The Spanish Prisoner

Seven or eight years ago, I was on a commuter flight, sitting in an aisle seat. Two rows ahead of me, across the aisle on my right, a guy was arguing with his wife/girlfriend. It wasn't a ferocious argument, but any sort of personal disagreement is noticeable in these circumstances, and it had been simmering since I noticed them boarding the plane.

There were two other things I noticed when they sat down. The wife/girlfriend had the husband/boyfriend's name - Randy - tattooed on the back of her neck, and Randy had the letters T - R - U - S - T tattooed on the fingers of his left hand. I remember smiling to myself when I saw this. Obviously these two were from a very different background than me, but I really appreciated the public display of commitment they had made by getting these tattoos. I remember thinking to myself that I bet their relationship was a strong one, even though the disagreement seemed to simmer throughout the flight.

The plane landed and we all stood up. And then I saw the letters tattooed on Randy's right hand.

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  1. This is a really wonderful article, thank you.

    A theme that comes up on ET quite often is how important it is not to treat people like instruments but as ends in themselves. But the whole way I’ve had this question in the back of my mind, what if I can tell that somebody is treating me as an instrument, is it ok to take the gloves off, play dumb, squeeze them for what I can? Maybe I was afraid to ask out loud.
    The last part of this article addresses that somewhat, and it’s heartening for me to see how much we agree.

  2. As always, too much smart stuff for me to absorb in one (or several) reads, but I still have a question (surprise): is the critical Libra “tell” - the one that, oddly, hasn’t gotten much press - the fact that Libra will be backed by a basket of international currencies?

    This tells (ha-ha) me that Libra’s not Bitcoin, it’s not threatening the state’s seignorage (and reserve currency status [for the US] and everything else that flows to Caesar from having its own fiat currency); it’s really nothing new; it’s just another payment system dressed up as a crypto currency - albeit, with a new back-office process (blockchain).

    Everything else is whatever (narrative, con, etc.); that Libra is backed by the existing Nudging Oligarchy’s currencies announces the winner of the game up front.


  3. Mark,

    You got it. Libra is Conning the Con (bitcoin).

    Thanks Ben,


  4. Ben- Remember…an honest man/woman cannot be conned! Speaking of conned, how about the group-sellout/think that is ESG investing? Pretty soon everyone will be ESG (in craven attempts to be included in ESG ETFs…or not be boycotted). To quote Frederick the Great, “He who defends everything defends nothing”. How about so many companies’ and individuals’ aping the Pride Swatch/Thumbnail background for their logos last month? Don’t get me wrong; I see great things with the Pride movement, etc. What bothers me is mindless aping to “comply” what the rest of the herd does…or in fear of society’s equivalent of the Stasi (which we’ve created for ourselves: “Yay, not so secret policing of ourselves”! It’s as if we’re all afraid of that kindergarten kid who points his finger at us and says “stranger, stranger”…causing the rest to do the same.

  5. "A coyote is a clever puzzle-solver who really has the best of intentions. Who really wants to be successful for the right reasons. Who really wants to accomplish something of meaning in the world. Who is smart and aware and nobody’s fool. Who has been beaten up professionally a bit and has a healthy skepticism about the business and political world.

    And who is just a little bit on the make. "

    Man, did I just look in the mirror.
    Except maybe for the “nobody’s fool” part.

  6. That article alone was worth my July subscription fee.

  7. Hi Ben. I loved this piece. It hit really close to home - some of it very, very uncomfortably.

    Does the saint’s immunity to the Spanish Prisoner con come from the fact he thinks it unethical to unlock a prize from a ‘capital arb’? If coyotes are like parasites (I recently reread your old piece on parasites) in many cases, then the saint thinks that being a coyote HF manager is an unethical job, is that fair?

    I am a little unclear about who the state and oligarchy are optimizing for in a ruse like Libra right now - after all, the end market of billions is predominantly not comprised of coyotes. Would you say that the gatekeepers/facilitators to the Ocean (This is Water) are often coyotes, and that they need to be “brought in” on both idealogical and materialistic dimensions? But at the same time there is a greater narrative for the masses “onboarding billions to banking” that needs to work in parallel.

    The difficulty among the more cynical (and chip on the shoulder type) coyotes is with this:

    “I see what they are offering me and I TAKE it. Without hesitation. Without remorse. I take it just as they are trying to take from me … in full sociopathic bloom.”

    OF COURSE you are right. But man this is hard to do. Especially for the more cynical and ‘default aggressive’ among us. Conning the con is the definition of sheep’s clothing I suppose.

