November 20, 2007

Is money illegal?

Do U.S. bills violate the Rehabilitation Act?
The case erupted last year when a judge said the government discriminated against the blind by keeping bills the same color, shape and texture....

Of the three judges on the [D.C. Circuit] panel, Judith W. Rogers seemed the most swayed by the American Council of the Blind's argument. If the entire currency system is built upon the idea that people can see the money, doesn't that deprive blind people access to it, she asked.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan F. Cohn said blind people have "meaningful access" to money because there's little evidence they are regularly defrauded by cashiers and clerks.

"Because they rely on the kindness of strangers?" Rogers asked, prompting snickers and laughs from the several blind people in the audience.
One judge noted that Congress could directly address the design of money: "Congress has had many opportunities to do exactly what you're asking us to do and they said 'No.' What's keeping us from seeing this as simply an end run on the political process?"

Well, why doesn't Congress write an explicit exception into its general law protecting the disabled from discrimination? They could do that right now if they wanted. (But they'd have to have the guts to slap the blind in the face.)

Tell me: Why should the courts spare the government from the harsh effects of laws that are written at a high level of generality? Private citizens and business get stuck with the application of general laws, which they don't write.

55 comments:

rhhardin said...

Because the government can strike back at the courts.

Blake said...

The nice thing about slapping the blind in the face is that the counter-punch is usually easy to duck.

Pogo said...

Why should the courts spare the government...

Because the sooner people recognize they are no longer truly citizens, but merely subjects of the sovereign state, the sooner they will learn to live with the absence of rule of law, of true property rights, and of actual representation, but accept decrees that are no more than whims or fads promulgated by their betters, those who ascended to write the laws they themselves do not have to follow, designed solely for the accumulation of power and treasure.

The blind should learn like the rest of us to accept the crumbs from the table after they steal our bread. They can crawl as well as the sighted, for we have been feeling around in the dark for years.

bill said...

Blake -- good point. Also no need to yell "Hey, what's that!" when trying to distract them; just start running.

unproven conspiracy theory: Visa and Mastercard are behind the American Council of the Blind's argument. Outlaw money and everyone has to use a credit/debit card and the card companies earn more interchange fees.

George said...

Undoubtedly, if paper money were redesigned with Braille bumps, this tactile enhancement would be a detriment to other groups, such as people with extreme touch sensitivity (ETS) or tactile fear disorder (TFD)

Or the bumps would attract crumbs, grease, and vermin and spread disease.

Or something.

Simon said...

I don't mean to post-whore, but I wrote at some length about this case last year when the district court decided it, if anyone's interested.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Whore away, Simon! [You wench!]

Freder Frederson said...

Leaving aside the legal issue I don't know why the U.S. doesn't do what practically every other country in the world does--issue bills of varying sizes. It certainly can't be any more expensive than all the retooling they have done in recent years to thwart counterfeiters.

Zeb Quinn said...

Tell me: Why should the courts spare the government from the harsh effects of laws that are written at a high level of generality? Private citizens and business get stuck with the application of general laws, which they don't write.

A bad question, because it's not as if government or anybody working in government is ever going to feel the harsh deleterious effects --"feel the pain"-- of being saddled with such laws. Oh, they may be inconvenienced a little, but their livelihoods aren't affected let alone threatened. That said, it does serve to bring it all home in other ways that trickle down to the voting public en mass, and that could be a very good thing.

Simon said...

Ruth Anne, that makes me think of Monty Python, although I have no idea why since no sketch involving the word "wench" immediately springs to mind.

Freder:
"I don't know why the U.S. doesn't do what practically every other country in the world does--issue bills of varying sizes."

That's totally irrelevant. The question isn't whether we should. The question is whether a law that's been on the books for over thirty years should now suddenly be construed to mandate a massive change that no one ever thought it meant (and subsequent congressional action presumed that it didn't mean).

MadisonMan said...

Simon, you should have linked

JohnTaylor88 said...

Well, why doesn't Congress write an explicit exception into its general law protecting the disabled from discrimination?

If the laws aren't published in braile, I fail to see your point.

jimbino said...

