Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, May 2, 2015

John Oliver's Defense of the IRS

It was with mixed feelings that I watched John Oliver's  defense of the US Internal Revenue Service on his show Last Week Tonight.

For those of you who don't know him, Oliver is a British comedian who had the good fortune to land in a country - the United States - where the political system is so screwed up that it sits up and begs for political satire. As a US citizen living abroad I've stopped following too closely the US political scene because it is predictably pathetic.  And it is not just the crazy Republicans either;  the Democrats are a few bricks shy of a load, too.

None of this lunacy will be healed any time soon (and, alas, I know of no medicine for what ails us) , which means that John Oliver possesses something that millions of US citizens would love to have:  job security.   And he will never run out of topics as long as he lives in the "Land of the Free" because even in good times the US is a big messy democracy, something that H.L. Mencken enjoyed so much because:  "It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."

His defense of the IRS is amusing but not his best work.  The song at the end is sappy and silly and not particularly funny.  His attempts to tug at our heartstrings, however, is.  They do a necessary job, he says, for which they are hated.  Yes, that's true.  In fact it's true of just about any country on this planet.  When Oliver describes the venom Americans spit at their tax authorities, he's not giving us a shining example of Americans exceptionalism - he's just showing that Americans are no different from anyone else in the world where it's simply a reality that nobody loves the local "fisc".  

Oliver's point, however, about the IRS budget cuts was right on the money.  But he missed a fabulous opportunity to explain something important to the American people.  It's not just the budget cuts that are causing turmoil in that agency, it's also the expansion of the IRS scope and responsibilities. Congress, in its great wisdom (or complete insanity) handed them both the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and something called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

The IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, have fired back pointing out to both Congress and the American people of something that every competent project manager understands:  you don't expand scope and cut budget at the same time.

A truly funny aspect of all this is that FATCA was supposed to be all gain and no pain. Hell, it was written so that all of the cost would be borne by those foreign financial institutions.  Foreign countries didn't find that amusing at all and agreements were reached that require American banks to do similar reporting to countries outside the United States.

But the bill on the US side goes beyond the banks:  Koskinen drew a straight line for Congress between FATCA implementation and those "courtesy disconnects" and long lines at IRS offices that Americans in the homeland are suffering..  We must implement these things on your orders, he said, and with lower budgets something has to give.  That something is customer service.

So Americans in the homeland - the ones who can't afford professional tax help -  are paying for FATCA, albeit in an indirect way.  I think it's worth mentioning because it is rather ironic, isn't it?
That a law to catch "rich tax evaders" instead causes direct harm to working Americans everywhere.

And the faute (and it is a faute lourde) should be laid exactly where it belongs - with the not so funny repercussions of a dysfunctional political system.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Flophouse Over the River Kwai

It's Golden Week in Japan and we are getting out of town

The Flophouse is spending this vacation-filled week in Thailand - a place we always wanted to visit but didn't the last time we lived in Japan.

We fly into Bangkok on a China Eastern Airlines flight, spend two days and nights in the city and then we get in a car and head for the countryside.  We have signed up for a guided tour with a very enticing program:  national parks, floating markets, temples, tigers, and the bridge over the River Kwai.

Yes, I saw the movie.  More than once.  I will take pictures of the railway and share them with you when we get back.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this documentary about the war, the building of the railway - the tracks, the trestles and bridges - and the lives that were lost.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Hill: Tax Justice for Americans Abroad

In response to those articles touting FATCA as "Tax Justice", the incomparable Lynne Swanson of Maple Sandbox and I wrote an op-ed that has just been published in The Hill's Congress Blog.

Tormented Americans Abroad Need Tax Justice Too

If you have been following the fight against FATCA and CBT at the Isaac Brock Society, on Facebook or here at the Flophouse, the arguments in our article will not be new to you.  But we need to keep making them in as many places as we can - especially in Washington, D.C. - so that our side of the matter is heard loud and clear.

Please add your thoughts by commenting on the article.  And please pass the link along to other Americans abroad who might be interested in reading and commenting as well.

We may live abroad but we are just as much the "American People" as any homelander.  7 million strong, we are larger than many US states.  Time to  assert and use what is rightfully ours:  a voice.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Another Glorious Day at Minoo Park

Apart from my personal (un)dress fiasco, Sunday was another wonderful day at what I think is Osaka's most beautiful park.

Last time I was there it was the middle of winter and I still enjoyed every minute of it.  With better weather, it was a nearly perfect experience.

The trail is about 2.5 kilometers with a gentle gradient going up to the waterfall and in summer 90% of it is under the trees and in the shade.  There is something on the trail for everyone:  the culture vultures can admire the temples and shrines, the foodies can eat at one of the many restaurants and cafes, and the nature lovers can concentrate on the stunning scenery and malicious monkeys.  Just a little downstream from the waterfall, the river is calm and shallow and there were children happily splashing around in the water and climbing over the rocks under the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

Minoo Park is a perfect outing for families, couples, lovers, seniors - it's a park that is accessible to - and has something for - just about everyone. (And it's free.)

