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4473: One Form to Fool Them All

December 21, 2012

What Is Form 4473?

Anyone who has purchased a firearm from a licensed dealer in the recent past has had to fill out a Form 4473. It’s a form issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) for use by Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders. Every transfer from an FFL holder to a purchaser generates one of these forms, and it stays on file for a minimum of 20 years. A thumbnail of the first page of the form is shown below. It links to the official PDF form at the BATFE website.

Form 4473 Page 1

“Gun control” advocates will point to the use of this form (and the associated National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS) as a positive step. They’ll say that it prevents the wrong people from getting guns without violating the Second Amendment.

How Are We Being Fooled?

The claims of “gun control” advocates are dead wrong on both fronts, and more. First of all, requiring a form and a background check from every purchaser does not prevent unsuitable people from getting guns. Criminals will find sellers elsewhere, or they will steal guns from lawful owners.

Secondly, Form 4473 is a blatant violation of the Second Amendment. It is an infringement on the rights of U.S. citizens to keep and bear arms, implemented by an agency that was originally a division of the Treasury. Some might argue that the federal government does not have the authority to regulate the weapons trade in the United States in the first place, and that “shall not be infringed” does not leave any room for interpretation.

But it gets worse. Any time a customer fills out Form 4473 according to the instructions, that person is also facing a violation of another constitutionally recognized right, this time under the Fifth Amendment: “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Border Patrol agents reads the Miranda rights to a Mexican national arrested for transporting drugs.Form 4473 is a thinly veiled circumvention of the same right that spawned the Miranda warning and the concept of “taking the Fifth” in court. In the process of supposedly making sure that criminals can’t buy guns, the federal government requires that the purchaser answer the following yes-or-no questions and swear to the veracity of the answers via signature:

11.a. Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.

b. Are you under indictment or information in any court for a felony, or any other crime, for which the judge could imprison you for more than one year?

c. Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony, or any other crime, for which the judge could have imprisoned you for more than one year, even if you received a shorter sentence including probation?

d. Are you a fugitive from justice?

e. Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?

f. Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes a determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that you are a danger to yourself or to others or are incompetent to manage you own affairs) OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?

g. Have you been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions?

h. Are you subject to a court order restraining you from harassing, stalking, or threatening your child or an intimate partner or child of such partner’?

i. Have you ever been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence?

j. Have you ever renounced your United States citizenship?

k. Are you an alien illegally in the United States?

l. Are you a nonimmigrant alien?

This is precisely the kind of compulsion prohibited by the Fifth Amendment. In order to exercise the right to keep and bear arms, the BATFE requires that a person waive the right described in the self-incrimination clause by legally affirming answers to an on-paper interrogation. If the customer refuses to act as a witness against himself, he is denied his right to acquire a weapon—deprived of liberty—in violation of the due-process clause.

Some might argue that the self-incrimination clause does not apply here because the purchaser is not involved in an active criminal case. It’s true that the purchase of a gun is not a criminal case, but a sworn, signed statement is a legal weapon that can only come back to harm a person. It is evidence for a potential future criminal case, like statements made to a police officer before any suspicion has arisen.

When the police arrest someone, even if the arrested person is not yet formally charged with anything, he still has the right to remain silent. Why? Because anything he says, especially if he says it to a police officer, can and probably will be used against him in court. That’s why the Miranda warning is phrased that way—to make people aware that the information they are sharing may be used as part of a criminal case against them, right now or at any time in the future.

Witness Taking OathFilling out a Form 4473 is the legal equivalent of walking into a court and filing an affidavit against oneself. If the honest answer to 11.a is “Yes,” and the honest answer to 11.b through 11.l is “No,” it’s hard to think of it as filing anything against oneself, as none of the answers are actually incriminating. But that’s not relevant to the right described in the Fifth Amendment, which is “compelled to be a witness against himself.” Guilt or lack of guilt has no bearing on the situation.

Neither the police, nor the courts, nor the many tentacles of the federal government may compel a person to act as a witness against himself. It is an egregious violation of civil rights if a police officer, for example, refuses to let someone travel freely without answering questions about his activities. It is such a violation that the person’s statements may be inadmissible in court. In the case of Form 4473, the BATFE not only compels a person to be a witness against himself, but does so by threatening to withhold the person’s right to arm himself.

The Constitution explicitly prohibits the federal government from doing all of these things—compelling a person to be a witness against himself, depriving a person of any right without due process of law, and infringing on a person’s right to keep and bear arms. It’s all there in black and white.

But Isn’t That the Background Check?

Form 4473 is not the background check that is performed prior to a firearm transfer. That takes place after a 4473 is filled out, typically on the phone. The information NICS uses to determine whether the FFL may proceed is independent of the answers on the form. When a purchaser fills out the form, what he is doing is providing sworn answers to a preliminary set of questions. There are clear “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions, if the purchaser wants to acquire the firearm; any other answers will stop the transfer from happening.

