By Sandy Sandfort
Back on April 5, 1933, His Majesty, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), had a pen and a telephone. So he issued Executive Order 6102, which made it a federal crime for Americans to own or trade gold anywhere in the world. There were some minor exceptions for some jewelry, industrial uses, collectors’ coins
, and dental gold, but the vast majority of the gold had to be turned in.
My father instantly understood what was going on and he didn’t like it. “They’re going to devalue the dollar!” he predicted.
Roosevelt didn’t give much time to comply either. The deadline was May 1. And if Americans did not comply, they faced criminal prosecution under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. Scofflaws were looking at a fine of up to $10,000 (1933 dollars, about a third of a million dollars today) and up to ten years in prison.
My parents made the conscious decision to become outlaws.
At every possible opportunity for the next three weeks (and substantially longer), my parents followed Gresham’s law (“Bad money drives out good.”), not federal law. They spent paper and collected gold. My father was a dentist, so he could own some dental gold, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to convert as much paper into gold as possible. So he gave his patients discounts for payment in gold. “Sam,” a neighbor who was a banker, also helped collect gold for himself and my parents. They would repay his help later when they periodically ‘laundered’ gold for him and themselves.
Even after the deadline, gold still kept coming in. Mostly it was from people who didn’t have the time or the inclination to turn in their gold to the government. However, many feared prosecution and were happy to deal with my parents instead of FDR. Plus they got a better deal.
So where did they launder their tidy little nest egg? Why, “South of the Border, Down Mexico Way,” of course. Mexico had no Executive Order 6102.
My mother was born in the mountains above Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spoke fluent Spanish. She and my father loved traveling though the backwaters of Mexico. At first, they traveled alone, and later, after my brother and I came along, the whole family (including the dog) would go exploring in the land of mańana. (Somewhere there is a picture of me, age one, sitting on a portable potty, experiencing my first-ever bout with “Montezuma’s revenge.”)
My parents carried whatever gold they intended to sell, stashed in the car or on their person. The usual routine was to go to the section of town where casas de cambio were found. (Think of it as the “Street of the Money Changers.”) My mother – all 5’1” of her – would go down the street and show a gold double eagle to every money changer at every kiosk and storefront. In Spanish, she would ask, “How much will you pay for these?” When she found the best price, she would give my father the high sign. He would join her and they would conclude the deal. Sometimes the gold was theirs, sometimes, Sam’s. Sometimes they got pesos and sometimes dollars, depending on what they needed at the time.
So, the ‘illicit’ gold paid for a fun trip and got converted to ‘clean’ funds for themselves and Sam. What’s the crime in that?
And the Beat Goes On…
My family never showed much respect for government laws, per se. No victim, no crime, even if the government disagreed. The general ethical belief of the Sandfort family was pretty much in harmony with the Golden Rule. It had worked for cultures and religions for thousands of years and it worked for us. That was our law. Man-made laws either adhere to the Golden Rule (don’t murder people, duh) and so are unnecessary, or they violate it, such as “The War on (Some) Drugs,” so they were nominally complied with, ignored, or circumvented.
So, when wartime laws said that a seller had to follow certain rationing rules to sell his own products, many buyers and sellers simply conspired to make their own decisions. When my parents needed and could afford a new car for business, the local Chevy dealer was happy to ‘cook the books,’ take their money, and give them a new sedan.
Later, when my family traveled in that car and others, my mother would prepare food for us to eat as we drove. We stopped only for gas… and the agricultural inspection station at the California state line. Of course, we had items that we were required by law to declare, but if you hide them in your backpack or under the car seat and lie, you can save a lot of time and keep from having to throw away perfectly good food.
And then there was the time we smuggled a live Mexican iguana in a cigar box, but don’t get me started. ...
[This article first appeared in Paul Rosenberg's
, Nov. 24, 2015.]