Ethics Hero: Michael Arrington


Michael Arrington is a tech publisher and blogger who made a good amount of money selling his previous blog, Techcrunch. He bought a boat with some of it, a nice one, with state of the art electronics. On the day his new toy was to be delivered, he had to work through customs and Homeland Security paperwork, since the boat was built in Canada.  Something went wrong, something stupid.  He writes,

“My job was to show up and sign forms and then leave with Buddy (WA sales tax and registration fees come a week later). DHS takes documents supplied by the builder and creates a government form that includes basic information about the boat, including the price. The primary form, prepared by the government, had an error. The price was copied from the invoice, but DHS changed the currency from Canadian to U.S. dollars. It has language at the bottom with serious sounding statements that the information is true and correct, and a signature block.”

It’s serious all right. It is a government form, and signing it is a legal attest that the information is correct. Arrington continues,

“I pointed out the error and suggested that we simply change the currency from US $ to CAD $ so that is was correct. Or instead, amend the amount so that it was correct in U.S. dollars. I thought this was important because I was signing it and swearing that the information, and specifically the price, was correct.”

This is not just the smart and legal thing to do, but the right thing to do, and what the government, by making such forms the way they are, expects a citizen to do.  But was this how his response was taken? Oh, no:

“The DHS agent didn’t care about the error and told me to sign the form anyway. “It’s just paperwork, it doesn’t matter,” she said. I declined. She called another agent and said simply “He won’t sign the form.” I asked to speak to that agent to give them a more complete picture of the situation. She wouldn’t allow that. Then she seized the boat. As in, demanded that we get off the boat, demanded the keys and took physical control of it.”

That’s right. Arrington’s refusal to lie on an official document was treated as if he was the one in the wrong, and uncooperative, when the truth was that the officials had made an error, and were too lazy and unprofessional to fix it. He concludes…

“So now I have to hire a lawyer to try to figure all this out. And I will figure it out, eventually. My point in writing this isn’t to whine. Like I said, this will get worked out one way or another. No, it’s to highlight how screwed up our government bureaucracy has become.

“A person with a gun and a government badge asked me to swear in writing that a lie was true today. And when I didn’t do what she wanted she simply took my boat and asked me to leave. What would you have done? Maybe most people would have just signed the form. The U.S. and CA dollars are almost the same value right now (although they weren’t when I made most of the payments on the boat), so what’s the bother?

“Well, to me it’s the principle involved, being told to sign and swear to something false, or else. And it would have been SO FUCKING EASY to just correct the form so that I wasn’t swearing to something that was false. As usual, I took the “or else” option. And the bastards stole my boat.”

What would I do? I hope I would do what he did; I think I would. I’m a lawyer: signing an official document that I know is false is grounds for the suspension of my license. Is it unethical to sign a false document, when as Arrington says, a government goon with gun is telling you to sign anyway? There are arguments both ways, but ultimately it comes to this: lying is unethical, and the fact that someone in authority is telling you to do something wrong is not justification for doing it.

On the other hand, Arrington is rich (I sure can’t afford a boat), and has the resources to wage the good fight on principle. It is easy to say we all should oppose this kind of abuse of power, but in practical terms, most of us can’t, or rather, shouldn’t. It would not be ethical to sacrifice my son’s education to put a lazy DHS agent in her place. Or would it?

As I have written here often, and Arrington concludes, our government is becoming a monster. In this case, its agents sought to corrupt a citizen who only wanted to do the right thing, and was ordered to do wrong. This is far more important and significant than compelling a small lie on some red tape paperwork. This is the government telling a citizen, “Right and wrong are what we say it is, and when, you insignificant worm. When we say it’s wrong to lie, it’s wrong. When we tell you to lie, it’s right, and you better do as we say. The law is what we say it is. Good is what we say it is. Your job is to shut up and do what you’re told, not think for yourself.”

No, on second thought, it would be ethical to risk my son’s education to resist this trend. Arrington is both courageous and right. If we all just take the path of least resistance, the government will make us corrupt and impotent. It already is well on the way to doing just that.

Arrington caps his account with this rueful joke:

“I’ll probably get droned now, too.”

I hope it’s a joke.


Pointer: Fark

Facts: Uncrunched




23 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Michael Arrington

  1. Don’t we all hope it’s a joke! But there’s little about the current federal monolith to inspire humor. For God’s sake, what does it take to get Congress and/or the states working on the repeal of the 16th Amendment. We’ll have an out-of-control bureaucracy stealing our privacy and property like pickpockets at the Super Bowl until we do.

  2. I hope I would do what he did; I think I would.

    Does it still count if I would do what he did, but only because I KNOW it would anger and annoy the government employee?

