Jerry Brito (along with our pal Andrea Castillo) is busy doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the economics (and political economy) of Bitcoin, and since his work already addresses EE points, I have ruled it prudent and polite to keep from sailing upwind of his research. If you'll forgive a note of conceit, I'd like to cross tack just this once.
Buttercoin is a nascent startup aimed at slashing the tendon of Western Union's business model using Bitcoins as the medium of exchange* in lieu of the staple currency: US dollars. Their praedicatum is that the extant firms are circumstantially coercive. Expats have little recourse but to submit to being "gouged" to the tune of 10% per transaction. These guys call shenanigans and say that they can operate for less.
I for one hope they're right. Now, I don't claim to know what the "correct" price is here by any stretch, but I do know the following:
1) Overseas postal workers are far far more likely to steal from parcels and letters than US workers.
2) Setting up an international account with a bank is a hassle the likes of which most Americans have no idea.
3) Even if you do manage to safely and securely get your cash from point A to country B, you're still not out of the woods, since as cash shifts hands, you're not entirely unlikely to end up with a wad of counterfeit Russian bills lining your palms.
Given all that, 10% is often a lot better than the alternatives. Voluntary, as it were, though not euvoluntary. Buttercoin promises to sidestep all that. Bitcoin can't be counterfeited, can't be seized by unscrupulous agents of the state, and can be quickly and painlessly converted into the local currency. If it turns out that the prices charged are thanks chiefly to these technical hurdles, then the Buttercoin folks might well be able to successfully undercut them. If, as I fear might be the case, it's a matter of regime uncertainty (grease the right palms or your business license won't get through), it could well be that the 10% is there as a normal cost of doing business.
Fingers crossed, guys. Godspeed.
*this is sort of an interesting point of semantics here. In this application, is Bitcoin more a medium of exchange or a unit of account? It's a wonky question, and I'm not sure it really matters apart from some technical legal questions across regimes. After all, what really counts as "money" is a matter to be hashed out in arbitration, yes?