Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner

On November 29, FBI agents arrested hacker and cryptocurrency developer Virgil Griffith. His alleged crime: Talking.

Yes, really.

The FBI alleges that Griffith “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Griffith, a US citizen who lives in Singapore, gave a talk at conference on blockchain technology in April. Because that conference took place in North Korea, the US government deems him guilty of violating US sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

But last time I checked, the First Amendment protected Virgil Griffith’s right to speak, without exceptions regarding where or to whom.

And last time I checked,  the US Department of Justice’s jurisdiction didn’t encompass Singapore (where Griffith lives), China (which Griffith traveled through), or North Korea (where Griffith spoke). The charges against him include traveling, while outside US jurisdiction, to places the US government doesn’t like.

In what universe is it the US government’s business where an individual travels to or what that individual says while he’s there, inside or outside the US itself? Certainly not any kind of universe in which America remains a free society.

What kind of state arrests people for going where they please and saying what they choose without that state’s permission? A police state.

Griffith’s arrest is wholly illegal under the US Constitution and wholly unacceptable to anyone who holds freedom as a cardinal value.

Virgil Griffith is just the latest political prisoner of the US government to come to public notice.

The US government imprisoned US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, journalist Barrett Brown, and others for telling us the truth about that government’s conduct, and would love to do the same to Julian Assange,  Edward Snowden, and others for the same reason.

The US government imprisoned Ross Ulbricht for running a web site on which people bought and sold things that government didn’t want them to buy and sell.

The US government has held, and continues to hold, too many political prisoners to name in a single column.

The US government increasingly attempts to dictate where all of us may go, and what we may say while there, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.

That’s not right. That’s not freedom. That’s not America.

Virgil Griffith and the others I mention aren’t the criminals — their persecutors are. At some point, we must bring them to justice if human freedom is to survive. Until then, resist much, obey little.

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Federal Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major Federal Gun Control Laws and Acts

For Americans, the crux of gun control laws has been how to disarm dangerous individuals without disarming the public at large. Ever-present in this quest is the question of how the perception of danger should impact guaranteed freedoms protected within the Bill of Rights.

Not only is such a balancing act difficult as-is, but there are also two additional factors that make it even more challenging: America’s federal government is constitutionally bound by the Second Amendment, and politicians notoriously take advantage of tragedies to pass irrational laws when emotions are at their highest. As President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, once famously remarked:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

This line of thought is not new to American politics. From the emancipation of enslaved Americans and the organized crime wave of the 1930s to the assassinations of prominent leaders in the 1960s and the attempted assassination of President Reagan in the 1980s, fear has proved a powerful catalyst for appeals about gun control.

Below is an overview of the history behind major gun control laws in the federal government, capturing how we’ve gone from the Founding Fathers’ America of the New World to the United States of the 21st century.

Second Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights: Ratified December 15, 1791

Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States specifically “to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers.” The Second Amendment is the foundational cornerstone of every American’s right to bear arms, stating:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The right to bear arms was second only to the first – the most vital freedoms of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. Meanwhile, conflicting views have left government and personal interest groups struggling to reconcile technological advances, isolated but significant violent anomalies and the constitutional mandate protecting the natural right to self defense and this most basic aspect of the Bill of Rights.

First and Second Militia Acts of 1792: Passed May 2 and 8, 1792

The U.S. Congress passed the Militia Acts of 1792 less than a year after the Second Amendment’s ratification. The first act’s purpose was “to provide for the National Defence, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States.” This measure established the need and command structure for a state-based militia. The second act defined conscription parameters for those militias, limiting armed service to “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” 18 to 45.