It’s a sort of trap, the same kind of trap a police officer might spring during a traffic stop. For example, if an officer asks a person if he has anything illegal in his car, the person has three options: say yes, say no, or remain silent. Either of the first two options amounts to the person acting as a witness against himself. The third option is what sets the police encounter apart from Form 4473. The person has the option to remain silent, and the police officer cannot (lawfully) respond by depriving the person of life, liberty, or property.

Traffic Stop

The BATFE, on the other hand, claims the authority to make an FFL refuse a transfer if the purchaser will not complete and sign Form 4473. However, the background check could be performed to exactly the same degree without the answers to any of those questions or the purchaser’s signature. The form is extraneous to the background check. It is a bald attempt to make purchasers of firearms waive their Fifth Amendment rights in order to exercise their Second Amendment rights. (For anyone with a deeper interest in the Constitution, this arguably amounts to a violation of the Ninth Amendment’s provision that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”)

Is There a Solution?

Of course, it’s not unreasonable to want some level of security, especially when it comes to a potentially lethal object like a firearm. Gun owners should understand this; owning a gun involves the duty of being its steward. Responsible gun owners don’t let just anyone handle their guns, and it follows that they should appreciate the idea of not letting just anyone put his hands on a gun.

ATF FFL CheckThat said, the federal government is explicitly forbidden from being a gatekeeper between the people and any arms they may want to keep or bear. The pre-recorded message on NICS telling a firearms dealer whether to proceed with a sale or not is no less of a violation than if the government were to ban a particular religion or outlaw discussion of certain topics. It cannot stand.

However, there is a middle ground. Most everyone agrees that any FFL ought to be informed that his potential customer is a convicted violent felon, a known drug abuser, severely mentally ill, or otherwise ill-suited to own a firearm. These are things that might not be readily apparent in the course of a brief encounter in a gun shop, but the dealer should know about them if possible. NICS already has this information, as do the state authorities that are sometimes used for this purpose.

The solution is for the government to simply provide this information to the FFL rather than making the decision for him. The dealer would still collect the customer’s basic information on a form, but that form would not include a section that requires the purchaser to act as a witness against himself. Then the usual NICS call would take place, except that the result would not be a command about whether to proceed. It would be a list of reasons why the dealer may not want to proceed with the transfer, if there are any.

Greg Ebert Gun DealerThe dealer would then be free to make the choice of whether to proceed. He was informed of the purchaser’s background prior to approving the transfer, so he cannot feign ignorance, and he acts at his own risk. If he knowingly sells a gun to an unsuitable person who then uses it in a crime, the dealer can be held responsible via loss of licensing, civil penalties, and/or criminal liability as appropriate. This level of accountability would deter dealers from selling guns to unsuitable people, while still conveying all of the important information and removing the decision from the hands of the government. Taking this power away from the government also ensures that it can never be used as an instrument of abuse, such as denying the right to arms due to nonpayment of taxes or political blacklisting.

Overall, there is no valid reason why completing Form 4473 as it exists should be required of prospective firearm purchasers. Each purchaser’s suitability can be and is already determined in other ways, none of which necessitate the providing of sworn statements that could be used in a criminal case against that person. Removing those questions and leaving the decision to the dealer would not plunge the firearms trade into lawlessness. In fact, it would do the opposite, preserving the ability of citizens to exercise all of their rights, rather than forcing them to choose which rights to waive.

You Need Something to Care About

December 18, 2012

I spent a good portion of my teenage years, and even some of my young-adult years, dealing with what some clinicians would call depression. A certain doctor prescribed me two different medications for it during my first years of high school. Thankfully, both medications gave me terrible side effects, and I had to stop taking them.

Why am I thankful, you ask? Because I was so turned off by the experience that I never took another prescription antidepressant again for the rest of my life. I won’t touch them at all, and I plead with anyone thinking about taking them to consider another option. The reason is simple: unless you have a bona fide mental illness, which the vast majority of people do not have, all they do is make you feel artificially, temporarily good at the expense of feeling genuinely good in the long term.

What I needed, I have come to realize, is not something that would make me feel good, but something to feel good about. I didn’t need something to make me oblivious to my rut, but something real to get me out of it. That’s what it was—not clinical depression or some other illness over which I had no control, but a rut, created by years and years of feeling useless. I had few Trained Monkeyuseful skills, and among the few I had, I barely used any of them. Every job I’d had was a daily regimen of repetitive tasks that a machine or a trained monkey could have done sufficiently—collecting money, slapping together prefabricated sandwiches, carrying boxes, counting things, and so on. The rest of my time was spent “relaxing” and spending the money I’d earned.

