Several months ago, someone wrote to me for the first time in a few years. A week passed before I saw the message – they’d written to my old Google-hosted email account, and I’ve mostly switched to using Protonmail. So I wrote back using my current address … then heard nothing.
Encountering sudden bouts of radio silence is a common experience for many people in the modern world (I feel so bad for people using dating apps in major cities!), but this can feel particularly triggering for people with autism. Because my brain doesn’t always register social cues that other people notice, my early years were riddled with times when people whom I thought were friends suddenly (from my perspective!) decided that I was awful. I still approach disrupted communication with wariness, assuming that people are angry with me.
Later, though, a friend informed me that messages I send to him are often shunted to his spam folder – perhaps Google generally distrusts “@protonmail” accounts? So I used my old account to write to that first person and asked whether the same thing had happened to our correspondence.
At the beginning of a four-paragraph message, I included a sentence summarizing why I have a new email address: “I have mixed feelings about internet privacy – I worry that a lot of it abets tax evasion & the like – but I like email enough (and dislike the effect of advertising companies like Google and Facebook on our world enough) that I thought I should pay for it.”
This person decided I must be a conspiracy theorist.
The problem is brevity, of course.
With more words, it’s easy to show the harms caused by Swiss privacy laws (apparently a major selling point for Protonmail, which houses its physical servers in Switzerland). In The Hidden Wealth of Nations, French economist Gabriel Zucman calculated how much wealth is hidden from governments worldwide. As translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Zucman writes:
The following example shows it in a simple way: let’s imagine a British person who holds in her Swiss bank account a portfolio of American securities — for example, stock in Google.
What information is recorded in each country’s balance sheet? In the United States, a liability: American statisticians see that foreigners hold US equities. In Switzerland, nothing at all, and for a reason: the Swiss statisticians see some Google stock deposited in a Swiss bank, but they see that the stock belongs to a UK resident — and so they are neither assets nor liabilities for Switzerland. In the United Kingdom, nothing is registered, either, but wrongly this time: the Office for National Statistics should record an asset for the United Kingdom, but it can’t, because it has no way of knowing that the British person has Google stock in her Geneva account.
As we can see, an anomaly arises — more liabilities than assets will tend to be recorded on a global level. And, in fact, for as far back as statistics go, there is a “hole”: if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial securities are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars. It is this imbalance that serves as the point of departure for my estimate of the amount of wealth held in tax havens globally.
Obviously, including only the final sentiment – It appears as though a large portion of our planet’s wealth is owned by extraterrestrials! – would make Zucman sound absurd. But Zucman’s reasoning is sensible, and it’s awful that approximately 10% of our planet’s wealth – $7.6 trillion in 2013 – is held in secret bank accounts, abetted by various nations’ privacy laws. If that wealth weren’t illegally hidden, fair taxes would let us alleviate a lot of poverty, vaccinate many more people worldwide, build a more just and equitable world.
Brief statements like “Tech companies are siphoning personal data to mind control us!” or “Facebook & YouTube have shut down our functioning government!” would likewise probably sound absurd to someone who hasn’t read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalismor similar reporting. Once upon a time, I liked Facebook – it was a great way to share pictures with friends – but I felt horrified when I learned about Facebook’s role in the election of our 45th president. I haven’t logged in to my account since November 2016.
Honestly, though, it’s my fault for assuming that other people have been following these stories. Just because someone is a left-wing academic type doesn’t mean they’ve seen the same news that I have (the personalized filter bubbles that we get stuck inside are yet another reason why I dislike Facebook & Google).
It felt sad to have someone assume the worst of me, but then my spouse cheered me up by rattling off other things I say that sound an awful lot like conspiracy theories when they’re phrased too briefly, like:
I only eat plants because I’m worried my planet’s getting too hot.
I rub this glop all over my face so starlight won’t mutate my DNA.
I put this plastic in my mouth at night to stop my teeth from wandering when I sleep.
