction deposit a small amount of BuzzwordCoin directly to the block’s miner’s address to pay for the contract’s execution. Paying for Gas in a non-ETH asset is sometimes referred to as economic abstraction in the Ethereum community.”

Vitalik Responds

In a lengthy Reddit response, Vitalik Buterin partially agreed with Rubin’s analysis but said Ethereum is “likely not doing “full economic abstraction.””

“In Ethereum as it presently exists, this is absolutely true, and in fact, if Ethereum were not to change, all parts of the author’s argument (except the part about proof of stake, which would not even apply to Ethereum as it is today) would be correct.”

To address economic abstraction, Buterin clarified that developers are considering two proposals that require ETH to be paid at the protocol level. The two proposals – modified fee market and storage maintenance fees – would basically make gas payments in ether mandatory.

Buterin said economic abstraction can still happen at the user level but block proposers would still need to “cough up ETH.”

ETH/USD Price Update

Ethereum declined sharply on Wednesday as part of a wider market pullback. At the time of writing, the ether price was down 9.9% at $259, according to CoinMarketCap. The second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap briefly traded above $300 over the weekend but was unable to hold that critical  level. The panic sale has put ether at a weekly loss of more than 11%.

Disclaimer: The author owns bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. He holds investment positions in the coins, but does not engage in short-term or day-trading.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Chief Editor to and Contributor to, Sam Bourgi has spent the past nine years focused on economics, markets and cryptocurrencies. His work has been featured in and cited by some of the world's leading newscasts, including Barron's, CBOE and Forbes. Avid crypto watchers and those with a libertarian persuasion can follow him on twitter at @hsbourgi