08 October 2007

I Still Have My Identity

There is a trend toward Orwellian language in this world that is more than a little alarming. Specifically I speak of the phenomenon that is called "identity theft." I have -- as you may have guessed -- some opinions about this, but first of all I want to express my rejection of that term.

No matter how one may define "identity," I don't think it's something that can be stolen.

When this term is used, it is generally used to describe a situation in which a criminal has managed to obtain money or other valuables by means of a subterfuge that features the use of another person's name and other unique information. In a common version of this crime the criminal uses this unique information to convince a commercial concern (e.g. a bank, or a telephone company) that he is someone other than who he really is, and then proceeds to enter into a contract that results in his receiving something of value in exchange for a promise to pay for it in the future.

Receiving something of value in exchange for a promise to pay for it in the future is known as borrowing. While marketing departments realize that in many cases business will be much brisker if a more palatable term can be substituted, the fact remains that borrowing is the term that best describes this practice.

When someone enters into a contract and knowingly gives false information, compounding the misdeed by signing (whether ink or proxy) someone else's name to a promise that all the information given is correct, we call that despicable practice by the very pretty name fraud.

Fraud, by dictionary definition, is:

"...intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right b : an act of deceiving or misrepresenting ..."

(From the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

According to that same source, it may also be used as a noun to describe a person who tricks or deceives, as in "He is a fraud."

So what is happening here? Why have we coined this new term for a practice so old that the word comes from Middle English? (ibid.) I believe that the answer to this lies in the idea that the commercial concerns involved in these instances of fraud do not like being the victim. When a bank, for instance, is defrauded to the loss of money, such a loss comes out of the profits of the bank, penalizing its stockholders and raising a desire to prevent such a thing from happening ever again. This motivates the management of the bank to take steps to make it very difficult (if not impossible) for a criminal to defraud them in the future.

Let us say that a commercial concern has been defrauded of some money by a criminal who presented himself by means of a telephone call and asked for something of value to be given to him in exchange for a promise to pay for it in the future. The criminal takes care to give someone else's name, and some other unique identifying information, in order to satisfy the objective of convincing the bank that he is indeed who he says he is, assuaging their fear that the contract will not be honored, and at the same time ensuring that he will never be discovered to be the person who implemented the transaction, received the money or valuables, and got off scot-free.

Having been the victim of this crime one would think that a logical step to take would be for the company to resolve not to send money or valuables to people on the strength of a telephone conversation. Perhaps it would be wiser to require the individual to appear in person, to prove who he is by means of a picture ID, for example, and to sign his name ink to a paper contract. In the event of default, it would be very difficult for the debtor to deny that he had an agreement with the creditor.

We live, however, in an age where instant gratification is not only encouraged, it is considered essential. The great god Marketing demands that consumers be required to make nearly no effort at all to go into debt. One may purchase all manner of goods here on the Internet with a little bit of unique information. Indeed, one may incur a serious obligation with no more action than fingers on a keyboard and mouse. Consumers are coddled and commerce is served.

When this convenient borrowing results in the commercial concern becoming the victim of fraud, the incredibly clever turnaround takes place. The evil criminal (EC) has stolen from the XYZ company by masquerading as Mr. Jones. The XYZ company chose to release valuables or money on the strength of EC's representation that he was Mr. Jones, and in that guise promised to pay the debt on terms agreed. Who is the victim? I think that it is obvious that the XYZ company is the victim. But Marketing is invoked and from on High declares that no, Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones is the victim! His identity has been stolen! And he must now take steps to get it back, or he will have no identity, and might even be responsible to repay what EC borrowed.

Make no mistake: I abhor the actions of EC in defrauding XYZ and think that he should be charged and tried by law for his crime. XYZ must experience a feeling of foolishness at being so easily fooled, but after all it is blessed to be trusting -- they were only trying to help. But they are, nonetheless, the victim, and if they are not made to suffer this victimization there will be no learning -- they will continue to extend credit without sufficient security. Harsh it is, but less harsh and far more just than to visit upon Mr. Jones the gross injustice of involving him in a crime in which he played no part.

Yet that, innocent reader, is exactly what happens much of the time. We Joneses are told "How awful, your identity was stolen. Now you must work to get it back. You must generate reports and affidavits, you must change account numbers, monitor your credit reports (one of these days I must get around to that subject), exercise vigilance in every area of your life. Shred all papers in your home that have any identifying information. Shake with fear at the idea that someone will discover that magical 9-digit number that identifies you to your employer and your Government. Tell no one your Mother's maiden name, or that of your favorite childhood pet. Work to make the world safe for Marketing. Work hard."

