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Archive for the ‘Money Laundering’ Category

One of the quirkier aspect of Washington policy making is the strategizing that occurs when proposed laws get names such as the “Social Security 2100 Act,” the “PATRIOT Act” or the “Affordable Care Act“.

The obvious goal is to put pressure on other lawmakers, who don’t want to go on record for…gasp…being unpatriotic or for…heaven forbid…supporting expensive care.

I was reminded of this when reading a new study examining the “Corporate Transparency Act” and the “ILLICIT CASH Act” (an acronym for “Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings Act”).

Who could be for secretive companies, or for criminal activity?

Well, as David Burton explains, these pieces of legislation would be all costs and no benefits.

Both bills…would impose a new, burdensome beneficial owner-ship reporting requirement on the smallest businesses in America, while exempting those most able to abuse the financial system. The Corporate Transparency Act would also burden “exempt” entities, including not-for-profit organizations. Moreover, both reporting regimes would be easily and lawfully avoided by criminal elements with even a rudimentary knowledge of business. Better, more comprehensive information is available from tax forms already provided to government—but jurisdictional turf jealousies in Congress have made it difficult to adopt less burdensome approaches using this tax information.

The report has plenty of details about how these proposals would impose onerous regulatory requirements on small businesses and non-profit organizations – including the fact that there are extremely harsh penalties for inadvertent failure (or inability) to comply with the vague legislative language.

Every small business in America would need to either file the beneficial ownership report or, if the business is in an exempt category, file a certification with FinCEN asserting the exemption. Most would not be exempt. In the case of small firms that have other entities as investors or have any-thing other than entirely conventional corporate governance, the reporting burden may be quite high. …roughly 13 million corporations or LLCs would likely be subject to the new reporting regime and required to either report or seek an exemption. Of those, about 11.2 million are small businesses that are not exempt. If even 9 percent were unaware of this new requirement and fail to file with FinCEN, two years after enactment there would be over 1 million small business owners, religious congregations, and charities in non-compliance, subject to fines and imprisonment. …the likely cost will be over $1 billion annually, and perhaps many billions of dollars each year.

Sadly, congressional supporters presumably don’t care about billions of dollars of costs being imposed on the private sector.

They don’t think beyond the fact that they can issue press releases saying they’re against “dirty money.”

What makes this particular case so disgusting is that the federal government already has all the information that would be collected by the two proposed laws. And it would be relatively simple to make it accessible for financial regulators.

The alternative approach would require the Internal Revenue Service to compile a beneficial ownership database ( based on information already provided to the agency in the ordinary course of tax administration) and to share the information in this database with FinCEN. …This approach would provide more comprehensive information to FinCEN than the proposed reporting regime. Furthermore, the social cost of this approach—creating a database based on information already provided to the IRS—would be a very small fraction of the approach contemplated in the proposed reporting regime. The increase in private compliance costs would be negligible… To implement this approach, Internal Revenue Code § 6103(i)…would need to be amended to allow the IRS to share the information with FinCEN.

So why aren’t politicians choosing this simple, low-cost, and non-intrusive approach?

The answer may cause your jaw to drop.

…this approach involves changes to the tax law (notably Internal Revenue Code § 6103), it falls with the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. …Because the primary congressional proponents of beneficial ownership reporting are on the Financial Services and Banking Committees and are not willing to relinquish control of the issue, the less burdensome, more effective approach has not moved forward.

Not that it would be a good idea to go with the alternative approach.

Yes, it would be a less-misguided way of achieving the goal, but David’s concluding analysis points out that that the entire anti-money laundering regime fails any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome, and its ad hoc nature has likely impeded efforts to combat terrorism, enforce laws, and collect taxes.The proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would add substantially to the complexity and burden of the existing AML and tax information reporting regime. It would, however, do little to further law enforcement objectives. …there is no actual evidence (as opposed to bare assertions or anecdotes) that the beneficial ownership reporting regimes in other countries have had any material effect on money laundering or terrorism. …The existing AML regime is extraordinary expensive. The AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually.87 Yet this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a substantial proportion (probably most) of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. …There is a need to engage in a serious cost-benefit analysis of the AML regime and its constituent parts before adding yet another poorly conceived requirement that burdens the smallest businesses in the country.

Amen.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not a big fan of these laws and regulations.

But Democrats don’t care since they see anti-money laundering laws as a way of destroying financial privacy, which they think is necessary to collect more tax revenue.

And Republicans don’t care because they mindlessly support a tough-on-crime approach, regardless of whether it actually produces positive results.

Gee, isn’t bipartisanship wonderful?

P.S. It’s not relevant to big-picture issues such as regulatory burden and cost-benefit analysis, but I want to share one final passage about the The ILLICIT CASH Act from David’s study.

The bill would raise FinCEN salaries to the level of the Federal Reserve. While it is unsurprising that FinCEN personnel want a raise, this is war-ranted only if it is established that FinCEN is systematically having difficulty attracting qualified, competent personnel. Since only five individuals out of 285 (1.8 percent) quit the agency in fiscal year 2018, it is unlikely that its compensation packages are uncompetitive. In contrast, the annual quit rate in the private sector in 2018 was 30 percent; it was 13 percent in the finance and insurance sector.

In other words, the legislation is also a back-door vehicle to further enrich a portion of the already-overpaid federal bureaucracy.

P.P.S. For what it’s worth, I have a 1-1 record in my inadvertent career as a global money launderer.

P.P.P.S. You may not think AML policy lends itself to humor, but here’s an amusing anecdote involving a former President.

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I’m not a big fan of so-called anti-money laundering (AML) requirements.

And things are getting worse because these laws and rules increasingly are part of a Byzantine web of extraterritorial mandates – meaning nations trying to impose their laws on things that happen outside their borders.

Bruce Zagaris, a lawyer with special expertise in international legal issues, just wrote a study on this issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

Here’s how he frames the issue.

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering…the U.S.’s unilateralism in the financial enforcement arena has alienated smaller jurisdictions and led to a substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions. This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime. …under the “territorial” theory of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the U.S. has proactively asserted that it has the right to regulate criminal acts occurring outside the U.S. as long as they produce effects within the United States. …A criminal statute which Congress intends to have extraterritorial application may reach a defendant who has never even entered the U.S. if s/he participated in a conspiracy in which a co-conspirator’s activities occurred within the U.S.

In part, this is a problem of the United States trying to dictate policy in other nations.

But what goes around, comes around. As Bruce explains,the European Commission is trying to coerce American territories into changing their policies.

On February 13, 2019, the European Commission blacklisted 23 jurisdictions for their weak regulation of AML/CTF policy, increasing the level of oversight that European banks would have to overcome in conducting business with said jurisdictions. The list included four U.S. territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands… The U.S. Treasury Department immediately and swiftly condemned the blacklist, noting that it had “significant concerns about the substance of the list and the flawed process by which it was developed.” The Treasury further stated that it did not expect U.S. financial firms to pay any heed to the blacklist.

All this cross-border bullying would be bad news even if the underlying laws were reasonable.

But Bruce concludes by explaining that this is not the case.

The result of over-aggressive application of extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.S. and the EU for anti-money laundering and prosecution of financial institutions and officials, together with the use of informal organizations, such as FATF, to establish new AML/CFT standards, has led to increasing exclusion of countries (called de-risking) and other depositors, especially in small jurisdictions. It has also led to substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions, as financial institutions must increase AML due diligence, including Know Your Customer, Customer Due Diligence, and the requirement to report suspicious transactions, as well as be subject to prosecution and regulatory enforcement actions. National laws and international standards should have a cost-effect requirement, especially as they continually impose new requirements on the private sector and impede normal commerce and privacy.

All this extraterritoriality has economic implications.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, opines about the CF&P report.

…rarely do government leaders fully think through the effects of their actions — extraterritorial application of law being a prime example. …Noted legal scholar Bruce Zagaris, who specializes in international financial crime, has written a new paper for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation… the United States has proactively asserted it “has the right to regulate criminal acts by non-U.S. citizens occurring outside the U.S., as long as they produce effects in the U.S.” As can easily be seen, such a definition is a never-ending slippery-slope, which is causing great conflicts among governments. As a result of the increasingly expansive view of U.S. courts to take cases and enforce judgments extraterritorially, courts and legislatures in other countries are also asserting extraterritorial enforcement authority.

Richard explains why this is bad news for those who care about economic growth.

…It is difficult enough for businesses and individuals in any one jurisdiction to understand all the laws and regulations that apply to them, but once governments begin to extend their laws and regulations to foreign jurisdictions, the global financial and legal system begins to melt down. Laws and regulations are often in conflict, so those who are engaged in multiple legal jurisdictions are increasingly at risk — which causes them to rationally de-risk by withdrawing investment from those entities least able to defend themselves. The result is slower world growth and job creation. …Clear global rules need to be established as to when extraterritorial application of laws is justified and not justified. Issues like dual criminality in tax, anti-money laundering and terrorist finance need to be addressed to bring some rationality and fairness to the system. And finally, procedures need to be established so that any jurisdiction can challenge a rule that does not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test.

I’ll close by making two points.

First, politicians and bureaucrats claim that laws and regulations against money laundering are designed to fight crime. Don’t believe them. Money laundering is mostly a problem in “onshore” nations. The real motive is to undermine financial privacy so governments can track – and tax – capital around the world.

Second, American politicians and bureaucrats are playing with fire. The more we try to bully other nations to enforce our bad tax laws, the greater the risk that other governments no longer will use the dollar as a reserve currency. That would be costly to the U.S. economy.

P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few heroes on this issue.

P.P.S. Click here for a good summary article on why laws should be limited by borders.

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I’ve written repeatedly about how anti-money laundering (AML) laws are pointless, expensive, intrusive, discriminatory, and ineffective.

And they especially hurt poor people according to the World Bank.

That’s a miserable track record, even by government standards.

Now it’s time to share two personal stories to illustrate how AML laws work in practice.

Episode 1

Last decade, I wrote an article for a U.K.-based publication that focused on the insurance industry. I didn’t even realize they paid, so I was obviously happy when a check arrived in the mail.

The only catch was that the check was in British pounds and various charges and conversion fees would have consumed almost all the money if I tried to deposit the money in my local bank.

But that wasn’t too much of a problem since I had an upcoming trip to give a speech in England.

I figured I would swing by the British bank where the magazine had an account, show them my passport, and get my cash.

Oh, such youthful naiveté.

Here’s what actually happened. I stopped by a branch and was told that I couldn’t cash the check because anti-money laundering rules required that I have an address in the U.K. (my hotel didn’t count).

Needless to say, I was a bit irritated. Though I didn’t give up. In hopes that my experience was an anomaly (i.e., a particularly silly teller with a bureaucratic mindset), I stopped at another branch of the bank.

But that didn’t work. I got the same excuse about AML requirements.

And I was similarly thwarted at a third branch. By the way, the tellers sympathized with my plight, but they said the government was being very strict.

So I figured the way to get around this regulatory barrier would be to sign the check and have a friend deposit the money in her account and then give me some cash.

But her bank said this was also against the AML rules.

Fortunately, we got lucky when we went to another branch of her bank. A teller basically acknowledged that government’s rules made it impossible for me to get my money and she decided to engage in a much-appreciated act of civil disobedience.

This episode was annoying, but the silver lining is that I was in the U.K. to speak at an international economic crime conference in Cambridge on the topic of money laundering.

So I began my speech a day or two later by pseudo-confessing that I had just violated the nation’s silly and counterproductive laws on money laundering (I said “this may have happened to me” to give me some legal wiggle room since the audience was dominated by government officials, and I didn’t want to take any risks).

Episode 2

Today, I had my second incident with anti-money laundering laws.

I have a friend from the Caribbean who now operates a small Dubai-based business and he asked me if I could use Western Union to wire some money to an employee in the Dominican Republic.

I’ve done this for him a couple of times in the past (it is far cheaper to send money from the U.S.), so I stopped by a branch this morning, filled out the paperwork and sent the money.

Or, to be more accurate, I thought I sent the money.

As I was walking out, I got a text from Western Union saying that they put a hold on the transfer and that I needed to call a 1-800 number to answer some questions.

So I made the call and was told that they blocked the transfer because they were trying to “protect me” from potential consumer fraud.

It’s possible that this was a potential reason, but I immediately suspected that Western Union was actually trying to comply with the various inane and counter-productive AML laws and regulations imposed by Washington.

My suspicions were warranted. Even though I explained that I wasn’t a victim of fraud and answered 10 minutes of pointless questions (how long did I know my friend in Dubai? when did I last see him? what would the employee use the money for?), Western Union ultimately decided to reject the transfer.

Why? I assume because AML laws and regulations require companies to flag “unusual transactions,” and financial institutions would rather turn away business rather than risk getting some bureaucrat upset.

So my unblemished track record of being a successful “money launderer” came to an end.

But here’s the real bottom line.

Other than wasting about 30 minutes, I didn’t lose anything. But a small business owner will now have to pay $150 more for a transaction, and an employee from a poor country will have to wait longer to get money.

In some sense, even Western Union is a victim. The company lost the $20 fee for my transaction. But that’s probably trivial compared to the money that they pay for staffers who have the job of investigating whether various transfers satisfy Uncle Sam’s onerous rules.

Even my “successful” example of money laundering in Episode 1 was costly. I lost about two hours of my day.

And if I wasn’t for the nice teller who decided to break the law, I probably would have lost out on about $100. Perhaps not worst outcome in the world, but now think about how poor people suffer when they suffer similar losses thanks to these policies.

Remember, by the way, all these costs aren’t offset by any benefits. There is zero evidence that AML laws reduce underlying crime rates (which was the rationale for these laws being imposed in the first place!).

P.S. You may not think AML policy lends itself to humor, but here’s an amusing anecdote involving our former President.

P.P.S. Some folks on the left use AML arguments to justify their “war on cash,” and they’re pushing to restrict cash as an interim measure.

P.P.P.S. Leftist politicians frequently accuse so-called tax havens of being sanctuaries for dirty money, but those low-tax jurisdictions have much better track records than onshore nations.

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On several occasions, I’ve shared horror stories of government brutality and asserted that all decent people should be libertarians.

If you still are not convinced, today we’re going to look at seven stories about so-called civil asset forfeiture, which is a sanitized term. Most people call it stealing.