As a result, I had nothing to keep me tethered to this world. Sure, I have a family, but it’s not as if I earned my family. They’ve been around since the beginning, and their existence or well-being doesn’t depend on me in any meaningful way. It might be different if I had children, but I don’t.

What eventually got me out of the rut was the realization that I can use my hands and my brain to be productive in whatever way I choose. The more I choose to be productive in that way, the better I will get at it, and the more good I can do for myself and others. And this wasn’t some meaningless, theoretical epiphany I had while sitting in a coffee shop and writing sad poetry. It happened while I was becoming more content with my life because I was doing things that made me care about living.

Spider PlantThese things I was doing weren’t all that special, either. I wasn’t saving the world one oily duck at a time or slow-roasting Sally Struthers to feed starving children. One of the first things was very simple: taking care of houseplants that people had left to die. As tasks go, taking care of plants is not very demanding. Make sure the plant looks healthy and is in an appropriate container. Arrange it near a window or other source of consistent sunlight. Water it on a regular schedule, and occasionally add plant food or another source of nutrition. The entire routine averaged about a half-hour each week.

That half-hour each week made a remarkable difference in my life. In most of the jobs I’d had, if I quit, another trained monkey could be immediately summoned to step into my place. I was as replaceable as a light bulb, perhaps even more so. On the other hand, I was responsible for those plants. If I quit caring for them, they would die. Their existence depended on my ability and willingness to continue caring for them. I was proud of how good they looked, and I wanted to keep them looking that way.

Around the same time as I started growing houseplants, I also got my first job doing something that didn’t make me feel like a trained monkey—proofreading for a publishing company. It was an enormous breakthrough for me. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t replaceable; there were plenty of other proofreaders, but they and I were doing something a lot more complex than pushing buttons and pulling levers for eight hours a day.

From there, I took off. I met people from all over the business and made my way into a specialized niche for which my growing skill set was very well suited. I got there because I took the time to assess my talents and work at them until I was good enough to use them professionally.

More importantly, though, I found what I had been missing all those years. I actually cared about what I was doing, whether it was fine-tuning educational materials or making sure my plants weren’t withering. What I was doing may not have mattered in a saving-the-world kind of way, but it mattered to me. I kept caring for the plants because it was important to me. I didn’t spend every day at work wishing I could tell off my boss and storm out the door; I spent them trying to complete work I could be proud of. I felt useful, and it’s really difficult to feel depressed and useful at the same time.

Generally, when people feel depressed, unless it’s because of a genuine dysfunction in their hormone systems, it’s not really depression they’re feeling. It’s easy to associate the feeling with depression because it’s similar to the feelings that come along with grief—most notably that you can’t do anything about it. You feel impotent. Helpless. Useless.

Lazy Kid on CouchYou feel that way when people die because you literally can’t do anything about it. But in the rest of life, that’s seldom the case; you feel that way because of constant inaction. You become stagnant and lack purpose. Fortunately, though, you can do something about that: be useful. Give yourself something to care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super-important, and in fact, it’s best to start small. Pick a talent you know you have or a skill you’re interested in building, and make a habit out of spending at least a half-hour a week doing something related to it—not thinking about it, not planning it, but doing it.

And I don’t mean going online and click-click-clicking your way to some pointless array of green pixels that you can pretend is a farm. Make a list of your talents, pick one that appeals to you in that moment, and use it to create something or meaningfully help someone. Don’t overthink it or come up with excuses to stall; just do it. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do better if your first, second, or twentieth attempt is a flop.

It could be something as simple as this article in front of you; if it helps even one person feel good in the long term, it was well worth all of the thought and keystrokes I put into it. Through my own effort, I will have created something positive that wouldn’t exist without me. Even if no one who reads it gains anything from it, or no one reads it at all, it will have been worthwhile because I can use the experience to write a better article in the future.

That is the one thing that seems missing in many people’s lives, and the most major barrier to natural, non-drug-induced happiness. Many people spend so much of their time chasing subsistence money that they think that’s all there is to life—pushing buttons, pulling levers, and collecting paychecks until they die. Uselessness is one of the most depressing feelings in the world, and there is really only one solution to it: be productive.

[Kudos to David Wong at Cracked.com for inspiring me to write this via his article, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, which I highly recommend.]

9 Roommates to Avoid on Craigslist

December 16, 2012

At some time or another, you have probably sought something on Craigslist or another classifieds website. If it wasn’t a night stand or a one-night stand, it was very likely a long-term situation like a living arrangement.

ImageIn the course of your searching, you may have noticed a number of clues that could be significantly helpful in your vetting process. Everyone ought to know the basics already: avoid landlords who promise to mail their apartment keys from overseas, decline to meet anyone in the woods to exchange a large sum of cash, and make sure that the person you’re planning to meet for a “romantic encounter” isn’t too charming.

