Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 August 2018

Two Under-Appreciated Threats to Modern Life


[For reasons why an economic or political crash is coming or imminent, click here. For a brief note on a rare “conservative” who can think, click here. For things corporate CEOs can do to help keep the United States from suffering a decline and fall like ancient Rome’s, click here. For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]


Introduction
Dark cryptocurrency transfers
Untraceable and undetectable assault weapons
Conclusion

Introduction

Demagogues need enemies as the Mafia needs “muscle.” Incite strong enough fear in the people, and they might not notice your corruption, your stealing the country’s substance, or your driving the nation into the ground with spectacular incompetence. Foment enough fear and the people won’t even recognize the real dangers that confront them, things like global warming, the upcoming exhaustion of the oil on which we depend abjectly, the increasing persecution of minorities, and exploding economic inequality.

That’s precisely why Donald Trump has named more enemies than most, if not all, of his presidential predecessors put together. It’s not enough to point out that North Korea threatens us with still-nascent nukes, or that Iran would like to develop them. China, we are told, is singlehandedly responsible for the theft of our “crown jewel” technologies and their use to empty our own factories.

Trump’s Nixon-style “enemies list” doesn’t end with the usual suspects. Our long-term allies, including Japan, South Korea, Britain and the EU, he says, are treating us unfairly and not paying their fair shares for defense. They need to be punished. Even our most cherished institutions, in his view, are hostile: our press dishes out “fake news,” our intelligence and law-enforcement institutions pursue political agendas, and our courts threaten the majority by curtailing white privilege.

Practically nothing and no one is immune from Trump’s characterization as an enemy of the people, except for Trump himself. How convenient!

Of course this approach is designed to distract, delude and deceive us into accepting whatever cockamamie scheme Trump and his crew may develop. But it also has a much more sinister consequence. It leaves some very real and under-appreciated threats unrecognized and unmet.

This essay addresses two of those threats and mentions a third. The two primary threats arise out of cutting-edge technologies. Both threaten dissolution or destruction of our way of life, and in relatively short order. One involves “macro” risks to social organization; the other involves “micro” risks to personal safety and security. The former threatens our society, the latter our safety where we live and travel. Both involve threats that secrecy and immunity from detection greatly increase.

Dark cryptocurrency transfers

Up to now, we have viewed block-chain cryptocurrencies as innovative curiosities and objects of rampant speculation. But few have appreciated their most socially dangerous use: completely secret (and perhaps undetectable) large-scale money transfers. These dark currencies now make it possible to transfer tens or hundreds of millions of dollars—even billions—in complete secrecy, without detection, in a few minutes. This is the old, secret Swiss banking system on steroids, before its successful taming by American laws and investigators.

The speculative fluctuation in the values of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is no impediment to their use for secret transfers. The likely fluctuations in the few minutes it takes to make and document a transfer are small. Users can easily accommodate them as a routine risk of doing lucrative but shady or illegal business.

At each end, a transfer can originate or terminate in a well-hidden shell corporation in an offshore banking haven. If two such havens are used—one for each end—the authorities would have to access all the secret accounts on both ends simultaneously to trace the transfer. The likelihood of that happening twice and simultaneously, as in the Panama Papers case doubled, is very small.

When combined with the present global infrastructure of cash havens, cryptocurrencies now make it possible for wrongdoers, criminals, tax evaders and terrorists to transfer or launder large sums of money entirely in the dark. Unless and until the developed-country authorities defang these instruments and havens (as they have done the once-impenetrable Swiss banking system), corrupt officials, tax evaders, gun-runners, other smugglers and terrorists will have a field day.

Of course no system is ever entirely immune from hacking. But time is on the side of the evildoers. It didn’t matter that history eventually found that the Nazis had burned down their own German Reichstag (parliament building) themselves. By the time historians rendered that judgment, the Nazis already had taken power in Germany and reduced most of Western civilization to rubble, eventually flaming out themselves.

And so we come to President Trump. It’s entirely possible that he has been and is receiving substantial payments, made secret by these or similar means, from Vladimir Putin, Putin’s cronies, the Russian government, Russian oligarchs or other Russian-leaning actors. Our own President could be corrupt in the old-fashioned way, seduced by actual, serial cash bribes, and we would never know.

There is no evidence of this having happened, at least none yet made public. But the nature of cryptocurrencies, combined with ordinary financial havens and a bit of patience, makes it eminently possible.

The same thing could be happening with exchanges between nations, corporations, and industrialists, or among any two of them. Our modern world could be or become the plaything of a global oligarchy, in which the only “law” is money. If you worry about Trump as a leader, think of him dealing directly with Putin, Kim, El-Sisi, Erdogan, Duterte or other tyrants, individually or as president, by means of secret cash payments, without regard to Congress, our courts, our ignorant press, or the law generally. Would he love that!

Untraceable and undetectable assault weapons

Although it might seem improbable, there is an even greater menace to social order and democracy than untraceable, secret transfers of cash. Not only does it threaten social order. It also threatens the personal safety of each and every one of us, especially in cities.

Recent news reports have revealed the threat, but not its currency or significance. It’s the “3-D printing” of functional plastic firearms using designs made available on the Internet.

