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

Thursday, December 4, 2014

An Excellent Video on the Impact of FATCA

Well, folks, it has been a rough couple of weeks at the Flophouse.  The logistics of getting out of one country and into another are daunting (but many of you already know that, right?)

And then there are the surprises. Stuff that seemed simple, straightforward, above all, done?

We should be so lucky...

 Remember that apartment we flew all the way to Osaka to find? Turns out that it's not a done deal and the issue is most likely the fact that we are foreigners (gaijin).

But I've learned a thing or two in the past couple of weeks which I will share in the days to come.

But for today I would simply like to draw your attention to this excellent video about FATCA by Robert Morris.  Morris is also the author of FATCA and the New Birth of American Empire -  the book is available in the usual places and you can read my review here.  





Thursday, November 13, 2014

Philae

"The stars, like all man's other ventures, were an obvious impracticality, as rash and improbable an ambition as the first venture of man onto Earth's own great oceans, or into the air, or into space...
Missions from the station explored the system, a program far from public understanding, but it met no strong opposition.

So quietly, very matter of factly, that first probe went out to the two nearest stars, unmanned, to gather data and return, a task in itself of considerable complexity.  The launch from station drew some public interest, but years was a long time to wait for a result, and it passed out of media interest as quickly as it did out of the solar system... It was a scientific success, bringing back data enough to keep the analysts busy for years...but there was no glib, slick way to explain the full meaning of its observations in layman's terms...

The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly.  If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.

The scientific establishment on Sol station breathed a sign of relief..."

Downbelow Station:  The Company Wars (1982 Hugo Award)
C.J. Cherryh

As much as we laugh today about the foolishness of our ancestors who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, our attitudes about space and space exploration have not really progressed much:  we believe we are still the center of all that matters in the universe.  Our egos probably couldn't take the truth which is that we are pretty darn insignificant.  Long after the nation-states, the politics, our gods, the monuments to human hubris and all our petty feuds and feelings are dust, the sun, the star around which we orbit,  will still be shining in the sky until it too burns itself out.  This is the real longue durée.

The exploration of space is something that captures the public's imagination for short periods before it sinks back into obscurity.  This is probably a good thing because in a world of national budget problems, the reaction that comes after the awe that we walked on the moon or that a shuttle returned to Earth  is something along the lines of "Well, shouldn't we have used that money for balancing the budget/better schools/saving our retirement programs?"

To which I would retort that NASA's and ESA's budgets combined  are such a low percentage of the overall budgets that cutting them (which they do often) would barely make a dent in the deficits. Personally, I would rather my tax money went to probes as opposed to drones.

This very week, Philae, the European Space Agency probe, landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  And I find that unbelievably cool.  They shot the Rosetta mission out into space in 2004 and it's been quietly hurtling toward its destination ever since while we here on Earth have watched parties and politicans rise and fall, fought wars, winced over a near meltdown of the world financial system, and agonized over the trials and tribulations of globalization.

Rash, improbable, and impractical?  Well, as Cherryh points out, past human endeavours have certainly been all that and more.   But the day we, the human race, stop being curious and no longer dream of space, we will have lost something precious - it would mean that we were in such deep despair that we could no longer conceive of a future for ourselves or for our descendants.

Here is a wonderful video from ESA with the first reactions to the landing.  I confess that I watched it and I was cheering, too.



I also recommend to you this a lovely animated sketch called Landing

More to come - landing on the comet was a beginning, not an end, right?

A suivre and let's brace ourselves to be surprised, open ourselves to wonder, let our curiosity run riot and our imagination take us to ever more stimulating flights of fancy.  For as Haldane once said:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.



Friday, November 7, 2014

Seeing the Sights in Osaka

I have two methods for scouting out a strange city.  The first method is to walk out of the hotel, pick a street and walk it until get tired and then go up or down a block and circle back to the hotel.  This has the virtue of discovery - I have no idea what I'll find.  I try to pay attention but I still find new things on each little promenade.

For example, I'd been going nuts trying to find street names in a script that I can read.  Well, I wasn't looking in the right place - I was looking up when I should have been looking down.  Yes, mes amis, the street names in Western characters were on the sidewalk.  Took me two days to figure this out which just goes to show you that I am not the brightest crayon in the box.

The other method is to pick a target and try to get there via the public transportation.  Yesterday I decided to visit the Osaka Castle park and I went via the metro.  Took me a few minutes to figure out how to find my line and how to pay, but I was on a train and on my way late morning and I arrived at the park around noon.

Wow.  I mean WOW!  The park is huge and the castle is on several levels with moats, gates, turrets and the most amazing stone walls.  I have never seen anything quite like it.



Today I went for broke and picked several destinations all in the same area.  I walked up Chuo-dori street to the ruins of the Naniwanomiya palace (6-700 AD).  Then I walked up a little farther, took a right and went looking for St. Mary's Cathedral (aka Tamatsukuri Catholic Church) and to my utter delight I actually found it.  I visited the chapel and walked around the building which is under renovation so not much to see.  There are two gorgeous statues, however, on either side of the main doors.  I am assuming these are saints but I couldn't figure out which ones (signs were all in kanji).



And the last stop was the Osaka Museum of History.  Three floors of exhibits about the history of the city and a very good presentation of the Naniwanomiya palace excavations which made me want to go down and walk them again.  As I ambled over to the  escalators to go down to the next floor, before my eyes was the most amazing panoramic view of the Osaka Castle Park.



Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Digs for the Flophouse in Osaka

Before I show you  the new digs for the Flophouse, I want to clarify something in yesterday's post.

That shopping street I mentioned?  The one that is covered and had so many small lovely shops (not to mention a McDonald's AND a Burger King)? I learned last night that this is a very well known street called Shinsaibashi-suji. Who knew?

The two most important features we were looking for in apartment were proximity to spouse's place work and an environment conducive to creativity.  Or, to put it differently,  this is a space where I will be spending a lot of time writing and working alone and so I need a home that won't exacerbate the feelings of depression and isolation that often come with crossing cultures and  living in a completely new place.

After two days of looking at different buildings and apartments, we decided that this one would do.  It's on the 14th floor of a tower in the heart of Osaka so it has a lot of light and (be still my heart) a view of the city and the mountains around the city.  It's not big by American standards, it's perfectly OK by French standards, it's positively spacious by Japanese standards.  It's located in the Chuo Ward and it is within walking distance of the Osaka Castle.  There is a lively district just one block away with places to shop for food or just to have a cup of coffee and it's about 2 minutes away from a metro station.  Honestly, I don't think we could have done better.

Here are a few photos (yes, I am a terrible photographer but bear with me).  The apartment is unfurnished and we will need to purchase a refrigerator, an oven, and a washer/dryer.  I see a trip to Ikea in our future...



This is one of the two bedrooms.  The other is a little bit bigger.


This is the living room.  The balcony is L-shaped and there is a lot of light.  I'm thinking two chairs here for reading and a small round table for writing.


This is a "Japanese room" which is right off the living room.  Note the mats on the floor and the sliding doors.  Just lovely.