But that’s all common-sense stuff, on a par with passing on your claim to the US$500,000,000 jackpot from the Trans-Africa Lottery that you never entered. However, there are more subtle things that might pass under your radar—in particular, writing style. Sometimes, most of the information you need to prevent a roommate-from-Hell situation is right there in black and white.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, nor should it be your sole guide in judging online classifieds, but it can’t hurt to notice these things.

Typographical Errors

Everyone makes mistakes. One or two typos or may be an indication that a prospective roommate is a little careless or hasty, or it may not mean anything at all. An ad filled with pervasive typos, on the other hand, may be a dire omen.

ImageIf teh posst yuor readin loooks alot like dis phrsae, prepare yourself for a person who ignores details, doesn’t check his work, and generally has no concern for neatness or appearance. Think of clothes strewn all over the furniture, a stack of dishes in the sink that rivals your height, trash cans that are more like manual compactors, and general lack of basic cleanliness.

If that’s how you like to live, by all means, seek out the typographically challenged. You may very well find your soulmate. Otherwise, move along.

The Great Wall of Text

Most people do know what a line break is. The Enter key is directly to the right of and much larger than the letter keys, and there’s no mystery about its function. Some people, however, do not know when to use it, or they simply don’t like it. A lack of line breaks in a Craigslist ad may be a sign of many things, a faulty keyboard being the most optimistic among them. More likely, the person who typed the ad is a scatterbrain who doesn’t understand how to break up his thoughts into discrete clusters, instead opting to subject the reader to a long, stream-of-consciousness wall of text. Take on a roommate whose ad looks like this paragraph, and you may be in store for a mind-numbing level of disorganization. At the very least, you’re probably looking at a frazzled person who rambles incessantly, doesn’t plan anything in advance, and is unfamiliar with such basic concepts as paying bills on time. People who don’t use punctuation fall into nearly the same category, except that they’re also likely to be constantly rushing and high-strung. See also: run-on sentences and extremely long lists.

Bizarre Syntax

“Looks for the roommate. Give the rent first month. Lots of the access to the subways.”

This one is simple: the poster probably doesn’t speak English fluently. This isn’t a personality flaw, of course, but it may point to other issues you will face down the line. Depending on the level of fluency, accurate communication may become a problem. You and the poster may be from very different cultures, and you may even have drastically divergent senses of what constitutes a reasonable living situation.

Exposing yourself to other cultures is almost always a good thing, but you’re looking for a living situation, not a companion for your backpacking trip through South America. You will probably have to share a kitchen and bathroom with this person. If you’re looking for a simple, comfortable place to call home, you may do well to avoid ads that look like they were copied and pasted from Google Translate.

The Bigwordiggan

Sometimes “big words” are necessary to accurately express a particular idea. On the other hand, sometimes they’re superfluous. The latter is most likely the case in a classified ad, where the idea being expressed is that the person is seeking a roommate, the rent is x dollars per month, the apartment is in a good location, cats are allowed but dogs are not, and so on. Notice that the longest word in the list is apartment.

ImageIf an ad contains needlessly long or obscure words and phrases—say, cohabitant instead of roommate—you may be dealing with a bigwordiggan who has a lot of on-paper intelligence but little in the way of social skills. At the very least, this person is likely to think he’s much smarter than you (and he may be), and he will not hesitate to demonstrate it at every opportunity. Look forward to condescending lectures, passive-aggressive notes, and other egotistical practices.

If the big words are used incorrectly, replace the part about intelligence with laziness or stupidity.

“Ellipses”

First of all, this is an ellipsis (plural ellipses): …

This is a string of three periods: . . .

Notice how you can highlight all three periods individually, but the ellipsis is highlighted as a single character. An ellipsis is an unusual piece of punctuation that has very few legitimate functions, most of them dealing with quoting text. More recently, it has come into popular use to represent a longer pause in speech than would be intended by a traditional mark like a period or comma.

Some people, however…just like to use them all the time……They use them in place of periods…..and in the middle of sentences…and they are not selective at all about how many “dots” they use…..The resulting ad tends to look like….teenage emo poetry…..If the ad you’re reading is written in this way……its writer may be the kind of person who likes to….leave everything open-ended…..let decisions languish….answer everything with “maybe”….and a wide variety of other traits that may be irritating in a roommate……

Emphasis Punctuation????? Yes Please!!!!!

The question mark and exclamation point are very useful. Without question marks, wouldn’t asking something in writing be much more difficult? And people need exclamation marks to inject life into their stronger statements!

However, overusing these punctuation marks is pointless!!! Am I right??? While it may be appropriate on rare occasions to use more than one question mark or exclamation point, those occasions very seldom arise in a housing ad.

More importantly, if you come across an ad that uses these marks excessively, it may be a sign of a person who is unduly excitable or even forceful. The greater the overuse, the greater the tendency toward these traits. The difference between “Your rent is due tomorrow!” and “Your rent is due tomorrow!!!!!!!!!!” is about nine degrees of intensity that aren’t necessary to convey the message.