Or “policing for profit.”

Let’s look at how this third-world scam operates, starting with a disgusting example of asset forfeiture from Reason.

Rustem Kazazi, an American citizen, was just trying to get on a plane to return to his native Albania last October, from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He was initially flying to Newark where he’d catch a connection to Albania. …Given facts about the Albanian banking and finance system and the advantages of cash there, he chose to turn his life savings into U.S. dollars and bring them with him to cover expenses related to the above house needs and his long stay rather than deal with bank transfers… Kazazi ran his carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, like we all must. In that luggage was his life savings in cash, $58,100. There was zero attempt to be clandestine or smuggle-y about it. It was divided into three labeled and marked stacks of $100 bills, all in one envelope with $58,100 written on the outside.

Here’s how despicable bureaucrats reacted.

TSA agents noticed the money. …They called Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on Kazazi, who took him off to a private room to grill him, as well as strip him naked… They kept his money, without telling him why, then tried to get him to just get on his flight without it. The receipt they handed him made no reference to the specific amount they’d confiscated. When he refused initially to just go on with his day as if he hadn’t just suffered a horrible crime, they escorted him out of the airport. …In December CBP finally formally informed him via a “Notice of Seizure” that they’d taken $57,330 from him, $770 less than he insists was actually taken. The Kazazis filed all the officially required forms and notices to proceed with trying to get their money back… CBP agents tried to finagle the Kazazis into withdrawing their demand for federal court action, but failed.

The good news is that the invaluable Institute for Justice has intervened.

Kazazi and his family today filed a formal motion for return of property…with the assistance of consistent civil-forfeiture-justice fighters from the Institute for Justice… Let’s hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money.

And here’s a nauseating example of theft-by-government from Texas.

For nearly a decade, Anthonia Nwaorie dreamed of starting a medical clinic in her hometown in Southern Nigeria. Last October, the 59-year-old nurse was boarding a plane in Houston with medical equipment, supplies, and about $41,000 in cash — which had taken her years to save — when Customs and Border Protection officials stopped her. …Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money. …CBP took the money because Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen since 1994 who lives in Katy, had not declared that she was taking more than $10,000 out of the country — a technical requirement that her lawyers say is not well-publicized…six months after her money was taken, Nwaorie has not been charged with a crime.

Once again, the great people at IJ are involved.

Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest law firm, say her case demonstrates just how abusive the practice of civil forfeiture — which allows the government to take property that is believed to be tied to a crime — can be. ….the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency on Nwaorie’s behalf, demanding that CBP return her money without forcing her to sign any written agreement. They’re also asking a federal court in Houston to void all such agreements that might have been signed by others trying to get seized property back.

George Will opined about another reprehensible example from Texas.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Serrano drove to the Eagle Pass, Tex., border crossing, intending to try to interest a Mexican cousin in expanding his solar panel installation business in the United States. …they searched his truck — this was unusual for a vehicle leaving the country — and one agent said, “We got him!” …Having found five .380-caliber bullets in the truck’s center console — he has a concealed-carry permit but had no weapon with him — they handcuffed him and seized his truck under civil forfeiture, saying it had been used to transport “munitions of war.”

The heroes at IJ are on the case.

Assisted by litigators from the Institute for Justice (IJ), whose appearance on the West Texas horizon probably panicked the government into pretending to be law-abiding, Serrano wants to make the government less larcenous and more constitutional when it is enriching itself through civil forfeiture. …Serrano is suing for restitution but also seeking a class-action judgment on behalf of others who have been similarly mistreated. …Robert Everett Johnson is one of the IJ lawyers… Johnson says: “Imagine being detained at an airport checkpoint because you innocently forgot to take a tube of toothpaste out of your luggage. But rather than asking you to throw it out or put it in a plastic bag, the TSA agents told you they were seizing all of your luggage, including the toothpaste tube.” That happened to Serrano at the hands of a government — the one north of the border — that felt free to say, “You have no rights here.”

Here’s an example of this despicable practice from Wyoming.

Phil Parhamovich…had spent years restoring and selling houses, cars, and musical instruments, often clocking 12-hour workdays, to save up more than $91,000. And now it was all going to pay off: He would buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin… Then came the police stop… By the time it was over, police in Wyoming would take all of Parhamovich’s money — the full $91,800. Parhamovich, who has no criminal record, was not accused of or charged with a serious crime; he only got a $25 ticket for improperly wearing his seat belt and a warning for “lane use.” …state officials said they consider the cash “abandoned.” The state has even moved to forfeiture the money without notifying Parhamovich of the relevant court hearing until after it happened.

You won’t be surprised to learn who got involved to protect Parhamovich’s rights.

According to Parhamovich and his attorneys with the advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, this is another classic example of policing for profit and the problems it causes. Police initiated the stop for a minor traffic violation, but quickly escalated it further and further until they took a man’s life savings — all to use that money for their own law enforcement purposes.

This story has a happy ending (except for the fact that the cop isn’t in jail for stealing).

Wyoming lawmakers, citing this story, have now banned the roadside waivers that police used to wrongly take Phil Parhamovich’s $91,800. Previously, Parhamovich…got…his money back during a court hearing.

The IRS also participates in this thuggish racket, as reported by the Washington Post.

Oh Suk Kwon, who left South Korea for America in 1976, served as a fleet mechanic in the U.S. Army. After four years in the military, decades of working in an electrical plant and as an auto mechanic, after raising the kids and seeing them off to their adult lives, Kwon finally bought a gas station in Ellicott City in 2007. It meant everything to him. Just a few years after he opened it, zealous government investigators…seized all of the station’s money on a hunch — and wiped the family out. No, they weren’t money launderers or terrorists or mobsters or tax evaders. The government found no evidence of criminal activity. …the gas station went under, and Kwon’s wife died amid the stress of it all…the agency won’t give Kwon his money back. …He’s heartbroken that the country he loves is treating him this way.

The story has additional examples.

…fervent investigations targeted scores of small businesses in Maryland. The best known of these was South Mountain Creamery… the creamery was accused of structuring — farmer Randy Sowers also said his bank teller told him to keep the deposits under $10,000 to cut paperwork — the farm’s entire operating budget was seized. …The government eventually found out that the cows weren’t drug mules and the chickens weren’t gangsters and allowed Sowers to sign a settlement agreement to get back half of about $60,000 that the IRS took. Sowers did it because he needed that money to keep the farm going. Another Maryland farmer, Calvin Taylor, had about $90,000 seized in 2011 after the government snagged him in a similar investigation. He couldn’t take the time to fight the charge, either, and agreed to a settlement where the government returned about $41,000.

Once again, the IJ people are fighting to protect people from rapacious government.

The farmers didn’t walk away from the fight. Backed by the libertarian Institute for Justice, Sowers, Taylor and others testified before Congress, petitioned and fought for three years to get their cash back.

The awful thugs at the IRS also stole money in Connecticut.

David Vocatura watched $68,000 disappear. He was at his family’s bakery in Norwich, Connecticut, when a squad of armed IRS agents filed into the store. The agents wanted to know if Vocatura and his brother Larry were trafficking drugs or running a prostitution ring. The brothers had no idea what they were talking about. …the IRS refused to believe Vocatura’s Bakery was operating on the up and up. Agents said the business raised red flags because of a series of cash deposits in sums under $10,000, the amount at which banks are required to report transactions to the federal government. …The agents had no evidence of other wrongdoing, but thanks to a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture, they didn’t need any to seize every penny in the Vocaturas’ bank account… The IRS has…[been] subjecting David, 53, and his brother Larry, 69, to a series of increasingly aggressive legal maneuvers — including threats of significant prison time and additional fines — in an attempt to strong-arm them into permanently forfeiting their assets.

Naturally, IJ is riding to the rescue.

…the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on behalf of Vocatura’s Bakery, demanding that the IRS promptly return their money. …Hours after the suit was filed, the IRS said it would finally give the Vocaturas their money back.

But the jackboots in government are vindictively going after the family.

Peter S. Jongbloed, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, served the Vocaturas a grand jury subpoena calling for them to turn over every financial record from the six years between March 2007 and April 2013, so the agency could finally begin investigating the business’s tax and regulatory compliance. …“At this point, the government is in so deep, they’ve put these guys through three years of hell — and held onto their money for three years — and so they feel like they need to justify it,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice who is representing the Vocaturas. “So now they’re going to conduct this investigation into the bakery in some effort to try to find something that will make it look like they were doing the right thing all along.”

Let’s review one final example of banana-republic law enforcement, this time from Alabama.

The morning of June 29, 2010, began much like any other at FAR Computers in Ensley. Frank Ranelli, who has owned the computer repair business for more than two decades, was doing some paperwork in his windowless office when he heard loud banging on the front door. When he answered it, he was unaware that about 20 officers with the Homewood and Mountain Brook police departments were surrounding his store, some wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles. Within moments, a Homewood police sergeant had declared a room full of customers’ computers, merchandise and other items “stolen goods,” Ranelli recalled. …The police proceeded to confiscate more than 130 computers – most of which were customers’ units waiting to be repaired, though some were for sale – as well as the company’s business servers and workstations and even receipts and checkbooks. …Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally. Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.

The article references the stellar work of IJ.

Alabama’s laws, however, still provide the state’s citizens with few protections from the practices, earning the state a “D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws” in a November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia nonprofit advocacy law firm. Alabama laws stack the deck against victims of asset forfeiture by establishing a “low bar to forfeit” and not requiring a conviction to do so; offering “limited protections for innocent third-party property owners”; and letting “100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement,” the report stated. …In a time of increasingly tight budgets for many law enforcement agencies, seizing property offers an opportunity for them to increase revenue without politicians having to raise taxes.

The good news (relatively speaking) is that some states are trying to curtail this evil practice.

The bad news is that cops in some states have figured out how to steal regardless.

In theory, New Hampshire has reformed its asset forfeiture laws. The state passed a bill in June 2016 to keep police from seizing and keeping people’s property unless those people have been convicted of a crime. And yet New Hampshire Public Radio reports this week that the state’s cops are still trying to keep stuff seized from people who have been accused but not actually convicting of criminal behavior. …when the reforms were passed…there was a big loophole. The U.S. Justice Department’s “Equitable Sharing” program allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with the feds for busts, then funnel the forfeiture through the looser federal program, which doesn’t require convictions, back into the local police budgets. Doing this allows them to skirt any state-level restrictions on asset forfeiture.

In other states, the establishment is going nuts trying to preserve their shady scam.

…a local prosecutor and police officer say the state will be welcoming violent drug cartels if a Republican lawmaker gets his way. State Sen. Kyle Loveless has been trying to muster support this year for a bill that would reform a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture. …Loveless sees this as a fundamental violation of people’s rights to due process and property and says the lax standards have gotten innocent people in Oklahoma caught in the civil asset forfeiture net. On Thursday, he sparred with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Eric Dalgleish, a major at the Tulsa Police Department, over the merits of his bill to require a criminal conviction to permanently take someone’s property. …Kunzweiler, the district attorney, said the extra level of protection was unnecessary and that raising the bar for forfeiture would effectively roll out a welcome mat to ruthless drug traffickers from Mexico. …Dalgleish later said that cartels were keeping a close eye on Loveless’ legislation and even lobbying for its passage.

Shame on Kunzweiler and Dagleish. What reckless and dishonest demagoguery.

And three cheers for Sen. Loveless, who deserves a lot of love for putting the principles of the Constitution first.

Sadly, the Trump Administration is on the side of theft-by-government, which is especially disappointing since there was a small move in the right direction during the Obama years.

P.S. Just like intrusive and ineffective money-laundering laws, wretched asset forfeiture laws are largely the result of the foolish War on Drugs. One bad policy generates another bad policy. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Beginning in the 1980s, money-laundering laws were enacted in hopes of discouraging criminal activity by making it harder for crooks to use the banking system. Unfortunately, this approach has been an expensive failure.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. I wrote last year about some intrusive, expensive, and pointless legislation proposed by Senators Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse.

Now there’s another equally misguided set of proposals from Senators Rubio and Wyden, along with Representatives Pearce, Luetkemeyer, and Maloney. They want to require complicated and needless ownership data from millions of small businesses and organizations.

David Burton of the Heritage Foundation has a comprehensive report on the legislation. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Congress is seriously considering imposing a beneficial ownership reporting regime on American businesses and other entities, including charities and churches. …the House and Senate bills…share three salient characteristics. First, they would impose a large compliance burden on the private sector, primarily on small businesses, charities, and religious organizations. Second, they create hundreds of thousands—potentially more than one million—inadvertent felons out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Third, they do virtually nothing to achieve their stated aim of protecting society from terrorism or other forms of illicit finance. …Furthermore, the creation of this expensive and socially damaging reporting edifice is unnecessary. The vast majority of the information that the proposed beneficial ownership reporting regime would obtain is already provided to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Rahn criticizes this new proposal in his weekly column.

…what would you think of a member of Congress who proposes to put a new regulation on the smallest of businesses that does not meet a cost-benefit test, denies basic privacy protections and, because of its vagueness and ambiguity, is likely to cause very high numbers of otherwise law-abiding Americans to be felons? …Some bureaucrats and elected officials argue that the government needs to know who the “beneficial owners” are of even the tiniest of businesses in order to combat “money-laundering,” tax evasion or terrorism. …Should the church ladies who run the local non-profit food bank be put in jail for their failure to submit the form to the Feds that would give them the exemption from the beneficial ownership requirement? …Given how few people are actually convicted of money-laundering, the overwhelming evidence is that 99 percent of the people being forced to submit to these costly and time-consuming proposed regulations will not be guilty of money-laundering, terrorism or whatever, and thus should not be harassed by government.

Writing for the Hill, J.W. Verret, an expert in business law from George Mason University Law School, highlights some of the serious problems with this new regulatory scheme.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act, risks tying entrepreneurs’ hands with even more red tape. In fact, it could destroy any benefit some small businesses stand to gain from the tax reform legislation passed last year. It would require corporations and limited liability companies with fewer than 20 employees to file a form with the Treasury Department at the time of formation, and update it annually, listing the names of all beneficial owners and individuals exercising control. …Given the substantial penalties, this will impose a massive regulatory tax on small businesses as they spend money on lawyers that should go toward workers’ pay. …It is unlikely someone on a terrorist watch list would provide their real name on the required form, and Treasury will probably never have sufficient resources to audit names in real time.