And here is the view on one side.  During the day you can see mountains (and for my stepfather who is interested in such things there is also a clear view of several transmitter sites).  At night the city is all lit up and very beautiful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

First Impressions of Osaka

Hit the ground running after I arrived on Monday.  The flight from Paris was about 13 hours and when I landed I was a complete jet-lagged mess.  It's got better quick, in part because it is sunny during the day and partly because I have an important task:  finding an apartment which keeps me out and about.

I narrowed it down to two apartments that I like and we'll be visiting them this afternoon and making a final choice.  After that I have nothing on my agenda until the end of the week and I plan to spend those few days seeing the city.

Just for fun, here are a few photos I snapped as I was walking around:


The Japanese are gifted gardeners.  This is a house/shop on a side street smack in the middle of the city and here someone has put out an elegant collection of potted plants.  Very nice.



This is the main street near my hotel called MidoSuji Avenue.  Lots and lots of trees (wasn't expecting that but it was a pleasure to see).


 A very cool shopping area.  It's a street that been covered and there are little shops on either side.  I went this morning to pick up some warmer clothes.  Osaka is sunny during the day and downright cold right now at night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Flophouse Gets FATCAed

It's just a few short hours before I get on a plane for Japan to go apartment-hunting but I simply had to share this with because it is too damn funny and I think we all need a good laugh right now.

The Flophouse has been FATCAed.

Last week we received a snail mail from the French bank where our little Franco-American family has been banking for years - the one where we deposit our paychecks, pay our rent and utilities and all that jazz.  The envelope was packed full with a fancy glossy note in French explaining what it was all about and two nearly incomprehensible forms in American English.  (I tried to do my duty as a translator because there was much about them that my French spouse found puzzling but there were sections that even I, the only native speaker in the household, couldn't figure out.)

Now this part wasn't particularly funny.  On the contrary my spouse and I were definitely unamused by the note that said that if the forms weren't returned then the bank could send the information to the US IRS anyway (which made me wonder why we were doing this dance at all).  I also noted that there was no privacy waiver to be found in this pile of paperasses and I'd be very interested in knowing if that is in fact consistent with EU law.

My French spouse was appalled to read some of the search criteria they used for putting an account under suspicion:  US address attached to the account, US person attached to the account, and wire transfers from France to the US.  (Good thing we didn't send our daughters to university in the US, right?  And I guess if my relatives in the US ever need money from us, it's not going to happen.)

But, hey, none if it was a huge surprise either.  We've been expecting some sort of paperwork ever since the French parliament passed the law implementing FATCA.  In fact, I felt a sort of vindication because I've been talking about FATCA and what it meant for our family for years now and had the sense that I wasn't being taken seriously. "It will never happen" and "France wouldn't do such a thing to French citizens and residents living in France" and so on and so forth.  Well, sweetheart, you may be a Frenchman living in France but your American wife called it and she was right. A feeling that I savored for about two seconds and then let go because, yes, I'm an old women a trying to get into heaven now and being that petty and small sure won't get me there.

No, the funny part was not what happened but to whom.  Who in our little Franco-American household gets first prize in the Smack the Gopher FATCA Sweepstakes?

My 19 year old daughter - the younger Frenchling.

Yep, you heard me.  A kid who is in college, does not work, and has almost no money.  In fact, she has, to the best of my knowledge, a little local checking and savings account here in France which, if they exceed 500 Euros combined, I would be amazed.

And I'm sorry, folks, but this is pretty damn funny.  Congratulations, America, on the outing of my daughter, a French citizen with accounts in France who, even if you did find some way to tax her and you asked for say 10% of her "ill-gotten hidden assets" abroad,  might net you a grand total of  50 USD.

And if you think that you will somehow manage to balance the US budget on that kind of take? Well, I guess magical thinking abounds these days.

Allow me to propose a new motto for the US government:

"Winning the War on Tax Evasion, One College Student at a Time."

Bon weekend, everyone.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cross-Cultural Relationships, Literature and Love

A core belief of modern men and women at least in the West is that marriages/partnerships are based on romantic love.  When two people wish to get together is is assumed - nay, it is required - that they have some sort of emotional attachment.  Any hint that there are more practical considerations behind that decision is met with revulsion.  To marry for money, for example, or to unite fortunes and families or for political purposes - all things that in the past would have been perfectly legitimate reasons for two (or more) people to get together - are now anathema.  This extends so far as to pose an interesting problem in the realm of immigration/emigration.

To marry in order to get legal residency for a partner is a very common occurrence and yet this provokes very ambivalent reactions on the part of the native citizenry who mutter about les mariages blancs and insist that their government do something about it toute de suite.  The "something" (I can assure you) is generally quite a comedy with government agents asking questions like whether or not the marriage is consummated, and filming the couple with an eye toward examining them closely for hints of that Western ideal of pure love untainted by the crassness of economic interest.  It's an impossible task because there is no sure way to determine a man or woman's internal emotional state and whether or not he (or she) is truly in love with him (or her).  But they try and the voting citizenry of the democratic nation-state everywhere should give them a break.

With so many people on the move today there are many more opportunities for them to find their love interest outside of their own culture/country.  Even within one culture/country people cross internal boundaries of religion, class, and culture in ways that would have been unheard of in our grandparent's day.  This, I believe, causes an enormous amount of angst because people are torn between two conflicting ideas:  1.   That people in love should be together and that every man and woman has the right to choose his or partner (it's not any one's business, right?) and 2. an older idea that says that a society, a family, a culture cannot be entirely neutral about love, marriage and the raising of children because those individual choices impact everyone in some way.  I think that the latter idea was first proposed to me in my youth in an Orson Scott Card novel and I found it shocking at the time.   And yet, I believe he was correct;  There has never been and never will be a human world where a community is completely disinterested in how people partner.

And for the people who practice a kind of extreme exogamy there is a searching for a framework within which to understand and a guide to such relationships from courtship to some sort of legal partnership to the common project of raising offspring.  To say that the fundamental basis of any such relationship (for it to be considered legitimate in North America and Europe) is love is simply not helpful. I'm not even sure that it works anymore for relationships within a class or culture because those rules have changed and are still changing and God knows people struggle mightily to cope with that alone without the added stresses that come from crossing borders, cultures, language groups, religions and so on.

Where does someone in a cross-cultural marriage go to find this framework or even perspective?  I suggest starting with Dr. Lucy William's book Global Marriage: Cross-Border Marriage Migration in Global Context. This is the big picture and I for one wish the book had been written many years ago because it would have saved me from starting my thinking about this with the autobiographies of men and women in cross-cultural relationships, an exercise that I found to be very frustrating.  These are not necessarily bad books but they are limited because each case presents itself as something rather exotic and different and special and never stretches to connect to other cross-cultural relationships and marriages.