Colonial Gun Regulations

Even today, the majority of firearms laws are state-based and vary considerably. While CaliforniaConnecticut and New Jersey have the most restrictive laws, ArizonaVermont and Kentucky have some of the least stringent. For more than a century, the young United States relied primarily on “state” laws:

  • The earliest came from Virginia, the result of fear of attack by Native Americans. The 1619 law imposed a three-shilling fine on able-bodied men who failed to come armed to church on the Sabbath.
  • By 1640, slave codes in Virginia prohibited all “free Mulattos and Negroes” from bearing arms. In 1712, South Carolina enacted a similar law.
  • During this time in Virginia, gun laws for Native Americans were similar to those for white men – as they were not barred from possessing guns (unless they were gathering food on land held by white men). There were, however, prohibitions against providing “Indians” with weapons and ammunition. Native Americans could own weapons, but there were strict regulations on how they could obtain them.
  • Throughout the Antebellum South, LouisianaFloridaMarylandGeorgiaNorth CarolinaMississippi and even Delaware all passed multiple measures denying guns to people of color, requiring court-issued permits, and allowing search and seizure of weapons as well as punishment without trial.

Continue reading Federal Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major Federal Gun Control Laws and Acts at Ammo.com.

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Trump Sentences Accused War Criminals to Death

On November 15, US president Donald Trump pardoned two US Army officers accused of war crimes (one convicted, the other awaiting trial ).

Trump also re-promoted US Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher from Petty Officer First Class to Chief Petty Officer. Gallagher was convicted of a minor war crime (posing for a photo with a corpse) after he was accused of murdering the victim, but acquitted when a fellow sailor swung a deal for immunity, then reversed his testimony and claimed responsibility for the murder.

When he learned that the Navy intended to remove Gallagher from duty as a SEAL, Trump intervened again, by tweet —  “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin” — and had Richard Spencer fired as Secretary of the Navy for not treating the tweet as an order.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Trump’s actions, but I only have room in this column for one of those reasons:

He has effectively sentenced future US soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to battlefield execution.

Gallagher’s crimes were reported by his SEAL comrades.

He was investigated and charged with those crimes by the Navy itself, which has morale and publicity incentives to only go after “the worst of the worst” for actions on the battlefield.

He was tried and convicted by a jury of his military peers in a process that actually offers more protections for defendants than the civilian justice system (for example, an enlisted defendant can demand that at least one third of the jury be enlisted personnel rather than officers).

When Trump short-circuited that process — first with the pardon, then with the re-promotion, and finally with the demand that Gallagher be allowed to return to his former unit — he very loudly sent a message to every member of the US armed forces:

“When you have a bad actor in your midst, take care of the problem yourselves. If you go through the proper channels, that bad actor will get off with little or no punishment and be sent right back to your ranks.”

Above and beyond the damage done to their direct victims, war criminals endanger their fellow troops. They make enemies out of people who might otherwise remain neutral or even friendly. They motivate those enemies to fight harder and to seek harsh vengeance.

If the military justice system doesn’t charge, try, and punish people whose crimes endanger their comrades because the president panders for votes from “support the troops” types, the (unsupported) troops will deal with such matters on the spot.

We who are veterans can attest to “blanket parties” for serial screw-ups,  “dry showers” with scrub brushes for guys who don’t maintain  personal hygiene in close living quarters, and other “light” punishments for minor offenses.

For endangering the lives of comrades, military vigilantism extends all the way to summary execution. In Vietnam, it was referred to as “fragging.”

Trump isn’t sparing future Eddie Gallaghers their punishments. He’s just robbing them of their rightful day in court.

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Impeachment: A Night at the Movies

The US House of Representatives soberly fulfills its constitutional obligation to investigate alleged wrongdoing by a sitting president, steadily building its case for that president’s impeachment.

The Deep State schemes to remove a sitting president, trumping up (pun intended) supposed “high crimes and misdemeanors” and gaming a faux-constitutional “impeachment probe” to deny that president due process to which he’s entitled.

Both of the previous paragraphs describe the same set of events. We’re living through them right now, and we’re in the grip of a second-level “Rashomon effect.”

Per Wikipedia, that effect (named for a movie in which four witnesses offer contradictory descriptions of a murder) “describes a situation in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved.”

Extended to the audience, the effect plays out as two people watching the same film, each seeing it so differently from the other that for all intents and purposes they’re “watching two different movies.”

Both viewers are quite sure that their interpretations are correct, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll come to any agreement as to what they both just objectively saw.