Professor Verret explains some of the practical problems and tradeoffs with these proposals.

…some individual money laundering investigations would be easier with a small business registry available. But IRS tax fraud investigations would be much easier with access to taxpayers’ bank account login information — would we tolerate the associated costs and privacy violations? …How is the term “beneficial owner” defined? How is “control” defined? As a professor of corporate law, I have given multiple lectures on those very questions. What if your company is owned, in part, by another company? Or there is a chain of ownership through multiple intermediary companies? What if a creditor of the company, though not currently a shareholder or beneficial owner, obtains the contractual right to convert their debt contract into ownership equity at some point in the future? …for the average small business owner, navigating those complexities against the backdrop of a potential three year prison sentence will often require legal counsel. Companies affected by this legislation should conservatively expect to spend at least $5,000 on a corporate lawyer to help navigate the complexities of the new filing requirements.

Needless to say, squandering $5,000 or more for some useless paperwork is not a recipe for more entrepreneurship.

So how do advocates for this type of legislation respond?

Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute wants us to have faith that bad people will freely divulge their real identities and that bureaucrats will make effective use of the information.

It is time to weed out illicit financing and unfair competition from criminals and bad actors. …Passing the House Financial Services Committee’s Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act should be a priority for the 115th Congress. …Dictators, terrorists and criminals have been freeriding on the prosperity and liberty of the American economy for too long. Officials at FinCEN are sure that beneficial ownership legislation will exponentially increase conviction rates. We should give law enforcement what they need to do their jobs.

Gee, all that sounds persuasive. I’m also against dictators, terrorists, and criminals.

But if you read his entire column, you’ll notice that he offers zero evidence that this costly new legislation actually would catch more bad guys.

And since we already know that anti-money laundering laws impose heavy costs and catch almost no bad guys, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out better ways of allocating law enforcement resources?

I don’t know if we should be distressed or comforted, but other parts of the world also are hamstringing their financial industries with similar policies.

Here’s some analysis from Europe.

…a new reportfrom Consult Hyperion, commissioned by Mitek, reveals that the average UK bank is currently wasting £5 million each year due to manual and inefficient Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, and this annual waste is expected to rise to £10 million in three years. …Key Findings…Inefficient KYC processes cost the average bank £47 million a year…Total costs for KYC processes range from £10 to £100 per check…In the UK, 25% of applications are abandoned due to KYC friction… The cost of KYC checks is much too high, placing too much reliance on inefficient and error-prone manual processes,” said Steve Pannifer, author of the report and COO at Consult Hyperion.

And here’s an update from Asia.

Anti-money laundering and know-your-customer compliance have become leading concerns at financial institutions in Asia today. … we estimate that AML compliance budgets across the six Asian markets in this study total an estimated US$1.5 billion annually for banks alone. …A majority of respondents (55%) indicated that AML compliance has a negative impact on their firms’ business productivity. …An additional 15% felt that AML compliance actually threatens their firms’ ability to do business. …Eighty-two per cent of survey respondents saw overall AML compliance costs increasing in 2016, with one third projecting that costs will rise by 20% or more.

The bottom line is that laws and regulations dealing with money laundering are introduced with high hopes of reducing crime.

And when there’s no effect on criminal activity, proponents urge ever-increasing levels of red tape. And when that doesn’t work, they propose new levels of regulation. And still nothing changes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the video I narrated on this topic. It’s now a bit dated, but everything I said is even more true today.

Let’s close with a surreal column in the Washington Post from Dana Milbank. He was victimized by silly anti-money laundering policies, but seems to approve.

I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism. …The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced. …I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act. …the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist… The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor? …a week later they came back with a new threat to freeze the account and a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential?

Sounds like an awful example of a bank being forced by bad laws to harass a customer.

Heck, it is an awful example of that happening.

But in a remarkable display of left-wing masochism, Milbank approves.

The people who flagged us were right to do so. …Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money. Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us — not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.

I guess we know which way Milbank would have responded to this poll question from 2013.

But he would be wrong because money-laundering laws don’t stop terrorism.

We’re giving up freedom and imposing high costs on our economy, yet we’re not getting any additional security in exchange.

And I can’t resist commenting on his absurd assertion that money laundering played a role in the 2008 crash. Does he think that mafia kingpins somehow controlled the Federal Reserve and insisted on easy-money policies and artificially low interest rates? Does he think ISIS operatives were somehow responsible for reckless Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies?

Wow, I thought the people who blamed “tax havens” for the financial crisis deserved the prize for silliest fantasies. But Milbank gives them a run for their money.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

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Trump has been President for more than 200 days and those of us who want more economic liberty don’t have many reasons to be happy.

Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, the tax code hasn’t been reformed, and wasteful spending hasn’t been cut.

The only glimmer of hope is that Trump has eased up on the regulatory burden. More should be happening, of course, but we are seeing some small steps in the right direction.

Let’s share one positive development.

Professor Tony Lima of California State University opined back in January in the Wall Street Journal that Trump could unilaterally boost growth by ending a reprehensible policy known as “Operation Choke Point.”

…the Trump administration could shut down Operation Choke Point. This program, enforced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., targets “risky” banking customers and pressures banks to deny them credit. It’s unnecessary: If these industries are really risky, banks would not want their business. The real purpose of Operation Choke Point is to target industries that are out of favor…, among them: Coin dealers, money-transfer networks and payday lenders. Sales of ammunition and firearms (Second Amendment, anyone?) and fireworks (legal in some states). …Other legal goods and services such as surveillance equipment, telemarketing, tobacco and dating services. …Denying credit hampers an industry’s growth. Eliminating Operation Choke Point would encourage growth. It costs nothing. And someday it may reduce enforcement spending.

And Professor Charles Calomiris from Columbia University echoed those views a few weeks later.

Imagine you have a thriving business and one morning you get a call from your banker explaining that he can no longer service your accounts. …That’s what happened to many business owners as the result of an Obama administration policy called Operation Choke Point. In 2011 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned banks of heightened regulatory risks from doing business with certain merchants. A total of 30 undesirable merchant categories were affected…the FDIC explained that banks with such clients were putting themselves at risk of “unsatisfactory Community Reinvestment Act ratings, compliance rating downgrades, restitution to consumers, and the pursuit of civil money penalties.” Other FDIC regulatory guidelines pointed to difficulties banks with high “reputation risk” could have receiving approval for acquisitions.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Congress didn’t pass a law mandating discrimination against and harassment of these merchants.

The Washington bureaucracy, along with ideologues in the Obama Administration, simply decided to impose an onerous new policy.

In effect, the paper pushers were telling financial institutions “nice business, shame if anything happened to it.”

But at least when mobsters engage in that kind of a shakedown, there’s no illusion about what’s happening.

Professor Calomiris explained that this regulatory initiative of the Obama Administration made no sense economically.

It is rather comical that regulators would use the excuse of regulatory risk management to punish banks. Banks are in the business of gauging risk and have every incentive to avoid customer relationships that could hurt their reputation. Regulators, on the other hand, have shown themselves unwilling or unable to acknowledge risk, the most obvious example being the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

And he also explained why Operation Choke Point was such a reprehensible violation of the rule of law.

The FDIC’s regulators never engaged in formal rule-making or announced penalties for banks serving undesirable clients. Such rule-making likely would have been defeated in congressional debate or under the Administrative Procedures Act. Instead, regulators chose to rely on informal decrees called “guidance.” …Financial regulators find regulatory guidance particularly expedient because it spares them the burden of soliciting comments, holding hearings, defining violations, setting forth procedures for ascertaining violations, and defining penalties for ignoring the guidance. Regulators prefer this veil of secrecy because it maximizes their discretionary power and places the unpredictable and discriminatory costs on banks and their customers.

Well, we have some good news.

The Trump Administration has just reversed this terrible Obama policy. Politico has some of the details.

The Justice Department has committed to ending a controversial Obama-era program that discourages banks from doing business with a range of companies, from payday lenders to gun retailers. The move hands a big victory to Republican lawmakers who charged that the initiative — dubbed “Operation Choke Point” — was hurting legitimate businesses. …House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte…and House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), along with Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) praised the department in a joint statement. “We applaud the Trump Justice Department for decisively ending Operation Choke Point,” they said. “The Obama Administration created this ill-advised program to suffocate legitimate businesses to which it was ideologically opposed by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses.”

And Eric Boehm of Reason is pleased by this development.

A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down. Operation Choke Point launched in 2012… It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered “high-risk” for fraud. …Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point “a misguided initiative” and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations… “Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor,” Boyd wrote. …The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

I shared a video last year that explained Operation Choke Point in just one minute. But that just scratched the surface, so here’s a video from Reason that explains in greater detail why Operation Choke Point was so repulsive.

Kudos to the Trump Administration for reversing this awful policy.

But hopefully this is just the first step. Regulators are still squeezing financial institutions in an attempt to discourage them from doing business with low-tax jurisdictions. This policy of “de-risking” exists even though so-called tax havens generally have tighter laws against dirty money than the United States.

Trump should put an end to that misguided policy.

Ultimately, what’s really needed is a complete rethink of money-laundering laws and regulations.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. Ideally, Trump will move completely in the other direction.

P.S. While it’s good that Trump has reversed Operation Choke Point, his Administration has moved in the wrong direction on civil forfeiture policy. One step forward and one step backwards is not a recipe for more growth and prosperity.

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Thanks to decades of experience and research, we now know several things about so-called anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

It’s not that the theory behind these laws is without merit. The original notion was that perhaps we could reduce crime by figuring out ways to prevent crooks from utilizing the banking system. That’s a worthy goal. But it turns out that it doesn’t work.

For all intents and purposes, AML laws are a misallocation of law-enforcement resources.

So you would think that policy makers would be endeavoring to repeal these counterproductive rules and regulations, right?

But you would be wrong. Some of them actually want to double down on failure. To be more specific, four senators have introduced a bill to make these laws more intrusive and onerous.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, along with Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, today introduced legislation that modernizes and strengthens criminal laws against money laundering – a critical source of funding for terrorist organizations, drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.  The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 updates criminal money laundering and counterfeiting statutes, and promotes transparency in the U.S. financial system.

It’s quite possible that these politicians actually think this new law will somehow reduce all the bad things they put in the bill’s title (I’m surprised they didn’t add tooth decay and cancer to the list).

But if past experience is any guide, the real-world result will be more abuse of law-abiding citizens.

Writing for the Blaze, Justin Haskins warns how the new legislation can endanger innocent people.

Four U.S. senators have proposed legislation that would significantly expand the power of the federal government to seize citizens’ money when traveling in or out of the United States. …several troubling provisions in the law could put law-abiding American citizens at risk of losing tens of thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than failing to fill out a government form. Under current federal law, travelers transporting $10,000 or more in cash or other monetary instruments are required to report those funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Failure to report funds, even if unintentional, can lead to the seizure of the money and criminal or civil penalties.

That approach already produces horrible abuses of innocent people.

And imagine what will happen if this new law is enacted.

The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act would expand “monetary instruments” covered under current law to include “prepaid access devices, stored value cards, digital currencies, and other similar instruments.” This is particularly problematic because digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are theoretically always transported by the owner of the digital currency account wherever he or she goes, which means digital currency owners with accounts valued at $10,000 or more must always report their funds or risk having them seized. Even more troubling is the law treats all blank checks as though they are financial instruments valued in excess of $10,000 if the checking account contains at least $10,000, which means if a traveler accidently fails to report a blank check floating around in his or her luggage, the account holder could face stiff penalties — even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s okay to subject innocent people to abuse if it achieves a very important goal of stopping terrorists.

But that’s not happening. In a must-read article for Foreign Affairs, Peter Neumann points out that AML laws are grossly ineffective in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

…the war on terrorist financing has failed. Today, there are more terrorist organizations, with more money, than ever before. …Driven by the assumption that terrorism costs money, governments have for years sought to cut off terrorists’ access to the global financial system. They have introduced blacklists, frozen assets, and imposed countless regulations designed to prevent terrorist financing, costing the public and private sectors billions of dollars.

And what’s the result of all this expense?

It hasn’t stopped terrorism.

…there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign. Most attacks require very little money, and terrorists tend to use a wide range of money-transfer and fundraising methods, many of which avoid the international financial system. …Terrorist operations are cheap, and according to a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, over 90 percent of the jihadist cells in Europe between 1994 and 2013 were “self-funded,” typically through savings, welfare payments, personal loans, or the proceeds of petty crime. …many jihadists have used their own savings and welfare payments or taken out small loans; others have borrowed money from their friends or family. …Financial tools cannot stop lone attackers from driving cars into crowds.

But it has imposed major burdens on innocent parties.

…the focus on the financial sector proved ineffective; it has also harmed innocent people and businesses. To address policymakers’ demands, financial institutions have “de-risked” their portfolios, shedding investments and clients that might be linked to terrorist financing. …De-risking, moreover, has resulted in the de facto exclusion of entire countries, mostly poor ones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, from the global financial system. The bank accounts of refugees, charities that operate in regions torn apart by civil war, and even Western citizens with family links to so-called risk countries have been closed. Practically no Western bank now offers cash transfers to Somalia, for example, although 40 percent of the population depends on remittances from abroad.

And what is the author’s bottom line?

Simply stated, the current system is a failure.

Instead of continuing to look for needles in a haystack, governments should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding… Otherwise, they will waste time and money on a strategy that cannot deliver security for many more years to come. .. Policymakers need to acknowledge that the war on terrorist financing, as it has been conducted since 2001, has often been costly and counterproductive, harming innocent people and companies without significantly constraining terrorist groups’ ability to operate.

I agree.

Indeed, I wrote an article for Pace Law Review, published back in 2005, that made many of the same points, including a lot of attention on theoretical role of cost-benefit analysis.

