On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

There are many forms of intelligence.  A runner on our cross country team was a jittery kid with mediocre grades, but he was one of the most kinesthetically gifted people I’ve met.  He was good at construction, auto repairs, skateboarding, climbing, running, jumping …

Our society holds these skills in low regard.  We shower money and adulation onto klutzy math whizzes, whereas tactile learners are told they have “disabilities” like ADHD and are given potent psychoactive drugs to get them through each day at schools ill-designed for them.

I’m a klutzy math whiz, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But, if this kid had been born fifteen- or twenty-thousand years earlier, he could have been a king.  During most of human evolution, his talents would have been more valuable than my own.

I found myself thinking about the distinction between different types of intelligence while reading Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin.  The protagonist – who went by Ross Ulbricht in real life and “the Dread Pirate Roberts” online – was clever but un-wise.  And I don’t mean “un-wise” in the sense of antagonistically luring the wrath of government agents the world over – that’s ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, but it’s reasonable for an intelligent person to take risks while pushing back against oppression.  Attacking the Death Star is never as easy as it looks in movies; it’s still worth doing.

Ross_UlbrichtRoss Ulbricht was un-wise in that he dogmatically clung to his philosophical stances without regard for new evidence.  Ulbricht disliked the War on Drugs without considering that abetting the transfer of certain drugs could be as immoral as attempting to staunch their flow.  Our world is incredibly complicated, full of moral quandaries and shades of gray.  But Ulbricht treated real life like an undergraduate debate.

From Bilton’s American Kingpin:

9781591848141[A man going by the username “Variety Jones”] was a loyal servant and companion.  He had even talked about buying a helicopter company to break [Ulbricht] out of jail if he was ever caught.  “Remember that one day when you’re in the exercise yard, I’ll be the dude in the helicopter coming in low and fast, I promise,” he had written.  “With the amount of $ we’re generating, I could hire a small country to come get you.”

But even with that bond, fundamental disagreements over the direction of the site would crop up, and Variety Jones was trying desperately to steer [Ulbricht] in a new direction on a particular topic.

It wasn’t even up for debate in VJ’s mind that the Dread Pirate Roberts was as libertarian as they came and that he believed the Silk Road should be a place to buy and sell anything.  There were no rules and no regulations, and as a result there was something illegal for sale on the site for literally every letter of the alphabet.  Acid, benzos, coke, DMT, ecstasy, fizzies, GHB … but it was the letter H that had Variety Jones in a very difficult quandary.  He was fine with everything before and after that letter, but heroin – he hated it.

“I don’t even have a problem with coke,” VJ wrote to DPR, but “H, man – in prison I’ve seen guys – I wish that shit would go away.”

Variety Jones was open about the time he had spent in jail.  He told long and funny stories about people he had met behind bars and explained the ins and outs of getting around the system, including how cans of “mackerel” were the currency of choice in the British prison he had been confined to years earlier.

Instead of mackerel, many transactions in U.S. jails seem to be priced in terms of “Honey Buns,” shelf-stable sweet rolls often sold by commissaries for about a dollar each.  In class one day my co-teacher J.M. mentioned that in Richmond, Virginia, two honey buns could buy you a roll of toilet paper or a blowjob.

The guys in our class were incredulous.  “Two honeybuns for a blowjob?  That’s extortion right there.  Here it’s gonna run you one.”

“If that,” somebody added.

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But they thought the price of toilet paper sounded fair.  Apparently the guards are allowed to give out extra rolls, “but they’re not gonna give it to you unless you walk up to them with literally shit dripping down your arm.”  J.M. and I once walked by a pregnant woman in the tank pleading with a male guard to bring her an extra roll.

And many of the men in jail in Bloomington – especially the ones whose actions would make you think they loved H – wish there was less heroin around.  It seeps into every corner of their lives.

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“My kid wanted some cereal, okay?  A bowl of cereal for breakfast.  So I got it for him, poured the cereal, poured the milk.  I went to get him a spoon.  First spoon I picked up, it had this big burn in the bottom.  I threw it in the trash.  And the next spoon too.  I went through … every spoon I took out of that drawer was burned.  I threw them all away.  My kid ate his cereal with a fork.”

He was trying.  But he slipped again and landed back in jail.

From American Kingpin:

Morally, though, Jones told Dread, “I don’t think I could make money off importing H.  If you want to, I’ll offer all the help and advice you need, but I don’t want to profit off of it.”

. . .

