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Archive for May 6th, 2014

Every nation has the government it deserves.  –  Joseph de Maistre

It is often said that large companies are amoral, and commit myriad sins in the name of profit.  At the same time, it’s clear that companies like Google, Paypal, Facebook, Chase and Amazon police “morality” and discriminate against anything to do with sex.  Oddly enough, though the concept of an amoral morality cop would seem oxymoronic, it’s actually fundamentally correct; though corporations are not completely amoral, most have only one moral principle: responsibility to their stockholders.  A corporation is both legally and practically bound to protect its investors and to maximize their profits, and unless the board of directors is dominated by unusually-principled shareholders, all other moral precepts are subordinate to that one.  Readers who are my age and older will recall that in the ‘70s and ‘80s companies weren’t nearly as bluenosed as they’ve become in the last two decades; as I explained in “They Don’t Want To Know”, “It’s not that the owners of these companies are all a bunch of prudes; it’s that far too many of the people who buy their products are, and they can’t afford to take chances in a world where ‘offense’ is as fetishized as it is today.”

Choke PointBut while this was sufficient motivation for some companies who were both controlled by a small number of executives and image-conscious to the point of paranoia (e.g., Paypal and Facebook), others needed a stronger impetus to induce them to reject piles of lovely money merely because a few of their customers might clutch their pearls if they discovered sex workers or other businesspeople they deemed “shady” were also customers.  Naturally, the US government was happy to provide that stronger motivation.  The latest in a long tradition of government programs designed to criminalize private behavior and harass nonconformists, minorities, the poor and those with unpopular opinions and pastimes is Operation Choke Point, which started in March of last year but has only recently come to light due to a few high-profile effects.  Jason Oxman of the Electronic Transactions Association explained it thus:

…the Department of Justice and other federal agencies are…[pursuing] disfavored – but legal – categories of merchants by targeting our nation’s payments systems…as more details of the program become public, more concerns are raised.  The “chokepoint” in this operation is the nation’s payments infrastructure…Federal law enforcers are targeting merchant categories like payday lenders, ammunition and tobacco sales, and telemarketers – but not merely by pursuing those merchants directly.  Rather, Operation Chokepoint is flooding payments companies that provide processing service to those industries with subpoenas, civil investigative demands, and other burdensome and costly legal demands.  The theory…has superficial logic: increase the legal and compliance costs of serving certain disfavored merchant categories, and payments companies will simply stop providing service to such merchants.  And it’s working…Thus far, payday lenders have been the most frequent target…what category will be next and who makes that decision?

The next big target, predictably, was sex work:  under government pressure, Chase Bank has been closing down the accounts of anyone with any connection to porn, and though Paypal is very tight-lipped about it, there seems little doubt that the same program was the reason that it suddenly and without warning threatened to cut the crowdfunding platform Patreon off entirely due to “adult content” on the site.  Lest you think this is going to stop with sex work, I call your attention to this list of businesses the FDIC considers “high risk”; many of these are already being targeted, so the rest won’t be far behind:

Ammunition SalesCable Box De-scramblersCoin DealersCredit Card Schemes

Credit Repair Services

Dating Services

Debt Consolidation Scams

Drug Paraphernalia

Escort Services

Firearms Sales

Fireworks Sales

Get Rich Products

Government Grants

Home-Based Charities

Life-Time Guarantees

Life-Time MembershipsLottery SalesMailing Lists/Personal InfoMoney Transfer Networks

On-line Gambling

PayDay Loans

Pharmaceutical Sales

Ponzi Schemes

Pornography

Pyramid-Type Sales

Racist Materials

Surveillance Equipment

Telemarketing

Tobacco Sales

Travel Clubs

Operation Choke PointWhile some of these (such as get-rich and Ponzi schemes) are undoubtedly sketchy and others (credit repair, debt consolidation) have strong potential to be, some of the others (escort services, gambling) are on the list due to a high chargeback rate, while others (gun & ammunition, drugs & tobacco) are purely political targets.  But whatever the reason, the government’s growing tendency to force private entities to act as arms of the fascist state is incredibly alarming, not merely to those who care about human rights and individual liberty, but even to bankers:

The Justice Department’s “Operation Choke Point” is…being pushed far beyond its stated objective…and is having potentially devastating impact on lawful check cashing and small loan businesses.  This in turn will cut off tens of millions of people from much needed access to money to meet emergency needs…No matter what your personal view [of targeted industries]…Operation Choke Point should be both alarming and repugnant.  It is a direct assault on the democratic system and free-market economy that have made the United States the most powerful and prosperous nation in world history.  Without color of law and based on a political agenda, unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Justice are coordinating with some bank regulators to deny essential banking services to companies engaged in lawful business activities.  Bankers operating under the yoke of an oppressive regulatory regime are being cowed into compliance.  If lawful payday lenders and check cashers can be driven out of the banking system because someone in the government doesn’t like them or what they do, what lawful businesses are next?…

Note that two of the articles I’ve quoted here ask the sensible question, “Who will be targeted next?”  As I’ve pointed out many times, campaigns of persecution always start out with unpopular entities (in this case payday lenders and sex workers), but absolutely never stop there.  Paypal would have shut down all of Patreon because some of its clients produced erotic art; by the same token, what’s to stop Operation Choke Point from attacking convenience stores for selling tobacco, liquor, lottery tickets and men’s magazines?  There are always useful idiots who will support tyranny against things they don’t like (such as guns, tobacco or porn), and are20000 Leagues Under the Sea then shocked when the same legal tools are used against things they do like (such as birth control).  For now, legal-but-disfavored businesses can turn to bitcoin and offshore payment processing.  But while the DoJ is currently satisfied with mere financial harassment, it wouldn’t be hard for its prosecutors to invent spurious charges using vague statutes (“conspiracy”, “wire fraud” and “money laundering” are very handy that way) to persecute targeted businesses which keep going despite the government’s attempts to stifle them.  I can’t say where it will all end, but I can say this: it won’t stop on its own.  The institutions behind it must be hacked apart, before they strangle us all.

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