The dishwasher won’t wash the dishes unless you wash the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.
So, I learned something. If there’s not enough time to explain an idea in full, it might be better to say nothing at all.
Header image from a prior essay about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and, yes, a Disney conspiracy to misinform children about the natural world.In brief (apparently I still haven’t learned my lesson), the people making Disney’s 1958 documentary White Wilderness wanted to show lemmings leaping off cliffs into the water, but lemmings don’t actually do this. So the film crew instead used a turntable to fling the little critters to their doom and claimed in a voiceover that it was natural footage.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the standing decisions from Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The majority opinions in those cases guaranteed … um, actually, quite little?
Soon, those opinions might guarantee even less!
Justice Sonia Sotomayor is worried that the Supreme Court might lose its aura of legitimacy.
Justice Sotomayor said, “Will this institution survive the stench that [overturning Roe v. Wade would create] in the public perception that the Constitution and its readings are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”
This is actually a major reason why Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned previously. In a recent essay on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ACLU legal director David Cole writes that “As the three then-recently Republican-appointed justices … warned in 1992, overruling Roe would do ‘profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy and to the Nation’s commitment to the rule of law.’ That is only more true today.”
And, look: I’m pro-choice. I would prefer for anti-abortion laws like those recently enacted in Texas and Mississippi to be revoked.
But also: the idea that our Supreme Court might lose some of its power makes me quite pleased!
In our country, there are ostensibly three equal branches of government to balance each other.
Which sounds like a nifty design! Barstools often have three legs because any three points define a plane (unless they’re all on the same line), so three-legged stools are rarely tippy. Quite helpful when the sitter might be tipsy!
But something’s gone wrong with our government.
The recently-ritualized filibusterer system of our legislative branch that allows any proposal to be passively smothered, often by senators who represent fewer people than live in single neighborhoods of major cities. The post-9/11 domestic spying and drone strike assassinations from our executive branch. These are strange aberrations!
The worst offender, though, is probably our judiciary. Over many years, our Supreme Court justices have steadily commandeered more power, and the system is untenable.
Unfortunately, our Supreme Court justices are incompetent.
This isn’t really their fault!
And I happen to think that several of them are clever, kind-hearted people. I really liked when Justice Sotomayor’s minority opinion for Utah v. Strieff included a reading list to help people who hadn’t noticed the lingering ramifications of institutional racism in our country.
That was grand!
But for our Supreme Court justices to form meaningful opinions about the whole range of cases that come before them, they should understand computers, artificial intelligence, psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine … and, they don’t.
To be nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, a person instead needs to have specialized in our country’s adversarial system of law. Which means, due to time constraints, that they probably won’t have an adequate understanding of many vital subjects.
Worse, the one subject that they did specialize in – adversarial law – isn’t even helpful! Immersion in this style of thought probably makes people less suited to serve on the Supreme Court. As law professor Sarah A. Seo wrote in a recent essay on public defenders, “Adversarialism is not inherent to justice – it’s simply one way of administering it.”
Even if the adversarial arguments mattered – if, for instance, we lived in an alternate universe where the judges were such flexibly-minded people that they allowed themselves to be persuaded in court, that we couldn’t predict how they were going to vote well before any arguments had been presented – the idea of “justice” arising from competition instead of justice by collaboration is a foolish way to run a country.
Often, people refer to Roe v. Wade in shorthand, suggesting that the decision guarantees a right to privacy, perhaps, or more specifically a right to abortion.
Instead, the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade says that “Though the State cannot override [the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy], it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.”
There are two conflicting rights, and the majority opinion is proposing a guideline for their balance. This is quite common. We balance people’s privacy against the state’s interest in preventing crime. We balance manufacturers’ desire to pollute with other people’s desire to breathe clean air or drink clean water.
In Roe v. Wade, the justices were balancing women’s bodily autonomy against the state’s interest in protecting the health of possible future citizens.