Ross had never seen the effects of heroin in person it still didn’t deter him from his belief system.  “I’ve got this separation between personal and business morality,” DPR explained to VJ.  “I would be there for a friend to help him break a drug dependency, and encourage him not to start, but I would never physically bar him from it if he didn’t ask me to.”

And yet, as harmful as addiction is, you could argue that the War on Drugs is worse.  After all, the War on Drugs pushes transactions underground; makes drug concentrations so variable that it’s hard not to overdose; makes harm reduction therapies borderline illegal.

If Ulbricht had been incarcerated simply for creating the Silk Road website, I’d have a lot of sympathy for him.

But, as a devout libertarian, Ulbricht thought it was okay to murder people.  Eventually, the FBI caught a computer programmer who’d been helping with the website.  During the bust, a rogue FBI agent used that programmer’s credentials to steal a bunch of money.

How could [Ulbricht] let someone steal [$350,000] from DPR and get away with a measly beating?  The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.

Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell.  “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said.  “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”

I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.

And so Ulbricht paid another rogue government agent to murder the innocent programmer.  He’d go on to pay for the murders of several more people.  And felt justified all the while – in his opinion, lethal violence was acceptable when used to protect his property rights.

By the same reasoning, anyone would be justified in murdering Ulbricht when his actions caused someone else’s property to lose value.  Because his website increased the availability of guns and addictive drugs, he had crossed that line.

This is the problem with libertarianism and anarchy – without a coalition government to monopolize violence, individuals take violence into their own hands.  Bad governments are terrifying, but unhinged individuals are pretty scary, too.  Ulbricht paid for murder and felt righteous the whole time.

Despite the juvenile, unreflective protagonist, American Kingpin is a charming read.  Ulbricht was clever.  Singlehandedly, surreptitiously, he did the work of a billion-dollar start-up company.

But he was wrecked by his success.  If he was intelligent enough to build the Silk Road, he thought, wasn’t he also qualified to decide who should live or die?

On government intrusion and addiction.

On government intrusion and addiction.

Midway through his review of Akhil Reed Amar’s pop constitutional law book, Jeremy Waldron introduces the following scenario:

An FBI agent starts attending a particular mosque.  After each visit, he writes down everything he saw and heard and reports to his superior. 

Is this a search?  Should the FBI agent need a warrant?fbi

I assume that many people feel icky about the idea of government agents attending a religious service in order to snoop.  I do.  But it’s unclear whether we should call this a “search.”  If not, the Fourth Amendment offers no protection.

Even if we decide that this is a search – in which case an FBI agent would not be allowed to do this without establishing probable cause – this snooping would be totally legal if done by a private citizen.  If you attend a church service and hear something suspicious, you’re well within your rights to report to the authorities.  Our constitution permits more intrusion by the general populace than by government employees.

But… what qualifies someone as being in the government’s employ?

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In jail recently, we read Virginia Adair’s “Cor Urbis.”  This poem trudges through urban decay with stanzas like:

And so to the cubicle of stench

          Past rats running for offices

          Roaches and flies feeding like bankers

                   We come fast to the heart

                   the heart of the great city.

melonThe men loved this.  The insects were being insulted… by comparing them to human bankers.  The imagery throughout this poem is simultaneously realistic – as we walk the corridor rats skitter away and duck inside the adjacent offices – and surreal – the city has fallen so far that the very rats stand on streetcorners, shaking hands, announcing their platforms, swearing “If you vote for me, I’ll clean this place up!” 

After discussing the poem, we tried writing about cities we’ve lived in as though they were bodies – in “Cor Urbis,” Adair writes that the “guns have human eyes,” the streets are “varicose thoroughfares,” and building “facades ooze and peel like scabs.”  Cancer imagery is common in literature, too, conveying that one aspect of a city or society has careened out of control…

For the exercise, I wrote a short poem about Silicon Valley as a Stepford Wife: dyed platinum blonde hair, surgically-enhanced physique, immaculately styled, exhaling money… with no soul.  One man wrote that his home town was dead.

And another participant wrote a piece that began with the line, “Bloomington, full of rats and lies.”

Bloomington: full of rats?  A large rat does live behind my compost bin.  This monstrous rodent feasts on vegetable scraps.  Each evening with our leavings I pay tribute to the Rat King!

But that’s not what our writer meant.  He was talking “rat” as in “police informant.”

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If a police officer snoops around your home, spots drugs, and then files for a warrant, we have a problem.  The officer has violated the Fourth Amendment.  Any evidence of wrongdoing is supposedly inadmissible in court, per the “exclusionary rule.”