Law enforcement policy should include cost/benefit analysis so that resources are best allocated to protect life, liberty, and property. This should not be a controversial proposition. Cost-benefit analysis…already is part of the public policy process. For instance, few people would think it is acceptable for a city of 10 million to have just one police officer. Yet it is also true that few would want that city to have five million police officers. In other words, there is a point where additional law enforcement expenditures – both public and private – exceed the likely benefits. Every government makes such decisions. Cost-benefit analysis applies to aggregate resource allocation choices, such as how many police officers to employ in a city, but also to how a given level of resources are utilized. In other words, since there are not unlimited resources, it makes sense to allocate those resources in ways that yield the greatest benefit. On a practical level, city officials must decide how many officers to put on each shift, how many officers to assign to different neighborhoods, and how many officers to allocate to each type of crime. The same issues apply in the war against terrorism. Officials must decide not only on the level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism, but they also must make allocation decisions between, say, human intelligence and electronic surveillance.

Now let’s shift from theory to evidence.

I argued AML laws didn’t pass the test.

…while anti-money laundering laws theoretically help the war against terror, this does not mean that they necessarily are justified by cost-benefit analysis. A…book from the Institute for International Economics…strongly supports anti-money laundering laws and advocates their expansion. But the authors admit that these laws imposed costs of $7 billion in 2003, yet they admitted that, “While the number of suspicious activity reports filed has risen rapidly in recent years…total seizures and forfeitures amount to an extremely small sum (approximately $700 million annually in the United States) when compared with the crude estimates of the total amounts laundered. Moreover, there has not been an increase in the number of federal convictions for money laundering.” The private sector bears most of the cost of anti-money laundering laws, but the authors also note that, “Budgetary costs for AML laws have tripled in the last 20 years for prevention and quadrupled for enforcement.” The key question, of course, is whether these costs are matched by concomitant benefits. The answer almost certainly is no. …the government seizes very little dirty money. There are only about 2,000 convictions for federal money laundering offenses each year, and that number falls by more than 50 percent not counting cases where money laundering was an add-on charge to another offense.

Let’s close with passages from a couple of additional articles.

First, Richard Rahn explains why all anti-money laundering laws are misguided in a very recent column for the Washington Times.

…what is even more shocking is the extent to which various government organizations monitor and, in many cases, restrict financial freedom, and seize assets without criminal conviction. …The government argues that it must collect financial data and then share it with many domestic and foreign government organizations in order to stop tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing, other assorted criminality, and terrorist finance — all of which sounds good at first glance, until one looks at what really happens. If you think that the war on drugs has been a failure, look at the war on money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist finance for an even bigger failure. …money laundering is a crime of intent, rather than actions, in which two different people can engage in the same set of financial transactions, but if one has criminal intent he or she can be charged while the other person is home free. Such vague law is both ripe with abuse and difficult to prove. …The financial information that government agencies now routinely collect is widely shared, not only with other domestic government agencies, but increasingly with foreign governments — many of which do not protect individual liberty and other basic rights.

And here are some excerpts from a column in Reason by Elizabeth Nolan Brown.

American and British banks are monitoring customers’ contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers… Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers… The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, “the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to” human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with “suspicious” customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply.

In other words, these laws are a costly – but ineffective – burden.

Which is what I said in this video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In closing, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

Even the State Department’s most recent list of vulnerable jurisdictions shows only a handful of international financial centers.

Yes, places Cayman and Bermuda are on the list, but so are countries such as Canada, China, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s basically a random list of jurisdictions rather than a helpful guide.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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President Trump says he wants to roll back the burden of regulation. Give the morass of red tape that is strangling the economy, this is a very worthy goal.

It’s also a daunting task. Fixing the sprawling regulatory state is the modern version of cleaning the Augean stables and I’m not brimming with confidence that Trump and his appointees have Herculean powers.

That being said, if they’re deciding where to focus their deregulatory efforts, cost-benefit analysis would be a very useful guide. Simply stated, go after the red tape that imposes the highest costs while yielding the fewest benefits.

And if that’s the approach, so-called anti-money laundering regulations should be on the chopping block. Banks and other financial institutions are now being forced to squander billions of dollars in order to comply with laws, rules, and red tape that require them to spy on all their customers. The ostensible purpose of AML policies is to discourage criminal behavior, but experts have concluded that this approach has been a failure.

To the extent that AML policies have had an impact, it’s been negative. In addition to high costs and inefficiency, the laws and regulations have disproportionately harmed poor people.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, says AML laws are the modern version of prohibition, well-meaning in theory but counter-productive in practice.

Money laundering fits under the definition of vague law because, unlike murder or robbery, it is not a crime of an act but one of “intent.” …This leads to many problems and substantial prosecutorial abuse. It is not only banks and financial institutions that are supposed to know the source of their clients’ funds, but also such diverse people as car dealers, pawnbrokers, real estate agents, and on and on. Often, it is not considered good enough to know the source of a customer’s funds (often a near-impossibility), but the source of the funds of the customer’s customer. …The result is that banks and other financial institutions increasingly refuse to open accounts for low-income people… There is a very high fixed cost for banks and others to do “due diligence” on their customers — the costs being roughly the same for a $5,000 deposit, a $500,000 deposit or a $5,000,000 deposit. Given the massive penalties banks and other financial institutions are subject to for making even an unintentional mistake, their safest course of action is to drop small customers. …Recent academic and think tank studies show the situation only getting worse — all cost and no gain. …the poor, including poor countries, and the honest pay a huge price for all of the additional compliance costs, which reduces productive global capital formation and real incomes.

And the price isn’t trivial for the nations that get targeted, as I pointed out in testimony to the Organization for American States.

A working paper from the Center for Global Development digs into the numbers.

The past fifteen years have seen an unprecedented level of attention on anti-money laundering…issues by financial regulators…the total value of fines levied by regulators peaked at $15 billion in 2014 in the US alone. …Between 2010 and 2015, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international group tasked with setting common AML standards across the globe, added over fifty different countries to an internationally-recognized list of high risk countries. …there are growing concerns that this increase in regulatory activity is leading to a chilling effect on cross-border economic activity as banks limit their exposure to high risk clients or jurisdictions, a process known as ‘de-risking’… This contraction of the correspondent banking network has sounded a number of alarm bells, as these services are seen as being crucial for most cross-border services… The ICC survey reported that over 40% of respondents felt that AML and know-your-customer (KYC) requirements were a significant impediment to trade finance, with nearly 70% reporting they declined transactions that year…a large number of money transfer companies in the US, the UK and Australia have lost access to banking services as a result of banks’ desire to reduce their exposure to regulatory risk, potentially leading to a reduction to a decrease in formal remittances to developing countries, a critical source of development finance… The combined effect of all of these pressures should be leading to declines in the aggregate flow of cross-border payments.

And here are the results of the new empirical research in the study.

The combination of large scale fines, higher compliance costs and international naming-and-shaming has – anecdotally – led many banks to withdraw from certain lines of business or geographic areas, to the potential detriment of cross-border economic activity. …We find evidence that greylisting by the FATF is consistent with up to a 10% reduction in the number of payments received by an affected country. …Issues of economic impact aside, these results suggest there is more work to be done on assessing both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the global AML/CFT regulatory regime. …First, the reduction in payments received by countries subject to greater regulatory scrutiny raises the spectre of potential losses to these countries. Second, that there is either no effect or a positive effect of FATF greylisting on the number of payments leaving a designated country suggests that increased scrutiny may not do much to prevent illicit money from leaving high risk countries and entering the international financial system at large.

In other words, lots of costs, mostly borne by poor people and poor nations, but no evidence that criminals and terrorists are being stopped.

Rather than imposing lots of red tape and requiring banks to spy on everybody, it would be much better if the government followed normal rules in the fight against crime. By all means, it should investigate real crimes, collect evidence and build cases (within proper limits), and work to punish those who inflict harm on others.

But don’t squander resources in ways that aren’t effective.

Some have suggested that it would make sense to have banks monitor a discrete list of potential bad guys rather than promiscuously spy on all customers.

That might be a step in the right direction, but this story from the UK-based Times shows that this approach leaves something to be desired.

A controversial “blacklist” used by British banks to identify terrorists and potential money launderers has grown so bloated that it includes details of a three-year-old member of the royal family… World-Check, a database of more than two million “high-risk” individuals including criminals and senior politicians, is used by 49 of the world’s 50 biggest banks to carry out compliance checks on existing and potential clients. Customers who are flagged up face extra scrutiny and their accounts…hundreds of individuals were included partly on the basis of unverified blog posts and even far-right or extremist websites.

Wow. Since some of my leftist friends consider International Liberty a “far-right” and “extremist” website, this doesn’t bode well for me. I guess I’m lucky that I still have a bank account.

Here’s more from the story.

Thousands of others were listed on the database, which dates from 2014, only because they were relatives or friends of minor public figures. …Maud Windsor…was listed at nine months old. The apparent justification was that she was a family member of a “politically exposed person” (PEP), a reference to her father, who is the son of Prince Michael of Kent and 43rd in line to the throne. …Other British PEPs on the database include Sir Neil Cossons, a historian and former chairman of English Heritage. …Heather Wheeler, a Conservative MP listed on the database, told parliament this year that her bank of 30 years informed her that she was “high risk” and that it “would not deal with me anymore and that it was closing my account.”

These absurd results are driven by government policies that force financial institutions to treat all customers as potential crooks.

And given the huge fines that are being levied on banks and other firms, you can understand why they drop customers and charge high fees. They are forced to act defensively.

Thomson Reuters, the media company that makes millions of pounds compiling and selling the database, does not inform individuals if they are included and banks have no obligation to tell clients why they have been denied services. …Many financial institutions have become risk-averse… “You have an arms race where there’s this immense pressure to build a ‘robust’ database,” one expert on World-Check said. “They’ll pack this database with as many names of individuals as possible. You end up getting a ton of false positives.”

And some of those “false positives” are mentioned in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one supposed haven among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

P.P.P.P.S. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the statists have learned the wrong lesson. They see that AML laws have been a failure and think the right response is to go nuclear and ban cash entirely.

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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

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Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.

The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expanding internationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.

If anything, I think they’re being too nice.

The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The laws and regulations don’t work.

Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.

…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.

Amen.

This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.

Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”

Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.

U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts from the financial system the innocent as well as those the U.S. government would most like to watch, a consequence not anticipated by Washington. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry this month acknowledged the potential danger. “Transactions that would have taken place legally and transparently may be driven underground,” he told an international conference of bankers and regulators in Washington. …Fearing steep financial penalties for failing to spot a wayward customer, many banks now shun anyone who looks risky. That leaves ostracized companies to seek alternatives—such as toting bags of cash overseas—a practice that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to leave the global banking system… “The whole flow of money goes underground, and that becomes counterproductive to the original purpose of being able to track” it, said Dilip Ratha, head economist of the World Bank’s unit that studies remittances. “It’s a bit paradoxical.” U.S. officials said they didn’t intend banks to close whole categories of customer accounts.

So potential bad guys are harder to track.

And financial institutions waste lots of money (which translates into higher costs for consumers).

Risky accounts should be managed, officials said, not avoided altogether. …Western Union said it now spends $200 million a year watching for suspicious activity… J.P. Morgan Chase & Co….now has about 9,000 employees dedicated to anti-money-laundering and has cut off thousands of customers viewed as higher-risk. …Jaikumar Ramaswamy, a Bank of AmericaCorp. compliance executive and former federal prosecutor, said, “I’m surprised at how much of my time is spent not focusing on the guilty but chasing the innocent.” Instead of looking for needles in haystacks, he said, the system demands banks “turn over every piece of hay.”

The good news is that some nations are looking to adopt a more rational approach, as evidenced by this Bloomberg report from 2015.

The U.K. government said it will look to relax anti-money laundering controls as part of a plan to save British companies 10 billion pounds ($15.4 billion) over the next five years. …The government said it wants to protect the country without putting “disproportionate burdens” on legitimate businesses. …“This new review is about making sure the rules we have to protect our strong financial services industry from abuse are not unintentionally holding back new and existing British business,” Business Secretary Sajid Javid said. “I want firms to come forward and tell us where regulation is unclear or its enforcement ineffective.”

Though, as reported by the Times, the U.K. government has a bizarrely inconsistent approach to these issues. Even to the point of threatening to steal people’s property unless they can somehow prove that it was purchased with innocent money.

People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption, under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New “unexplained wealth orders”, which would reverse the burden of proof to compel the recipient to justify the source of the questionable cash.

Sigh.

Here’s a novel idea. Why doesn’t law enforcement engage in actual, old-fashioned police work. In other words, instead of having costly burdens imposed on everybody, governments should use the approach which historically has successfully reduced crime – i.e., policies that increase the likelihood of apprehension and/or severity of punishment.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Instead, we actually get politicians and policy makers coming up with schemes to expand the burden of money laundering laws. Some of them want to ban the $100 bill, or perhaps even ban cash entirely. All so government can more closely monitor the private financial choices of innocent people.

If you want more information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Last but not least, let’s return to the Heritage study, which includes this very important warning about a very risky and dangerous treaty that may be considered by the U.S. Senate.

…the willingness to impose costs on the private sector and to violate the privacy interests of ordinary people should be less in the case of information sharing for tax purposes than for the purposes of preventing terrorism or crime. Moreover, tax-information-sharing programs are quite often a veiled attempt to stifle tax competition from low-tax jurisdictions. Tax competition is salutary and limits the degree to which governments can impose unwarranted taxation. …The U.S. Senate is currently considering the “Protocol Amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters,” which would impose a wide variety of new information-reporting requirements on financial institutions to help foreign governments collect their taxes. A second treaty—worse than this protocol—is the follow-on OECD treaty known as the “Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information.” This follow-on treaty implements both the protocol and the 311-page OECD “Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters.” Together, the protocol, the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, and the OECD Standard constitute the three main parts of a new automatic information-exchange regime being promoted by the OECD and international tax bureaucrats. If the U.S. ratifies the protocol and implements the new OECD standard, Washington would automatically, and in bulk, ship private financial and tax information—including Social Security and other tax identification numbers—to Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and nearly 70 other countries. In other words, foreign governments that are hostile to the U.S., corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards, would automatically have access to private financial (and other) information of some U.S. taxpayers and most foreigners with accounts in the U.S.

A truly awful pact. And keep in mind it also would be the genesis of a World Tax Organization.

P.S. Since we closed by discussing the intersection of tax and money laundering, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

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For all his faults, you have to give President Obama credit for strong convictions. He’s generally misguided, but it’s perversely impressive to observe his relentless advocacy for higher taxes, bigger government, more intervention, and limits on constitutional freedoms.