Yet we have done nothing. We did not take part in a fraudulent transaction. We did not decide that it was all right for the XYZ company to accept EC's flimsy identification of himself as us based on the possession of some not-so-secret information about us.

When the lenders, the commercial concerns that extend credit based on a few numbers and names given over the telephone or the Internet (no matter HOW cleverly contrived), are made completely responsible for protecting themselves against fraud the so-called phenomenon of "identity theft" will disappear. When you want to borrow some money or begin cellular telephone service you will not be able to do it without actually presenting some positive identification, most likely in person. "Identities" will no longer be a useful thing to "steal."

And, I fear, pigs will fly.

17 June 2007

It's Too Much

I suppose we may owe a debt of gratitude to Roy L. Pearson, Jr.

In case you've been living under a rock, he is the person suing his dry cleaner for $54 million. Living where you do, one could imagine that you are suspicious of your own eyesight, so let me assure you that you just read "fifty-four million dollars." US Dollars, in 2007 dollars. There is no catch here, no punch line.

Mr. Pearson may be mentally ill rather than incredibly evil and greedy. He may be all of these things. Whatever his motivation, he may have created enough public distaste and disappointment with the tort system in the United States to actually give the citizens of this country some hope that perhaps it will be changed for the better. On his way to becoming a household word, Roy L. Pearson, Jr. might be doing us all a favor.

We do not need more laws, we simply need judges with a sense of smell. (It is worth mentioning that Pearson is himself a type of judge, albeit a rather obscure type known as an Administrative Law Judge.) With olfactory powers engaged, such courageous upholders of the Constitution could say (sniffing a bit), "What the hell are you doing in my courtroom? The taxpayers of this [city, county, state, nation] pay a lot of money to convene this court for the purpose of dispensing justice under our time-honored system of fairness and equality. The cleaners offered to pay for your damn pants. You didn't take the money. Get out of here before I hold you in Contempt." One imagines the sobbing Mr. Pearson staggering from the room with his hand over his eyes. One smiles with pleasure.
"Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
I do not know the exact nature of the consumer protection law or laws invoked by Pearson in this case, and I do not care. If laws have been passed that make this type of action possible, it is the proper function of the court system to declare them null and void, dead on arrival, unconstitutional, and ridiculous. The bureaucrats who proposed, wrote, and enacted such laws should be publicly ridiculed and made to work at a dry cleaner's shop.

Mr. Pearson most likely deserves more pity than contempt. As I, and many others wiser and more articulate than I, have said elsewhere, the cost of untreated mental illness in our society is impossible to know because it is so often reflected in bizarre occurrences such as this.

Boston Globe Editorial, "Ludicrous Lawsuits," by Jeff Jacoby 17 June 2007.

Fashion perspective on this story from The Washington Post 14 June 2007.

12 June 2007

You'd Better Watch Out

I have an imperfectly formed idea that I am hesitant to express, but I'll try. Many of us, perhaps even all of us, at times are frustrated by what seems like God's perversity -- if such a thing may be thought of.

Without going into my personal beliefs, which I might describe as skeptically agnostic Buddhism, I am at a loss to explain why we all insist on expecting that which we have no reason to expect. That is, given history, and our own personal observations of life as we know it from living, we know that random senseless negative things often happen. Oftentimes these come as acts of our fellow human beings, and we are astonished at the mindless evil that seems to infect our brothers and sisters on Earth.

Since these things have happened since time immemorial, and continue to happen, why are we surprised and offended when they happen near to us? (And I don't mean to be cold or unsympathetic in saying this -- remember, this is not a well-formed thought or argument. I am indulging in thinking "out loud" here -- although it's more of thinking "in print." ) What I mean to say is, we are quick to abandon logical thought when our emotions are involved. And we (that is to say, many of us) are often quick to point the finger at whatever Higher Power we believe in and chastise Him/Her or Them or It for being cruel to us.

But if there is an HP, and if such a being is omnipotent, then must we not accept that He, She, They, or It is or are (at least in our perception) incredibly cruel at times?

Or -- and this idea comes from Harold S. Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People -- perhaps we need to understand that there is Evil, really, and that it is a force. Perhaps our "good" HP is not actually responsible, at least not directly, for everything. Perhaps even God must obey natural laws. Einstein, a notable agnostic, reported that the more he discovered about the laws of nature, the more he saw the unmistakable hand of God.