Also, however revealing these books are about the interior life of an individual, they are seldom very honest for reasons that are entirely understandable.  Talking about one's marriage at all is something few of us wish to do in public.  There is even more reticence, I think, when the author is someone who is still married and living in the spouse's country.  To create a portrait of that marriage, its ups and downs, successes and failures, the great love and promises versus the cruelty and pain inflicted over the years is more than any of us have the right to ask of an individual and certainly we cannot reasonably demand it from an "expat" writer,

And the cult of love as the basis of all relationships?  Well, that's another impediment to writing this sort of book.  What "marriage migrant" would wish to admit in print and in defiance of the cult of love mentioned above, that they did get married to get that residency permit.  What woman living what her compatriots in her home country consider to be the apex of romance, who has thrown up everything to join a spouse in a foreign land, would care to open up to the larger world and tell the complicated story of that marriage of which love and romance are simply two elements and not even the most important ones.

So there are studies and the big picture and there are autobiographies, but recently I discovered another source that I've found very helpful in thinking about my cross-cultural marriage and about all such marriages.  It's a realm where people can ask questions, explore the contradictions, work out the issues, and tell the truth as they see it.  This is the world of fiction - literature that allows an author to speak to these things and a reader to learn and think about them but where both have distance.  This is not my life or your life - these are "simply" characters in a story.  And yet we work toward our own truths and conclusions, find frameworks and guides, and arrive at our own understanding though these stories.

Some of the fiction written by expatriates/migrates speaks of these things in an explicit way.  I recently picked up Passion Fruit by Sandra Cruza on the advice of a Flophouse reader and I both enjoyed it and was disturbed by it.  This is the slow disintegration of a marriage in a foreign land and anyone I think who has lived in expat communities outside of his/her home country will recognize the fault lines that appear in the marriage when it is exported to a distant shore, the problems and issues, the temptations and so.  I have never lived in Brazil where this story is set,  and yet I recognized so much from my experiences in Asia.  And you can see the cult of love in the latter part of the story and how it is used to justify, not the beginning of the relationship, but as the means for ending one.

That is an example of fiction that talks about cross-border/cross-cultural relationships in a fairly direct fashion - I have heard this referred to as "expat fiction."  But very recently I realized that there is a genre (perhaps two) that I have read for years that tackle cross-cultural relationships in an indirect but very powerful way (I just never had the insight to recognize it):  science fiction/fantasy.  In them there is even more distance as we are asked to contemplate relationships with the extreme Other - something so foreign and strange that we can easily (if we wish) dismiss the entire business as "bon bons for the mind", "fun reads" or "trash" - certainly not serious literature.  (And here I know that the sci-fi fans are raising their hackles but let's just all admit that the genre has struggled for respectability and is still not always taken terribly seriously.)

In the sci-fi/fantasy world best example I can think of is C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series.  She is a gifted writer and these books can be read on many levels:  politics, a treatise on technological progress, a commentary on colonialism, an extraordinary example of world-building and so on.  But in it is a thread which we all recognize as the love story/interest and it is between the main character Bren Cameron, a diplomat to a non-human civilization called the Atevi, and one of his security guards, Jago.  He is human, she is not.  As competent as he may be as a translator  and even as he integrates more and more into Atevi civilization, he is unsure about the relationship and how it could work between two individuals who don't even the same biological wiring.  The Atevi, he says, don't even have a word for "love" - the closest term he can find in his own language is "association" and yet the two do build a relationship over the course of the many many books in this series.  So here is Mr. Cameron starting from something that we (the North American/European reader) recognize and identify with - the cult of love - in a relationship with a partner who not only does not share it but never ever will.  Her feelings do not and can not map to his.

And is there not in this love story something that all of us in cross-cultural relationships will recognize?  That every once in awhile (or perhaps often) we feel the chasm that exists between us and our partner - that we are not coming from the same place, that our feelings and theirs do not necessarily map directly, that we must build a common project out of two worldviews that are not always compatible and that something must give if the association is to continue.  Even between a North American and a European who broadly share this ideal of a relationship based on romantic love, they might find that their respective cultural interpretations of that might be different enough to cause great dissatisfaction, if not moments of actual fear and loathing. And all of this, mind you, on top of the fact that we are all individuals with different personalities and characters and we are frequently at odds with the close Other within the same culture, with the same cultural references, prejudices, upbringing and education.

Bren and Jago's relationship in this work of science fiction, I have belatedly realized, has been one way that I have worked through some of the questions and feelings about my own cross-cultural relationship. I'm not saying there are concrete answers here or anywhere but like all good fiction, it seduces us by approaching such intimate, delicate, emotional and controversial subjects indirectly, and works its magic in such a way that we are changed by it.

"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." (Albert Camus)

Next post will be from Osaka, Japan.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Montréal

Off again to Canada to visit my daughter.  I'll be on an Air France flight early afternoon and staying
most of next week.

Montréal is one of my favorite cities and I'm looking forward to revisiting the planetarium and many other places that we've come to know and love.  The younger Frenchling has promised a thorough tour of the Université de Montréal campus.  Temperatures are a bit above freezing and the forecast says no snow next week (thank goodness).

If I have time I will post a few pictures.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Walls: Americans in Mexico

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down."

Mending Wall, Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The United States of America does not sit in splendid isolation on the North American continent; it is sandwiched between the foreign sovereign countries of Canada and Mexico with two extravagantly long and until very recently, relatively undefended borders.  9/11 changed so much as Americans, who had felt protected by the vast oceans between their country and the rest of the world, suddenly realized that they were far more vulnerable then they ever dreamed. 

Thus no one should be surprised that the United States began paying more attention to its "near abroad" in the years that followed that catastrophe and so in 2006 US lawmakers passed a bill to build a 700 mile wall on the border between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico.  A very popular project in the USA;  it passed the House and the Senate with comfortable majorities and was signed into law by President Bush.  A wall is a powerful symbol and one's interpretation and feelings about it depend greatly on where one sits in relation to it.

As the United States government was building this wall, a large number of American citizens were either already on the other side of it in Mexico or were merrily heading past it going south. I am endlessly fascinated by how Americans and their government in the US focus entirely on the flow into the US and pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the outbound flow (unless, of course, it is to focus on the few who go off to join terrorists groups, for example).

Just a few short years after this wall project kicked off Sheila Croucher published the results of a study she made of Americans in Mexico called The Other Side of the Fence.  A lot to like in this book - she asks some very good (troubling even) questions about what she found.  However, I think a few caveats are in order here first.  

The study was limited to two towns in Mexico that have significant American communities. She conducted extensive interviews and spent time in these communities observing them.  What she wrote was a "thick description" of them based on what she was told and what she saw.  Moreover, there is not much distance between her and her subjects :  she is a homeland American academic studying Americans in a different context where language and common culture are a given, not an issue.  An argument could be made that she is simply exposing a kind of narcissism of small differences between these people and their compatriots on the other side of the wall.  Also the strong reliance on personal interviews can be suspect because people are not necessarily honest.  One could argue that she didn't spend enough time there to get a broad enough perspective. I have an extended family member living in Mexico and I did not recognize her at all in any of the portraits painted by Croucher.

Sometimes, thick description looks a lot like writing biography, a perilous undertaking with the dead, much less the living:
"..all we have to do is look and listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures - for they are rather under life size - will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meaning which never struck them..." (Virginia Woolf, 1930)
What saves the book is that she is aware of these things and admits to those limitations.  This is not a definitive book about Americans in Mexico in the first decade of the 21st century.  It's a sketch that leaves out a lot and once we have that firmly in our minds, we can look more closely at some of her arguments and the questions she asks about the meaning of this group in the larger picture of regional migration on the North American continent.