The justices concluded that: “For the stage subsequent to [fetal] viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
When conservative commentators describe Roe v. Wade as a terrible ruling, I’m inclined to agree with them.
Yes, the three new Supreme Court justices – the stolen seat, the attempted rapist, & the hypocritical election’s-eve appointment – would like to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they hardly even need to! The existing opinion already does so little to protect women’s rights!
A large section of the ruling for Roe v. Wade discusses ancient attitudes toward abortion.
This discussion is markedly incomplete. Supreme Court justices simply don’t know enough to make their rulings! And there’s not a great solution to this, since very few possible groupings of nine people would include enough expertise to handle all the cases on a year’s Supreme Court docket.
Abortion has long been a common practice – healers and midwives in many cultures knew which local plants were arbotifacients. And any discussion of ancient attitudes toward abortion should also discuss infanticide.
Infanticide was common during recorded history. Based on studies of surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, we also have reason to suspect that infanticide was even more common in our species’s prehistory. In relatively recent times, if a baby was carried to term and then given up for adoption – perhaps left upon the doorstep or a church or monastery – there was significant risk of death. Amid high childhood mortality, a baby separated from the mother would face especially grim odds.
Compared to other primates, human mothers form emotional bonds to a child relatively late in development. Among our evolutionary cousins, it’s rare for a mother to allow any individual (not the baby’s father, not her own mother, not her other children) to even touch her baby. A full year might pass before the mother could bear the sight of her baby in another caregiver’s arms.
There are huge benefits that human mothers are less protective – shared child-rearing cements trust between adults, allows for our babies to be born earlier in biological development (essential given the size of our brains!), and leads to more attentive lifetime care.
Plus, this evolutionary history has made human babies so cute! Our offspring wouldn’t giggle and coo – behaviors that delight a potential caregiver – if they relied only upon irrevocable maternal love in order to survive. Chimpanzees are born cute – in their first few moments, they need to delight their mothers – but their tendency to giggle or mirror facial expressions fades within the first week or so. Unlike human babies, they aren’t constantly prepared to woo a new adult.
But human delay in attachment also made abortion and infanticide more acceptable to our species. In many hunter-gatherer societies, any child who could not be cared for would be abandoned. Other great apes are actually far more likely to care for a developmentally-disabled child than are human hunter gatherers.
In many societies, personhood wasn’t attained until age five or six, at which time a naming ceremony would be held. It was considered bad luck to name a child sooner, or to feel too attached before that date.
Of course, most families probably still did feel attached. There can be a stark difference between private affection and public nonchalance, a play act to ward off bad luck.
In terms of the rights at stake in Roe v. Wade, though, all these historical considerations are mostly irrelevant. Yes, that’s the science – findings from nature. But nature isn’t good or bad. Nature isn’t ethical. The natural world simply is, whereas ethics demands that we think about how the world should be. Reading the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade, it seems like these topics were introduced only to make the conclusion seem scientific or better reasoned.
In the end, the majority opinion is based solely on medical technology: the State can ban abortion at the age when a baby could survive outside a woman’s body.
Not would. And certainly not will.
“For the stage subsequent to viability the State … may proscribe abortion … “
In an age when being a good parent means being as attentive as possible even before birth, we want better access to the babies growing inside pregnant women, better ways of measuring them and putting them under surveillance, so we can do the best for them even before they enter the world. Women’s bodies are almost getting in the way.
Ultrasound images show how much female bodies are already seen as vestigial in reproductive medicine.
“I’ve been arguing for years, don’t show pictures of fucking developing fetuses unless you show the entire woman’s body,” [says Soraya Chemaly.]
“I understand people getting pregnant and being excited, but I’m the terrible feminist killjoy; I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, why don’t we just make it bigger?’ Ultrasound was very deliberately developed to show the fetus as though it were a planet in a void, in a vacuum, in a container, in a jar. A wallpaper of blackness around it. It completely erases the woman whose body is generative.”