That being said, his desire to “fundamentally transform” the United States leads him to decisions that run roughshod over core principles of a civilized society such as the rule of law.

Consider, for instance, the Obama Administration project, known as “Operation Choke Point,” to restrict banking services to politically incorrect businesses such as gun dealers.

It doesn’t matter than these companies are engaged in legal activities. In pursuit of its ideological agenda, the White House is using regulatory bullying in hopes of getting banks to deny services to these businesses.

For more information, click here to read about recent efforts to end this thuggish initiative. Also, here’s a very short video explaining the topic.

Well, there’s an international version of Operation Choke Point.It’s called “de-risking,” and it occurs when banks are pressured by regulators into cutting off banking services to certain regions.

The Wall Street Journal has a column on this topic by two adjunct professors from Fordham Law School.

…a widespread trend in banking called “de-risking.” Reacting to pressure by various government regulators…, banks are rejecting customers in risky regions and industries. Throughout 2014 J.P. Morgan Chase dropped more than 100,000 accounts because they were considered risky… Between 2013 and 2014, Standard Chartered closed 70,000 small and medium-size business accounts, and ended hundreds of relationships with banks in Latin America and Central Europe. …In yet another form of de-risking, the European Central Bank reports that banks have steadily cut their correspondent relationships—that is, the other banks they work with in sending money around the globe. HSBC alone closed more than 326 correspondent bank accounts between 2010 and 2012. …the banks’ actions are understandable. They face unprecedented regulatory penalties, unclear legal standards, high litigation costs and systemic risks to their business. In 2012 HSBC settled with the Justice Department, paying $1.9 billion in fines for such failings as “ignor[ing] the money laundering risks associated with doing business with certain Mexican customers.” …A bank with a single mistaken customer relationship could be put out of business. Banks have concluded that they will be punished anytime money reaches criminals, regardless of their own efforts. It’s better to drop all supposedly risky customers.

The authors explain that there should be “safe harbor” rules to protect both banks and their customers. That’s a very sensible suggestion.

And there are easy options to make this happen. I’m not a big fan of the Financial Action Task Force, which is an OECD-connected organization that ostensibly sets money-laundering rules for the world. Simply stated, the bureaucrats at FATF think there should be no human right to privacy. Moreover, FATF advocates harsh regulatory burdens that impose very high costs while producing miserly benefits.

That being said, if a nation is not on the FATF blacklist, that should be more than enough evidence that it imposes very onerous rules to guard against misbehavior.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats in the United States and Europe don’t actually seem interested in fighting money laundering. Or, to be more precise, it appears that their primary interest is to penalize places with low tax rates.

Many Caribbean jurisdictions, for instance, are being victimized by de-risking even though they comply with all the FATF rules. And this means they lose important correspondent relationships with larger banks.

To address this issue, the Organization of American States recently held a meeting to consider this topic. I was invited to address the delegations. And since other speakers dealt with the specific details of de-risking (you can watch the entire event by clicking here), I discussed the big-picture issue of how low-tax jurisdictions are being persecuted by harsh (and ever-changing) demands. Here are my remarks, with a few of my PowerPoint slides embedded in the video.

Now for the most remarkable (and disturbing) development from that meeting.

Many of the Caribbean nations offered a rather innocuous resolution in hopes of getting agreement that de-risking is a problem and that it would be a good idea if nations came up with clear rules to eliminate the problem.

That seems like a slam dunk, right?

Not exactly. The U.S. delegation actually scuttled the declaration by proposing alternative language that was based on the notion that other countries should put the blame on themselves – even though these nations already are complying with all the FATF rules! You can read the original declaration and proposed changes by the U.S. by clicking here, but this is the excerpt that really matters.

Wow, what arrogance and hypocrisy by the Obama appointees. These jurisdictions, most with black majorities, are suffering from ad hoc and discriminatory de-risking because the Administration doesn’t like the fact that they generally have low taxes.

But rather than openly state that they favor discrimination against low-tax nations, the political hacks put in place by the Obama White House proposed blame-the-victim language, thus ensuring that nothing would happen.

P.S. Perhaps the most surreal part of the experience is the strange bond I felt with the Venezuelan delegation. Regular readers know I’m not a fan of the statist and oppressive government in Caracas. But the Venezuelan delegation apparently takes great pleasure in opposing the position of the U.S. government, so we were sort of on the same side in the discussion. A very bizarre enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend situation.

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Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

It’s basically because a cashless society is an easier-to-tax society, as expressed by an editorial from the U.K.-based Financial Times.

…unlike electronic money, it cannot be tracked. That means cash favours anonymous and often illicit activity; its abolition would make life easier for a government set on squeezing the informal economy out of existence. …Value added tax, for example, could be automatically levied. …Greece, in particular, could make lemonade out of lemons, using the current capital controls to push the country’s cash culture into new habits.

And some countries are actually moving in this direction.

J.D. Tuccille looks at this issue in an article for Reason.

Peter Bofinger of the German Council of Economic Experts…wants to abolish the use of cash… He frets that old-fashioned notes enable undeclared work and black markets, and stand in the way of central bank monetary policy. So rather than adjust policy to be more palatable to the public, he’d rather leave no shadows in which the public can hide from his preferred policies. The idea is to make all economic activity visible so that people have to submit to control. Denmark, which has the highest tax rates in Europe and a correspondingly booming shadow economy, is already moving in that direction. …the Danmarks Nationalbank will stop internal printing of banknotes and minting of coins in 2016. After all, why adjust tax and regulatory policy to be acceptable to constitutents when you can nag them and try to reinvent the idea of money instead?

By the way, some have proposed similar policies in the United States, starting with a ban on $100 bills.

Which led me to paraphrase a line from the original version of Planet of the Apes.

Notwithstanding my attempt to be clever, the tide is moving in the wrong direction. Cash is beginning to vanish in Sweden, as reported by the New York Times.

…many of the country’s banks no longer accept or dispense cash. Bills and coins now represent just 2 percent of Sweden’s economy, compared with 7.7 percent in the United States and 10 percent in the euro area. This year, only a fifth of all consumer payments in Sweden have been made in cash, compared with an average of 75 percent in the rest of the world, according to Euromonitor International. …Cash machines, which are controlled by a Swedish bank consortium, are being dismantled by the hundreds

Though the article notes that there is some resistance.

Not everyone is cheering. Sweden’s embrace of electronic payments has alarmed consumer organizations and critics who warn of a rising threat to privacy and increased vulnerability to sophisticated Internet crimes. …The government has not sought to stem the cashless tide. If anything, it has benefited from more efficient tax collection, because electronic transactions leave a trail; in countries like Greece and Italy, where cash is still heavily used, tax evasion remains a big problem. Leif Trogen, an official at the Swedish Bankers’ Association, acknowledged that banks were earning substantial fee income from the cashless revolution.

What matters, by the way, is not the degree to which consumers prefer to use alternatives to cash.

That’s perfectly fine, and it explains much of what we see on this map.

The problem is when governments use coercion to limit and/or abolish cash so that politicians have more power. And (gee, what a surprise) this is why the French are trying to crack down on cash.

Writing for the U.K.-based Telegraph, Matthew Lynn mentions the new policy and France and also explores some worrisome implications of this anti-cash trend.

France is banning the use of cash for transactions worth more than €1,000…part of a growing movement among academics and now governments to gradually ban the use of cash completely. …it is a “barbarous relic”, as some publications loftily dismiss it. The trouble is, cash is also incredibly efficient. And it is a crucial part of a free society. There is no convincing case for abolition. …When it comes to creeping state control, it is no surprise to find the French out in front. …A cashless economy would be far easier to both tax and control. But hold on. Is that something we really want? In reality, cash is far too valuable to be given up lightly. In truth, the benefits of abolition are largely oversold. While terrorists and criminals may well use cash to buy weapons, or deal in drugs, it is very hard to believe that they would not find some other way of financing their operations if it was abolished. Are there really any cases of potential jihadists being foiled because they couldn’t find two utility bills (less than three months old, of course) in a false name to open an account?

Amen. Banning cash to stop terrorists is about as foolish as thinking that gun control will thwart jihadists.

In any event, we need to consider trade-offs. Chris Giles highlighted that issue in a piece for the Financial Times.

…an unfortunate rhetorical echo of Maoist China. It is illiberal… Some argue there would be beneficial side effects from abolishing notes and coins through the regularisation of illegal activities. Really? …Cash would have to be abolished everywhere and the BoE does not have those powers, thankfully. The anonymity of cash helps to free people from their governments and some criminality is a price worth paying for liberty.

Though I suppose we should grudgingly give politicians credit for cleverly trying exploit fear to expand their power.

But never forget we’re talking about a bad version of clever. If they succeed, that will be bad news for freedom.  J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains in a second article why a growing number of people prefer to use cash.

Many Americans happily and quietly avoid banks and trendy purchasing choices in favor of old-fashioned paper money. Lots of business gets done that way…the Albuquerque Journal pointed out that over a third of households in the city either avoid banks entirely (the “unbanked”) or else keep a checking account but do much of their business through cash, check-cashing shops, pawn shops, money orders, and other “alternative financial products” (the “underbanked”). A few weeks earlier, the Kansas City Star reported a similar local situation… In both cities, the phenomenon is growing. …Twenty-six percent cite privacy as a reason for keeping clear of banks – bankers say that increased federal reporting and documentation requirements drive many customers away. “A lot of people are afraid of Uncle Sam,” Greg Levenson, president and CEO of Southwest Capital Bank, told the Albuquerque Journal. …It’s a fair bet that those who “have managed to earn income in the shadow economy” and want to keep their income unreported to the feds and undiminished by fees are heavily overrepresented among the unbanked. …most people aren’t idiots. When they avoid expensive, snoopy financial institutions, it’s because they’ve decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

Very well said, though I’d augment what he wrote by noting that some of these folks probably would like to be banked but are deterred by high costs resulting from foolish government money-laundering laws.

More on that later.

Let’s stay with the issue of whether cash should be preserved. A business writer from the U.K. is very uneasy about the notion of a society with no cash.

…tax authorities have become increasingly keen on tracking everything and everyone to make absolutely certain that no assets slip under their radars. The Greeks have been told that, come 2016, they must begin to declare all cash over €15,000 held in safes or mattresses, and all precious stones, gold and the like worth more than €30,000. Anyone else think there might be a new tax coming on all that stuff? …number-crunchers…are maddened by the fact that even as we are provided with lots of simple digital payment methods we still like to use cash: the demand for £20 and £50 notes has been rising. …They are maddened because “as untraceable bearer instruments, it is not possible to locate where banknotes are being held at any one time”… Without recourse to physical cash, we are all 100% dependent on the state-controlled digital world for our financial security. Worse, the end of cash is also the end of privacy: if you have to pay for everything digitally, every transaction you ever make (and your location when you make it) will be on record. Forever. That’s real repression.

She nails it. If politicians get access to more information, they’ll levy more taxes and impose more control.

And that won’t end well.

Last but not least, the Chairman of Signature Bank, Scott Shay, warns about the totalitarian temptations that would exist in a cash-free world. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for CNBC.

In 2010, Visa and MasterCard, bowed to government pressure — not even federal or state law — and banned all online-betting payments from their systems. This made it virtually impossible for these gambling sites to continue operating regardless of their jurisdiction or legality. It is not too far-fetched to wonder if the day might come when the health records of an overweight individual would lead to a situation in which they find that any sugary drink purchase they make through a credit or debit card is declined. …You might think then that the person can always pay cash and remain outside the purview of these technologies. This may be the case for the moment, but we are well on the road to becoming a cashless society. …there is…a sinister risk…a cashless society would certainly give governments unprecedented access to information and power over citizens.

And, he warns, that information will lead to mischief.

Currently, we have little evidence to indicate that governments will refrain from using this power. On the contrary, the U.S. government is already using its snooping prowess and big-data manipulation in some frightening ways. …the U.S. government is becoming very fond of seizing money from citizens first and asking questions later via “civil forfeiture.” Amazingly, the government is permitted by law to do this even if it is only government staff members who have a suspicion, not proof, of wrongdoing. …In recent years, it made it increasingly difficult for companies to operate or individuals to transact by adding compliance hurdles for banks wishing to deal with certain categories of clients. By making it too expensive to deal with certain clients or sending the signal that a bank should not deal with a particular client or type of client, the government can almost assuredly keep that company or person out of the banking system. Banks are so critically dependent on government regulatory approval for their actions… It is easy to imagine a totalitarian regime using these tools to great harm.

Some folks will read Shay’s piece and downplay his concerns. They’ll say he’s making a slippery slope argument.

But there are very good reasons, when dealing with government, to fear that the slope actually is slippery.

Let’s close by sharing my video on the closely related topic of money laundering. These laws and regulations have been imposed supposedly to fight crime.

But we’ve slid down the slope. These policies have been a failure in terms of hindering criminals and terrorists, but they’ve given government a lot of power and information that is being routinely misused.

P.S. The one tiny sliver of good news is that bad money laundering and know-your-customer rules have generated an amusing joke featuring President Obama.

P.P.S. If politicians want to improve tax compliance in a non-totalitarian fashion, there is a very successful recipe for reducing the underground economy.

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I don’t like former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. But not because of any personal interactions. I don’t think I’ve every even been in the same room as him, much less ever met him.

But I know that he did nothing to restrain the reckless expansion of government when he had power during the Bush years. Indeed, he fought against those who tried to throw sand in the gears.

So I’ll admit a certain Schadenfreude now that he’s in legal trouble. But I’m also irked. He’s being charged with something that shouldn’t be a crime, while getting (at least so far) a free pass for the bad things that he has done.

As is so often the case, Tim Carney has the right perspective. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Washington Examiner.

If the the stories that have leaked in the media are true, the true sin Hastert committed is unspeakable, but possibly unprosecutable. There is one aspect of the Hastert scandal, however, that reflects a problem that is more troubling than “structuring” bank withdrawals… How in the world could a school-teacher-turned lawmaker afford to pay, reportedly, $3.5 million in hush money?

Tim answers his own question, citing the government’s corrupt ban on incandescent light bulbs.