Me, me, me, me, me. You, you, you, you, you.

If you had good English teachers in school, you were probably taught not to use I very much, if at all, in your writing. Unless the matter being addressed relates to a personal anecdote, there is probably a better and less self-centered way to describe it. The same goes for Craigslist ads: if the entire ad is written in the first person, the writer was probably more concerned with himself than with conveying the information in the ad. Unless you’re really eager to live with a narcissist, it’s best to pass.

Similarly, consistent use of the second person may indicate undesirable qualities as well. If every fifth or sixth word in the ad is you, the poster may very well be the kind of person who obsesses about others’ behavior. Think about someone who is always speaking in terms of you; the words judgmental and controlling come to mind. Not really ideal for a living situation, at least not for most people.

U and Ur

In addition to possibly being part of a subset of the “you, you, you” roommate, a poster who uses the “words” u and ur is telling you that he is probably a chronic shortcutter. He prefers to always do things the “easy” way, even if the difference is only two keystrokes here and there.

This may manifest itself in harmless ways, like missing a corner when sweeping. However, little harmless oversights, like leaving lint in the dryer or occasionally neglecting to flush the toilet, can add up to long-term friction. In the worst cases, shortcuts can put you in danger, like leaving the door to your apartment unlocked and ajar during a “quick trip to the store.”

Also be on the lookout for 4 in place of for, 2 in place of to or too, and any other text-messagey shorthand.

ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME

ImageIF YOU FIND YOURSELF READING A HOUSING AD THAT IS WRITTEN LIKE THIS ENTRY, BEWARE. THIS “STYLE” CAN INDICATE A WIDE VARIETY OF ISSUES AND FLAWS—CONSTANT DESIRE TO BE THE CENTER OF ATTENTION, OVER-AGGRESSIVENESS, UNWILLINGNESS TO DEAL WITH VISION PROBLEMS, SHOUTING, AND OTHER UNDESIRABLE QUALITIES.

THEN AGAIN, MAYBE IT’S NOTHING. MAYBE HIS CAPS LOCK KEY COINCIDENTALLY GOT STUCK MOMENTS BEFORE HE NEEDED TO POST THE AD. MAYBE HIS SHIFT KEY IS BROKEN, AND HE’D RATHER TYPE IN ALL CAPS THAN ALL LOWERCASE. BUT YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T COUNT ON IT BEING EITHER OF THESE CASES WHEN YOUR LONG-TERM SANITY IS AT STAKE.

[Kudos to Rustin H. Wright of Streetcar Press for inspiring me to write this article.]

How Greece Can Unravel the Euro

June 12, 2012

A recent article on CNBC, EU Floats Worst-Case Plans for Greek Euro, describes the European Union’s proposed contingency plans in the event that Greece decides to buck the euro and revert back to a national currency. The three key steps outlined in the article are:

1. Limit ATM withdrawals.
2. Impose “capital controls” (i.e., freeze assets or otherwise make funds illiquid).
3. Suspend the Schengen agreement (i.e., close off the borders of Greece and heavily police other Eurozone borders).

Any adept student of economics or monetary policy should be able to immediately identify what these three measures represent. They are the opposite of the supposed primary benefits of fiat currency: liquidity of funds and facilitation of trade. Enacting them could spur financial panic, bank runs, and general economic strife, possibly even a depression. Why impose these specific steps? Why undermine the supposed purpose of creating the euro in the first place?

The reason is simple. If Greece withdraws from the euro, it will need to adopt its own currency. In light of the Greek experience with fiat money, it is likely that the new Greek currency will be a commodity-based unit of trade, in order to avoid the debt saturation that is an inherent part of central banking. This is especially probable when the alternative is considered—sticking with the currency scheme that has brought Greece to its knees in under a decade.

Because Greek’s economic strength lies in its agricultural sector, the intelligent approach would be to peg a basic national currency to a unit of agricultural product. Instead of “euro,” “dollar,” or some other attempt to attach symbolic meaning to a valueless piece of paper, it could be called “εσοδεία” (Greek for “crop,” in English approximately “Esuvia”). Its base unit could be fixed as something as simple as one pound of cotton (about US$0.68). It could also be diversified to something as complex as a “basket” of agricultural products, like an exchange-traded fund (ETF)—for example, one ounce each of several different crops. In order to keep the currency viable, each Esuvia in circulation would be based on an actual quantity of the relevant crop(s), and the quantity of Esuvia in circulation would be determined by agricultural surveys or other reliable means.