One of the most salient points she makes is that these US citizens in Mexico are significant (a high estimate says that there over 1 million of them living south of the border) and that there are commonalities between Mexicans in the US and Americans in Mexico.  Both, she says, comprise the largest portion of the foreign-born in both places.  Mexicans in the US in 2003 were 30% of the foreign-born in the US and US migrants in Mexico were a whopping 69% of the foreign-born population there:  "In other words, while the absolutely numbers of Mexican immigrants in the United States might be higher, the relative size of Americans in Mexico may be as great, or greater."

Another commonality is that both move at least in part because of economic factors.  In her analysis of push/pull factors she noted that a low cost of living in Mexico is a big "pull".  They can simply live better on less with access to more affordable housing, household help, and cheaper healthcare.  This is international retirement migration and these Americans are doing what many French and UK retirees are also doing - finding a place where their limited retirement dollars buy a better life.  What she finds more interesting are the "push" factors - that life in the US is perceived as unaffordable for people on fixed incomes and that the social and cultural rhythms in Mexico are more attractive and fill a void that they did not know they felt until the left the US.  Some of the features of US culture that they say they are relieved to have escaped are, she says:  "a hurried uptightness about time, a readiness to judge others, a fixation with material consumption" and different attitudes toward family, a warmer social context and a respect for older people.

All of  this is very interesting but where Croucher shines is when she raises uncomfortable questions and at times makes some very keen but unflattering observations.  In a discussion about why Americans living long-term outside the US are so reluctant to call themselves "immigrants" or "migrants" she talks about race and racism. You might not like that very much and neither did I.  And yet rereading an old post about these terms, note how I deftly skipped around the race issue:
People from developed nations who move to to other countries usually refer to themselves as "expatriates." People from developing nations are called "immigrants." What is the difference here other than the supposed "rank" of the country of origin? This makes me very uncomfortable because it feels like those of us from developed nations are trying to elevate ourselves and put distance between us and those who move from poorer countries in search (many claim) of economic gain..
This is one we need to think long and hard about.  What is the difference really between an American who comes to France to live, work and marry and someone from Tunisia who comes for the exact same purposes?   Wealth is not an answer, nor is education.  I know Tunisians in Paris who are far better educated and have a great deal more money then many of the Americans I know. I don't think it's coincidence that Croucher talks about this in the context of Americans in Mexico and Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels talks about it in her book on Americans in Europe.

There are other observations in her book that I am sure will raise some hackles but I personally found the book to be a breath of fresh air.  Americans abroad are people, not archangels, for heaven's sake. This book does not exactly extol our virtues but that makes it a much better read for me than someone who presents me with comfortable platitudes about all the good we do abroad,  or who casts us all as villains in a morality tale about tax evasion.  The terms we use and the stories we tell about ourselves should be scrutinized more thoroughly.  

Are these the walls we build in our minds? 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

TED Talk: Why Privacy Matters

Speaking of Orwell, here is an outstanding Ted talk by Glenn Greenwald (h/t Jim).

Has the best response I've seen so far to the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from surveillance" argument. A statement so silly that I simply cannot take it seriously. Greenwald points out that those who say this don't really believe it and go to great effort to be sure that they are not subject to it.

But those who do claim loudly that they are "nice" people with nothing to hide (or who simply do not have the means to create their own personal privacy bubble)  make themselves into small, submissive  subservient citizens. And that is deadly for democracy.  As J.C. Scott put it in Two Cheers for Anarchism:
The implications of a life lived largely in subservience for the quality of citizenship in a democracy are also ominous. Is it reasonable to expect someone whose waking life is almost completely lived in subservience and who has acquired the habits of survival and self-preservation in such settings to suddenly become, in a town meeting, a courageous, independent-thinking, risk-taking model of individual sovereignty? 


Friday, October 10, 2014

Empire: The Elephant in the Room

Last week I picked up and read a collection of George Orwell's essays.  I love Orwell for many reasons, but one is surely the difficulty one has pinning him down politically.    He's been deified or vilified by people all along the political spectrum.  He fought in the Spanish Civil War at one point in his life, but as a young man he was a servant of empire, the British one, and that experience led him to write the famous essay "Shooting an Elephant".

Far better minds than mine have killed many trees in the analysis of this piece of work.  I personally read it many years ago when I was very young and had yet to obtain a passport, much less purchase a plane ticket.  In short, it was wasted on me and the only reaction I had to it then, as I recall, was, "That poor elephant."  And what a terrible terrible thing it was to shoot it.

As you can imagine, I read it very differently today.  My heart went out to this young man sent out to do the "dirty work of the Empire at close quarters."  Yes, he volunteered for it and yes he came to hate it.  And the question I asked myself at the end of the essay was this:  Could Orwell have been anything other than a servant of the empire in that place, at that time?  If he had wanted to be in Burma - just to be there as a resident, an expatriate - on his own terms, could he have done so?  Just as Eric Blair - civilian writer, traveller, observer -  with no other agenda than to enjoy his time there, learn the language, and perhaps write a book or two.  Would it have been possible for him to completely disassociate himself from the empire he hated in that place, even if he had gone off to a small village where none of his compatriots lived, and he publicly disavowed any connection (official or un-official) to that empire?

I think the answer to that is No.  Two things would have made that a hopeless project:  the empire claims its own and asks for services to be rendered either directly or indirectly;  and because the local people put the onus of representing that empire on the individual from it regardless of whether or not he wishes to assume that responsibility.

It's hard to pin down when exactly the United States became an empire.  Was it as early as the move westward and the conquering of the indigenous peoples and the creation of "captive nations"?  Perhaps but that is a matter for historians to ponder.  What we can say is that in the 190 or so countries that exist in the world today, over 150 have some sort of US military presence that we know about.   With those numbers, it is highly likely that any country where American civilians arrive to live and work,  they will do so alongside the soldiers, advisers and civil servants (the George Orwells) that directly serve the American empire. As civilians we will never be asked to slay an elephant on behalf of empire, but it is not a bit disingenuous to claim that we have no connection to such things whatsoever?

What I am trying to say here is that above and beyond all the discussion about whether civilian Americans abroad are migrants or expatriates, loyal Americans or traitorous tax cheats, there is a very controversial question to be considered:  What is our relationship to the American Empire?  

Unlike the soldiers and the civil servants we have no official role, but like them our presence is not neutral whether we live in a region where there are "boots on the ground" or simply a place where "America" is alive and well in people's imaginations.   As individuals and as communities, we must position ourselves in relation to it which can mean anything from a stubborn refusal to be a part of it and do its work, to proudly claiming the title of "unofficial ambassador".  It may even be possible that some of us serve it unintentionally, lulled or lured into it with the promise of privilege, or perhaps deriving a sense of safety from alignment with power.

What we cannot do if we are intellectually honest is to deny that there is any relationship at all.

And is there an argument that we are just as trapped in some ways in 2014 as Orwell was in 1922?