If a private citizen snoops around, spots drugs, then tells the police… and then the police file for a warrant, based on this private citizen’s tip… they’re in the clear.  This is a perfectly legal sequence of events.  The Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to people who aren’t working for the government.

Even if, suddenly, they are.US_incarceration_timeline

With mandatory minimums hanging over their heads, people break.  Many, brought into jail, become informants.  They aren’t considered government employees, because they receive no monetary compensation for their tips… but they receive something more valuable.  They’re being paid with their lives.

Let’s say a person’s car was searched, and the police find a few grams of a white powder… and this person has priors, and kids… and the prosecutor starts rattling off threats, if you take this to court, we can put you away for twenty years… twenty years?  For that?  When no one was hurt?  In twenty years, those kids will have kids of their own.

Of, if you cooperate, you could walk today…

In game theory, there’s a famous scenario called “the prisoners’ dilemma.“ Presumably you’ve heard the set-up: two people are each being interrogated separately by government agents.  Prosecutors have enough evidence to convict each on a minor charge, but would rather pin a major crime on somebody – that’s what brings prosecutors the publicity they need to stay in power.

If both suspects stay mum, they’ll each land five years in prison.  If both betray each other, they’ll each get ten years.  But if one stays mum and is betrayed, the talker walks and the hold-out gets fifteen years.

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According to an economist, each should betray the other.  When we draw out all the possible choices and the payoffs, we see that, no matter what Prisoner B chooses, Prisoner A will serve less time by talking (either Prisoner B has chosen “Betray,” in which case Prisoner A gets 10 years instead of 15 by talking, or else Prisoner B has chosen “Silent,” in which case Prisoner A gets zero years instead of 5 by talking).

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And so that is the choice Homo economicus – an imaginary “perfectly rational” being – would make.  Homo economicus betrays friends.  And both players serve more prison time than they would’ve if they’d managed to stay mum.

Economists agree that there is a better strategy – in the outcome described above, both suspects land more prison time (10 years each) than they would’ve if they’d managed to stay mum (5 years each) – but only in the context of the “repeated prisoners’ dilemma.”  If we play many times with the same partners, there is a powerful incentive to cooperate.  We are building a reputation.  We can signal to our friends that we are not rational.  We can stay silent when Homo economicus would not.

Of course, the mandatory minimums for drug crimes are so egregiously long that people only play this game once.  The sentences can be measured in decades – huge fractions of our lives – and we each have just one life to live.

I assume that’s why so many dudes in jail – especially the young dudes – have the words “Death Before Dishonor” crudely inked on their forearms.  In a world where people might only make these choices once, we need ways to signal our irrationality in advance.  You can trust me because I am not Homo economicus and will not act in my own self interest.

This same principle might explain why we humans are so emotional.  Most animals will fight: there’s only so much food and territory and premium nookie to go around.  And they’ll fight when threatened.  But humans launch all-out irrational vendettas.

Why?

Here’s Daniel Dennett’s supposition, presented in Freedom Evolves:

9780142003848When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what they ought to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.  Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.  According to [economist Robert] Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to the task of keeping us from being too rational, and – just as important – earning us a reputation for not being too rational.  It is our unwanted excess of myopic or local rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse,” as the Godfather says.  Part of becoming a truly responsible agent, a good citizen, is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

Not everyone is sufficiently emotional to give up five years in order to stay true to an ideal, however.  It’s especially hard while sitting around in jail, sweating through withdrawal, sleep deprived, nineteen hours a day of fluorescent light and even the brief dark merciless since that’s when the nearby schizoid man spends two hours straight rhythmically kicking his cell door…

Tortured this way, people break.  They start dropping names.

Despite the fact that we’ve given our police officers millions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment to fight the “War on Drugs,” most preliminary evidence is gathered by shaking down impoverished addicts.  They’re hauled in, locked up, and then offered a brief reprieve of freedom – during which time the police know their informants are planning to use again, which is why the offer is so tempting – in exchange for betraying their friends and neighbors.

The use of informants evades the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.  But, as a tactic in the “War on Drugs,” this is absurd.

For people to get clean and stay clean, we need stronger communities.  We need to foster more trust in people’s friends and neighbors.  Several of my friends have sobered up over the years – from meth, pills, heroin, pot, or alcohol – and every single one of them would readily acknowledge that he couldn’t have done it alone.

But the use of police informants saps trust.  Which means that, when people get out, and they are struggling to stay sober… they won’t have a community they trust to catch them.

The opiate epidemic is, in many ways, a symptom of a bigger problem in this country.  And the punitive way that we’ve been trying to fix it?  We’re making it worse.