I am certainly not a traditional "believer," in any religion. But in spite of the presumption implicit in my agnosticism, I find myself looking askance at those who are, the Theists that I have heard throughout my life who are ready (it seems) to drop their trust and belief in their God when tragedy strikes them. Why would a rational, thinking person observing the world around her or him "adopt" a God and then blame that God for all the evil that was going on before, and that which transpires after, such adoption? Of what is Faith made? Is it a sort of love blindness that is cast aside when the Heavenly Paramour proves untrue? And of what use is such a faith?

The idea of God that was prevalent in my youth was nearly the same as the idea of Santa Claus. If you are good, God and Santa will reward you. Now, as we grow up, we learn that Santa was just a fairy tale, but perhaps we miss the idea that God as Santa is just as much of a fairy tale. Many, I fear, never drop the childish conception of Santa/God until one day they are disillusioned by an injustice that gets their attention. This is often an event in their personal life, but it can as well be something far away, perhaps in another country such as Sudan, where the enormity of atrocities is more than our minds can really grasp. Such a shock knocks the Santa/God out of his sleigh in the sky, and we are left with an angry, disillusioned pseudo-atheist.

One should be as positive as one can be in the face of painful tragedy. If life goes on, one day it will be behind you, and perhaps you will be able to forget it, at least most of the time. But (in my humble, heathen, skeptically agnostic Buddhist opinion) one must look for whatever wisdom and strength might come from the action of Evil in our lives, because it seems to me that therein lies redemption.

What Kushner and others would have us learn is that acceptance is the key. The world, reality, is what it is. We can fool ourselves and think that when things are going along in a fashion that is pleasant to us, that that is the way things "ought" to be, but in reality, things are what they are at any given time, without regard to our judgement or opinion of them. When we make the effort toward accepting that which we cannot change (yeah, I know, it's the Serenity Prayer), it seems to me that we are the closest to It, Them, Her, or Him as we ever get.

31 May 2007

Pin the War on the Democrats

I have been more or less a Democrat for most of my voting life. There, it's out in the open.

My main reason for this is that I've always looked to the Democratic Party to be the voice of and for lower to middle income people, and that's where my income has mostly been throughout my life. Furthermore, I believe in the ideals of humanism and liberalism, and American Civil Liberties, specifically as they are written in the Bill of Rights. And in spite of his deplorable behavior and status as a slaveowner, I have been an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. These things have made me a follower of The Donkey, the Party of the People.

In truth, I've felt more attracted to such "third" parties as the Liberal party, the Greens, and the various Socialist and Communist manifestations that decorate some of our ballots here in the Land of the Free. But there are always problems with this, under the reality that what we have here in Columbia the Gem is a Two-Party System. A vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush. And apparently in some places it really, really was a vote for George Bush. And furthermore, there are a lot more local elections than national ones, and the local ones tend to be mostly Elephants, Donkeys, Initiatives, and Judges.

So it is to the Democrats that I turn for hope, most of the time. And although I can hear the howls and groans as I say this, my life was better during the 8 years of Mr. Clinton than it was before or after. So it is unsurprising if not exactly logical that I find myself looking wistfully toward the ranks of the 2008 Democratic hopefuls, peering intently, trying to find some glowing ember that could be fanned into the flame of Victory. And it was more than a little uplifting last November when "my" party won back the majority in Congress.

But now that Mrs. Pelosi and her entourage have had 5 months in office, and the Primary Contenders are revealing themselves, what golden ideas, what inspired message, what hopeful platform have they constructed on which to build that new shining ideal USA in the Post-Iraq Debacle Peak Oil Environmental Disaster Era?

What hopeful platform indeed.

Cindy Sheehan, that unfortunate and brave lady who lost her son in the Oil War, did her best to carry her message to the country. John Nichols, writing in The Nation, quoted her thus:

"...when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the 'left' started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of 'right or left,' but 'right and wrong.'"
Sheehan asks too much of our Elected Representatives: she asks that they actually take a stand and do something. Something that might be unpopular, could have repercussions, could actually be wrong. That's the thing, in my mind, the old saying that us working stiffs have: "People who don't do anything never make mistakes." Sheehan asked that the Donkeys, elected to the majority in the Congress of the USA by a people sick of a senseless war for the Last Drops, fulfill their implicit promise to their constituency and begin the end of Bush's Folly.

So what did they do? First, they bravely presented a Bill to His Shrubliness that he had already promised not to sign. The boy from Crawford kept his promise. And they didn't have the votes to override the veto. So they caved. Yep. They voted another $120 Billion with a B to keep it going just a Little Longer. Because, after all, you can't just abandon our boys and girls over there.