I don't know but I think these are questions worth asking.  Lurking behind the scenes in every civilian American abroad autobiography, every article from a "creative" in an exotic locale, every news report filed from overseas, every blog post, interview and even academic papers put out there by America's "domestic abroad" is an elephant named Empire.

Or so it seems to me.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Flophouse Milestone: 400,000 hits

A few days ago the hit counter on my blog dashboard reached 400,000 hits.  (That is the total number of hits received over the years the Flophouse has been in existence.)

I started the Flophouse back in 2008 for reasons that seem rather vague today. I knew I wanted to write, but I couldn't muster the effort to publish more than a few posts a year. That changed in 2011 when all of a sudden I found my voice and started posting nearly every day.

Something that year just clicked and I think it had everything to do with getting sober and realizing that I had, more or less by accident, become a Lapsed Agnostic. I know that we all dream Hemingway dreams but, for me, any creativity I possess was only unleashed after I put the genie back in the bottle and set it aside for good.

2012 was, depending on your point of view, my annus horribilis (terrible year) or my annus mirabilis (year of wonders). I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer (three tumors and it had spread to the lymph nodes). But, oh miracle, I got through the poison and the rays and came out on the other side with my sanity intact. The blog was a big part of that. I couldn't even walk at one point but I could always write no matter what. 

 Today there are nearly 900 posts on this blog on a wide range of subjects:  Crossing Cultures, Cancer, Citizenship and, of course, the American Diaspora Tax War.  Two of the most popular posts are about two very different topics:  bi-cultural marriages and my Godin woodstove.  Go figure.

I'm told (often) that I would get many more hits if I just focused better. I'm sure they are right.  The only answer I can give is this:  I was on my way out of this world and for some inexplicable reason, I am still here - more time bestowed on me by a benevolent universe.  I don't think that this was for my benefit (and it sure as hell wasn't a reward for virtuous living). I think it's because I still have work to do.  Discerning what that work is and getting out there and doing it is my purpose.

So I don't plan what I write and there is no publishing schedule. I just get up every morning and have at it. If it's meant to be then something will present itself as the topic of the day.  If not, I gently let it go and go about my day.  I believe that this impulse does not come from me but from something outside of me.  Dante Deo.

Certain posts and some topics get more hits than others but that's completely irrelevant. It's like "sharing" at an AA meeting. There is structure - you raise your hand, the speaker gives you a nod and you have so many minutes to talk without interruption - but what you say is up to you and comes from the deepest parts of your soul. This exercise is not only good for you (gets things off your chest) but it's also good for others. What you have to say just might be exactly what just one person in that room needs to hear that day. It's service. I hope that this blog is like that. Whether a post gets 5 or 5,000 hits, it doesn't matter as long as it has served.

Some days I still can't believe that I have readers - I just don't have enough relatives to account for  400,000 hits. Some of you I've come to know over the past couple of years through your comments, emails and snail mail letters.  More recently, I've walked into meeting rooms, restaurants and halls and met some of you in person. You have no idea how much joy I get from those encounters or seeing your missives in my mailboxes.  I am so fortunate that you came into my life. Whatever you may get from this blog, believe me, you've given so much more - the gift of your time and your attention. 

Thank you. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lee and Bopp: A Chance to Turn the Tide

"There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures."

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4

Bright and early Monday morning, Senator Mike Lee and superlawyer James Bopp, Jr. addressed a full house of frustrated and forlorn US citizens over at Reid Hall in Paris.  Some came in suits, some in jeans. There was a very young woman with blue streaks in her hair and men whose touches of gray were a testimonial to a lot of living.  There were lawyers, stay at home mothers, IT workers and artists.  A diverse group that was far more representative of the true face of Americans abroad than the usual caricatures of champagne-sipping yacht-owners living it up in Gay Paree.  It was coffee and croissants and a frank discussion that at times was fraught with emotion. 

Senator Lee spoke first and he began with some anecdotes from the time when he was first elected to the Senate.  He's a young man with a quiet and modest demeanour.  He recounted how in the very beginning he had moments where because of his youth and appearance he was taken for something other than a member of that august body, the US Senate, and how he finally had to quietly but firmly assert himself as the elected-by-the-people junior Senator from Utah.  He invited us to laugh with him and we did. But the funny stories took a very serious turn when he shared the lesson he drew from that experience: "We must assert what is rightfully ours," he said, "if it is to have any meaning."  

US citizens wherever they live, he said, have constitutional rights that cannot be taken away by anyone.  

And how can the Senator say such a thing with so much conviction?  Because he was an American abroad himself.  Because his mother was born in Europe to two expatriate American citizens. Because he has a son abroad today.

With great candour he explained that FATCA was part of a larger bill that most US lawmakers probably didn't read and surely barely understood before they voted on it.  Furthermore, there was no real political risk to them - no chance that they would lose their seats by attacking Americans abroad, a population little-known and slightly threatening to people in the American homeland.  In light of what has happened since it was passed (the citizenship renunciations and the widespread discrimination it has brought to US citizens abroad), it should be repealed, he said, and that's not a liberal versus conservative, or republicans versus democrats issue; it's an American issue.  "I will fight until it's done," he assured us, and, "While you can't vote for me, I can vote for you."

Mr. Bopp then took the floor and with quiet precision he laid out the case he is preparing against FATCA and the hated FBAR (renamed the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network Form 114), the latter of which he rightly noted, is based on the assumption that Americans abroad are all tax cheats and simply can't be trusted.  FATCA, too, is all about stopping the, as John McCain said, "illegal activities" of the American population abroad.  The fines for non-compliance are clearly excessive, he said, and noted one case where an individual caught in the dragnet ended up paying 150% of the value of the non-reported account. 

Americans have rights, he noted, under the US Constitution.  Government must make an "individualized determination and (have) probable cause" to go after people it believes are violating the law.  FATCA and FBAR are nothing more than "fishing expeditions" and while the US IRS does have some leniency in this area, this is "off the scale" and he believes that US courts will strike them down.  And all this, he said, to enforce a system of citizenship (not residence)-based taxation which results in "adverse and differential treatment" against Americans abroad.

As for the IGA's  (intergovernmental agreements to implements FATCA in foreign countries) there is a serious question about their legitimacy on the US side.  Agreements with foreign countries normally require the "advice and consent" of the Senate - something which was not done.  Attempts to pass them off as "pre-authorized" or as "sole executive agreements" are questionable because the latter is normally only used for "routine, non-substantive, administrative matters" and it's quite a stretch to consider the FATCA IGAs "routine".

There will be substantial litigation, he said, and a tenacious defense of FATCA.  Already, just after the news of the lawsuit and the Republican National Committee resolution against FATCA and for RBT, they were accused of lining up with the "Fat Cats" abroad;  Bopp noted jokingly (and a bit ironically)  that he was so pleased to have finally met us in person, in this room in Paris this morning.

In answer to one of the first questions asked by the audience about the seriousness of this effort and if we can believe that they will indeed follow through, Bopp replied that he was very serious about  it and that his reputation to a certain extent is on the line here.  Yes, he said we will carry on regardless of what happens in the mid-term elections.  They plan to file the suit 30-60 days after the end of this tour of Europe. 