    At this early stage it’s particularly hard. My ideological disgust for the whole project is stratospheric . Yet the fruits of conning the con seem distant and abstract at this point. It’s a tough intersection here, the sheep’s clothing does not look attractive right now. But it’s probably time to get comfortable with it. And meditate or something to stay calm.

    “You will find yourself conflating justice with loss and comeuppance. You will take on sadness and schadenfreude as your resting psychic state. Trust me when I say that I know of which I speak. Negative energy is deadly. That is not a figurative statement. It will literally kill you.”

    Because this terrifies me. And I have felt this a lot. It’s hard to escape for me anyways.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    You and me both, Andy!

  9. Reciprocity is a strong impulse so I agree with your recommendation of basically conditioning one self to take something at face value without having an expectation of giving something back (especially trust) to an organization that already profiting on treating people like cattle. Perhaps this is another “old man yells at cloud” but I do have a hope for some sort of alternative choice that offers a decentralized platform, like Solid (

  10. Avatar for jz1 jz1 says:

    “THEY” always want to create a ecosystem, water for you to swim in, air for you to breathe, conditioned respond to social events. While we all automatically swim/breathe/respond, Ben keeps reminding us that know your water, know your air, know your crowd. A guy I know told me he knows people who have to think which legs to move first when they walk after they do enough meditation to uncover the unconsciousness. He resist his muscle to automatically move his legs and his brain needs to think how to walk. Resisting by holding a bit coin is easy. Resisting water/air/response is tough. If you become conscious enough, you will find it difficult to walk. Reminds of me of Neo vomiting after he sees the matrix.
    I guess you have to vomit before you can fly.

  11. Avatar for jz1 jz1 says:

    All money is about trust, the trust that this unit I am holding in my hand can be used to exchange for goods or services to keep me alive.
    Speak of trust, I personally only trust things human can NOT tamper or modify. Gold or BitCoin (math), or what ever human can NOT do anything to it. If that is NOT on the menu, then I trust guns. Since Zuck’s Libra is “stable” where “stability” is managed by a group of “people”, I have to ask what are the guns backing Zuck up. In domestic US, it is like Ben described, this is convenience and narrative. But this coin is meant for international and you know all the governments want to Con their own people and the rest of the world. So the other countries with guns can see the Spanish Psisoner Con as clear as Ben does since that is what they do EVERY day. In other words, for Libra to do what it wants internationally, it depends on the guns, NOT cons.

  12. Ben, as usual, thank you for what you do.

    “As wise as serpents, as harmless as doves” is spot on. There’s another passage further down in that Matthew:10 bit that screams Bitcoin to me: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword."

    As you know, the passage is about how the disciples will be persecuted and ostracized as they go out into the world, and are met with hostility and derision and alienation. To me, it describes the mental model and experience of bitcoiners quite accurately. We know governments will do everything in their power to destroy Bitcoin. We know governments will move to a cashless society where surveillance is a given. We’ve been experimenting with non-governmental money for years, and every one from our family, to friends, to coworkers has told us we’re kooky. We’re the disciples, gone off into the world with our knowledge. We’re also the coyotes, smelling the “coyote population control” in the wind.

    You should meet these people. They’re usually humble, honest, and intellectually generous. But most importantly, they are diehards.

    Bitcoin is our “sword”. We did come with peace, and yet we’re ready to sustain significant losses in this endeavor. We certainly are coyotes as you described it, which I guess makes us coyotes with swords :wink:

    We are coyotes who believe that failure in this age is not option, and the Bitcoin vs Libra battle will be our only chance to have an open financial system built on the internet. We will be the minority. We will be shunned. We will be labeled criminals. And we will survive, because Bitcoin will survive–not as capital-N Narrative, but as a living, breathing system supported by a diehard minority.

    Keep it up. We need your perspective.

  13. This is a very nice piece, but Libra won’t threaten Bitcoin. In fact, Libra has been designed to avoid threatening Bitcoin. (See below for the reason.)

    You see, Libra will be a stablecoin, whose value will be pegged to fiat currencies. It is essentially a support system for Western currencies, much like colonial central banks used to be (or banana republics today.) If the colonial/Facebook economy takes off, all the more demand for reserves in the money printed by the Western elites. If colonial money/Libra is over-printed, holders will panic and rush into Western currencies, and blame will go solely to the issuers of the funny money, helping the narrative that Western currencies are best. Either way, the West wins. That is how it has, and probably will, always work.

    As for Bitcoin, I’ve always said that, though I have no evidence that the Western elites created it in secret, if it never existed, the Western elites would have liked to have created it in secret. Its purpose (even if the Western elites merely discovered its usefulness,) will be to strengthen Western money from the inside out by playing the role of gold, say, in the early to mid-19th century. Fiat and debt money can only go so far, because of the incentives for the elites to destabilize their own system. At some point, the system needs to be supported by debt-free and ‘state-free’ money that is owned by the elites.

