August 11, 2011

The Nature Of The Grift

vector forces.jpg
simplified for the purposes of illustration

In The New Yorker, a piece about immigration-- abuse?  Cheating?

"Caroline" is a single woman from "central Africa" who, while living in a roach infested NYC apartment ("sometimes they get in my handbag, but they're small")  and working in what I assume is a Whole Foods (she thinks "organic" is a scam), she works with a lawyer to complete her application for political asylum.  Back home, she was raped and beaten, and would likely be killed if she returns.

The hook of the article is that she made this up in order to gain asylum.  She was never raped, never tortured, never etc.  The article explains that such embellishment is not only common, but that applicants are often counseled on how to game the system by others (including lawyers) who have been through the process.

But she's a good person, hard working, she just wants a part of the American Dream that is out of reach for native twentysomethings.  Is it right to deny her?  Oh poorly considered ethical dilemmas, what would the press do without you?  The focus of the story--indeed, the climax-- comes when she finally has her appointment wiith the immigration officer: a cold  hard-ass (read: white) named Novick in a Matrixy/East German/Kafkaesque interrogation room. Think fluorescent lighting and the hum of alienation.  

He wants specifics of her rape and torture, when and where; he wants to know what African hospital she went to and when.  She keeps her story tight; she deflects attempts to pin down the medical records.  She answers questions about local geography.  Novick checks a newspaper to corroborate her story of being in a bombing, but that's where she got the story in the first place.

So: you can read it as this lying bitch is one step ahead of the law, which is harsh, but it's a reading.   Or, you can read it as officers like Novick can't always detect lying, they do the best they can.  Or you can do what The New Yorker and NPR did, pull the left blinker on the Subaru and suggest it shouldn't have to be this hard for immigrants to come in.  They shouldn't have to lie.  Also: "Mondale '84"

In the end, the officer found her narrative compelling enough and granted her asylum, and she is a model American citizen by most measures. She has a job, a car and a husband. She goes to church every Sunday. She pays her taxes, and she's never taken a dime from the government.

I'd bet every dime of every person she's never taken a dime from that it scalded the editors like holy water to keep the phrase "goes to church every Sunday" in there, but they probably figured they needed it to appeal to the wingnuts at and everyone in a landlocked state who obviously hates immigrants, especially ones who aren't from America.  

All of those readings provide their respective readers with considerable emotional comfort and reinforce their own moral superiority, which is healthier, I'll warrant, than drinking yourself to sleep in front of (this week) The Conversation; nevertheless, all of those readings would be wrong.


Here's an emotional, exasperated criticism from an immigration lawyer:

[The New Yorker story] encapsulated everything about immigration law that is both dispiriting and outrageous. It is a clarion to new lawyers to keep away from the profession and a motivator to honest lawyers in the field to want to take a long shower after any day associating with his or her peers or "the system."

Can't resist low hanging fruit: "This is what motivates lawyers to take showers??  Is this thing on?" 

I get where he's coming from, and I don't blame him for feeling angry about abuses of "the system", but he's not seeing the truth: this isn't an abuse of "the system," this is the intended system.  Even though it's illegal, the system wants you to lie.

To begin to see not how this is but why this is, pretend that Caroline had made a left instead of a right and wanted, inexplicably, to immigrate to Greece.  She shows up, gets the necessary binder of paperwork, and of course right there on the cover it says they don't want black people either.  But she's highly motivated.  What's the play?  Think about the answer.

The play is: she's got to figure out who to bribe. 

The play is: she has to bribe a Greek Novick.  And Novickopoulos already expects it.

It is both metaphorically and literally accurate to say it isn't rape or torture, but exactly that system, that she is trying to escape by coming to America.


The system wants Caroline, the system wants there to be a way for "intelligent" and "hard working" and "church going" resourceful people to game the system. All of those words mean "taxpayers."  It wants the kind of person who sticks with this tedious bureaucratic process even if it is all a lie; it doesn't want the person who doesn't bother to try to get legal.  And, most importantly, when you establish the grift as based on the best "rape narrative", it therefore isn't about the most money.  That's what you want to avoid, because Caroline has none of it, and MS13 has lots of it.

What distinguishes this grift from the overt kind-- of Greece, Mexico, Pakistan-- is that in the former case the cheat occurs top down, while in the latter case the cheat occurs bottom up.  In Greece, you want a permit?  You have to know who to bribe.  Bribery may go "all they way to the top," but importantly your bribe has to start from the bottom and move to the top. 

In the case of American asylum seeking-- and everything else-- the grift is at the top and it lacks a human face.  This story is in The New Yorker, right? So it's hardly news, hardly investigative journalism.  So at minimum, everyone in the business knows the score.  Novick knows that, in general, much of what he hears is a lie, even if he isn't sure/ignores that he is being lied to right now.  Unless you piss him off personally, or flaunt your lying, he doesn't care about the veracity of your claim exactly, just the internal validity of it.

That's the system.  The system favors narratives over truth to avoid the terrible reality of reflexive human corruption.


"Internal validity over objective reality?  The system wants you to lie?  What madness is this?"