There’s one thing that both viewers probably know, though:

The House is going to vote to impeach, because the President Donald J. Trump impeachment version of Rashomon is directed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a student of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall,” wrote Chekhov, “in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

When Pelosi announced the House impeachment inquiry on September 24, she was figuratively hanging a gun on the wall of the House chamber, after 2 1/2 years of resisting impeachment talk and suppressing impeachment efforts in the House.

Why? In addition to her theatrical acumen, Pelosi also knows basic arithmetic. She saw the votes were there to impeach.

SOMEONE was going to hang the gun on the wall.

SOMEONE was going to fire the gun.

Pelosi could direct the play, or she could settle for a bit part (and probably lose her position as Speaker).

If Pelosi’s the director of Rashomon: The House Impeaches Trump, Trump himself is both producer and leading man. He’s been begging for this role since before his inauguration. He commissioned the script, donated the props, and spent 2 1/2 years trying to get Pelosi to take the bait. He loves drama above all else and expects, based on experience, to profit politically from this production.

You’ve got opinions on the impeachment process. I do too. We’re probably watching two different movies to at least some extent.

But in our hearts, we both know how this movie ends: The House will vote  to impeach Trump, probably before Thanksgiving (disclosure: I’ve got a small bet in a prediction market that it will happen before the end of the year).

Coming soon: Trump returns as Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men: This Time It’s Senatorial.

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Messaging as Manslaughter: Massachusetts Modernizes the Salem Witch Trials

In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy killed himself in Fairhaven, Massachusetts by pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck. In a bench trial, a judge convicted Roy’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison.

In May of 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula killed himself in Boston, Massachusetts by jumping from the top of a parking garage. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Inyoung You, has likewise been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In both cases, the charges hinge on the content of text messages in which the women encouraged, even “ordered,” the men to commit suicide.

You is a South Korean national who has since returned home. The treaty governing extradition between the US and South Korea requires that the charge involved “be recognized as a crime in both jurisdictions,” so unless text messaging is illegal in South Korea, You may avoid playing her part in yet another re-enactment of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

Text messaging isn’t manslaughter, any more than it’s rape, robbery, or driving 60 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone. Nor is possession of a doll or a mole or birthmark “witchcraft” as fantasized in 17th century Puritan New England.

Hanging 19 men and women for witchcraft, and crushing another man to death for refusing to plead to charges of witchcraft, didn’t bring an end to imagined “molestations from the invisible world.” It merely sated an outbreak of mass hysteria.

Imprisoning Michelle Carter or Inyoung You for sending text messages may sate the desire of a few families for retribution. It may advance the political careers of a few grandstanding prosecutors.

It won’t  bring back Conrad Roy or Alexander Urtula, nor will it erase the irrefutable truth: These two adults knowingly and intentionally took their own lives.

Are Michelle Carter and Inyoung You “bad people?” Maybe they are.

Are they (or at least were they) controlling and psychologically abusive? It seems likely, and their relationships with Roy and Urtula were obviously mentally and emotionally unhealthy on both sides.

Not everyone who’s broken can be fixed before something awful occurs. Sometimes horrible things happen, and we’re left looking for answers as to why, and for ways to prevent the next such tragedy.

Imprisoning people for text messaging is not one of the right answers. It merely compounds tragedy with error, with evil, and with comforting lies, at the expense of additional victims.

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Open Borders Are a Trillion-Dollar Idea

Tearing down all barriers to migration isn’t crazy—it’s an opportunity for a global boom.

The world’s nations, especially the world’s richest nations, are missing an enormous chance to do well while doing good. The name of this massive missed opportunity—and the name of my book on the topic—is “open borders.”

Critics of immigration often hyperbolically accuse their opponents of favoring open borders—a world where all nationalities are free to live and work in any nation they like. For most, that’s an unfair label: They want more visas for high-skilled workers, family reunification, or refugees—not the end of immigration restrictions. In my case, however, this accusation is no overstatement. I think that free trade in labor is a massive missed opportunity. Open borders are not only just but the most promising shortcut to global prosperity.