    So far, all signs are in support of the above thesis. I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg would have loved for Libra to be a real cryptocurrency, but my theory is that the elites don’t want it that way. Think about it, a Facebook real-crypto could easy take off, and destroy any public illusion that cryptocurrencies are free of elite control, by making it clear that power is still what matters. That could destroy the entire crypto-space.

  14. Avatar for fvc fvc says:

    Peter, so true. This aping to comply is explored in Ben’s

    "The beauty of the Panopticon, per Bentham, was that the occupants of each cell would soon come to police themselves. … It’s not necessary for a guard or overseer to watch each prisoner at all times; what’s necessary is for each prisoner to live in a perfectly transparent cell, so that each prisoner thinks that he is being watched at all times. "

    Inertia is difficult to overcome. People need to be co-opted into new payment systems.

    Another Big (coyote) Idea behind Libra is that it could and probably will be used to virtue signal - “Golly. I am paying you in Libra as it is safe and it helps the people in Africa… Visa is so two thousand and late.”

    It may be easy to get started that we can think. Mark will tell us we need to open a Libra account to use FB or WhatsApp and he will only charge us 0.00000001c per message and donate $1 to Africa / unisex toilets / free gender assignment / meme-du-jour for each account we open.

    The KYC regulations that came in post Sept 11 were railroaded in on the “Boo terrorist” meme. It will be interesting if Libra uses the carrot or stick!

  15. Avatar for fvc fvc says:

    +1 Wraith for “My ideological disgust for the whole project is stratospheric.”

  16. Avatar for fvc fvc says:

    BobK71 given your thoughts on the Western currency basket - it will be interesting to see what the Chinese response through WeChat and AliPay will be.

  17. It’s with some trepidation that I find myself disagreeing with the real goal of Libra. I think Bitcoin is largely irrelevant.

    In my opinion, Libra’s real target is wresting control of the money supply away from countries and moving it under the control of trans-national financial corporations. The anchoring to multiple fiat currencies is to take it out of any single sovereign control. The linkage also provides ‘trust’ in the near term to get it off the ground. Further, I suspect its real opportunities are expanding into things like capital flows, trade settlement, and money laundering without Government interference

  18. My first instinct is that, internationally, Libra will be no different from today’s dollars really. In most cases, the West probably doesn’t even care if third-world governments put capital controls on dollars. It just makes them look weak and furthers the prestige of dollars.

  19. Yes, you have to wonder if the Chinese actually provided the inspiration for Libra!

  20. Yes, absolutely agreed. This being Facebook, it might become bigger than a payment system. Time will tell, I guess. For sure, this has nothing to do with Bitcoin. (In fact, Libra has been designed to put distance between it and Bitcoin.)

  21. So, to sum up… As Ben points out, there is co-option, but the agent of co-option is not Libra, but Bitcoin.

    But is there a con? For a true answer to that, you would have to go to the Big Question of what money really is. Has it ever really been free of the elites? In the Middle Ages, money was physical gold and silver, but that was only because credit money was, well, not credible when there was no economic growth, and because the elites probably owned most of the metals. This is just an extreme case showing money and politics are inseparable in an era (including the present day) of low public awareness of the nature of money. So, Bitcoin is a con in the same sense that all of the history of money is a con.

  22. The Spanish Prisoner con also runs a lot deeper than suspected here. Think, for example, of the average Western citizen during the heyday of 20th-century empire. It must be familiar to all of us that the citizen thinks his country is doing well by doing good, intervening to save poor countries from corrupt dictatorships, and lending them money for growth. If he enjoys owning ‘sound money’ and cheap vacations and imports in/from these countries, well, that is well deserved, isn’t it.

  23. Depending on how you define it, every honest person has to be “just a little bit on the make” or become Blanche DuBois, which is much worse. Most of us would love to be Hank Reardon or Howard Roark, but back on planet Earth, one has to make a living.

  24. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. Henry John Temple Palmerston, Remarks in the House of Commons, March 1, 1848.

    No less true today than it was then, only difference is that today we are nudged towards thinking we have permanent interests (Yay Military, Boo Terrorists, when our military is creating them every day in the GWOT a perfect example of permanent war, I mean peace. Kill them there so they can’t come here and kill us). Brilliant stuff.

  25. It’s all about the float that Zuck will make his gazillions on, plus whatever the NSA or whoever pays him the most for all tracking of all transactions. It will be perfect for a worldwide “bail-in” when needed. All that money skimmed at the push of a button. Who needs negative interest rates when everybody gets a 10%-50% haircut?

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