That is the substance of their remarks from my copious notes and I hope I have done them justice here.  My personal take on it is that I found them to be entirely credible - non-partisan, thoughtful, clear, and with a surprisingly good understanding of just how bad things have become for America's little-loved communities abroad.  

Let's be brutally honest here:  we are already in the shallows, and we are losing this fight, folks.  All attempts to work within the political arena in the US have come to nothing.  All the proposals, from revising the tax code to mitigating FATCA, have not moved forward as far as I can tell. (And, if that's not true, then I invite those who are working on these things to explain in detail where they are right now in their efforts, and if they have made more progress behind the scenes than is apparent to those like me who read their press releases.) 

I believe it is past time to go from influencing and educating to asserting what is rightfully ours. The alternatives are so ghastly as to be unthinkable for so many of us:  more discrimination, financial ruin, and second-class citizenship - a people with rights that are so eroded that our US citizenship is rendered meaningless in any case,  and renouncing becomes the only viable solution to what ails us.   

That is where I see us headed if we don't stand up and fight.  I honestly think this is the best chance (perhaps the only chance) we have along with the Canadian Charter Challenge.  We can continue to be isolated little corks bobbing on the sea at the mercy of the political winds and wishfully hoping that somehow our pleas will move the exalted to be merciful, or we can get in the boat and start rowing with a current that is trying to take us to a better place.  

(And I could care less who got to name the damn boat.)

And if we fail? 

Well, we will have tried and that is good enough for me.

"There is a tide..."  

.......................................................

Senator Lee and James Bopp are asking for support.  If you want to make a donation (and I will) you can do so here:  FATCA Legal Action.  The entity that is collecting this money is a 501(c)(4) organization and the money can only be used for the lawsuit and lobbying against FATCA.  For those of you who are concerned that it will be diverted to other causes or to support Republican party efforts in the US, that would be an illegal use of that money and get them in a heap of trouble.  So I think we can safely lay those fears to rest.

And if I may, I'd like to ask you to do one more thing:  get out your phone book or your email contact list, and tell as many Americans abroad and at home about this effort.  Spread the word and the link by all means possible:  Facebook, Twitter, email, snail mail, phone calls, skype.  If every American abroad reaches just a few people with the news and asking them to, in turn, tell their friends, family and any American organization they belong to locally, we can send this news around the planet, and reach as many people as possible.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Flop and Bopp

"We must remember three things:
Number one and first in importance, we must have as much fun as we can with what we have.
Number two, we must eat as well as we can, because if we don't we won't have the health and strength to have as much fun as we might.
And number three and third in importance, we must keep the house reasonably in order, wash the dishes and such things. But we will not let the last interfere with the other two."

Ed Ricketts quoted by John Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez

It came to my attention yesterday that some out-of-towners are showing up for the Bopp event on Monday.  So in their honor I have decided to throw open the Flophouse on Saturday, October 4.  From 10 AM to 4 PM anyone who would like to stop by my little maison ouvrière here in Versailles is most welcome to do so.

Nothing fancy, it's a come as you are, and stay for as little or as long as you like.  In line with the philosophy of the sagacious Mr. Ricketts, the Flophouse will be "reasonably in order." There will be coffee, and, if I'm inspired, pumpkin pie to restore your strength after the long trek out to Versailles.  The house is small but it has two porches, a garden and many places to sit and chat.  And the last is (at least for me) the fun part.  As Madame G says often (and with deep satisfaction) Ah, ça fait du bien de bavarder un peu...

If you would like to show up, just send me an email:  v_ferauge@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bopping at Reid Hall

Anyone remember Crocodile Rock?  Elton John?  All that "hopping and bopping"?

When I heard that James Bopp Jr and Senator Mike Lee were coming to Europe, I swear that "bopping" was the first word that came to my mind.  Go look it up on-line -  the term has a long and venerable history.  Really. And something tells me that James Bopp Jr has probably been hearing jokes about his name all his life.  But hell, folks, it could have been worse:  Citizens United, anyone?

No offense whatsoever to that distinguished gentleman who has taken on (much to our relief and joy) the sisyphean task of fighting FATCA in the US. Qui aime bien châtie bien.

On Monday, October 6, he will be in Paris with Senator Mike Lee for an information session at Reid Hall.  The event is being sponsored by Republican Overseas and the Association of Americans Resident Overseas.  I think we all be fools to miss it.  I have my ticket and if you want to attend too, best to order yours today.  I hear that it is almost sold out.  I hope to see you there bright and early Monday morning.

For a quick preview of their case to repeal FATCA, Republicans Overseas Hong Kong has released this short video.  It's quite good (and distressingly accurate).

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Trials of Trying to Be a Better Reader

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 

Dr. Seuss

Early last week the Flophouse experienced a most fortuitous event:  our Internet connection died.  That's right, over four days of no access to email, on-line media and all the other goodies at one's fingertips.

Once past the whining "Whatever shall I do?"  I picked up two books that I had been trying to read in fits and starts over the past few months and finally finished them:  Imaginary Homelands and  Great Books.  The first is a set of really fine essays covering a wide variety of topics by the famous novelist Salman Rushdie.  The second is a tale about second chances and how a man exposed to the Great Books in his youth goes back to university to read them again decades later.  These are fine books and I liked them both for different reasons.

Rushdie is simply a master essayist and could write beautifully on any topic.  David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker and not nearly as good a writer as Rushdie but could you imagine a juicier topic?  Family man nearing middle-age heading back to university to read Homer again (and discover Virginia Woolf for the first time).

I finished both, the Internet magically came back to life after the intervention of a technician from Orange, and, as I sat down to deal with my overflowing email in-box, I felt no sense of relief or gratitude.  I went from the world of slow reading and contemplation to "staccato signals of constant information."   Perhaps it's my age but I realized that I can't do both.  I can't give a good book my full attention and be jumping up every few minutes to check the latest link or missive that has just popped up on my screen.

So my resolve is to do for myself what the storm did for me last week:  shut the Internet down every day.  

Is that all there is to it?  Shut down the Internet and instantly become a better reader?  No, I think this is simply a first step - a reversal of pernicious habits acquired over the course of years.

I never have a destination in mind as I make my book selections, but oddly enough I tend to stumble on things that turn out to be more or less what I need at any particular moment (a lot like going to an AA meeting.)  And so, as I was hardening my resolve to limit my on-line life, I came across Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, a title that is easy to mock, and yet...

A surprisingly good read.  Some of my pleasure was surely in finding that what I have always been told are bad habits, are, in his view, perfectly reasonable things to do while reading.  Like taking copious notes on the inside cover, foxing pages, writing in the margins, highlighting, and even skimming (he calls this "Inspectional reading").  For deeper levels of reading (analytical and syntopical) he gives a guide to how to go about it:  the tasks, the questions to ask and answer.  

Very useful for reading non-fiction (what he calls practical and theoretical "expository" books).  What about fiction? Or poetry?    "Read it quickly," he says, "and with total immersion."  Suspend your disbelief, enter the world of the author, and don't puzzle over things and characters you don't understand right away. In short, give it a chance to work its magic - something that takes time and attention.  As for poetry, read it once and then it read it again out loud. (This also applies to Saint Augustine's Confessions which were probably spoken live to an audience.)