Here's a great idea that I have actually tried: an organization supporting the blind should get a paper drill and drill the "god" out of stacks of fresh currency. Since "god" appears at different places on different bills, the blind would easily be able to distinguish them. And the added advantage is that it really pisses off the christianists.

Synova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Synova said...

Good thing no blind people are Christian. ;-)

AF said...

Why should the courts spare the government from the harsh effects of laws that are written at a high level of generality?

Would you please read the statutes before criticizing them? The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against "otherwise qualified" individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are "otherwise qualified" for a benefit if it can be provided to them with "reasonable" accommodation. Thus, the Act already contains the qualification that required accommodations must be reasonable, and it is perfectly consistent with the statute to argue that redesigning all US currency is unreasonable. Here's the statute:
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode29/usc_sec_29_00000794----000-.html

Freder Frederson said...

The question is whether a law that's been on the books for over thirty years should now suddenly be construed to mandate a massive change that no one ever thought it meant (and subsequent congressional action presumed that it didn't mean).

You know Simon, for all your pretending to be a legal expert, playing a lawyer on the internet without any formal legal training really shows what a total moron you are sometimes. As you, or any layman who claims even a passing interest in the law, should know courts don't just rule and interpret statutes when they have an idle minute and the mood strikes them. Someone has to bring a case to test the limits of the statute. Just because nobody has ever argued this point (or that congress never specifically addressed it) doesn't mean it is invalid.

As for your reading of the statute itself, it is seriously flawed. The reference to receiving federal funding is to the agency, not the general public. The treasury is certainly covered by the act.

Freder Frederson said...

and it is perfectly consistent with the statute to argue that redesigning all US currency is unreasonable.

Why is it unreasonable. Certainly, it would not require replacing all currently circulating currency (paper money wears out pretty quickly). The problem could be solved simply by issuing different sized bills, which most of the rest of the world does. As for the cost. I really can't see, considering all the anti-forgery features that we have added recently that it would be significant compared to those.

Simon said...

Freder Frederson said...
"You know Simon, for all your pretending to be a legal expert, playing a lawyer on the internet without any formal legal training really shows what a total moron you are sometimes."

You're big on insults but not so much on actually offering anything of substance, Freder. I don't "pretend[] to be a legal expert" or "play[] a lawyer on the internet," and as to a lack of training, it's pretty funny to me that you who claims to have been formally trained yet repeatedly shows himself to be utterly clueless as to even the most basic precepts of law - let's bring up your laughable take on the U.S. Attorneys scandal, or the part where you argued yesterday that either the Constitution or our jurisprudence limits the kinds of wars that can be declared by Congress - seems to have even less comprehension of law than do I. And without meaning to sound arrogant or full of myself or anything like that -- because believe me I'm well aware of my limitations -- I think that if you took a panel of legally-trained Althousians and had them assess my contributions on legal questions vs. yours, I feel pretty confident you wouldn't even be in the running.

"[C]ourts don't just rule and interpret statutes when they have an idle minute and the mood strikes them. Someone has to bring a case to test the limits of the statute."

You really need to stop imagining things into what I wrote. I didn't suggest anything to the contrary, and I of all people - I who takes a more limited view of standing than anyone I can think of except perhaps Diane Sykes - seem hardly likely to.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Since "god" appears at different places on different bills, the blind would easily be able to distinguish them.
Yeah, 'cause no one would think to punch a bunch of 1s where the hole in the 20s is.

Treasury works to make sure COINS are distinguishable by touch (dollar coins are smooth-edged to distinguish them from quarters). Why not the bills? They have been the size they are for 80 years or so (they used to be bigger, like IBM punch cards). Is it just inertia that prevents the obvious: make them different sizes?

John Lynch said...

Debit cards? That's what I would use if I was blind. You can still be defrauded, but it leaves a record.

I imagine blind people have been dealing with this for a very, very long time. I wonder how they cope? Maybe we should ask one.

Kevin said...

Freder Frederson said...
The problem could be solved simply by issuing different sized bills, which most of the rest of the world does.