The strength of the Esuvia would lie in the fact that it is exchangeable for exactly its face value in tangible crops. Because crops are universally valuable, the Esuvia would be an excellent medium of voluntary exchange for all goods and services, as any legitimate currency should be. Greece could even open the door to any number of officially recognized currencies pinned to different commodities. This is in stark contrast to fiat currencies like the euro, which are just paper notes forced by law to be exchangeable as “legal tender” for payment for debts.

If such a new currency were introduced, euro-based funds were to remain liquid, and the Greek and Eurozone borders were to remain open, Gresham’s law indicates that the euro would gradually disappear from voluntary trade. Knowledgeable people and institutions would dump euros en masse and demand Esuvias in payment, similar to the phenomenon that occurs in any country when asset-based money (e.g., silver coinage) is replaced by faith-based money (e.g., cupronickel and other clad coinage). The faith-based money becomes a “hot potato” that no one wants to hold because it is constantly losing value. All meaningful savings is done by collecting the commodity-based money, which, at a minimum, retains its value over time. The only thing that can prevent this from happening is physically, statutorily, or otherwise forcing markets to accept the spurned currency—exactly what the EU’s contingency measures propose.

More importantly, importation would rapidly gravitate toward Greece. Merchants would travel to EU countries to unload their euros in exchange for tangible goods. They would tend to sell those tangible goods mostly in Greece, where they would receive payment in the form of a reliable store of value. In the Eurozone, merchants would demand increasingly higher prices for accounts paid in euros, if they would be willing to be paid in euros at all. Even if the EU were to successfully isolate Greece from the Eurozone, its geographical location would leave its markets open to anywhere accessible via the Mediterranean Sea—that is, to the whole rest of the world.

Unlike the trade imbalance that occurs when excessive imports are bought using fiat money—for example, in the United States—Greek purchases made in Esuvias would inherently balance imports and exports. Every time an imported product is bought with Esuvias, it represents the exportation of a corresponding value in real crops. In order to maintain its ability to trade, Greece’s agricultural sector must keep producing at the same rate, eliminating the possibility of the country overspending itself into extreme debt. It’s like direct barter without the burden of lugging around the actual products.

Above all, if this scenario unfolds, it will expose the lie that monopolistic fiat currency can be the foundation of a sound economy. The vastly interconnected world will get to see, in real time, what happens when faith-money is forced to compete with honest facilitation of trade in the form of commodity-based money. It will show everyone that truly free economies represent the fair and voluntary exchange of actual goods—not slips of paper whose imaginary value is imposed by force. Such an event would be a windfall for the people of the world, and an unmitigated disaster for the central banks, all of whose wealth is built on forced indebtedness to institutions that produce nothing useful.

The EU, basically the enforcement arm of central banking in Europe, cannot allow this outcome. Its proposed plans for a Greek exit from the Eurozone should show everyone what lies at the core of the corrupt, monopolistic system the euro represents. It is not and never has been about creating prosperity, promoting stability, or establishing unity; it is about exercising power and amassing wealth through the manipulation of currency. These contingency proposals serve as a warning that the European Central Bank will threaten and enact anything it can to prop up its fraudulent currency, even if it amounts to punishing everyone in the European Union.

[Thanks to CNBC for the original article, Google for providing Greek translation and pronunciation, Index Mundi for the market price of cotton, and Wikipedia for the bank-run image, the reference to Gresham’s law, and the map of the Mediterranean Sea region.

Special request for fluent Greek and English speakers: If I am wrong in my usage of “εσοδεία” and/or “Esuvia,” please do not hesitate to correct me in the comments. I will gladly edit the article and give you prominent credit.]

A Grievous Breach of Trust

May 18, 2012

Part of what is commonly called the “human condition” is a capacity for making mistakes. Even if we don’t want to admit it, we know that we’re not always right and that our decisions often require second-guessing. That’s why nearly every modern form of government has some kind of correction mechanism.

In the United States, we’ve most recently seen this correction mechanism come into play regarding provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that effectively declare the U.S. a “battlefield”—opening the door to U.S. citizens being detained indefinitely or even killed without due process of law. A federal judge has ruled the provisions unconstitutional on the basis that they overreach government authority, under the Fifth Amendment in particular.

This is a half-step in the right direction, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the situation. The provisions in question are not part of a simple, honest mistake, nor do they represent a flawed decision in need of fine-tuning. They are an egregious attack on the people of the U.S.

Many times in our lives, we find ourselves in positions of trust, and we similarly trust others. Sometimes the trust is earned over time, but very often it is allowed out of necessity, as is the case with government. Someone must be at the helm of the great machine established to create and enforce laws for the benefit of the public. And sometimes, it is necessary to expel operators of that machine because it is clear that they can no longer be trusted to wield such power. Most often the culprit is greed; a bureaucrat abuses his access to public funds, for example, and is forced to return the funds and rescind his position.

But what do we do when it appears that the whole crew in charge of the machine has conspired against us? That is the question we must consider in light of the NDAA’s “battlefield” provisions, and so many other grievous breaches of the public trust.