    Because the second they said “It’s just paperwork, it doesn’t matter,” I knew what would happen should he continue to refuse. I also would have simply sat down where I was at that the moment she told me to get off the boat, and simply stated “I refuse to perjure myself simply because it is convenient for you.”

    But I’m really, really spiteful when it comes to governmental thuggery, so your mileage may vary…

  3. “….all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed….”

    “….has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance…..”

    • “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…
      He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them…
      He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers…
      He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:…
      For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:…
      For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:…
      For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: …
      For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:…
      For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:…
      For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever…
      He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions…

      In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

  4. Somehow i have a feeling this may have occurred in Seattle WA. We had a bad experience with TSA at Seattle International. I’m not sure what it is about Seattle, but for some reason they’re really full of themselves. Just one person’s observations. Sorry about what happened to this fellow. I hope he nails them good for their very bad treatment of him and total disregard for the law.

  5. Is it unethical to sign a false document,…

    STOP. Stop right there. Yes, of course it is, even if a Government Agent tells you it’s OK, even if you have a gun to your head, yes, it’s dishonest.

    It may be excusable (in the case of the gun to the head), but it’s wrong.

    You either make the correction and initial it, then sign which may invalidate the form, or you don’t sign at all. This is not a difficult issue. It’s not ambiguous.

    It may be a costly one, but I don’t think so. The boat was probably seized legally, and by now may well have been auctioned off as lot #1357 “20,000 left-handed flungesprockets and other items” for a few hundred dollars to one of the nomenklatura.

    On the other hand, if the incorrect form had been signed the boat would have been seized because of the false declaration. In no case is the boat not seized, it’s only a matter of by whom – and thus who gets the bounty paid on seizures.

    In countries where the corruption is endemic, but not systemic, and not too severe, you pay a customs broker on any big-ticket item to grease the right palms in an informal and extra-legal way.

    In countries where the corruption is formalised, systemic, and completely legal, you pay the customs broker to ensure the numerous deliberate traps in the paperwork are defused, so none of the officials get a completely legal bonus or bounty on the seizure. Again, big-ticket items only.

    In countries where the corruption is severe, it applies to all items, big or small. You pay the squeeze, then more, then more, and then if you have the right connections, you get the goods through. It’s usually not worth it for small-ticket items, and many deliverers such as DHL won’t ship to certain nations because of this.

    if you think I’m being cynical – just ask anyone, anyone at all, in the import/export business.

    • That would only apply if the seizing official was motivated by corruption. I think the more likely source of the official’s decision was ignorance of authority, lack of initiative, fear of reprisal from a superior for possible mistakes, and a general laziness of not wanting to handle the paperwork corrections behind the scene.

      I think this would be closer to Milgram’s Experiment that Justin Cauoette mentioned.

      I would entertain the corruption idea if there were evidence of such.

      What is corrupt is the excessive difficulty that practically everything like that is these days.

      • I wish it were merely corruption. Corruption has cures. This is merely an elephant swatting a bothersome fly. We must play by their rules, or not at all.

        A servant must ask his master’s permission before embarking upon a task. Who does the asking these days – the government, or the populace? Which of them is master?

  6. I see there’s a follow-up, and a sorta happy ending:

    The reason Coastal Craft had to hire a broker (which is something like $10,000) was because DHS told them they had to do it to get the boat out of seizure. That’s what Coastal Craft told me today, and that’s what officer Marr told me yesterday on the phone.

    I’m surprised. I thought the US was type 2 (in which case legal proceedings would be necessary, and chances of recovery slim)..

    Looks like it’s type 1. Someone forgot to fill someone’s rice bowl – but at least they were given another chance.

    The broker gets his cut, others get their cut, and the boat is no longer held hostage. Cheap too, in many places you’d be up for ten times that.. But then, so are US politicians these days, even I could rent a Senator for less than $100,000. Good return on investment if you get a few million in subsidies or tax breaks.

    I’m sorry what’s happened to the US. When I was young, apart from that segregation nonsense you were an example to the world. A good one. Now… not so much, and it has nothing to do with partisan political issues.

  7. I’ll play devil’s advocate for a minute here. At what point does a government become so viscous and corrupt that they are no longer ethically entitled to the truth? For example does an honest man need to be frank with an official of the North Korean government?

  8. In my time in the Army, we used countless bureaucratic documents for literally every facet of Army life: counselling, property accountability, property maintenance, training, supply requests, administrative logs, etc etc.

    From what I recall every single one of those documents could be minorly modified within your authority as necessary, especially when the modification was to adjust an actual data cell, not even a format change.

    If this isn’t corruption, then it is definitely laziness or fear of having to justify actions to a superior.

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