Yes, and then private industry could conveniently foot the bill for the billions of dollars it would take to re-engineer all the vending machines, money changers, phone and cash card machines in existence that presently are engineered to accept currency of the same size.

You may appear to be an obnoxious lawyer but you don't appear to be an engineer or businessman.

MadisonMan said...

I fail to see your point.

I appreciate the use of this phrase, too.

AF said...

Freder: Sure, you could argue that redesigning all US currency is a reasonable accommodation to the blind, though it kind of fails the smile test. My point isn't that the plaintiffs are wrong. My point is that Althouse is wrong to say that the government is trying to "spare" itself from the "harsh effects" of a law that citizens and businesses are "stuck with" (leaving to one side the fact that the Rehabilitation Act applies only to recipients of federal funds). The question is always whether the requested accommodation is reasonable.

Ann Althouse said...

AF writes "Would you please read the statutes before criticizing them? The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against "otherwise qualified" individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are "otherwise qualified" for a benefit if it can be provided to them with "reasonable" accommodation. Thus, the Act already contains the qualification that required accommodations must be reasonable, and it is perfectly consistent with the statute to argue that redesigning all US currency is unreasonable."

I'm sorry but "reasonable accommodation" is a high level of generality, as I said. It is open to Congress to pass a law saying this doesn't apply to currency. Ordinary people and businesses get stuck with court opinions dictating what is reasonable. All I'm saying is that the government has more capacity to make explicit exceptions. The court below wrote:

"The government asserts that any of the accommodations proposed by plaintiffs would force it to undertake the kind of "undue financial and administrative burdens" precluded by Supreme Court precedent. Any change to the design of U.S. currency would undoubtedly require a substantial investment of labor, time, and money devoted to, among other things, research, consultation, planning, the creation of new plates, the purchase, installation, and operation of new equipment, and increased maintenance and production costs. Yet the government's own estimate of such costs would represent only a small fraction of BEP's annual expenditures. Over the past ten years -- and two redesigns -- the BEP has spent $4.2 billion on currency production, an average of $ 420 million per year. Def.'s Resp. to Interrog. 1 [#35-11]. Over the same ten year period, the addition of an embossed numeral -- at an initial cost of $ 45.5 million and annual costs of $ 16 million -- would have increased BEP spending by approximately $ 205.5 million, or less than five percent. If additional savings could be gained by incorporating the new [**31] feature into a larger redesign, such as those that took place in 1996 or 2004, the total burden of adding such a feature would be even smaller."

I'm not saying the govt should lose, just that it would be easy for Congress to save it from this lawsuit.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Making all the bills the same WIDTH would obviate many changeover issues like with vending machines. Then length could be varied.

Freder Frederson said...

Yes, and then private industry could conveniently foot the bill for the billions of dollars it would take to re-engineer all the vending machines, money changers, phone and cash card machines in existence that presently are engineered to accept currency of the same size.

Actually, since most vending machines are engineered to be sold in different countries where money is of different sizes and shapes the change over would not be that great of a burden. It may surprise you to know that other countries use vending and atm machines that handle varied sized currencies just fine. The vast majority of vending machines in this country only accept dollar bills anyway, so the obvious solution is to keep the dollar bill the same size and change the size of the larger denominations.

Freder Frederson said...

You really need to stop imagining things into what I wrote.

Well then you need to write more clearly instead of pretending you are writing a law review note (perhaps you should take a cue from Ann, now she is writing law review articles like she is writing a blog). You went to great lengths to emphasize the fact that this issue has not been litigated before and therefore, that fact combined with Congress never specifically ruling on it, meant that it was never meant to apply to this situation.

former law student said...

The problem could be solved simply by issuing different sized bills, which most of the rest of the world does.

It may surprise you to know that other countries use vending and atm machines that handle varied sized currencies just fine.


Whether this is true or not is sadly irrelevant. Don't forget that the rest of the world has switched to the metric system, too. We in the US can't even make the dollar coin work, even though we use the same cash registers as the Canadians, who have successfully changed over to both the dollar coin and the two-dollar coin. The two dollar bills we print and the fifty cent pieces we coin quickly disappear from circulation.

