ROSC 12: The Second Blow

ROSC12After I left the big breakup at the sanitarium, I spent a few days ruminating on it all. I took a couple phone calls from Esther and another from Johnny (who was worried for Esther). I was hoping that things would reach their end quickly. I’ve never seen one of these situations heal, so I’d rather the break was quicker than slower.

What I didn’t expect was another crisis to be thrown on top of it. But that’s what we got.

“I’d rather go to jail”

When a sane, healthy young man says something like this, it should get our attention, and it certainly did mine. We were at one of our regular meetings at Jay’s, and the group told me that Mike – one of our regulars but not one that I knew especially well – had opened a cryptocurrency exchange.

That’s precisely the thing I warned the group about, and I remember that Mike was present when I did. He’s under no obligation to listen to me of course, but I was pretty clear on the dangers involved and I’m sure he understood them.

As I was thinking through this, however, I was interrupted by Johnny, who had gone to school with Mike.

“He’d like to talk to you,” Johnny told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m not certain, but he’d like to talk to you privately, and today if at all possible.”

We made the arrangements and Mike met me at the train station on my way back home. I found him waiting at the coffee shop on the upper level of the station. And before I could settle into the booth, he was speaking.

“I know you don’t like this idea, Paul, but I had to do it anyway.”

“Why, Mike? It’s life-changing dangerous.”

“But it’s not evil,” he shot back, making me check my bearings.

“No, it’s not evil. There’s nothing morally wrong with running an exchange. It’s an honest business. But the risks are huge. So again I ask, ‘Why?'”

He became introspective. “My grandfather was a bricklayer, and he used to drive me around the city and show me all the buildings he built. He was proud of his work till the day he died, and I grew up believing that I’d get that same satisfaction… but I never have.”

I was starting to feel where he was coming from.

“And I tried hard!” he added. “I’m 30 now, and I’ve worked all sorts of jobs, but all of them were temps and most of them were nearly meaningless. For the last four years I’ve been on disability, doing almost nothing. At my first meeting with you guys, someone said something about ‘living parasitically,’ and I realized that’s exactly what I was doing and that my grandfather would maybe rather have died than to accept such a thing.”

He looked at me with conviction in his eyes.

“So that’s why I’m doing this, Paul. I can’t go back to being a parasite. I won’t. I’d rather go to jail.”

I didn’t know what to do, save to tell him that I understood and that I respected his decision, even if it concerned me.

“I knew you would,” he said, “and that’s why I needed to see you.”

I didn’t think he was seeking my approval, and the look on my face must have shown that I didn’t catch his full meaning.

“I need you to tell me what to do,” he said. “I’d rather go to jail than do nothing, but I’d rather not go to jail either. How do I do that?”

He didn’t realize it, but this put me too close to a choice I didn’t want to face again. If what he was doing was in fact illegal and if I gave him advice on operating his system or evading the law, a prosecutor could argue conspiracy. And trouble like that I don’t need.

And so, I told him four things, which he dutifully wrote down:

  1. First, I gave him the name of a retired lawyer I once knew. I told him to contact him immediately (encrypted only) and get his advice. The man is 90 years old, an old-world style ‘liberal’ (more or less libertarian) living in Geneva.
  2. He was not to discuss his idea with anyone else in the US. Conspiracy is a cruel tool in the hands of modern prosecutors, who care mostly about their kill ratios.
  3. That he should get out of the US right away and play PT (perpetual traveler) for some years, probably a decade or two.
  4. That he should decentralize his exchange at the earliest possible date and get away from it. Then, with some money in his pockets, he could be a crypto-entrepreneur in other ways.

Prosecution in Our Time

Honestly, I’m not sure if Mike’s exchange is actually illegal, and that’s quite normal these days. Laws are written to please a stream of purchasers, and the enforcers tend to pick a few favorite laws and ignore most of the others. You can’t find a stable line between legal and illegal, and you can’t find a stable line between being punished and being ignored.

But if the punishers ever go after you, they’ll get their friends in the media to destroy your reputation and then they’ll destroy you in their courts. I’ve seen it happen to people I’ve known. In one case they got 40 people to roll over (getting a pass or near-pass on their own crimes for testifying against the target of the investigation) in order to nail the “offender.” In another case, the local newspapers embarrassed the target in deeply invasive, personal ways; ways that had nothing to do with his crime.

Prosecution is a big, nasty machine, and things like decency and proportionality are non-factors in most of it.

Next Time…

A week later I got an encrypted email from the old lawyer, explaining what he told Mike. I’ll pass along some of that next time.

* As a reminder, this series is fictional.


Paul Rosenberg