Hastert monetized his public service into a lucrative lobbying career — largely by increasing government. One telling episode begins in May 2007. Hastert at that time was a chief cosponsor of the “light bulb ban,” the law that effectively outlawed the traditional incandescent bulb, forcing consumers to buy more expensive fluorescent bulbs and LEDs. …in March 2008, Hastert joined Polybrite “as a strategic advisor,” according to a company press release. A year later, after he had joined K Street lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro, Hastert officially registered as a lobbyist for Polybrite… Hastert’s first lobbying work for Polybrite…was his job to try to get stimulus money for Polybrite.

Hmmm… I wonder is Polybrite was part of the $27 bulb stimulus scandal?

But nanny-state light bulbs are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s another example.

Ethanol subsidies were another Hastert special. In the first three months of 2015, the ethanol industry lobby group, Fuels America, paid Dickstein Shapiro $60,000 for ethanol-mandate lobbying by Hastert and another lobbyist. All the House members Hastert had rewarded with committee assignments, earmarks and co-sponsorships were now taking phone calls from their former commander on behalf of green-tinted subsidy sucklers. This is part of how Washington turned a school teacher into a millionaire.

In other words, Hastert is a poster child (along with Harry Reid, Bob Dole, and countless others) for the proposition that Washington is basically a giant scam operated for the benefit of insiders who get rich by taking money from earners and producers and giving it to those with political connections.

Which is my message in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But now let’s return to the main topic. Hastert wasn’t charged with being a sleazy insider who used connections to pillage money from taxpayers and steer it to corrupt clients.

Instead, he’s being charged with violating “money laundering” laws that shouldn’t even exist. Here’s some of what Warren Coats (a colleague on the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review) wrote on this topic.

Mr. Hastert is being charged with violating our Anti Money Laundering (AML) laws. These laws allow arresting and convicting people for moving money (as Mr. Hastert was doing) that the government thinks was the proceeds of crime (not the case with Mr. Hastert, his crime was failing to report what he planned to with his money), when they are not able to prove that there was a crime in the first place. As far as I know, paying a blackmailer (which is what Mr. Hastert apparently did) is not a crime, though demanding and receiving such money is. The United States has pushed such legislation and the new bureaucracies needed to enforce it all over the world at the cost of billions and billions of dollars (that could have been used for poverty reduction or other more pressing things) with very little if any benefit to show for it. Charging Dennis Hastert with AML violations is a rare exception. Wow, what a benefit for such intrusions into our private lives. I consider AML laws more than a costly waste of money. They are another expansion of the arbitrary power of governments that can be used for good or ill with limited oversight.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated on why it’s inefficient and intrusive to require banks to spy on their customers.

I suppose the bottom line is that Dennis Hastert is a bad person who did bad things, so he deserves some payback. And that’s exactly what he’s getting.

But I can’t help but wish he was punished for the right reason.

P.S. Like most fans of the New York Yankees, I’m not a big fan of the irrelevant quasi-Major League team on Long Island.

But I confess my allegiances are just an accident of birth, family, and geography.

However, I now have a policy reason to dislike the Mets.

The New York Mets have become the first sports team to join the nationwide anti-gun campaign, aligning with celebrities like Piers Morgan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to back today’s National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Sponsored by the Michael Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety, people with some 200 organizations are wearing orange to draw attention to the issue. According to the group, the Mets even dressed in orange to show their support.

It’s both amazing and disappointing that there were no real Americans on the team who refused to participate in this attack on the Constitution.

To offset this bad news, here’s some anti-gun control humor to brighten your day.

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Earlier today, I gave a speech to some folks at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs about the failure of global financial regulation.

I touched on some predictable themes:

The absence of cost/benefit analysis for regulatory initiatives.

The failure of anti-money laundering laws and their harmful impact on the poor.

How one-size-fits-all Basel rules led to imprudent risk and misallocation of capital.

How anti-tax competition schemes impose high costs on the financial system (which get passed on to financial consumers).

One thing I noticed, though, is that I didn’t get overly passionate when discussing these topics. I didn’t even get that worked up when talking about the OECD’s dangerous plan to create something akin to a World Tax Organization.

But I did get rather agitated when talking about how money-laundering rules and regulations have led to disgusting and reprehensible examples of so-called civil asset forfeiture.

This happens when a government decides to steal the property of citizens simply because they think it may have been involved in illegal activity.

Politicians and bureaucrats often use the failed Drug War as their rationale, but the activity doesn’t actually have to be illegal. I specifically cited the horrific example of the government stealing $35,000 from some folks in Michigan for no other reason than money from the family grocery business was generally deposited in amounts under $10,000.

I’m sure such government actions have a negative economic impact, but this is a case where the moral argument should take precedence.

Simply stated, all decent and humane people should stand united against thuggery by government.

And in an example of serendipity, after finishing my speech, I turned on my computer and came across more evidence against civil asset forfeiture.

Here are some truly disturbing passages from a report in the Detroit Free Press that showed up in my Twitter feed.

Thomas Williams was alone that November morning in 2013 when police raided his rural St. Joseph County home, wearing black masks, camouflage and holding guns at their sides. They broke down his front door with a battering ram. “We think you’re dealing marijuana,” they told Williams, a 72-year-old, retired carpenter and cancer patient who is disabled and carries a medical marijuana card. When he protested, they handcuffed him and left him on the living room floor as they ransacked his home, emptying drawers, rummaging through closets and surveying his grow room, where he was nourishing his 12 personal marijuana plants as allowed by law.

All this sounds horrible – and it is, but it gets worse.

They did not charge Williams with a crime… Instead, they took his Dodge Journey, $11,000 in cash from his home, his television, his cell phone, his shotgun and are attempting to take his Colon Township home. And they plan to keep the proceeds, auctioning off the property and putting the cash in police coffers. More than a year later, he is still fighting to get his belongings back and to hang on to his house. “I want to ask them, ‘Why? Why me?’ I gave them no reason to do this to me,” said Williams, who says he also suffers from glaucoma, a damaged disc in his back, and COPD, a lung disorder. “I’m out here minding my own business, and just wanted to be left alone.”

Why him? Well, one local attorney has a good idea of what’s really happening.

“It’s straight up theft,” said Williams’ Kalamazoo attorney, Dan Grow. “The forfeiture penalty does not match the crime. It’s absurd. …A lot of my practice is made up of these kinds of cases — middle-aged, middle-income people who have never been in trouble before. It’s all about the money.”

Just to be clear, Mr. Grow is emphasizing the utterly perverse incentive structure that exists when cops are allowed to steal money from citizens and use it to pad their own budget.

This system needs to be reformed.

And the second bit of serendipity is that a new report from the Institute for Justice showed up in my inbox. It explains why civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. And while the report focuses on the venal actions of the IRS, this reform should apply to all government agencies at all levels of government.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Here’s how IJ suggests that this type of abuse can be halted.

The surest way to prevent innocent people from losing money unjustly would be to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Short of that, removing the financial incentive to seize, raising the standard of proof to forfeit and enacting other procedural reforms would help protect people from losing their bank accounts when the government has little or no proof of criminal wrongdoing.

While the Institute for Justice does great work, I don’t think they should have opened the door to halfway reforms.

Heck, even the two people who helped start up the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program now say it should be abolished.

P.S. The Princess of the Levant is also in London, so I’m being forced to engage in tourist activities.

We took a ride on the London Eye, which wasn’t cheap but offers very good views of Big Ben, the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, and other historic sites.

As far as I’m concerned, though, London is too cold and dreary. The only good tourism involves a warm beach in the Caribbean.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, here’s some anti-gun control humor with a rather pointed message.

Definitely worth adding to my collection.

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I don’t particularly care how people vote, but I do care whether they believe in freedom.

That’s why I periodically share stories that should convince everyone to believe in the libertarian philosophy of small government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility.

The stories that get me most agitated are the ones that involve innocent people being robbed by bureaucrats.

And when I say robbed, I use that word deliberately.

Such as the case of an elderly couple who had their hotel stolen by government.

Such as the case of the family grocer who had his bank account stolen by government.

Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family collected to bail out a relative.

Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

With all this background, you can probably guess I’m going to add to that list.

And you’re right. We have a report from the New York Times that has me frothing at the mouth. I can’t imagine any decent person not being outraged by this example of big government run amok.

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000. The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

In other words, this is an example of two evil policies – asset forfeiture laws and money laundering laws – coming together in a vortex of we’ll-screw-you-over-even-if-you’re-law-abiding statism.

And you can forget about the Constitution’s presumption of innocence.

Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?” The federal government does. Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

Of course, much of tax code enforcement is based on the upside-down premise that taxpayers are guilty and have to prove themselves innocent.

But that still doesn’t make it right. And the IRS is just the tip of the iceberg. Stealing is now a common practice by all sorts of bureaucracies at all levels of government.

The practice has swept up dairy farmers in Maryland, an Army sergeant in Virginia saving for his children’s college education and Ms. Hinders, 67, who has borrowed money, strained her credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to keep her restaurant going. Their money was seized under an increasingly controversial area of law known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agents to take property they suspect of being tied to crime even if no criminal charges are filed. Law enforcement agencies get to keep a share of whatever is forfeited. Critics say this incentive has led to the creation of a law enforcement dragnet, with more than 100 multiagency task forces combing through bank reports, looking for accounts to seize.

Here’s just one horrifying example of how this process works.

 In one Long Island case, the police submitted almost a year’s worth of daily deposits by a business, ranging from $5,550 to $9,910. The officer wrote in his warrant affidavit that based on his training and experience, the pattern “is consistent with structuring.” The government seized $447,000 from the business, a cash-intensive candy and cigarette distributor that has been run by one family for 27 years. …the government seized $447,000, and the brothers have been unable to retrieve it. …Mr. Potashnik said he had spent that time trying, to no avail, to show that the brothers were innocent. They even paid a forensic accounting firm $25,000 to check the books. “I don’t think they’re really interested in anything,” Mr. Potashnik said of the prosecutors. “They just want the money.” …“We’re just hanging on as a family here,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We weren’t going to take a settlement, because I was not guilty.”

Still not convinced about the venality of big government? Here’s another nauseating example.

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, Va., began saving for his daughters’ college costs during the financial crisis, when many banks were failing. He stored cash first in his basement and then in a safe-deposit box. All of the money came from paychecks, he said, but he worried that when he deposited it in a bank, he would be forced to pay taxes on the money again. So he asked the bank teller what to do. “She said: ‘Oh, that’s easy. You just have to deposit less than $10,000.’” The government seized $66,000; settling cost Sergeant Cortazzo $21,000. As a result, the eldest of his three daughters had to delay college by a year. “Why didn’t the teller tell me that was illegal?” he said. “I would have just plopped the whole thing in the account and been done with it.”

By the way, some of you may be thinking that these terrible examples are somehow justifiable because the government is stopping crime in other instances.

But that’s not true. Experts who have looking at money laundering laws have found that there’s no impact on genuine criminal activity. But lots of costs imposed on innocent people.

Which probably explains why the first two directors of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office now say the laws should be repealed.

If you want more information, here’s my video on the government’s costly and failed war on money laundering.

Sigh.

By the way, the government also abuses people in ways that have nothing to do with money laundering or asset forfeiture.

And there are more examples where those came from.

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If you ask me about the most wasteful department in the federal government, I’ll state that there are lots of good choices, but if forced to identify the best candidate for elimination, I’ll go with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If you ask me about the entitlement program most in need of reform, I’m tempted to say all of them, but ultimately I’ll argue that we should first fix Medicaid by devolving it to the states, accompanied by block grants as a transitional funding mechanism.

But if you ask me to identify the most evil and despicable thing that government does, I have no hesitation in picking asset forfeiture, which is the horrifying practice of bureaucrats stealing private property simply because they think the owners may have some connection with criminal activity.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal the gamblers’ cash.

*Such as when the government tried to steal $17,000 from a motorist even though they never charged him with a crime, much less convicted him of any offense.

If you click the links and read those disgusting examples of thieving government, you’ll agree that all decent and human people should be libertarians.

And if you need more evidence that asset forfeiture should be eliminated, John Yoder and Brad Cates, the first two directors of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, have a column in today’s Washington Post, and they unambiguously disown the bureaucracy they created and the evils it has spawned.

As two people who were heavily involved in the creation of the asset forfeiture initiative at the Justice Department in the 1980s, we find it particularly painful to watch as the heavy hand of government goes amok. …Asset forfeiture was conceived as a way to cut into the profit motive that fueled rampant drug trafficking by cartels and other criminal enterprises, in order to fight the social evils of drug dealing and abuse. Over time, however, the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.

They then describe how the program metastasized.

The idea seemed so simple: Seize the ill-gotten gains of big-time drug dealers and remove the financial incentive for their criminality. After all, if a kingpin could earn $20 million and stash it away somewhere, even a decade in prison would have its rewards. Make that money disappear, and the calculus changes. Then, in 1986, the concept was expanded to include not only cash earned illegally but also purchases or investments made with that money, creating a whole scheme of new crimes that could be prosecuted as “money laundering.” The property eligible for seizure was further expanded to include “instrumentalities” in the trafficking of drugs, such as cars or even jewelry. Eventually, more than 200 crimes beyond drugs came to be included in the forfeiture scheme.

I’m especially glad they include the government’s foolish and costly anti-money laundering laws as they discuss government run amok.

A big problem is that these laws create perverse incentives for abusive behavior by bureaucracies.

This all may have been fine in theory, but in the real world it went badly astray.  …As time went on and states got into the forfeiture game, the uses became more personally rewarding for law enforcement. …Law enforcement agents and prosecutors began using seized cash and property to fund their operations, supplanting general tax revenue, and this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than on an even-handed effort to enforce the law. …the old speed traps have all too often been replaced by forfeiture traps, where local police stop cars and seize cash and property to pay for local law enforcement efforts. This is a complete corruption of the process, and it unsurprisingly has led to widespread abuses.

Here’s the bottom line.

…civil forfeiture is fundamentally at odds with our judicial system and notions of fairness. It is unreformable. …our forfeiture laws turn our traditional concept of guilt upside down. Civil forfeiture laws presume someone’s personal property to be tainted, placing the burden of proving it “innocent” on the owner. What of the Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant to seize or search requires the showing of probable cause of a specific violation? Defendants should be charged with the crimes they commit. Charge someone with drug dealing if it can be proved, but don’t invent a second offense of “money laundering” to use as a backup or a pretext to seize cash. …Civil asset forfeiture and money-laundering laws are gross perversions of the status of government amid a free citizenry. …it is unacceptable that a citizen should have to “prove” anything to the government. …if the government has proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt, let that guilt be proclaimed by 12 peers.