Besides, any size difference in bills could easily be counterfeited. Blind folks could end up with a wallet full of linen stationery. The best solution would be a tactile code, or nowadays an rfid chip that they could read with a government-supplied reader.

MadisonMan said...

The US should just stop printing $1 and $2 bills. That would make the $1 coin more used.

AF said...

Ann: Are you suggesting that Congress should anticipate every potential claim for a disability accommodation and legislate about it specifically? Why? That would be a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Much better to pass a statute requiring reasonable accommodations, and leave the determination of what is reasonable in a particular case to the courts in the first instance. That is what courts are for and overall they are quite good at it.

JohnAnnArbor said...

The US should just stop printing $1 and $2 bills. That would make the $1 coin more used.

The plant that makes the paper is in Massachusetts. Kennedy and Kerry'll never let it happen 'cause of that.

Similarly, the zinc industry lobbies hard to keep the useless penny (copper-coated zinc, made by the billions) in circulation. Copper-coated steel would make a LOT more sense, but just getting rid of it would be better.

Ann Althouse said...

AF said..."Ann: Are you suggesting..."

I'm suggesting that the US govt is getting a taste of its own medicine and that it at least has an out. Congress now that it sees a court decision ordering something it doesn't want to do can at least legislate it's way out of the case. Private entities can't.

Freder Frederson said...

We in the US can't even make the dollar coin work, even though we use the same cash registers as the Canadians, who have successfully changed over to both the dollar coin and the two-dollar coin.

As noted, the U.S. still uses the dollar bill. Countries that successfully introduce coins to replace bills eliminate the corresponding bills. We have yet to do that (indeed the paper manufacturer for U.S. currency has very powerful friends in Congress).

As for the metric system, it is not quite true to say the U.S. doesn't use the metric system. This country does not have an official system of weights and measures (although the Constitution does give Congress the power to designate one). You can buy, sell, produce, and trade products in any system of weights and measures you see fit (e.g., most cars are now all metric, plumbing is still all English units). Congress has the power, under the Constitution, to mandate that all trade be carried out in the SI system or the traditional British units, but to date has not mandated a standard system (although of course it does set standard definitions of various weights and measures).

jeff said...

"Congress has the power, under the Constitution, to mandate that all trade be carried out in the SI system or the traditional British units, but to date has not mandated a standard system (although of course it does set standard definitions of various weights and measures)."

Well, of course not. How would that be inclusive of our recent immigrants? Not to mention disrespecting their culture.

AF said...

I'm suggesting that the US govt is getting a taste of its own medicine and that it at least has an out. Congress now that it sees a court decision ordering something it doesn't want to do can at least legislate it's way out of the case. Private entities can't.

Are you aware that the Rehabilitation Act originally applied only to government entities, was then expanded to apply to entities receiving federal funding, and only later was joined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, which applies similar standards to the private sector? Your suggestion that the government imposes on the private sector restrictions that it does not wish to comply with itself is false. The opposite is true.

Ann Althouse said...

Af, read more carefully. I didn't say that. You're being foolish now out of sheer pigheadedness.

AF said...

My, Ann, I thought it was the [semi-]anonymous commenters who were supposed to resort to unfair name-calling! I apologize if I missed your point. I confess that I am not sure what your point is. You certainly seem to claiming a contradiction between the government's litigation position in this case and its policies as stated in the Rehabilitation Act. I think any such criticism is misguided. Indeed, I think this case provides no basis whatsoever to criticize the federal disability-discrimination regime. But apparently you agree with that statement.

Pogo said...

I think the point is missed.

Laws are for the little people.
Congress, the Platonic overseers of society, makes the laws for mere mortals.

Revenant said...

Changing the money to aid the blind would, at this point, be a net inconvenience to sighted people.

Congress should clarify that money is not discriminatory.

PatHMV said...

Another reasonable accommodation would be to just buy every blind person in the country an inexpensive little device that reads the denomination of the existing bills. Then they wouldn't even have to wait for years and years until all the existing currency has gone out of circulation. I compare the relative costs of the two here. By my rough estimates, it would cost upwards of $2 billion to change the currency size, after you take into account all the changes to vending machines, ATMs, bank currency counters, etc, while it would take less than $200 million to buy every blind person in the country a $150 device which can read the denomination of our existing money and speak it out loud.