In the past decade alone, we have witnessed the operations of a government so infested with corrupt, malevolent operators that it acts with impunity against us, committing such a vast series of offensive acts that the built-in correction mechanisms can’t even keep up. Nearly all of the basic precepts of governance laid out in the Constitution have been obliterated on the basis of fear-mongering, expediency, or outright disdain.

Freedom of expression, religion, assembly, and the press are perpetually undermined by far-reaching “national security” concerns. The right to bear arms is constantly under attack from demagogues who, rather than use the correct procedure to amend the rule, erect mazes of bureaucratic obstacles between citizens and tools of defense. There is no longer any such thing as a right to security of person and property; lawful warrants are treated as an occasional courtesy to be afforded when no excuse exists to avoid them. Due process exists in name only, and is given to take on any form that is convenient to those in power. The representatives of the states are constantly bribed and threatened in order to maintain federal dominance over what is supposed to be bottom-up authority.

In short, government has become an instrument of abuse to the people, a leviathan whose flailing arms spare only those who live within its scaly skin. War is waged to satiate greed and pride. Property is stolen and destroyed without just cause. Taxation and regulation have become such heavy yokes that they stifle the flow of progress. No one knows who will be the next target of the state, nor for what reason.

These misdeeds represent nothing short of a War on Freedom, commenced in earnest on Tuesday, September 11, 2001—not by fanatics with box-cutters, but by fanatics with access to immense legal and societal power. Since then, we have faced what the writers of the Declaration of Independence would most certainly recognize as a “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object”: the disestablishment of all meaningful forms of liberty.

Sadly, the striking down of the NDAA “battlefield” provisions does not even represent a victory. It represents a public on the brink of defeat, broken-boned and crumpled upon a curb, helplessly coughing up its own blood onto the shoes of its attackers.

Kings have had their necks severed for much less. There can be no victory, no triumph of freedom, as long as the same ass still warms the throne. This isn’t about any particular president, legislator, or political party, but about the institution itself—a congregation of thousands of colluding tyrants who would sooner sell us all into slavery than honestly perform the obligations of their offices.

It would be an unforgivable sin to afflict the next generations of this world with such a malicious entity, further empowered by the appearance of long-term normalcy. Every moment we decline to oppose the obvious evil in our presence, we are tacitly condoning it. In our lifetimes, we must do everything in our power to weaken this beast, to spread discontent about its doings, and to ultimately send it to some abyss of history.

The Graceless Death of Copyrighting

January 18, 2012

Today, the sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) withdrew their support of the two bills. This action has been largely credited to vehement opposition by websites and other technology companies, including a widespread “internet blackout” and information campaign.

Preemptively depriving people of property and liberty in order to prevent copyright infringement would not have been a valid solution, but a new offense in itself. Those pieces of legislation represented an assault on civil rights that are already besieged from multiple angles. Their abandonment is definitely cause for celebration. Hurrah!

However, while this triumph is laudable, it resolves nothing. The real problem is that, particularly since the advent of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing, copyrights have become unenforceable—whether for music, film, software, or printed material. The internet effectively makes copyrighting obsolete, and the entertainment gurus cannot abide this change in the game. It turns their golden goose into just another bird.

The internet takes communication and innovation to a whole other level. The birth of the internet was the beginning of a new age into which we have been steadily progressing. It is an age of free information and worldwide, real-time communication, incompatible with institutions whose profits rely on copyrights and other such restrictions. Those institutions are part of an old order that has no place in the new age. They cannot coexist with free communication, and no amount of arguing will convince the world to sacrifice such a valuable asset to keep their industry afloat.

Of course, in this light, the old order will use every resource at its disposal to stunt free communication. As long as they still have means to do so, corporations and trade organizations will try to prevent this new age from coming to fruition, at any expense. It doesn’t matter if the price we pay is the elimination of basic civil rights, if the alternative is death of the institutions. If they can’t be part of the new age, no one will.

As with many major political issues, there is a massive underlying problem at the core of the copyright controversy and many others: too many of our institutions are set up to be permanent. The self-deified leaders of industry, rather than adapting to a changing world, become obsessed with crushing any innovation that threatens the eternal life of their business models.

We see this phenomenon not only in the dying premise of copyrighting, but across the board. The petroleum and automotive industries expend a great deal of money and resources to suppress alternative vehicles and fuels. The Democratic and Republican parties use every means at their disposal to keep outsiders from establishing a meaningful political presence. Central banks incite wars and threaten the stability of the world to prolong catastrophic monetary policies. Religious organizations denounce scientific advancements that shine light through the gaps of faith. The list goes on and on.