Most of Adler's book is very precise and sometimes a bit pedantic.  Where he becomes vague is when he talks about what to read.
You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity.  You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head.
And then, in the appendix, he has a list of books that are difficult reads and are likely to be a stretch for many of us.  Fair enough and having read some of the books on his list, I think he's right.

But I think he underestimated the prejudices we bring to certain books and our own arrogance.  There are books we pick up and because of the genre or the cover or some signal that we latch on to unconsciously, we assume from the start that the book is a "light read" or "trash" and we treat it as such.  And then something happens to us once we've finished it:  as hard as we try, we can't stop thinking about it.

I have a couple of books like this on my Best Reads list and I will give you one of them as an example.  I have read it twice and it still bothers me:  The Reluctant Dom by Tymber Dalton.  If you read the title and thought Fifty Shades of Grey, you are kind of right.  It is one of those modern erotic romances with BDSM and polyamory and stuff that seems to shock even the most modern and liberal of sensibilities.  I have struggled mightily to express why I think the book is much more than that and can be read and re-read on different levels.  Here is one stab at it (my latest):
A modern couple very much in love but one partner has come to the marriage deeply damaged.  Completely by accident they find a way of coping together which is deeply satisfying for both of them but is outside the boundaries of what the larger society finds "normal".   The stakes are very high:  it's not whether or not the two will stay together, but whether or not the wife will live or die.  And then the husband, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and while his death is certain, he commits himself to his wife's survival.  That means bringing in another person and trying to build intentionally what he and his wife came to accidentally.  Right up to the very end of the book, it is not clear if this is going to work or not,  with terrible consequences if it doesn't.
There is nothing simple about this tale.  It was, and still is, a stretch for me.  Not because the language is difficult (Dalton is a good writer) but because wrapping your mind around all that's going on this book is hard if you read it as something more than just erotica.

So, from Rushdie to Denby, from Great Books to ones that will never be part of any canon but are considered to be worthwhile, I think "free range reading" is important and time should be allocated to it:  picking up a book at random, or even better picking one from a genre that you don't usually read (and perhaps have strong prejudices about) and giving it a fair reading.   That's how I found The Reluctant Dom, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter and Clifford Geertz's Interpretation of Cultures.  

I suspect that Adler would have applauded two out of three; but he's dead and I'm not reading for his or anyone else's approval.

Time to shut down the computer, work in the garden and then set myself to some serious reading this afternoon.  Have a lovely day, everyone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Return to Our Wandering Ways

"The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves-because they are so defined by others-by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves. The migrant suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier.” 
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
If you've read the short post, What is a "Flophouse"?  then you know that our little Franco-American household has set up shop over the years in all kinds of places around the world like Seattle (USA), Suresnes, (France) and Tokyo (Japan). 

Oh, those wandering ways of ours!  Why?  Why pack up every few years, leave friends and family, and all that is (or has become) familiar, for a distant shore halfway across the world?  I could be disingenuous and give you the short answer - work -  but that's not the whole story.

We go because we can.  Because opportunities present themselves.  When asked, "Would you like to go to...?" our answer has always been a resounding, "Yes!"  As Susan Ossman points out in Moving Matters, having packed up and left everything once, twice, thrice  the destination may be a mystery, but the feelings and the process are now very familiar.

Kansai region (dark green) - Wikipedia Commons
The next destination for the Flophouse is Osaka, Japan

This is a city on the sea in the Kansai region, not too far from Kobe and Kyoto.   

Japan is not a complete mystery to us - we lived in Tokyo years ago - but I know next to nothing about this region.  All the traveling I did when I lived in that great city was out of the country across the water to Korea and China. (It was a little like living in the Paris area and traveling to London, Brussels or Munich but never Lyon, Marseilles or Bordeaux.)  In short, there is more to France than Paris, and there is much more to Japan than just Tokyo.

I will not hide, however, my feelings which were (are?) mixed:   the thrill to be going off on another adventure is tinged with anxiety.  This is Asia where not only do I not know the language well, I can't even read it with any fluency.  I am cancer-free but still under treatment and it will be wrench to lose my clinic and my beloved oncologist (both of which have managed to keep me alive these past few years).   And this time around I will not be working, so making a life for myself will take effort on my part.  

Against all that vague uncertainty is recognition that the universe is indeed benevolent and is offering a second chance.  If I left Japan last time having missed a great deal, and with a sense of not having done much except work like a demon (and, alas, drink), then is this not an unexpected but most welcome opportunity to do better?  Japan is simply one of the most extraordinary countries I've ever lived in and has a graciousness and quiet beauty the likes of which I have never found in either North America or Europe.  

As for keeping myself occupied and content wherever I land, all that I have lived in the past few years (sobriety, cancer, and the transformation from technologist to wordsmith) give me every reason to be optimistic and to fully feel the lovely frisson that comes with rejoining the world of "the people who move around." I can stay sober, live with cancer, and write anywhere on this planet. So....
“Let us simmer over our incalculable cauldron, our enthralling confusion, our hotchpotch of impulses, our perpetual miracle - for the soul throws up wonders every second. Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death; let us say what comes into our heads, repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what the world does or thinks or says. For nothing matters except life.”  
Virginia Woolf

Friday, September 19, 2014

FATCA Now the Law of the Land in France

For those of you who missed the FATCA debate yesterday in the French parliament, here are the essential links:

The video of the discussion (go to the box on the right side of the screen and scroll down and click on ACCORD FRANCE-ÉTATS-UNIS D’AMÉRIQUE RESPECT OBLIGATIONS FISCALES (LOI FATCA)
The transcription of the debate

I watched it this morning and here are few of my thoughts.

First of all, I was impressed by the high caliber of the discussion. All the individuals who spoke did so clearly and thoughfully.  I heartily wish American politicans could do half as well.

Framing:  I was very interested in seeing how the pro-FATCA camp framed their arguments and addressed certain reservations already put forward in previous debates.

The larger context, of course, is the Good Fight against tax evasion and fraud.  Even Pierre Lellouche (UMP) who spoke against the law admitted:
L’objectif affiché se passe bien sûr de toute discussion. Il s’agit d’œuvrer pour la transparence fiscale et de mettre fin, grâce à la coopération des États et à la transmission automatique des informations, à la fraude fiscale massive que connaît le monde : environ 6 000 milliards de dollars qui échappent à toute imposition.
De ce point de vue, personne ne peut être contre. Comme disent les Américains, personne ne peut être contre la tarte aux pommes et la patrie, apple pie and motherhood ; tout le monde est pour ! (Sourires.) À mort la transparence !
(The objective obviously needs no discussion. It is about fiscal transparency and the end, thanks to cooperation among states and the automatic transmission of information, to widespread tax evasion in the world:  6 000 billions of dollars that escape taxes.
From this point of view, no one could be against it.  As the Americans say, no one can be against apple pie and country, apple pie and motherhood;  Everyone is for! (Smiles).  Death to Transparency!
)
Is FATCA THE Solution to Tax Evasion?  Not one speaker thought that FATCA was perfect, they simply differed as to how bad it was and whether or not these problems were deal-breakers.