Amen. Our Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution to protect us against this kind of petty tyranny. Our presumption of innocence shouldn’t be eroded just because some bureaucrats are greedy to steal private property.

For more information, here’s a must-watch video on asset forfeiture from the Institute for Justice.

And here’s my video on intrusive and pointless anti-money laundering laws.

And there’s another video at this link if you want to see a horror story that combines asset forfeiture and anti-money laundering nonsense.

Moral of the story: These laws should be repealed as soon as possible.

P.S. A few days ago, I predicted the Scots would vote against independence by a 56-44 margin. The final results were 55.3-44.7 against independence. That’s almost as good as my prediction for the 2010 mid-term elections.

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Time for another great moment in red tape.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that banks treat customers poorly in part because of bad laws and regulations from Washington.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates. …politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

You may think that only cranky libertarians are unhappy about this system.

But that’s not the case. Three professors with expertise in criminology, justice, sociology, and public policy wrote a detailed assessment of policies on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).

Given the establishment pedigree of the authors, the finding of the report are rather shocking. The report’s introduction hints that the whole apparatus should be called into question.

To date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the IMF, to assess either the costs or benefits of an AML/CFT regime.  The FATF system has proceeded as if  it produces only public and private goods, not public or private “bads” or adverse by-products  against which the “goods” have to be weighed.   The Fund staff itself has raised questions about whether its substantial investment in the 3rd round has yielded adequate returns. It is not known what value that investment produced for the FATF or the Fund’s core objectives.  There needs to be more open acknowledgement of actual and potential financial costs of AML/CFT controls, their potential misuse by authoritarian rulers, and possible adverse effects on populations that rely on remittances and the informal economy, as well as potential negative impacts on NGOs and parts of civil society.

And when you dig into the details of the report, you find some surprisingly blunt language.

Basically, there’s no evidence that these policies work, and lots of evidence that they impose real harm.

Benefits of the FATF AML/CFT system have not been demonstrated. Although there may be benefits known to international organizations, governments, regulators, and intelligence agencies, no systematic efforts have been made by the FATF network of IOs or countries or institutions to demonstrate benefits. …Standards and Methodology proceed as if the implementation of an effective AML/CFT regime delivers only public and private goods and imposes no public or private “bads.” This study has learned of no significant effort by any of the standard-setting or assessor bodies to undertake a cost-benefit analysis… Little consideration has been given, they say, to the costs of implementing an AML/CFT regime, and little evidence has been adduced to demonstrate that the costs produce commensurate benefits in their own or indeed in any other jurisdiction. …Costs are substantial whether construed broadly or narrowly. …Moreover, an AML/CFT regime generates substantial costs on the financial sector in terms of money-laundering compliance staff and software procurement. Entire industries have grown around consulting and advising businesses and governments on AML/CFT compliance… Particularly strong views were expressed by bankers about excessive costs of misplaced demands upon the financial industry for surveillance of customers.

The report notes that poor people are among the biggest victims.

AML laws and regulations may adversely affect access of marginal groups whom FATF documents describe as subject to “financial exclusion” from the formal financial system. The more onerous the burdens placed on individuals, companies, and NPOs in countries where there is a substantial informal and cash economy, the more likely they are to opt out of the formal economy for reasons of cost. …Money laundering and counter-terrorism measures can reduce the volume of overseas remittances to the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries. …Administrative and financial costs imposed on voluntary associations, most of which are very small and poorly funded, can threaten the survival of small associations

By the way, the World Bank also has acknowledged that these counterproductive laws are very bad for poor people, oftentimes disenfranchising them from the banking system

Last but not least, kudos to the authors for making the very relevant point that the destruction of financial privacy is a boon for authoritarian governments.

Numbers of experienced assessors have observed that a fully functioning AML/CFT regime in some countries has provided tools for authoritarian rulers to repress their political opponents by denying them banking or other facilities, increasing surveillance over their accounts, and prosecuting or penally taxing them for  non-disclosure, in addition to opening up more opportunities for illegal extortion for private gain. This weapon can be applied against persons/organizations already in the formal financial system.

It’s worth pointing out that this also explains why it’s so dangerous to have governments collecting and sharing tax information.

But let’s stick to the issue of money laundering. Now let’s look at two case studies to get a sense of how these laws impose real-world harm.

We’ll begin with an article in The Economist, which looks at how Western Union’s ability to provide financial services has been hampered by heavy-handed (yet ineffective) laws and regulation.

It seems like this is a company providing a very valuable service, particularly to the less fortunate.

Western Union’s services are essential for people who do not have bank accounts or are working far from home. …Western Union helps to bolster trade and disperse the world’s wealth.

But the statists don’t care.

Someone, somewhere, may want to transfer money for a nefarious purpose. And rather than the government do its job and investigate actual crimes, politicians and bureaucrats have decided that it’s easier to make Western Union spy on all customers.

…these laudable activities conflict with another pressing goal: impeding money laundering. Rules to that end require financial institutions to know who their customers are and how they obtained their money. These requirements transform the virtues of Western Union’s model—the openness and breadth of its network and its willingness to process vast numbers of small transactions—into liabilities.

And the heavy boot of government came down on the company, forcing Western Union to incur heavy expenses that make the system far more expensive for consumers.

Western Union struck a far-reaching compliance agreement with Arizona’s attorney-general in 2010. It agreed to adopt 73 changes to its systems and procedures, to install an external monitor to keep tabs on its conduct and to fund the creation of a new enforcement entity, the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. Many of the recommendations were highly detailed. Western Union has, for example, set up a system to monitor transactions that takes into account factors such as the seasonality of marijuana harvests and illegal immigration. It is conducting background checks on agents and their families. Such efforts have turned out to be difficult and expensive. …Western Union’s shares have been jolted several times. Earlier this month Western Union said it would be subject to independent monitoring for an extra four years. It faces big fines and criminal prosecutions if it fails to meet the stipulations in the compliance agreement.

Let’s look at another real-world consequence of the AML/CFT regime.

You’ve heard of “driving while black,” which describes the suspicion and hostility that blacks sometimes experience, particularly when driving in ritzy neighborhoods.

Well, DWB has a cousin. It’s BWR, otherwise know as “banking while Russian.” And the stereotype has unpleasant consequences for innocent people.

Here are some passages from a story in the New York Times.

We had sold our apartment in Moscow, jumped through an assortment of Russian tax hoops and transferred the proceeds to the United States, where we now lived. It made me nervous to have all that money sitting in one virtual clump in the bank — but not nearly as nervous as having the card connected to it not work. The experience was also humiliating. In one moment, I had gone from being a Citigold client to a deadbeat immigrant who couldn’t pay for her son’s diapers. I called Citibank as soon as I got home. …”Who closed it?” I was working hard not to sound belligerent. “And where is my money?” …It was Citibank. “I see that because your transactions indicated there may be an attempt to avoid complying with currency regulations, Citibank has closed your account,” the woman informed me. …“Why wasn’t I notified?” “The cashier’s check will serve as your notice.” Citibank had fired me as a client.

Why would a bank not want customers?

Because the government makes some clients too costly and too risky, even though there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing.

Other than ethnicity.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. This had happened to other Russian-Americans I know, including one of my closest friends and my father. My friend had opened her account at a local bank in the United States when she got her first job, at age 13. Her accounts were summarily closed in 2008, while she was working in Russia. The bank, which had been bought by Sovereign in the meantime, would not state a reason for firing a client of 27 years. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, had his accounts closed by BankBoston in 2000, when he was a partner in a Moscow-based business. His lawyers pressed the bank on the issue and were eventually told that because Russians had been known to launder money, the bank applied “heightened scrutiny” to accounts that had a Russia connection. It had closed “many” accounts because of what it considered suspicious activity. Like other kinds of ethnic profiling, these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient.

But the main thing to understand is that the entire system is inefficient.

Laws were adopted with the promise they would reduce crime. But just like you don’t stop crime by having cops hang out at Dunkin’s Donuts, you also don’t stop crime by creating haystacks of financial data and then expecting to make it easier to find needles.

For more information, here’s my video on the government’s failed money laundering policies.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

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I realize we’re in the middle of a government shutdown and there’s a debt limit deadline rapidly approaching, but I’m not going to write about fiscal policy today.

Instead, I’m going to share a story about evil and stupid government policy. I guess you could say this is part of my why-decent-people-should-be-libertarian series. Previous editions – all of which highlight examples of innocent people having their lives turned upside down by the state – include these horror stories.

Now watch this powerful video from the Institute for Justice and see whether it’s also an example of heartless and oppressive government.

The answer – if you believe in fairness, decency, and the rule of law – is that this definitely belongs on that list. What the federal government has done to the Dehko family is utterly despicable and a horrifying episode of thievery.

Just as other examples of bureaucratic theft should get us upset.

In the case of the Dehko family, they got in trouble (notwithstanding the fact that they did nothing wrong) because of so-called anti-money laundering laws.

These laws were instituted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But as I explain in this video, these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So we’ll see more people victimized, like the Dehko family.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this piece. At what point do well-meaning people connect the dots and conclude that government is a danger to liberty?

And when you draw this obvious conclusion, isn’t it time to become a libertarian?

This doesn’t mean you have to be a pot-smoking, Rand-quoting stereotype. Instead, it simply means that you have a healthy distrust of unlimited state power and you think individuals should have both the freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives.

To see where you stand, here are a couple of quizzes.

A just-for-the-fun-of-it quiz I put together involving pot, police cars, and a tractor.

A thorough quiz on libertarian purity.

Last but not least, if you decide to be a libertarian, I hope you can figure out how to make our cause more popular.

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A reader wants to know if I think the American people are becoming more statist over time.

I’m conflicted. More and more people get lured into some form of government dependency every year, and this suggests Americans eventually will adopt a  European-style moocher mentality.

This worries me.

On the other hand, I periodically see polls suggesting that the American people have very libertarian views on key issues.

These are encouraging numbers. And here’s another bit of good news. A recent poll by Fox News found that a plurality of Americans would not give up personal freedoms to reduce the threat of terrorism. What’s especially remarkable is that this poll took place immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon by the welfare-sponging Tsarnaev brothers.

Terrorism Freedom Tradeoff

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a left-leaning friend who said this poll showed that Americans were a bunch of “paranoid nuts” because this poll showed that they viewed their government with suspicion.

But perhaps people are simply rational. I had an intern look up data on the probability of getting killed by a terrorist. He found an article from Reason that reported.

…a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, the odds of being killed by a terrorist are very low. And with the risk so low, why give up liberty? Particularly when it’s highly unlikely that sacrificing more of your freedom will actually reduce the already-low threat of terrorism.

This reminds me of the money laundering issue. Just a few decades ago, there was no such thing as anti-money laundering laws. Then politicians decided we need these laws to reduce crime.

These laws, we were told, would give law enforcement more tools to catch bad guys and also reduce the incentive to commit crimes since it would be harder for criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

That sounds good, but the evidence shows that these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

So how did politicians respond? In a stereotypical display of Mitchell’s Law, they decided to make anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact.

This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So when I see polls showing the American people are skeptical about surrendering freedom to the government, I don’t think they are being “paranoid.” I think they’re being very rational.

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Why do words like “snitch” and “narc” have distasteful connotations?

And why don’t we hold “tattle tales” and “stool pigeons” in high regard?

Is it because we think people should be able to do bad things and get away with it? Do we like misbehavior to go unpunished?

I think the answer to these last two questions is an emphatic NO. Close to 100 percent of people would want the authorities to know if any of us overheard a terrorist plot. Or somehow found out about a murder. Or knew about some dirtbag who had raped someone.

SnitchYet we still don’t like “narcs” and “stool pigeons,” probably because we know that some rules are bad, misguided, or foolish. For all intents and purposes, most Americans have libertarian sensibilities about victimless crimes.

So while we approve of “tattle tales” if it means we catch genuine criminals who violate the rights of others, we look down on the “snitch” who rats out the guy smoking a joint, the jerk who informs the IRS on a small business owner hiding income, and the weasel who tells the local planning gestapo that someone is remodeling their basement without government approval.

I’ve previously shared nauseating stories about Soviet-style tax informant programs in both Chicago and the United Kingdom (where they’re actually encouraging kids to turn in their parents!).

The state of New York is engaging in the same reprehensible tactics, only this time the target is guns rather than money.

Here are some of the nauseating details from a story in the Daily Caller.

For more than a year, New York state has maintained a tip line allowing people to report illegal gun owners and collect a $500 reward. …A February 2012 press release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office first publicly announced the tip line, saying it was designed to “encourage citizens to report illegal firearm possession.” …On the Facebook page for The Record’s story, several users criticized the tip line for apparently encouraging New Yorkers to spy on each other.

Of course, sometimes the government actually requires us to spy on each other, as is the case with money laundering laws that criminalize innocent behaviors in a costly, intrusive, and ineffective effort to reduce crime.

Not surprisingly, the government is defending this campaign to turn people into stool pigeons for illegitimate reasons.

…a spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services defended the program. “This program has been in place for more than a year and is aimed only at getting illegal crime guns off the streets: a goal that every New Yorker can agree with,” wrote Janine Kava, director of public information at NYS DCJS.

What the government should be doing, needless to say, it getting people who do bad things off the street. And that means investigating, arresting, prosecuting, and punishing those who abridge the rights of other people.

It does not mean arbitrarily criminalizing inanimate objects such as guns.

And as this young lady says, the government should only get the guns of law-abiding people under very particular circumstances.

P.S. Andrew Cuomo also happens to be a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, where he infamously was in charge of imposing so-called affordable lending requirements that helped start the bad Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac policies that eventually led to the housing bubble and financial crisis.

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I’ve complained many times about the pointless nature of anti-money laundering laws. They impose very high costs and force banks to spy on their customers, but they are utterly ineffective as a weapon against criminal activity. Yet politicians and bureaucrats keep making a bad system worse, and the latest development is a silly scheme to ban $100 bills!