Say you're a gay male asylum seeker.  "Back in Brasil they beat me mercilessly, police have gang raped me.  I'm told that I can find acceptance in "Southern Carolina."  (Shhh, don't tell him. This will be hilarious.)

Your documents are all ready.  Your day before the immigration judge comes.  How should you dress?  Think about this.

(NYT) In the end, Mr. Castro opted for... pink eye shadow, a bright pink V-neck shirt and intermittent outbursts of tears... He had been advised by his immigration lawyer that flaunting it was now his best weapon against deportation.

"Judges and immigration officials are adding a new hurdle in gay asylum cases that an applicant's homosexuality must be socially visible," said Lori Adams, a lawyer

Being gay isn't enough, you have to look gay.  But importantly, while no member of the immigration office can deny you for not looking gay:

Rhatigan [from Immigration] said such behavior by immigration officers would not be condoned.   "We don't say that someone is insufficiently gay or homosexual"

"everyone knows" that you have to dress the part.  Like your life depends on it.

The system doesn't want truth, it wants internal validity.  That sounds bad, but it wants it to be based on the force of a narrative because it doesn't want your life to be determined by the whims of a man with two mortgages or a drug habit or a hard on. 

But wait: now pretend you're not gay.  Can you... dress the part?

One lawyer recalled a recent client who applied for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, then showed up a few weeks later with his wife, seeking help with a green card. In 2009, Steven and Helena Mahoney pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a consulting business in which, among other things, they coached straight people on how to file gay asylum claims.

Is it lying?  Yes.  Is it a grift?  Yes.  But is the fake-gay married guy more likely to rape a bus of schoolkids or file quarterly 1099s?   That's the system.


The unanswered question is: how?  How can a system operate on words alone?  "All you have to do is say you were raped and you're in?"  No, of course not, you have to provide proof.    I can't just roll up to the Apple store and say I have $100, I need some sort of proof that I have $100. Someone has to take my words--- maybe even lies-- and translate them to tangible proof.  So maybe it's the bank, or maybe it's Visa who takes my "lie" that I have $100, and makes it real for the merchant by forcing me to pay $15 a month until that lie becomes true.

Caroline is fabricating a rape narrative.  Novick wants proof.  How does she prove it?  What is the mechanism by which the American system converts words-- truths or lies, either way-- into physical evidence?  What does the system give her-- indeed, demand of her-- as a means of manufacturing the necessary proof of her rape?

To buttress her asylum claim... she had been attending group and individual psychotherapy sessions, as part of a program for survivors of torture.... She has individual sessions with a psychiatrist, who prescribes antidepressants: Zoloft, Wellbutrin, trazodone....  "I throw it away."

Note that she didn't really have any symptoms; the system required her to go as evidence that she was raped. i.e. psychiatry is not the unintended collateral damage of a terrible system, it is the necessary part of the dialectical workings of (American) society, it is the specific way in which theory/lies/abstractions are physically manifested.

By "required" I don't mean codified.  There's no rule that says she has to see a shrink.  But she still has to.  It will look weird if she goes before the judge without a PTSD diagnosis.  Nor does a person actually need to go to a psychiatrist, but they must at minimum employ the language of psychiatry: traumatic, depressed, flashbacks...

I do not use the requirement of psychiatry lightly. I mean exactly what I say: psychiatry makes words manifest into tangible reality.

Remember Castro who was not gay unless he appeared gay-- the reality was irrelevant, what mattered was the narrative?  Even he was in it:

He shared a letter from his psychiatrist confirming that he took antidepressants for the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his abuse.

How much did it cost the system to help Caroline game it?  2 therapy visits/month at $60/visit + 1 "med check"/month @ $50/visit + medications @ $150/month (assuming generics) = $320/month.  However, and this is the point, it made a profit on its investment, not just in  taxes but in "blast radius:" she'll be a positive influence on others, her kids, who will grow up educated, employable, etc. This is the same force that gives you $700/month in SSI because that is just enough to prevent you from robbing a Dunkin Donuts or chasing a dragon, not to mention way cheaper than incarcerating you or turning the Bronx back into a police state.

The system wants Caroline because she's good for the system.  Of course, she is black, but at least she's African black; and, anyway, you can't have everything.


No doubt all this talk about "the system" seems too abstract to be real, almost at the level of conspiracy theory, so let me offer you an everyday example.

Say you get a bill from Verizon or Blue Cross and you're like, wtf?  Is this in base 6?  So you call a number that begins with 800, put it on speaker and surf the internet for the next hour to the background music of genocide.

Finally, Sally comes on, and you know she's going to want to help.  Here's what I do every single time.  When Sally says, "Verizon's Blue Cross, I'm Sally, how may I help you?" the very first thing I say is, "Hi, Sally.  I'd like to speak to a supervisor."

Because at the level of a Sally, nothing I can say to her to get her to do what I want exerts nearly as much pressure as "the system" exerts on her to get her to NOT do what I want.  It's not just that she doesn't have any power, it is that even though she has  power, the exertion of that power in my favor results in negative consequences for her.  Is she going to get promoted if she makes me happy?

