April 03, 2015

Training Day 2: starring Bridges & Force

Readers might have probably been watching the amazing story of the Bridges & Force arrests in USA. It's starting to look much like a film, and the one I have in mind is this: Training Day.

In short: two agents were sent in to bring down the Silk Road website for selling anything (guns, drugs, etc). In the process, the agents stole a lot of the money. And in the process, went on a rampage through the Bitcoin economy robbing, extorting, and manipulating their way to riches.

You can't make this up. Worse, we don't need to. The problem is deep, underlying and demented within our society. We're going to see much more of it, and the reason we know this is that we have decades of experience in other countries outside the OECD purview.

This is our own actions coming back to destroy us. In a nutshell here it is, here is the short story that gets me on the FATF's blacklist and you too if you spread it:

In the 1980s, certain European governments got upset about certain forms of arbitrage across nations by multinationals and rich folk. These people found a ready consensus with others in policing work who said that "follow the money" was how you catch the really bad people, a.k.a. criminals. Between these two groups of public servants they felt they could crack open the bank secrecy that was protecting criminals and rich people alike.

So the Anti Money Laundering or AML project was born, under the aegis of FATF or financial action task force, an office created in Paris under OECD. Their concept was that they put together rules about how to stop bad money moving through the system. In short: know your customer, and make sure their funds were good. Add in risk management and suspicious activity reporting and you're golden.

On passing these laws, every politician faithfully promised it was only for the big stuff, drugs and terrorism, and would never be used against honest or wealthy or innocent people. Honest Injun!

If only so simple. Anyone who knows anything about crime or wealth realises within seconds that this is not going to achieve anything against the criminals or the wealthy. Indeed, it may even make matters worse, because (a) the system is too imperfect to be anything but noise, (b) criminals and wealthy can bypass the system, and (c) criminals can pay for access. Hold onto that thought.

So, if the FATF had stopped there, then AML would have just been a massive cost on society. Westerners would paid basis points for nothing, and it would have just been a tool that shut the poor out of the financial system; something some call the problem of the 'unbanked' but that's a subject for another day (and don't use that term in my presence, thanks!). Criminals would have figured out other methods, etc.

If only. Just. But they went further.

In imposing the FATF 40 recommendations (yes, it got a lot more complicated and detailed, of course) everyone everywhere everytime also stumbled on an ancient truth of bureaucracy without control: we could do more if we had more money! Because of course the society cost of following AML was also hitting the police, implementing this wonderful notion of "follow the money" cost a lot of money.

Until someone had the bright idea: if the money is bad, why can't we seize the bad money and use it to find more bad money?

And so, it came to pass. The centuries-honoured principle of 'consolidated revenue' was destroyed and nobody noticed because "we're stopping bad people." Laws and regs were finagled through to allow money seized from AML operations to be then "shared" across the interested good parties. Typically some goes to the local police, and some to the federal justice. You can imagine the heated discussions about percentage sharing.

What could possibly go wrong?

Now the police were empowered not only to seize vast troves of money, but also keep part of it. In the twinkling of an eye, your local police force was now incentivised to look at the cash pile of everyone in their local society and 'find' a reason to bust. And, as time went on, they built their system to be robust to errors: even if they were wrong, the chances of any comeback were infinitesimal and the take might just be reduced.

AML became a profit center. Why did we let this happen? Several reasons:

1. It's in part because "bad guys have bad money" is such a compelling story that none dare question those who take "bad money from bad guys."

Indeed, money laundering is such a common criminal indictment in USA simply because people assume it's true on the face of it. The crime itself is almost as simple as moving a large pot of money around, which if you understand criminal proceedings, makes no sense at all. How can moving a large pot of money around be proven as ML before you've proven a predicate crime? But so it is.

2. How could we as society be so stupid? It's because the principle of 'consolidated revenue' has been lost in time. The basic principle is simple: *all* monies coming into the state must go to the revenue office. From there they are spent according to the annual budget. This principle is there not only for accountability but to stop the local authorities becoming the bandits The concept goes back all the way to the Magna Carta which was literally and principally about the barons securing the rights to a trial /over arbitrary seizure of their wealth/.

We dropped the ball on AML because we forgot history.

So what's all this to do with Bridges & Force? Well, recall that thought: the serious criminals can buy access. Which of course they've been doing since the beginning, the AML authorities themselves are victims to corruption.

As the various insiders in AML are corrupted, it becomes a corrosive force. Some insiders see people taking bribes and can't prove anything. Of course, these people aren't stupid, these are highly trained agents. Eventually they work out how they can't change anything and the crooks will never be ousted from inside the AML authorities. And they start with a little on the side. A little becomes a lot.

Every agent in these fields is exposed to massive corruption right from the start. It's not as if agents sent into these fields are bad. Quite the reverse, they are good and are made bad. The way AML is constructed it seems impossible that there could be any other result - Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? or Who watches the watchers?

Remember the film Training Day ? Bridges and Force are a remake, a sequel, this time moved a bit further north and with the added sex appeal of a cryptocurrency.

But the important things to realise is that this isn't unusual, it's embedded. AML is fatally corrupted because (a) it can't work anyway, and (b) they breached the principle of consolidated revenue, (c) turned themselves into victims, and then (d) the bad guys.

Until AML itself is unwound, we can't ourselves - society, police, authorities, bitcoiners - get back to the business of fighting the real bad guys. I'd love to talk to anyone about that, but unfortunately the agenda is set. We're screwed as society until we unwind AML.

Posted by iang at April 3, 2015 06:15 PM
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