For a human baby to be born, a parent must make an enormous gift. Feeding and protecting and creating the gestating fetus over many months.
Currently, there’s no other way.
Currently, it’s impossible to combine a sperm cell and an egg cell in the laboratory, create an embryo, then provide the necessary nutrients and environment for that embryo to develop into a fetus, a baby, a child.
This would be a challenging project!
But not impossible.
Researchers will eventually be able to create a viable human child this way.
An act that would, per Roe v. Wade, instantly erase women’s rights.
Maybe this experiment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So what? For Supreme Court rulings, cost is irrelevant. They’ve made this clear in their decisions for many recent cases.
Our Supreme Court decided that anonymously-chartered corporations have as much right to free speech as individuals – as though they weren’t already privileged with more speech, since wealth can be used to purchase expensive advertisements, think tanks, unscrupulous academics.
Our Supreme Court decided that the police can legitimately spy on you with any technologies that are publicly available, even if these technologies – like infrared cameras to visualize your body through the walls of your home, or telescoping lenses to peer into your windows from a distance, or a steady helicopter to linger overhead and watch you from unexpected angles – are far outside the budgets (and therefore expectations) of most private citizens.
It’s quite convenient that the justices so often fail to notice people’s wealth! (Or lack thereof.) Abortion laws were never really intended to target wealthy people, anyway. Wealthy people could either travel out of state or pay off a doctor to certify that an abortion met “appropriate medical judgment for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
If researchers spent hundreds of millions of dollars to nurture one embryo into a viable human baby – in a laboratory anywhere around the world – then the principle of fetal viability cited in Roe v. Wade would allow states to outlaw all abortion. Even though the material facts of women’s lives would be unchanged.
This is, after all, the problem with trying to slap scientific justifications onto a philosophical argument. Whether or not women should have bodily autonomy is a philosophical question. I think that they should. Our steadily increasing technological prowess shouldn’t change that.
Most likely, you are being watched. If you spend any time in urban areas, you surely pass by numerous surveillance cameras each day. Recent advances in computational image analysis allow the movements of every person in a crowd to be tracked.
Big Brother has hungry, hungry eyes.
Worse, you’re probably collaborating with the invasion of your own privacy. If you carry a smartphone with a GPS device, you have – according to U.S. legal precedent – consented to be monitored. Your every movement traced, the rhythms of your life documented in exquisite detail. When you sleep, when you eat, where you shop…
In the U.S., many people assume that the police cannot spy on them without probable cause. This is the gist of the Fourth Amendment, after all. We are ostensibly shielded from search and seizure.
Thankfully, my local library bought a copy of Barry Friedman’s excellent Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, and I learned that this assumption is wrong. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, our courts have issued ruling after ruling that erode Fourth Amendment protections.
If the police are allowed to stop and search people at will, they can apprehend more criminals. As a corollary, huge numbers of innocent people will be treated like criminals. In Friedman’s words:
It is plain from what is happening on the nation’s streets, and in its airports, that Terry’s elimination of the probable cause standard has set the police loose on the rest of us. Not just to stop us, but to place their hands on our bodies and possessions. The police still ostensibly need articulable suspicion to forcibly stop people – that much is clear – but what counts as articulable suspicion is deeply suspect, and the Supreme Court has done virtually nothing to rein in this sort of conduct. The stops occur, the frisks follow almost automatically, and the bodily integrity of millions of people is violated without good cause.
Our courts have ruled in favor of Fourth Amendment violations so many times because they only hear cases in which criminals – or dudes carrying drugs, at least – were caught via illegal police behavior. The “penalty” that courts are supposed to impose on the police in these instances is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.” When the police violate the Fourth Amendment, any evidence they gather is supposed to be ignored during a trial.
But it feels bad to ignore evidence. When somebody has clearly violated the law, judges want to throw that person in jail. No, not the police officer. Violating constitutional law does not merit jail time. But if a person had drugs, and the police found them? Our judges want to put that person in jail.