To see the massive missed opportunity of which I speak, consider the migration of a low-skilled Haitian from Port-au-Prince to Miami. In Haiti, he would earn about $1,000 per year. In Miami, he could easily earn $25,000 per year. How is such upward mobility possible? Simply put: Human beings are much more productive in Florida than in Haiti—thanks to better government policies, better management, better technology, and much more. The main reason Haitians suffer in poverty is not because they are from Haiti but because they are in Haiti. If you were stuck in Haiti, you, too, would probably be destitute.

But borders aren’t just a missed opportunity for those stuck on the wrong side on them. If the walls come down, almost everyone benefits because immigrants sell the new wealth they create—and the inhabitants of their new country are their top customers. As long as Haitians remain in Haiti, they produce next to nothing—and therefore do next to nothing to enrich the rest of the world. When they move, their productivity skyrockets—and so does their contribution to their new customers. When you see a Haitian restaurant in Miami, you shouldn’t picture the relocation of a restaurant from Port-au-Prince; you should picture the creation of a restaurant that otherwise would never have existed—not even in Haiti itself.

The central function of existing immigration laws is to prevent this wealth creation from happening—to trap human talent in low-productivity countries. Out of all the destructive economic policies known to man, nothing on Earth is worse. I’m not joking. Standard estimates say open borders would ultimately double humanity’s wealth production. How is this possible? Because immigration sharply increases workers’ productivity—and the world contains many hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants. Multiply a massive gain per person by a massive number of people and you end up with what the economist Michael Clemens calls “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

Or do we? An old saying warns, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Far lower levels of immigration already inspire vocal complaints. After presenting my basic case in Open Borders, I strive to evaluate all the common (and many not-so-common) objections to immigration. My bottom line: While open borders are undeniably unpopular, they deserve to be popular. Like every social change, immigration has downsides. Yet when we patiently quantify the downsides, the trillions of dollars of gains of open borders dwarf any credible estimate of the harms.

The simplest objection to open borders is logistical: Even the largest countries cannot absorb hundreds of millions of immigrants overnight. True enough, but no reasonable person expects hundreds of millions to come overnight, either. Instead, immigration usually begins slowly and then snowballs. Puerto Ricans have been legally allowed to move to the United States since 1904, but it took almost a century before Puerto Ricans in the United States came to outnumber the population left on the island. Wasn’t the European migration crisis an unmanageable flood of humanity? Hardly. Despite media outcry, total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union. Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.

The standard explanation for these asymmetric public reactions is that resistance to immigration is primarily cultural and political, not economic or logistical. While West Germans welcomed millions of East German migrants, a much lower dose of Middle Eastern and African migration has made the whole EU shiver. Aren’t economists who dwell on economic gains just missing the point?

Yes and no. As a matter of political psychology, cultural and political arguments against immigration are indeed persuasive and influential. That does not show, however, that these arguments are correct or decisive. Does immigration really have the negative cultural and political effects critics decry? Even if it did, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than immigration restriction? In any case, what is a prudent price tag to put on these cultural and political effects?

Let’s start with readily measurable cultural and political effects. In the United States, the most common cultural complaint is probably that—in contrast to the days of Ellis Island—today’s immigrants fail to learn English. The real story, though, is that few first-generation immigrants have ever become fluent in adulthood; it’s just too hard. German and Dutch immigrants in the 19th century maintained their stubborn accents and linguistic isolation all their lives; New York’s Yiddish newspapers were a fixture for decades. For their sons and daughters, however, acquiring fluency is child’s play—even for groups like Asians and Hispanics that are often accused of not learning English.

Native-born citizens also frequently worry that immigrants, supposedly lacking Western culture’s deep respect for law and order, will be criminally inclined. At least in the United States, however, this is the reverse of the truth. The incarceration rate of the foreign-born is about a third less than that of the native-born.