For three reasons, these firearms pose immense threats to human society and personal safety. First, because they have no serial numbers, their use is untraceable, even if, in theory, forensic analysis could determine whether a killing bullet came from a particular plastic gun. Second, because they are made of plastic (except for a firing pin and/or short barrel insert), the metal detectors used to secure airports, airplanes and other public and government buildings cannot “see” them. Finally, because they may be “printed” with equipment than anyone can buy—in one report, it cost as little as $140—there would be no chain of commerce to trace them, even if they had a serial number to permit tracing.

At a stroke, this technology dilutes or eliminates the practical effect of all the hard-fought restrictions on access to firearms that exist in our society, including age limits, background checks, judicial orders against domestic abusers and the mentally ill having guns, and restrictions on the type of weapons, size of magazines, etc. When a person can “manufacture” a weapon in the privacy of his home or criminal lair, he can circumvent all these restrictions easily. All he needs to do is buy the bullets.

The upshot of this technology is horrible to contemplate. Robbers or murderers could print their own weapons and use them to plunder or kill with impunity. If they wore rubber gloves (to avoid leaving fingerprints) and disposed of the weapons in secrecy, no one would be able to trace the weapons and bring them to justice. Gang members could accumulate secret arsenals of deadly weapons in their homes or clubhouses.

Instead of box-cutters, terrorists like the 9-11 hijackers could board planes with plastic assault weapons, slaughter all the crew and passengers after takeoff, and crash-land the plane wherever they wanted. The only viable defense would be warplanes shooting the terrorist-controlled plane down—a highly risky option over populated areas.

Our nation is a society ever on the brink of violence. Trump has helped make it so. Imagine what would happen if technology made possible—or made every criminal think it possible—to murder, slaughter or rob with impunity. In mere months, our nation could become like Mexico today, with routine and numerous assassinations of political leaders, police, business rivals and even objects of personal vendettas.

Any national rival that wanted to neuter us could create havoc in our cities with as little as ten secret agents per city. They could enter the country without weapons or detection, “print” the weapons in their rented, secret lairs, wreak havoc by slaughtering crowds or by targeting key individuals for assassination and, if clever enough, escape detection and tracing long enough to depart our country by air or (if near the border) by car or on foot.

Unfortunately, the cat may already be out of the bag. A federal judge in Seattle has enjoined (prohibited) the publication of certain plans for such guns on the Internet. But the plans had been posted for several days before being taken down. In that interval, how many criminals, terrorists, spies and other enemies of our society might have copied them? With proper equipment, the copying would take only a few minutes.

How many “useful idiots,” such as the “libertarian” zealot who published the plans in the first place, might have copied the published plans while “up,” and might have republished them anonymously on domestic or foreign websites? Likely there were just enough to make it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Now that it’s out of the bottle, there is no effective practical way to neutralize this technology. The only effective legal remedy would be for Congress to quickly pass a law making the unpermitted printing, possession, carrying or use of printed weapons a felony. Without such a law, our nation could morph into a facsimile of Mexico’s assassination society in mere months.

Conclusion

The consequences of unrestricted use of these two technologies are mind-bogglingly wide-ranging. In essence, they threaten to nullify, in practice, all the laws that seek to control transfers of money and firearms before the fact. They would reduce law enforcement to prosecuting illegal transfers after the fact, i.e., after the damage that the law sought to prevent had been done. In the case of firearms, the consequent loss of life or life-changing injuries would be impossible to remedy. (Congress might try to reduce horrible consequences before the fact by requiring some demonstration of need or legitimate use before allowing anyone to purchase or rent a 3D-printer capable of “printing” firearms.)

After the first one or two successful terrorist attacks on airplanes, air travel could become far more of a nightmare than it is already. The TSA would have to “tune” its x-ray machines to detect every plastic capable of being used for weapons, resulting in numerous false positives and long waits for clearance.

The degradation of social order due to cryptocurrencies would come more slowly, as lucrative bribery and doubtfully-legal business replaced “legitimate” campaign contributions (even now secret, if by PACs) and business requiring hard-to-get permits under existing law. With few constraints on secret cash transfers, even legitimate businesses could finance operations with unsafe work places, unsafe or toxic products, or routine pollution of the environment. In the long run, the influence of undetectable “dark money” on politics and business might be even more profound that hits to personal safety and security in our cities and our airways.

The terrible attacks on 9/11 should have been a wake-up call. They should have alerted us to real and powerful threats to our way of life that come from unexpected directions. But like many military leaders, we have insisted on fighting the last war. Today the threats to our way of life can come from secret and concealed actions of both traditional enemies and random self-interested actors, including corrupt pols. They might even come from allies or supposed friends.

We are just beginning to come to grips with corrosive propaganda and “fake news” propagated over the Internet that we created and gave to the world for free. Now that same Internet makes possible virtually undetectable bribes and other criminal transfers of cash and the undetectable and untraceable accumulation of small arsenals of weapons, the like of which our Founders could never have imagined.

The Washington Post’s motto is “Democracy dies in darkness.” Today we already have dark propaganda, much of which comes from Russia and China. Unless we are careful, tomorrow we will have yet more dark propaganda, sent by both foreign and domestic actors, to distract, delude and deceive our people. We will have dark money, dark bribes and dark business, which will make our existing oligarchy even more opaque and snuff out our few remaining vestiges of majority rule. And we will have dark weapons, made in secret, untraceable and undetectable, which will facilitate everything from political assassinations, through mass killings, to targeted murders on our streets and in our public buildings.

Congress and our legislators had better study up, and quick, lest the “small” and secret technologies that fly below their radar rapidly become much greater threats to our collective welfare than the foreign nukes about which we fret so much.

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