My only recourse is to go high enough in the system such that my pressure is greater than the pressure from the top; where giving me what I want doesn't matter to that level.  Where helping me benefits that person, not hurts them.  Sometimes that's pretty high up, sometimes it's only one more level up, but it is rarely at the ground floor.  So I always bypass it.   In small letters on the back of your Verizon bill, it says very clearly, "Rookies and rubes, please call 1-800..."

But if I was in Hungary, this is the last thing I want.  In Hungary, the move is to work Sally and keep her supervisors out of it, because Sally is cheaper to bribe than her supervisors.

Another example.  In The Sopranos, Burt and Patsy try to shakedown a local Starbucks; apparently they either believe they're in Hungary or that it's 1971.  So they tell the manager about the possibility of tornadoes and smallpox unless he pays up, but the manager who lives in America just looks at them incredulously and invokes the impassable authority of the American system.  "Dude," he says, and I'm paraphrasing, "every dime is accounted for by the computer."  Not by CEO Howard Schultz; the computer.  It's unassailable because there is no such thing.  The computer is "the system," the computer is the spirit of America.   "You can detonate a nuke in here," he continues," Corporate doesn't care about me.  They'll just re-open another one the next day."  That's the system. You may say it's dehumanizing corporate greed, and it is, but on the other hand the system has (for example) protected the manager from this kind of nonsense and no cops were needed

Rail against it if you want, but unless you learn to operate within it, then Patsy will have been right: "It's over for the little guy."


A final example.

You're in college, and between the alcohol and the orgasms you're not doing well in your classes.  Maybe in danger of failing out.  You need to convince the Dean to let you redo the tests, redo the papers, anything-- just not kick you out.

You're at the computer. You have his email address.

What are you going to write?  What is the only thing you can write?


The reflexive counterargument is that this system is immoral.  It allows cheating; it supports the primacy of narratives over reality; it shouldn't be like this.

But the system doesn't make moral judgments, it saves those for TV, all of the calculations are economic, evolutionary.  The system isn't immoral, it is amoral.  The fundamental problem is that people are easily corruptible.  You'll never be able to close all loopholes, so you have to decide which ones are the worst.

Am I saying Novick knows he's being lied to, and knows that he's supposed to let her in anyway?  That the judges know that we need more hard working Africans?  Of course not.  Yet Caroline got in anyway.

No person or group of people set this up, it developed, logically, through the push-pull of individual wants and needs in diverse and seemingly unrelated areas.  Add up all the vector forces in four dimensions, this is what you get.  A big vector is bribery and personal corruption; another vector is the size of the medical field and the incomes it creates (including SSI); another vector wants (hispanic) immigrants in jail because there's profit in it; another is institutionalized narcissism, where everyone (including judges and psychiatrists) knows what you say about yourself matters more than what you are... and etc.

"Not everyone cheats!"

I know.  None of this is to minimize the real difficulties asylum seekers have.  Only 30% of the asylum cases are approved.  The point here isn't how to get asylum; the point here is about the nature of the grift. Asylum seeking is merely one example of the same grift that is operational in SSI, in criminal justice, in getting a mortgage.   How does the American system "fail" at the margins-- allow itself to be gamed?  It fails in specific ways and not in other ways; bribery, for example, isn't rampant.  Neither is kidnapping or trading sex.  Before you say Caroline shouldn't be able to cheat, ask why does the American system favor this kind of cheating?

Don't make a moral judgment, don't ask if it's "right," just sum the vector forces.

Consider also the consequences.  If narratives are valued more than reality, or at least serve as proxies for reality, then right or wrong, what happens when that narrative is challenged?  What happens when society changes course and says, "I don't believe all these asylum seekers were tortured, I want physical non-psychiatric proof."  Or: "I don't believe you all are disabled, I think you should all be working at McDonalds."  Or: "I don't think you all have any chance of paying this mortgage back, you should be living in an apartments."

What happens is the same thing that happens at the individual level: rage.  Now you have to sum some vectors to decide whether paying them $700 a month or letting them become Americans is better than the alternative.

The immediate problem is that the grifts all rely on one key element: money.  The system can allow itself to be cheated if there's money to support it, just like a grocer can toss you a free apple as long as the margins are still good, because ultimately it's good for the business and hence for the system.   But when that money dries up, the institutional grift has to be closed but it will by necessity open elsewhere.  Down the chain. From institutional to individual.  Now instead of Novick being a cog in what looks like a giant carny act based on words, Novick himself starts demanding a little payout. Uh oh, now all your lies and diagnoses and credit cards don't matter a lick because Novick just Red pilled everything-- he wants cash.  Now the system is wrecked, because the system's inherent cheats fulfilled a larger purpose; Novick has obliterated the purpose.  So the Carolines don't stand a chance; bribery is the new grift, and no one trusts anyone.  Now you have Greece.  You can do what they do, choose your prime minister by heredity and placate the people with long vacations and low retirement ages, until the day you can't.  And then they'll thank you for two generations of free lunches by rioting.