It's far more reasonable to provide an aid to the impaired person than to require all the rest of us to undertake significant expense.

Also, I think this case is distinguishable from the general application of the law to the private sector, in that it would ultimately require the Treasury's customers (us) to spend substantial sums on the accommodation. In any private sector ADA case, would any court order a private business to make changes which would cost it very little, but which would cause its customers or suppliers to incur millions or billions of dollars in additional expenses? No.

davod said...

The problem with the ADA is not the act but its interpretation. Judges have been allowing ridiculous interpretations for years. It's what judges do, keep their ambulance chaser friends in money.

There are exceptions. The courts in California finally declared a ADA lawyer to be a serial abuser of the court system.

Jeremy said...

At least we've got the braile drive-up ATMs so whenever the rest of you sort out this mess, we'll be covered on this front.

Silly Old Mom said...

I bet the majority of people advocating coins over paper money are of the (ahem) non-purse-carrying persuasion.

Sorry, guys, but my purse is heavy enough with my wallet, checkbook, phone, camera, a pencil case full of crayons, and *my kids'* spending money from Grandma. Walk around for a week with a man purse full of all that stuff and your back will begin to understand the American mom's resistance to large-denom coins.

Dave said...

Another good thing about slapping blind people in the face is that they can't be really sure who to blame.

Thought I'd add that since the point-missing event seems to be sucking all the air out of the system.

John Kindley said...

"Private citizens and business get stuck with the application of general laws, which they don't write."

All this thinking about politics and its inherent depravity will turn you into an anarchist yet!

Seriously, though, recognizing that our government has no inherent right to exist and that the "majority" has no natural right to order the minority what to do does not necessarily as a practical matter entail quixotically advocating the immediate abolishment of the government. If the government prevents or punishes a genuine crime (e.g. murder or robbery, but not smoking pot, prostitution, gambling, or other mere vices), there is no injustice, even though the government has no independent authority of its own, because it's not doing anything anyone else wouldn't have the right to do in the state of nature. And I think we can probably all agree that it's in fact preferable to have such justice carried out by a generally recognized "due process" than by vigilantes or private armies.

Does it have the right to take property from some in order that others don't starve? Maybe, on the theory, recognized by Thomas Aquinas among others, that stealing food from the bounty of others when there is no other way to prevent the starvation of one's self or one's family is not really theft at all. The government has no right to do what a private citizen has no right to do, but in this instance could be said to be doing what a starving poor person would have a right to do, on their behalf. But assuming this hypothetical poor person had a choice (as the government acting on his behalf presumably does), would he be morally justified in stealing from somebody who was himself struggling to make ends meet, when he could just as easily steal from someone with enough money in the bank to pay his own grocery bills many lifetimes over?

The most fundamental way to prevent poor people from starving in the first place would be to restore to them what they have a right to in the first place and what government has taken from them: a free and equal share of the earth and the earth's natural resources, or its equivalent in the form of a "Citizen's Dividend," funded by a "Single Tax" on the unimproved value of land and other natural resources. (A Google search will turn up several good explanations of these concepts.)

In these concepts is also found the only means by which this enterprise known as the government, which has non-consensually arrogated to itself the business of dispensing justice and protecting us, may legitimately pay itself for the "services" it bestows upon us. Since the unimproved value of land (even of that land which has improvements attached to it) belongs to every member of the society equally, the government is justified in collecting on behalf of society the "rent" associated with this value, in the same way the government like any private citizen in the state of nature would be justified in returning stolen property. (Inheritance taxes on property "owned" by a dead person and therefore by nobody could be justified on similar grounds.) Since this rent could not be collected and distributed in the absence of a government-type organization, the organization would be justified in skimming off the top its costs in collecting and distributing the rent, which presumably would include the necessary "muscle" to maintain itself in existence against enemies foreign and domestic and to collect the rent. Since that money would be coming out of each of our "Citizen's Dividends" to enable the collection of such Dividends, what we'd really be paying for is the protection of our property (and personal) rights -- and that's how a police, a military, and a "welfare" system (more precisely, a substitute for the welfare system grounded in justice rather than charity or policy) could be founded on a technically non-consensual but nevertheless just basis.