As new technologies enable new abilities—a process that has accelerated across human history—old orders will continue to fiercely struggle against their impending demise. Fortunately, they will always fall behind because they’re on the wrong side of a futile conflict. They are medieval cavalry trying to trample a fleet of tanks and helicopters. Today, two of their best-suited horsemen were unceremoniously crushed.

Despite this victory, we must remain vigilant. We have won a battle, and we will win the war, but this old order will never resign peacefully. We must strike it down every time it stands up, again and again, until it has no choice but to assume its proper place—in the past.

Death to Frank-Skinner, Father of the Convenience Charge

December 30, 2011

I happen to be a Verizon Wireless customer, and I happen to usually make a one-time payment each month on my credit card (to take advantage of cash back and to keep potential billing errors away from my bank account). The fee that VZW recently proposed, which was quickly eviscerated by angry consumers, would have directly affected me.

The fact is that charging a fee for using a credit card is the norm. Card servicers charge an “interchange fee” of around 2% on each transaction, so it makes sense that businesses will try to recoup the expense. Believe it or not, I didn’t have much of a problem with VZW’s plan to implement this fee. Naturally, I’d prefer if they didn’t, but I understand how interchange fees work, and it doesn’t seem especially unfair to try to offset the loss in some way.

For a transaction the size of a phone bill, $2 is pretty mild, as these things go. Some merchants add as much as 4–5% to the transaction amount for customers who opt to pay with a card, and that trend is continually growing. Note that I said transaction amount and not purchase price. That percent is an increase over the total bill, including any taxes, shipping costs, or anything else. It’s a monster of a fee, as is the interchange fee that sired it.

In that light, $2 flat is actually a bit of a deal. Assuming a 2% interchange fee, if the bill being paid is for more than $100, the customer is paying less than the interchange fee, and VZW is absorbing the difference. Even for smaller bills, it’s not significantly greater than the interchange fee.

Clearly, though, there is a problem afoot, but the problem isn’t the amount of the fee. It’s not that the fee is being applied to a specific class of payments either. As I’ve noted, the fee itself is remarkably tame compared to business practices that consumers widely tolerate with little objection. The problem is something else entirely, and it is a two-headed beast.

The first head is named Frank. Frank has a forked tongue and is a master of semantics. His job is to invent catchy, agreeable-sounding phrases to lull consumers into a false sense of understanding. Frank’s talent can be boiled down to a four-step process:

  1. He starts by describing the nature of the idea in question—in this case, Penalty to Offset Interchange Fees and Drive Customers into Recurring Payments.
  2. Next, he strips the phrase down to its core noun, in this case, Penalty. By starting with the core noun, Frank ensures that his output will still have a quasi-honest connection to the original idea.
  3. He then “spins” the core noun into a more amicable synonym. No one wants to be friends with a Penalty, but a Charge sounds more neutral, and it lacks the psychological sting of Penalty. Monosyllabic words are preferred (e.g., fee, fine, tax).
  4. Finally, he adds an adjective (or adjectival phrase) that has a positive connotation, like Convenience. For this part, multiple syllables are a must, and alliteration and assonance are always welcome. This adjective serves to front-load the phrase with a word that is longer and “happier” than the noun. When possible, the gerund form is used to add that extra syllable (e.g., servicing, restocking, shipping and handling).

To say the phrase Convenience Charge, a person has to spend three syllables saying a positive adjective before using only one syllable for a watered-down form of the original idea. After quickly reading the phrase once, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what it means, except that it sounds reasonable and has something to do with convenience. The same kind of method can be used for many purposes, including giving horrible names to good or neutral things. Frank is brilliant like that.

The beast’s other head is named Skinner, after the famous psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner. His claim to fame is a talent for manipulating people’s behavior by adjusting their surroundings. He is the Drive Customers into Recurring Payments part of the deal. If you’ve never noticed Skinner’s work before, that was the point. You’re not supposed to notice it. You’re supposed to navigate the ever-changing maze until you find the surcharge-free cheese.

The Frank-Skinner beast represents the major problem underlying VZW’s proposal. The problem neither begins nor ends with a $2 fee; it has been an ongoing process of which people have gradually become aware. The trick is fading.

More and more, consumers cringe at a phrase like Convenience Charge because, at a minimum, they subconsciously know that someone is trying to use it to deceive them. When they read about the trend the fee will create—redirecting customers to sign up for recurring payments—they know it is a goal of the new policy, and the fee is a sort of fence to corral people toward the goal.

People are getting fed up with being tricked, fenced-in, coddled, milked, and otherwise treated like cattle. Despite an insistence in popular entertainment that people are generally morons, the human brain is a very powerful instrument. Even in the least educated, least skilled people, it is able to recognize patterns like repeated attempts at deception and manipulation.

What we have seen these past few days has not just been a backlash against a proposed fee. It has been a backlash against the practices instituted to get the public to accept the fee. It has been a call for the heads of Frank-Skinner to roll.

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