It also seems that poor people are the main victims of these expensive and intrusive laws. According to a new World Bank study, half of all adults do not have a bank account, with 18 percent of those people (click on nearby chart for more info) citing documentation requirements – generally imposed as part of anti-money laundering rules – as a reason for being unable to participate in the financial system.

But this understates the impact on the poor. Of those without bank accounts, 25 percent said cost was a factor, as seen in the chart below. But one of the reasons that costs are high is that banks incur regulatory expenses for every customer, in large part because of anti-money laundering requirements, and then pass those on to consumers.

Here are some of the key points in the World Bank report.

The data show that 50 percent of adults worldwide have an account at a formal financial institution… Although half of adults around the world remain unbanked, at least 35 percent of them report barriers to account use that might be addressed by public policy. …The Global Findex survey, by asking more than 70,000 adults without a formal account why they do not have one, provides insights into where policy makers might begin to make inroads in improving financial inclusion. …Documentation requirements for opening an account may exclude workers in the rural or informal sector, who are less likely to have wage slips or formal proof of domicile. …Analysis shows a significant relationship between subjective and objective measures of documentation requirements as a barrier to account use, even after accounting for GDP per capita (figure 1.14). Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force, recognizing that overly cautious Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) safeguards can have the unintended consequence of excluding legitimate businesses and consumers from the financial system, has emphasized the need to ensure that such safeguards also support financial inclusion.

One would hope honest leftists, who claim to care about the poor, would join with libertarians to roll back absurd anti-money laundering requirements. Heck, one would hope honest conservatives, who claim to be against pointless red tape, would join the fight as well.

Here’s the video I narrated on the general topic of money laundering laws. I think it makes very good points, but I wish this data had been available when I did the video so I could explain how low-income people are the main victims.

Last but not least, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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I’ve periodically written about the overall cost of regulation, and I’ve also highlighted the onerous costs of proposals such as the Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

This blurb from the IFC Review may give readers a sense of the regulatory onslaught facing financial institutions.

Banks and other financial services firms had to deal with 60 regulatory changes each working day during 2011, according to a report from Thomson Reuters Governance, Risk & Compliance, reports City AM. Regulators around the world announced 14,215 changes in 2011, a 16 per cent increase from the 12,179 announcements in 2010. The report shows that the majority of regulatory activity, 57 per cent, came from the US… Scott McCleskey, head of financial services regulation at the GRC unit, said: “This growth in activity also has an effect on the level of compliance spending leaving less to lend, invest, and do the other core activities which will be necessary to revive the global economy.”

Wow, an average of 60 regulations every single day. Great for lobbyists and politicians. Not so good for competitiveness and prosperity.

Now let’s touch on just one specific part of the regulatory burden. Banks and other financial firms must deal with a costly array of laws and regulations as part of the government’s war on money laundering. This video explains the issue.

Now let’s consider whether we’re getting any bang for the buck. We know anti-money laundering (AML) laws impose very high costs and make it difficult for many poor people to get banking services.

But are there some offsetting benefits? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Professor Jason Sharman explains, starting with an explanation of the scope and cost of AML policies.

It is now just over 20 years since the first international anti-money agreements were concluded….Since then, the monitoring and implementation of AML standards have morphed into a global industry. …A vast array of financial institutions, from banks to brokers, insurance firms to casinos, money remitters to hedge funds, have now been conscripted into monitoring their clients for signs of suspicious financial activity. All this has imposed substantial costs on governments, private financial firms, and, indirectly, consumers, with the burden being especially significant for International Financial Centres.

He then raises a very important question, but one that everyone else seems to ignore.

…it is disconcerting how seldom the most obvious questions about this system are asked. First amongst these is whether AML standards actually work. That is to say, is there any less money laundered now than there was 20 years ago?  Is there any less predicate crime that gives rise to these dirty funds in the first place? Despite all the evaluations performed by the FATF, other international organisations, national governments and the army of private AML experts that has grown up, it is striking that these sort of first-order questions are almost never asked, let alone answered.

Given the incompetence of government, you won’t be shocked to learn that the bureaucrats view the laws as an excuse for empire building and bloat.

Surprisingly, however, one can read through thousands of pages of FATF reports, covering everything from football to free-trade zones, without finding much, if any, attention devoted to these measures. Instead, the international surveillance and monitoring system that judges almost every country to see whether they have ‘the right stuff’ in AML terms has tended to foster a bureaucratic game of goal displacement: means to an end have become ends in themselves.

And what about stopping crime?

The most careful studies of effectiveness (both in absolute terms and relative to the cost) have been done by those outside the system, for example scholars like Peter Reuter, Edwin Truman, Jackie Harvey and Michael Levi. Each of these observers notes the mismatch whereby we have an incredibly extensive and intrusive policy apparatus, but very little knowledge about the results produced. On the basis of the fragmentary evidence that is available, however, it is hard to see any impact that AML rules have made on the incidence of crime.  The general conclusion is that the expansion of the AML regime owes more to a political imperative to ‘do something’ in response to hot-button issues like crime or terrorism, rather than any track record of success.

Remarkable. Billions upon billions of regulatory costs. The immeasurable loss of privacy because of government-mandated snooping and spying. Yet all for naught.

And now the statists are even talking about getting rid of the $100 bill, making life even more inconvenient.

Maybe the answer is less regulation? Maybe the answer is that politicians and bureaucrats should do cost-benefit tests? But those types of rules would mean less government and more freedom, so don’t hold your breath.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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Feel free, of course, to insert the name of another politician if you’re an Obama fan.

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President Obama walks into the Bank of America on Martha’s Vineyard to cash a check. As he approaches the cashier he says “Good morning Ma’am, could you please cash this check for me”?

Cashier: “It would be my pleasure sir. Could you please show me your ID”?

Obama: “Truthfully, I did not bring my ID with me as I didn’t think there was any need to. I am President Barrack Obama, the president of the United States of America!!!!”

Cashier: “Yes sir, I know who you are, but with all the regulations and monitoring of the banks because of know-your-customer rules and anti-money laundering laws, etc, I must insist on seeing ID”

Obama: “Just ask anyone here at the bank who I am and they will tell you. Everybody knows who I am”

Cashier: “I am sorry Mr. President but these are government rules and I must follow them.”

Obama: “I am urging you please to cash this check.”

Cashier: “Look Mr. President this is what we can do: One day Tiger Woods came into the bank without ID. To prove he was Tiger Woods he pulled out his putting iron and made a beautiful shot across the bank into a cup. With that shot we knew him to be Tiger Woods and cashed his check. Another time, Andre Agassi came in without ID. He pulled out his tennis racquet and made a fabulous shot whereas the tennis ball landed in my cup. With that spectacular shot we cashed his check. So, Mr. President, what can you do to prove that it is you, and only you, as the President of the United States?”

Obama stood there thinking, and thinking and finally says: “Honestly, there is nothing that comes to my mind. I can’t think of a single qualification I’m really good at”

Cashier: “Will that be large or small bills, Mr. President?”

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P.S. To be serious for a moment, click here to see why anti-money laundering rules are misguided.

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Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

The bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance – even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policy makers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

If lying is immoral, this is a quick black mark on Mr. Vallely rather than tax havens. I’ve already explained, in a post eviscerating an empty-suit Senator from North Dakota, that a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Now that we’ve established that the author is a careless and know-nothing hack, let’s see what else he has to say.

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

o Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?

o Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?

o Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?

o Entrepreneurs in thug regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

o Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?

o Homosexuals in murderous regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world that are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

The author of the column is probably oblivious to these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations.

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice. .

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution – government – that is the source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, our left-wing friend does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth. …Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

But he can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, he offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote. The most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left – the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year – far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including the (perhaps deliberate) mixing of tax evasion and tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why should add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Let’s now shift from the inaccurate ramblings of a left-winger to some real-world evidence. The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug.

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them. …If Switzerland is the world’s most famous tax haven, Zug amounts to a haven within a haven.

Here’s some of the evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get. …businesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.” …Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

Its worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government.

…the Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the left’s anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama Administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be a hedonist.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues.

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions.

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As a grumpy libertarian, I routinely get agitated about taxes, spending, and regulation. As far as I’m concerned, much of government is a racket that uses coercion to reward interest groups with unearned wealth.

But there are degrees of evil. So if you asked me to pick the most reprehensible thing that government does,  “asset forfeiture” might be in second place (hurting poor people to benefit rich people is at the top of my list).

Asset forfeiture occurs when government seizes property that is associated with a crime. That sounds reasonable – and it is reasonable if someone is convicted of, say, bank robbery and the government confiscates the stolen cash and any loot purchased with that money.

But it is not reasonable (or moral, or just, or appropriate) when government seizes assets without a conviction. And it is downright disgusting when the government steals (and I use that word deliberately) the assets of innocent parties.

I’ve already written about this issue (including an example from my county) and highlighted how asset forfeiture gives government bureaucracies a perverse incentive to steal.

Now we have a story from the Wall Street Journal that confirms our worst fears.

New York businessman James Lieto was an innocent bystander in a fraud investigation last year. Federal agents seized $392,000 of his cash anyway. An armored-car firm hired by Mr. Lieto to carry money for his check-cashing company got ensnared in the FBI probe. Agents seized about $19 million—including Mr. Lieto’s money—from vaults belonging to the armored-car firm’s parent company. He is one among thousands of Americans in recent decades who have had a jarring introduction to the federal system of asset seizure. Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime. …The forfeiture system has opponents across the political spectrum, including representatives of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Heritage Foundation on the right. They argue it represents a widening threat to innocent people. “We are paying assistant U.S. attorneys to carry out the theft of property from often the most defenseless citizens,” given that people sometimes have limited resources to fight a seizure after their assets are taken, says David Smith, a former Justice Department forfeiture official and now a forfeiture lawyer in Alexandria, Va.

What’s really amazing is that government officials want to expand this reprehensible practice. The use of “civil forfeiture” is particularly worrisome, as illustrated by this passage.

Top federal officials are also pushing for greater use of civil-forfeiture proceedings, in which assets can be taken without criminal charges being filed against the owner. In a civil forfeiture, the asset itself—not the owner of the asset—is technically the defendant. In such a case, the government must show by a preponderance of evidence that the property was connected to illegal activity. In a criminal forfeiture, the government must first win a conviction against an individual, where the burden of proof is higher.

Here’s a really disgusting example.

Raul Stio, a New Jersey businessman, is caught up in the civil-forfeiture world. Last October, the Internal Revenue Service, suspicious of Mr. Stio’s bank deposits, seized more than $157,000 from his account. Mr. Stio hasn’t been charged with a crime. In a court filing in his pending civil case, the Justice Department alleges that Mr. Stio’s deposits were structured to illegally avoid an anti-money-laundering rule that requires a cash transaction of more than $10,000 to be reported to federal authorities. Mr. Stio made 21 deposits over a four-month period, each $10,000 or less, the filing said. Steven L. Kessler, Mr. Stio’s attorney, says there was no attempt to evade the law and that the deposits merely reflected the amount of cash his client’s businesses, a security firm and bar, had produced. Mr. Stio was saving to buy a house, he says.

I have no idea whether Mr. Stio is a good guy or a crook. But I know that the government shouldn’t be allowed to grab his money without convicting him of a crime. Especially for a supposed offense against absurdly foolish and ill-conceived anti-money laundering laws.

Our Founding Fathers gave us a presumption of innocence and no bureaucrat or politician should be allowed to cancel our constitutional rights.

Asset forfeiture should apply to people like Bernie Madoff. He’s been convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme, so by all means grab every penny he accumulated. But government should follow a simple rule: Convict first, seize second.

And here’s one final section from the story, highlighting how bureaucracies “earn” a profit by abusing forfeiture laws.

Part of the debate over seizures involves a potential conflict of interest: Under a 1984 federal law, state and local law-enforcement agencies that work with Uncle Sam on seizures get to keep up to 80% of the proceeds. Last year, under this “equitable-sharing” program, the federal government paid out more than $500 million, up about 75% from a decade ago. The payments give authorities an “improper profit incentive” to seize assets, says Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va. It’s a particular concern amid current state and local government budget problems, he contends. …Seeming abuses occasionally emerge. In 2008, federal Judge Joseph Bataillon ordered the return of $20,000 taken from a man during a traffic stop in Douglas County, Neb. Judge Battaillon quoted from a recording of the seizure, in which a sheriff’s deputy complained about the man’s attitude and suggested “we take his money and, um, count it as a drug seizure.” The judge’s order said the case produced “overwhelming evidence” that the funds were clean.

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The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.
It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent — and lost — more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi — and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled “back into investigating cases. It’s helping us resolve these and fight further crime.”

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There’s a principled Fourth Amendment argument against anti-money laundering laws. In  this video, however, I mostly focus on the cost-benefit issue, explaining that the fight against crime will be more effective if law enforcement is not forced to look for a needle in a haystack.

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Demagogues such as Senator Carl Levin, as well as many other politicians and journalists, often assert that low-tax jurisdictions are havens for dirty money and terrorist financing. From a theoretical perspective, this does not make sense. So-called tax havens have a big incentive to avoid scandal since they are much more vulnerable to reputational risk. Just imagine what would happened, after all, if the 9-11 terrorists had used a bank in the Bahamas instead of a bank in Florida. Critics of low-tax jurisdictions automatically would have assumed that the bank was complicit and the entire financial services industry in the Bahamas would have been crippled – or even destroyed. But because the terrorists used American banks (as well as banks in high-tax European nations and the Middle East), there was not a knee-jerk reaction. People understood that the bank tellers and managers had no way of knowing that the flight school students were actually lunatics.

But this does not stop the anti-tax haven smear campaign. Low-tax jurisdictions are viewed as a threat by politicians since it is much harder to impose bad tax policy in a world where tax competition is allowed to flourish. This is why tax havens are attacked whenever something bad happens. If there is a terrorist attack, blame tax havens. If there is a financial crisis, blame tax havens.

With this in mind, a new report from the University of Basel’s Institute of Governance did some real research and came up with a list of nations where there actually is a high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing. As the map below indicates, only one so-called tax haven is among the 28 countries listed, and that nation was in the lowest-risk category.

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In this short video produced by the French free-market website, Un Monde Libre, I wax poetic about the need to restrain the greed of the political class.

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