So, if any of you folks ever show up to visit the Flophouse here in Osaka, guess where we will be going?  A trip to this park is not optional; it's required of all guests.  I hope that expresses just how much I love it and want to share it with visitors.

Here are a few pictures from Sunday.  Enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dress Codes

We went back to Minoo Park north of Osaka this weekend and walked the trail up to the waterfall and back.  It was a beautiful 25 degree day and not too humid.  Still, halfway up the hill I bought a bottle of Evian water and took off my jean jacket.  My pale Norwegian skin started soaking up the sun and I could feel a slight breeze around my sweaty neck.  My shoulders were bare and the straps of my tank top were so thin they couldn't hide the green and indigo bluebell tattoo on the left side.

It was such a relief to be relieved of the extra clothing that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only person on that trail showing that much skin.

Most of the women wore shirts with sleeves covering their elbows, which looked both uncomfortable and poorly adapted to the heat.  A few (very few) women wore t-shirts with sleeves.  All of us wore jeans, pants or skirts that covered our knees.

Culture is more implicit than explicit.  It's not so much about what people say - the should's and ought to's - it about what people do.  There was a cultural dress code on that slope and I was in violation of it.  Not that anyone said anything - they didn't need to.  It was all in the looks and the looking away.

Now at this point a woman like me, forged in the fires of Western individualism tempered by feminism, and provoked by the feeling of discomfort that comes when one senses judgement, lets her mind off its leash.  The first feeling is defiance and the first thought is:  I can wear whatever I damn well want.

And that simply isn't true.  Wherever I have lived or travelled there are dress codes for men and women.  Even countries that are fairly liberal about appropriate attire have some hard limits. A Frenchman in Paris doesn't wear a thong to work at the bank and an American in Seattle doesn't wear a miniskirt to a corporate job interview.  A woman can go topless on vacation on the beach in Brittany, but she's expected to have something covering the area below her navel and above her upper thighs.

In France, Canada and other Western countries there are actually moves to ban certain forms of dress for women.  This is societal disapproval so strong that they want to make explicit rules and laws with the means to punish people for their deviant dress, and that says that citizens no longer trust their own cultural forces to do this important work for them.

So the reality is that I don't get to wear whatever I want, wherever I am, unless I am willing to accept the consequences.  It is not really about the Japanese dress code for women - it is about my trying to import a French dress code to Japan, and then masking the attempt under appeals to Western individualism and feminist principles.     What I damn well want is to not change, and I resent the new cultural forces around me that are ever so gently trying to nudge me in that direction.

 There is a great question that one can use to get though these moments of angst and anger when swimming in new cultural seas:  Do I want to be defiant and angry, or do I want to be happy?

That's easy to answer:  I want to be happy.

Time to go shopping....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rivers of Experience

"Nothing has changed, but it feels so strange. I can't quite put my finger on it. Everything looks the same, but it feels different."

Chris Brinlee, Jr.

That is exactly what I was feeling last week about Tokyo. Everything about it was familiar - the shops, the streets, the subway - and at the same time everything was off.

Because Tokyo had changed in eight years and so had I. When I left Japan nearly a decade ago I pulled myself out of one moving river and dived into another halfway across the world. And while I was gone the city and the people I knew moved on and became a different city and different people.

And part of me was not happy about it. At all.

This is not the first time I've felt this eerie combination of familiar mixed with strange. Returning to Seattle a few years after I had moved to France,  I flew in from Paris to the local airport and my brother drove me into town. When I saw that they had torn down a large sports stadium that had been a prominent part of the city skyline since I was a small child, I was filled with such rage. "How dare they do that," I thought, as though Seattle were a part of my personal patrimoine and the denizens needed my permission before they so much as clipped a hedge or painted a wall. Even now, as irrational as it sounds, I deeply resent any changes to my hometown.

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more they slip through your fingers. The moment you trap the water in your mind, it ceases to be the real river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.

Nothing that lives and breathes is static, not even our own insignificant precious little selves. Not only do we live in moving rivers, but the "I" itself is one. Next time I head for Tokyo, I resolve to accept it as the city it is in 2015, and not resent it for ceasing to be the city it was in 2007. And I will try to accept as well that I am not the person I was eight years ago.

Clearly, I need the practice because while I am dipping my toes in the waters of another dynamic city, Osaka, another place - the city of Versailles where I have my home and my beloved garden - is moving merrily along without me. And when we return in a few years, the things and people I knew will be as off to me then as Tokyo was just last week.

Flophouse Garden, Versailles, France. April 2015
Photo by Michael Staubes

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Trotting Off to Tokyo

Tomorrow, I am hopping on a shinkansen and heading for Tokyo - one of my favorite cities.

I will be there for a few days and staying in the Ginza area.

So if there are any Flophouse readers who would like to get together Thursday or Friday, just let me know at