What about the greatest crime of all—terrorism? In the United States, non-citizens have indeed committed 88 percent of all terrorist murders. When you think statistically, however, this is 88 percent of a tiny sum. In an average year from 1975 to 2017, terrorists murdered fewer than a hundred people on U.S. soil per year. Less than 1 percent of all deaths are murders, and less than 1 percent of all murders are terrorism-related. Worrying about terrorism really is comparable to worrying about lightning strikes. After you take a few common-sense precautions—do not draw a sword during a thunderstorm—you should just focus on living your life.

The most cogent objection to immigration, though, is that productivity depends on politics—and politics depend on immigration. Native-born citizens of developed countries have a long track record of voting for the policies that made their industries thrive and their countries rich. Who knows how vast numbers of new immigrants would vote? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect people from dysfunctional polities to bring dysfunctional politics with them?

These are fine questions, but the answers are not alarming. At least in the United States, the main political division between the native- and foreign-born is engagement. Even immigrants legally able to vote are markedly less likely than native-born citizens to exercise this right. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, for example, 72 percent of eligible native-born citizens voted versus just 48 percent of eligible immigrants. Wherever they politically stand, then, immigrants’ opinions are relatively inert.

In any case, immigrants’ political opinions don’t actually stand out. On average, they’re a little more economically liberal and a little more socially conservative, and that’s about it. Yes, low-skilled immigrants’ economic liberalism and social conservatism are more pronounced, but their turnout is low; in 2012, only 27 percent of those eligible to vote opted to do so. So while it would not be alarmist to think that immigration will slightly tilt policy in an economically liberal, socially conservative direction, warning that “immigrants will vote to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is paranoid.

Note, moreover, that free immigration hardly implies automatic citizenship. Welcoming would-be migrants is a clear-cut blessing for them and the world. Granting citizenship is more of a mixed bag. While I am personally happy to have new citizens, I often dwell on the strange fact that the Persian Gulf monarchies are more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of people in Kuwait—and 88 percent in the United Arab Emirates—are foreign-born. Why do the native-born tolerate this? Probably because the Gulf monarchies generously share their oil wealth with citizens—and jealously protect the value of citizenship by making naturalization almost impossible. You do not have to ignore the Gulf monarchies’ occasional mistreatment of immigrants to realize that it is much better to welcome immigrants with conditions than to refuse to admit them at all. Migrants—mostly from much poorer parts of the Islamic world—accept this deal, however unfair, exactly because they can still do far better in the Gulf than at home.

In Open Borders, I have the space to address many more concerns about immigration in more detail. What I can’t do, I confess, is address the unmeasured and the unmeasurable. In real life, however, everyone routinely copes with ambiguous dangers—“unknown unknowns.” How do we cope?

For starters, we remember Chicken Little. When people’s warnings about measured dangers turn out to be wrong or overstated, we rightly discount their warnings about unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers. This is how I see mainstream critics of immigration. Their grasp of the basic facts, especially their neglect of the tremendous gains of moving labor from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries, is too weak to take their so-called vision seriously.

Our other response to unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers, however, is to fall back on existing moral presumptions. Until same-sex marriage was legalized in certain countries, for example, how were we supposed to know its long-term social effects? The honest answer is, “We couldn’t.” But in the absence of strong evidence that these overall social effects would be very bad, a lot of us have now decided to respect individuals’ right to marry whom they like.

This is ultimately how I see the case for open borders. Denying human beings the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord or accept a job offer from a willing employer is a serious harm. How much would someone have to pay the average American to spend the rest of his or her life in Haiti or Syria? To morally justify such harm, we need a clear and present danger, not gloomy speculation. Yet when we patiently and calmly study immigration, the main thing we observe is: people moving from places where their talent goes to waste to places where they can realize their potential. What we see, in short, is immigrants enriching themselves by enriching the world.

Do I seriously think I am going to convert people to open borders with a short article—or even a full book? No. My immediate goal is more modest: I’d like to convince you that open borders aren’t crazy. While we take draconian regulation of migration for granted, the central goal of this regulation is to trap valuable labor in unproductive regions of the world. This sounds cruel and misguided. Shouldn’t we at least double-check our work to make sure we’re not missing a massive opportunity for ourselves and humanity?

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