Do we really want to let drug users or dealers back onto our streets?
(Hint: the correct answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Without even considering the ethical implications of what we’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that imprisoning them endangers us all. But most judges disagree.)
And so, case by case, our judges have decided that this time, the police did not actually violate the Fourth Amendment. Our judges excel at rhetorical gymnastics. As long as a judge can argue that a particular search was constitutional, then the cops are in the clear. No evidence need be discarded. Another criminal can be locked away. Everyone is happy.
Almost all the rich white people are kept happy, at least. Everyone who counts.
These rulings have been issued by judges considering only a single case at a time, one instance when a police officer’s illegal search found evidence of a crime. Because the “exclusionary rule” is the only penalty the courts are willing to impose on police officers – i.e., it’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be fined for their illegal activities on the job – people who were illegally searched but had not committed a crime have no chance for redress. If you’re already innocent, what good is the exclusionary rule? You don’t need any illegally-obtained evidence to be ignored.
And so it’s worth considering how often innocent people are searched. From Friedman:
… Judge Pratt got a specific answer to Judge Arnold’s question: How often do agents stop suspects and hassle them like this, only to come up with nothing? The agents in the case before him testified they “spend their days approaching potential drug suspects at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.” In 1989 “they detained 600 suspects … yet their hunches that year resulted in only ten arrests.” Ten hits out of six hundred people harassed. Less than a 2 percent hit rate. Judge Pratt concluded, “It appears that they have sacrificed the fourth amendment by detaining 590 innocent people in order to arrest ten who are not – all in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’ “ In other words, it could be you.
That was three decades ago – since then, the situation has gotten worse. Despite the Fourth Amendment, police officers can stop and search you at almost any time, for almost any reason. Especially if you’re driving a car, in which case you’re almost assuredly breaking some law. No matter how minor the infraction, at that point searches become legal.
Most of us should be aware by now that the burden of innocent people being treated like criminals does not fall upon all people equally. Our nation’s poor, as well as anybody with above-average concentrations of skin pigment, are routinely abused. Wealthy white people are free to assume that our constitutional rights are still intact.
The minor consolation? The teensy benefit of all those life-endangering stops and searches? At least people know they’re being searched.
The courts have also ruled that you do not have Fourth Amendment protections when your behavior is visible in public. If a police officer glances at you, notices you’re carrying a jay, and busts you, the officer has done nothing wrong. Which seems sensible enough. But the police are also allowed to augment their natural senses using any tools “commonly available” to the public.
If you have a fenced-in backyard, for instance, the police are allowed to fly over it in a helicopter and take high-resolution photographs with a telephoto lens. After all, any member of the public could’ve done so – lots of people have copters and telephoto spy cameras. Right? So you should have no expectation of privacy. Or, if you’re in your house, the police are allowed to watch you using heat-sensing devices. They can aim infrared cameras at the walls and watch you move from room to room. After all, infrared devices are “commonly available” as well. Many smartphones have some semblance of this functionality.
Of course, anyone who carries a smartphone is even more exposed. You have “voluntarily” given data about your location at every moment of the day to a third party. Whenever you have shared information with others, the police need only present a “reasonable suspicion” to silently siphon it from that third party. They can obtain all your data with a subpoena (a privilege explicitly granted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but already in line with court precedent), and these are invariably granted.
At least the recent bill caused more people to notice how little privacy we have.
I collect pictures of fire hydrants. I travel a fair bit, and walk around a lot when I do, so I have seen many interesting ones.
Also in Mumbai.
But I don’t always have a camera with me. So I thought that today’s essay should be a brief paean to three lovely photographs I didn’t take.
1.) Shortly after I arrived in California, I was walking from Menlo Park to Stanford’s campus. It was, as ever, a gorgeous, sunny day. And then, just after passing the shopping mall, in front of a sparkling green field and a wooden fence, I saw a young woman and her mother standing still ahead of me. The young woman had a camera aimed at a yellow hydrant.