Expressions of discontent peppered the debate: "extraterritorial", "unilateral"  and the rather grim indictment, "Americans have a tendency to privilege their interests over international law."  If a better, more multilateral proposition had been on the table, then that would have been preferable.  But it's not a perfect world, said its proponents, and it's better than nothing.  If nothing else it has had the salutory effect of moving other information-sharing initiatives forward (OECD, for example) which means that FATCA is just a step on the way to a true and legitimate worldwide standard.

Reciprocity is a Problem:  I was pleasantly surprised that they were aware of just how fragile the US commitment to reciprocity really is.  US law does not at the moment permit the US government to provide the same level of information to France, but the FATCA proponents did not mention ALL of the potential legal and political problems with FATCA on the US side. Mme Odile Saugues:  
Tout d’abord, il existe une incertitude sur le principe de réciprocité, et notamment sur le solde des comptes et la valeur des actifs. Les États-Unis se sont formellement engagés à transmettre ces informations dès que leur droit interne le leur permettra – ce qui n’est pas le cas à ce jour. Les élus républicains du Congrès – Rand Paul, sénateur du Kentucky, et Bill Posey, représentant de l’État de Floride – bloquent actuellement la transmission de ces données dans le cadre du dispositif... Cette situation risque de durer jusqu’aux élections de mi-mandat aux États-Unis, qui auront lieu le 4 novembre prochain.
(First of all there is uncertainty about the principle of reciprocity and especially about account balances and stock values. The US has formally committed to sending this information as soon as their internal laws allow it. Republican lawmakers in Congress - Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky, and Bill Posey, representative from the state of Florida - are blocking the transmission of this information in the context of this law... This situation may continue until the mid-term elections which will take place on November 4.)
Interesting. To my knowledge there is no projet de loi on the American side, just a brief paragraph hidden in the Obama budget bill. Furthermore, there are court cases launched (or about to be launched) in the US and Canada which are a real risk to FATCA. The American lawsuit, in particular, should have been mentioned since it calls into question, among other things, the legality of those inter-governmental agreements on the American side - those IGAs that the French government says they were in part responsible for forcing on the US along with other European countries like Germany.  

I would also say that even if the Democrats were to win and take control of the US Congress, Americans banks and financial institutions are important campaign donors to both parties and they will surely have something to say about reciprocity on the US side.

As one speaker put it about those IGAs and American promises: "Cette rédaction alambiquée est, pour qui connaît les institutions américaines, une vaste plaisanterie, qui rappelle le vieux proverbe selon lequel, en politique, les promesses n’engagent que ceux qui les écoutent."  (This convoluted text is, for those who know American institutions, a joke, reminiscent of the old adage in politics, promises only bind those who listen to them.)  Well said.

Impact of FATCA on French Citizens and Residents: Frédéric Lefebvre was the only speaker who addressed the impact of this law on French citizens. He spoke very eloquently in defense of the French abroad, the "Accidental Americans" in France and the 100,000 US citizens who are legal residents of the French Republic. (The full text of his speech is here.) No one will weep for the tax evaders caught in the net, he said, but:  "Il faut cependant prendre garde, je le dis avec gravité, aux effets pervers du dispositif tel qu’il nous est proposé." (You must be careful, and I say this to you with utmost seriousness, of the perverse effects of this law that you are proposing." )

Frédéric Lefebvre's motion to delay the implementation (and the vote) until these matters can be studied further was voted down and the law implementing FATCA in France was approved.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

John Oliver on Scottish Independence

For those of you who are following this story, this John Oliver piece is well worth watching.



FATCA Debate in the French Parliament

Got an email yesterday from a Flophouse reader pointing out that the UMP Quebec 2014 twitter feed recently tweeted two Flophouse posts.  That was unexpected but pleasantly so.  Thank you to whoever manages that feed and I hope that those who follow it will be inspired to action.  As of this morning there are 29 comments about the US renunciation fee raise on the regulation.gov website and it would be good to have many more.  Please be aware that you can leave a comment anonymously.  That's right, you do not have to give them your name or contact information.

As I was reading the feed I noticed a note from Frédéric Lefebvre, the Député des Français d’Amérique du Nord.  If you are a French abroad in North America, he is your representive in the French national parliament.  He has been an excellent advocate for his constituents who are, alas, part of the collateral damage brought about by FATCA.  In June he met with two dual (French/US) citizens to talk directly with them about how this American legislation impacts them in France.

He says that there will be a parliamentary debate TODAY (September 18, 2014 and it's number 4 on the morning agenda) concerning the legislation that is needed to implement FATCA in France.

For those who are interested (and you are many) here is the projet de loi for FATCA that was introduced in July by Laurent Fabius and passed by the French Senate (via an "accelerated procedure").

And here is a report about the FATCA legislation prepared by Ms. Estelle  GRELIER for the Assembly which was presented and discussed by the Commission des affaires étrangères on September 10.

Hopefully the debate will be recorded and if so I will post it here on the Flophouse.

Update:  You can watch the debate en direct this morning here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tribes and Truth

This delightful Ted video was posted by Andrew over at Multicultural Meanderings.  Hans Rosling is back with his son Ola to explain How Not to Be Ignorant of the World.  A few heuristics for rethinking what we think we know of the world.  To Andrew's short summary of Ola Rosling's points I would add one that I call (for want of a better term) Tribes Never Tell the Truth.

We are social creatures and every human group (family, tribe, clan, class, country, nation, state) we belong to has a story about itself and about the people and places beyond its boundaries and borders. Arjun Appadurai put it quite well when he pointed out that "No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius."

 These stories contain facts mixed with myths to form powerful narratives and we cannot help but evaluate the input we get from the world against the storyline of whatever group we identify with. Even the most indepdendent of thinkers can find himself struggling mightily to incorporate information that challenges what he thinks he already knows about the world.   Those who are quick to recognize this about religion or nationalism should acknowledge that there are quasi-religious narratives lurking under the surface of their "rationality".  As Mircea Eliade said:
"Mythical behaviour can be recognized in the obsession with 'success' that is so characteristic of modern society and that expresses an obscure wish to transcend the limits of the human condition;  in the exodus to Suburbia, in which we can detect the nostalgia for 'primordial perfection';  in the paraphenalia and emotional intensity that characterize what has been called 'the cult of the sacred automobile.'"
These stories are another impediment to seeing the world clearly because challenging them (and finding them wanting) gets us kicked out of a club we desperately wish to belong to.  Most groups (even ones comprised of "free thinkers") do not tolerate even small deviations from the common story.  Is it not true that perceived apostates are treated even more harshly then those who are clearly in the camp of the enemy?  Every group has its own Inquisition, ready to ferret out those who "belong without believing."

So I would add this heuristic to the list - one that was beautifully expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens -  "How do I know that I know this, except that I've always been taught this and never heard anything else? How sure am I of my own views? Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you're bound to be OK, because you're in the safely moral majority."