To reiterate, I'm well aware that the "utopia" I've sketched is ages away from the oppressive travesty we live under, and I'm not interested in vainly frittering away my life railing against something so brutal, stupid, and unresponsive to pleas for real justice. But culturally I think we would do very well to leave off our delusions and our myths, and to recognize the plain fact, just as our forefathers recognized with respect to the British Empire, that our present government has no "right" to rule over us. We "owe" it neither our allegiance, nor our "patriotism," nor our respect, nor our labor nor the fruits of our labor. Prudence, not duty, may dictate that we submit to its robberies (just as the convenience store clerk held at gunpoint may find it prudent to hand over the cash), until either the wider culture outgrows its submissive infantilism or the whole sorry mess collapses under the weight of its own corruption, as other empires and other tyrranies have before it.

Blake said...

Thank you, Dave. I was beginning to feel my point was being missed as well.

Actually, when I read Althouse's header, I thought it was gonna some sort of Ron Paul thing.

Peter Palladas said...

You mean you can just go up to a blind person and say "Excuse me blind person, but do you have change for a ten dollar note?" and then hand over a five for ten ones?

A one for ten would be real mean, so let's not do that.

So how come there are poor people in the States, other than poor blind people?

Call yourselves capitalists? Pah!

former law student said...

"Walk around for a week with a man purse full of all that stuff and your back will begin to understand the American mom's resistance to large-denom coins."

Sorry, no Canadian-style healthcare for you until you can handle Canadian-style dollar coins.

Richard Fagin said...

When Bill Clinton was selecing his first cabinet, The Wall St. Journal suggested he appoint George McGovern as Secretary of Labor. After he left office, Sen. McGovern owned a hotel, which failed, at least in part according to the Senator due to government regulation. The Senator was quoted as saying he wished he'd had the business experience before proposing a lot of the legislation he did. He was really astounded at what the average business person had to deal with in respect of government regulations.

I know of one U.S. Senator who would think the government ought to be bound by its own rules.

Ed said...

Gold coins are impossible to fake and can be recognized by their weight by a blind person. They also have the advantage of being universally recognized as money. Return to the gold standard and you not only have no problem with discrimination against the blind, you also have your economy based on a real currency rather than a fiat currency. Win-win.

Revenant said...

Return to the gold standard and you not only have no problem with discrimination against the blind, you also have your economy based on a real currency rather than a fiat currency

I don't really feel like rehashing all the reasons why the gold standard is a bad idea.

So I'll just limit myself to observing that gold is over $800 per ounce. A $1 gold coin would be slightly larger than a grain of sand and weigh about as much as a pair of postage stamps. You'd lose track of it in your pocket lint.

The only way to make gold useful as coinage is to debase it heavily. For a $1 coin you would want it to be around 1% gold, for example. At that point the supposed advantages it offers blind people vanish, because its weight will be almost entirely that of whatever junk metal it is debased with.

Danny said...

By my rough estimates, it would cost upwards of $2 billion to change the currency size, after you take into account all the changes to vending machines, ATMs, bank currency counters, etc, while it would take less than $200 million to buy every blind person in the country a $150 device which can read the denomination of our existing money and speak it out loud.

Two points:

1. The first cost ($2b) could easily be passed on, at least in part, to private sector entities.

2. The second cost ($200m) is only an initial cost, and would increase steadily as time goes on and citizens continue to be blind. Plus, devices can be broken, lost and stolen and require ongoing customer service that probably can't be outsourced to Bangladesh.

michael i said...
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michael i said...

Those of us who opposed the imposition of those "reasonable accomodation for the handicapped" laws because in the hands of lawyers the word "reasonable" would swiftly become unreasonably elastic in its application have been proven correct again.

Congress should admit its error and get busy removing all the paving stones it has fabricated and fitted to the road to Hell.