Later, after they’d walked on, I stopped and inspected the hydrant. There was a small anthill in the dirt nearby – presumably this was not visible in the young woman’s picture. There was an ocher stain on the hood where some paint had flaked away, but most of the yellow coat was smooth. It had the same shape and size as the vast majority on campus.
Ah! To have documentation of strangers also collecting fire hydrant photographs!
2.) Between my home and the university library, cattycorner to the bus stop where many music students wait to be ferried to the practice halls, there were two hydrants within two feet of each other for about a week. One was painted a light shade of green, the other gray. The ground around them was patchy with bare earth and course gravel. They were on a slope, the green hydrant slightly above the gray.
I had plenty of time to return home, grab a camera, and hike back to take a photograph. It was splendorous, and mirrored a dream I’d had during college, of hiking through Chicago on a fire hydrant safari and finding a street corner with four hydrants visible together, one at each vertex of the intersection.
But I grew complacent. I thought those hydrants would be paired forever! Each time I saw them, I said to myself tomorrow I’ll remember to bring a camera.
And then, one day, the gray hydrant was gone. I’ve taken people to that intersection to tell them, once, there were two hydrants together. The other was right here, right where I am standing.
If I had a photograph, people would believe me.
3.) Last week, I was driving my spouse home from work amidst a clamorous thunderstorm. It was slightly after eleven a.m. – K left work early for a doctor’s appointment. Four blocks from our house, she spotted a hydrant – with a long metal stem attached – lain supine in the grass.
I circled back so we could see it again. And said, as soon as the rain stops, I’ll jog here with a camera!
The rain stopped during our kids’ nap. K was at the doctor’s. I stayed home, reading while they slept, until she returned.
By then, two hours had passed. I ran to that spot with Uncle Max (our dog) and a camera. But the fallen hydrant was gone, the nearby hole covered up, the metallic corpse carted away.
If I carried a smartphone, I wouldn’t have this problem. Most newer models have excellent built-in cameras. Whenever I saw a catchy hydrant, I could take a brief break from twiddling with my twitter and snap a photo. (As long as my device left me sufficiently attentive to notice hydrants.)
Instead, I have a seven-year-old flip-phone. Camera-less, text-message-less, often turned off. (And, unlike a smartphone, it actually does turn off.)
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?
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?
The 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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
When 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.
I’ve never purchased bitcoins. Which might seem odd. The motivation for bitcoins dovetails with several of my political beliefs. But not all.
For instance, I think most chemicals should be legalized. The U.S. prescription drug system, because it inflates drug prices, arguably makes people less healthy. Not everyone can afford medication. Given that the purpose of this system is to keep people healthy — ensuring that those taking prescription drugs are guided by a trained professional — if it’s not working, it ought to be scrapped.
There is, of course, a solid motivation for requiring a prescription for opiates. Many people have troubles with impulse control. And for antibiotics: their use, especially incorrect use, makes them work less well for everyone else in the future. But most of our other restrictions seem unnecessary. In the realm of recreational drugs, it seems pretty clear that psilocybin mushrooms, and even marijuana, would result in far less harm to non-users than alcohol does.
At the same time, I believe in gun control laws. Which might seem a little strange — both drug prohibitions and gun control are instances of the government declaring certain possessions to be illegal — except that it’s much easier to hurt somebody else with a gun than a pill. To my mind, only laws against compounds like GHB — which does have legitimate uses, but is often weaponized against others — are equivalent to gun restrictions.
On the whole, though, I am in favor of a currency that enables drug purchases. Especially if an inability to regulate consumption caused our government to repeal some of its current slew of minority-cudgeling prohibitions. It’s a bit tricky, though, to enable one form of civil liberties (buying drugs) from others (buying guns & hiring hit men).
But the main reason why I never purchased bitcoins is that I couldn’t understand them. I learned enough to be able to describe roughly how I thought they worked, but, based on what other people were doing, it seemed pretty clear that either I or other people were suffering from some fundamental misunderstandings. Because my education included only the barest smattering of computer science, I assumed it was me who was mistaken.