Mrs. Sheehan, quoted by Laura Flanders in The Guardian:

"There is absolutely no sane or defensible reason for you to hand Bloody King George more money to condemn more of our brave, tired, and damaged soldiers and the people of Iraq to more death and carnage.

"... What stakes do they have in keeping this occupation going?"

And that's how I'm feeling, too. Who are these people? Why do I vote for them? In what way do they "represent" my interests? This isn't about politics, or your phony "careers," or the Glorious Democratic Party, either. It's about not killing hundreds more people in the (slim) hope of preserving some semblance of stability in the Middle East so that we can continue draining it of crude to keep our Suburbans and Tahoes and Navigators and (God Help Us) Hummers on the highways. I don't care if millions of ignorant morons will send you badly spelled emails calling you lackeys of Satan. I don't care if you don't get re-elected. I don't care if you have to duct tape a piece of rebar down the middle of your back because you don't have a spine. We elected you worthless bags of wind to End The War so get busy and end it.

And I am not fooled by the "no" votes of the Presidential Hopefuls. Bad news, Dems: I am not the smartest guy in the USA, either. So probably a few million other Americans noticed that your "No" votes didn't mean a damned thing in the foregone conclusion of passage of the $120 Billion Bill to Kill some more American boys and girls (and a few thousand more Iraqis, too, incidentally). You keep your voting record, put it on your wall or something. If one of you people had stood up in the House or the Senate, screaming bloody murder, promising to resign her or his post and party affiliation if that bill was passed, and then gone through with it! Ah, then we would have seen something like America! America, the land of the Free and the home of the Brave, where people stand up for what they believe in and hang the consequences.

I know, I'm irrational.

No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.
From Civil Disobedience, Part III, paragraph 18, Henry David Thoreau 1849

20 May 2007

A Plausible Explanation

Kurt Vonnegut is dead, but his wisdom is not. In The Nation, Robert Scheer writes about Vonnegut's theory that there are Psychotic Personalities (PPs), "the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences." Scheer's article is entitled The Scum Also Rises, and focuses on the recent Paul Wolfowitz debacle, but he points out that many others in the present administration, and many of the so-called neoconservative movement, fit this personality description rather well.

This brings up the question of blame: is a person who is pathologically devoid of morality responsible for his acts? When he knowingly brings pain and adversity to others in the world is he excused by virtue of his "problem?" Scheer answers this question in pointing out that Vonnegut said quite clearly that such personalities would be fully aware of the suffering that they cause, that they simply do not (can not?) care, and so have no mental mechanism whereby to control their own actions simply because they are damaging to others. Knowing this, is it not logical and sensible that we would keep such PPs as far away from positions of responsibility as possible? Asking whether or not they are to blame is beside the point: to avoid the destruction that the Wolfowitzes, the Bushes, the Rumsfelds, the Cheneys, and other PPs both identified and unidentified, cause and will continue to cause, these misfits must not again be elected or appointed to the type of positions they occupy today.

Piece of cake. All we have to do is inform the American Public (or actually the 40% of it that votes) and at the same time insist on accountability from all elected representatives such as Senators and Congressman who investigate and approve executive appointments at all levels. Yep. That's it.

But seriously, one finds oneself wondering about this phenomenon. Is it new? And if so, from whence cometh it? Nature or nurture? Are we perhaps breeding PPs in our acquistion-crazy competitive football videogame culture? To greatly oversimplify (skipping over matters of class, environment, ancestry): perhaps some of us become Homer Simpson, some Mr. Burns. There are more Homers, but that's the way of the world. And it only takes a handful of PPs to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in an oil-rich country ruled by an unpopular dictator, bully a law through Congress that makes a mockery of the Bill of Rights in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in US history, illegally imprison an unknown number of foreign nationals in a US military base on an island in the Caribbean, illegally and unethically commit a wholesale firing of civil servants, i.e. US Attorneys, because they failed to toe the party line and investigate "voter fraud" complaints vigorously enough, etc., etc.

On bad days, I think that we have exactly the leadership that we deserve.

At other times, I think that the tyrants of today gave up old-fashioned tyranny a few decades ago. They probably chuckle at the antics of Kim Jong Il and Senior General Than Shwe (of Burma). Our new, 21st century totalitarians are believers in that timeworn cliche from Sales meetings immemorial: "Work smarter, not harder." Why bother ordering all those people around, controlling their hearts and minds, regimenting and directing their lives? It's much easier to control the masses by manipulating the economy and starting a phony war.