Monday, July 17, 2017

FinCEn/FBAR -- Systems Always Get Fouled up Beyond All Recognition

How can we even attempt to untangle the bureaucratic mess that gives us FinKEn FinCEn and FuBAR FBAR?

(That's Fin-ancial C-rimes En-forcement and Foreign Bank Account Reports. You can't make this kind of thing up. The government wants to enforce financial crimes, I guess -- make everyone a financial criminal. Maybe someone involved in setting these agencies up understood the legal and factual ironies and was trying to tell us something.)

(Now I'll take a deep breath so I can try to say something reasonable here.)

I understand that the US government, if it is to pursue the course of fighting against terrorism, must be able to track every bank account in the world, so it has to start by tracking foreign bank accounts of US nationals. I am not going to argue (much) against the war against war terrorism here. I've already done that elsewhere and will probably do it again elsewhere.

I'm just going to tell you about this FBAR thing.

The way the reports are set up, it has already inspired four rants on three different occasions.
  1. The first time I read the law and realized that it was virtually impossible for a US to live outside the United States for any extended time without becoming obligated to report every foreign bank account held.
  2. Later, in June of that year, hurrying in a panic to try to submit the required report before the deadline so I wouldn't potentially make myself subject to a fine more than five times my total financial worth at the time, fighting against impossible reporting procedures
  3. Later, that September, when I took one last stab at trying to get my tax reports straightened out for that year so I could be "legal" again.
I've tried to straighten things out several times since then. This year, I got a response to my e-mail request for help, but not a very good one. Quite literally, all they had to say was
Try Internet Explorer!
I don't do MSWindows. Not in my house.

At work, where the company takes responsibility for the potential damage, sure. Not at home.

I don't even own any machines capable of running any version of MSWindows safely. (And I'm really, really poor right now. Trying to get a start at writing novels for a living took concentration, and now I've literally run out of money.)

Bureaucracy is a necessary evil, even in a free country. I'll grant that.

When I was in college working on my BS in Computer Science at BYU, I took a class called Computers and Ethics (or some such). We discussed a variety of possibilities, including the concept that computers would be used for universal surveillance. I don't think we properly picked up the topic of an effective universal internetworking network, but very few people recognized the meaning of the nascent internet (lowecase "i") back thing.

The one thing I was worried about, I don't believe I was able to properly express during that course.

Computers make it easy to build systems.

System Science, even then, had one prominent axiom:
There is no such thing as a correct system.
Some said two axioms, but the second is actually a restatement of the first:
There is no such thing as a secure system.
This axiom has not been entirely proven, but it shows no signs of being disproven. There is a field of computer sciences that deals with problems that may be too hard for mortals to ever solve, and the problem of building a correct system is among those that would be in the too-hard-to-solve group.

You can, with effort, build a system that is reasonably correct for some contexts, but not for all. And not perfectly correct.

And the longer the system is in use, the more likely it is that someone will attempt to apply it outside the contexts in which it is even reasonably correct.

Looking at the question from another point of view, it is really, really difficult to describe the contexts in which a particular system should operate, much less define what correct operation means.

But computers make it really, really easy to create systems. Not to build correct systems, neither to prove an existing system either correct or not. But easy to create systems.

A long time ago, when electronic calculators were beginning to become popular, the idea that our tendency to trust machines would betray us relative to computers was tested by psychologists using mis-programmed calculators. Sure enough, most people would trust a calculator rather than their own calculations, even after several re-checks.

(I relate that to the ancient proscription against idolatry, but that can be easily misunderstood, and it historically has been misunderstood. We weren't proscribed from building models, we were proscribed from worshiping them -- from depending too much on them or believing them too much.)

What does this have to do with financial law?

Laws have something inherently in common with computer programs:

A body of laws defines a group of systems.

Fifty years ago, we were familiar with this fact, and we knew that this fact was the reason we should not make too many laws. We understood, intuitively, perhaps, that this principle was one of the foundation principles of reference in designing and operating a government that attempted to recognize the freedom (and sovereignty) of the individual, and to work with that freedom instead of fighting it.

We have forgotten.

We have forgotten that systems are inherently fallible.

We have forgotten the connection between laws and system science.

We have forgotten that laws are therefore fallible.

From 1984 to Animal House, from The Metropolis to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to The Hunger Games, we've been warned. We have this huge body of prophecy we call literature.

But we have managed to convince ourselves, beyond the evidence that is all around us, that computers can somehow make up the difference, and make bad law good.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

So said the preacher, and it's true. We are vain. We are willing to insist on our being right and demand that others use computers to fill in the gaps we create.

anyway, No. The federal government cannot be trusted with the information that is the ownership of every bank account we have, foreign or not. It's just too big, and the siren call that is The System is too seductive.

And that is why, not just the FBAR is all FUBAR, but the entire body of tax law is, too.

Taxes on individuals should have been kept at state or lower level.

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