Well, maybe not.
The first confusing aspect of bitcoins is their meteoric appreciation. A significant portion of this rise was speculative, the way the price of Beanie Babies skyrocketed despite a lack of intrinsic value. If you think someone will buy an object from you for twenty dollars next week, why not pay fifteen for it today? If that person thinks another sucker down the line will pay thirty in two weeks, then of course they’ll pay twenty next week!
The problem being, of course, that eventually the suckers have all the Beanie Babies they need. Or bitcoins. Or tulips. What have you.
There is a sensible reason for appreciation. The current (and eventual) quantity of bitcoins is fixed, which means that, if the currency is working well and many people would like to use it, prices have to become smaller. If prices (in bitcoins) drop by half, then the supply of bitcoins doubles! More people can participate in the market. Of course, since the real-world prices of Canadian medication, or LSD, or murders, or fake i.d.s, will be unchanged, then the conversion rate between bitcoins and dollars has to double.
Because bitcoin transactions can use fractional amounts of money (down to the nearest millionth), then, if the currency survives, I’d expect this sort of change to happen eventually. This deflation interacts strangely with existing holdings (people who bought in early are suddenly much wealthier), so I’d expect these changes to happen very slowly. Not to fuel the orders-of-magnitude appreciation we’ve seen.
The other aspect of bitcoins that always confused me is (was?) their supposed anonymity. Your name is not attached to the account. But, your ownership is preserved. I’m out of my depth here, but the way I think the system works is, everyone involved in the system maintains a record of every transaction, and ownership is determined by majority vote. If most computers involved claim that XXX paid YYY two bitcoins for a service, then those two bitcoins are now owned by YYY.
This transaction log is referred to as a “blockchain.” Here’s a visual:
Which puzzled me. I simply could not understand how it would be possible to maintain both ownership rights of an ethereal entity like a bitcoin, something you can never see or touch or smell, and also make the system anonymous. The “blockchains” log everything you’ve ever done with your currency! To me, that sounded far less anonymous than any physical currency.
So it was with a sense of grim satisfaction that I read John Bohannon’s recent Science news article, “Why criminals can’t hide behind Bitcoin.” Because, indeed, it is possible to map bitcoin ownership to specific IP addresses (this is akin to a mailing address for any device connected to the internet — not quite the same as knowing a person’s name, but if the feds know a criminal lives at Harbor Hill in East Hills, NY, they’re close to closing in).
Part of the explanation for this seems to be that the people who know about any transaction first are those involved in the transaction. And part seems to be that, as with any puzzle, solving one section — identifying a few initial addresses — makes it easier to untangle the rest.
If you’re looking for absolute secrecy, bitcoins might not be for you.
Of course, plenty of people are working on other supposedly secretive forms of computer currency. A developer for the new bitcoin replacement “ShadowCash” (software dudes are not always known for beautiful language, although I’ll admit that “java” is fun to say) is quoted in Bohannon’s article: “I don’t feel people have the right to know, unless disclosed, how much cash is in my wallet, just like I don’t feel anyone should know what conversations I’m having with anyone.”
Now, I’m gung-ho for (nonviolent) civil liberties, but obviously I disagree. Wealth is not like speech — it is a semi-limited resource that comes from others. Furthermore, the two fundamental functions of modern governance are protecting property rights (your ownership of a house, for instance, or the money in your wallet) and civil liberties (your getting to be alive).
If I decide to go on the warpath and conquer your home, the government can’t very well intervene unless they have a record that this home is in fact yours and not mine. Which raises sundry other questions — what chain of events through history led to it being yours? — but unless all these cryptocurrency advocates are as childishly violent as Mr. Ulbricht (creating a platform for U.S. citizens to purchase imported pharmaceuticals seems fine. Hiring hit men is not), methinks they have a fundamental misunderstanding as to the way ownership works.