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

Monday, June 30, 2014

Non-Willful Non-compliance: How We Got Here

"You should have known!"

Don't you just hate people who say that?

7 million Americans abroad and only a few are even quasi-compliant with the American tax system which requires that any American living outside the U.S. file tax returns and foreign bank accounts reports even where all the income and all those bank accounts are in the country of residence (not the US).

That's changing but I think it's useful to explain how this situation arose in the first place. "They should have known" just isn't helpful here and in many cases it is just outright ridiculous.  Why? Because before there was a compliance gap, there was a communication gap.

I'm not interested in pointing fingers and going "tsk tsk" - I already have two children and I don't want to be anyone else's mom (or grandma).  I am interested in getting it fixed because the problem is still with us   There is, I believe, a new American "tax evader" coming off the boat (or plane) every day because people still don't get it.  I meet this people and I assure you that confusion still reigns.   In order to do the Next Right Thing, we have to examine how we did the Wrong Thing.

An American Exception:  There are roughly 190 countries in the world today and only the United States (and Eritrea) has what really should be called a "diaspora tax" (the common term is citizenship-based taxation but that is a misnomer because non-US citizens are taxed under this system as well).  What that means is that any US citizen or foreigner with a certain status in the US who moves to another country is still required to file US tax returns, pay US taxes on any income earned (and unearned) in that other country and report all of his or her bank accounts outside the US.   It's an oddball situation, an outlier, a "who woulda thought" kind of thing.

It's so weird that I had one reader report via email that when he tried to explain it to his fellow Americans in his host country, he was accused of trying to tarnish the good name of the United States with his "anti-US government conspiracy theories."

The Homeland Experience:  Prior to leaving the US, many Americans have already migrated within the United States.  Maybe they were born in Virginia, but they went to school in California and, once they graduated, they landed a job in Wisconsin and settled there.  Happens all the time.  Now a lot of US states have state income taxes but if an American moves five times in as many states,  the state he was born in doesn't follow him around annoying him for tax returns when he is an income-earning, property-owning resident of another state.  So when an American goes abroad this is the model he has in mind and if, after having moved numerous times within the US, he goes abroad to Belize, it just doesn't occur to him that taxation and out-country migration does not work the same way as internal migration.

Accidental Migrants:  Some of the recent research into the American population outside the United States reveals that many (if not most) went abroad thinking that they would go back to the US at some point.  As one study participant (a US lawyer in London) reported to Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, "I was only supposed to be here for one year and that was 18 1/2 years ago."

As they acculturate in their new homes abroad, they become part of the local tax system and start paying local taxes (national and city taxes).  Yes, my fellow Americans in the homeland, if you live in France on a residency permit, you will pay taxes just like everybody else here foreign or native.  Ditto for just about anywhere else in the world.

So having declared and paid in the country of residence, it just doesn't occur to Americans that they are special among all the other nationalities in the world and they (lucky them) get to also report the same income (earned or unearned in the countries of residence) to the United States - a place that they haven't lived in for, say 18 1/2 years.  And if you try to call that person a "tax evader", well, they are likely to take exception to that characterization especially if they have 10+ years of tax compliance in their countries of residence outside the US. It really is a "WTF?" moment when they do figure it out.

Homeland Rhetoric and the Diversity of Americans Abroad:   This is a huge problem because it's about framing and context. The headlines in the media and the common perception of the need for things like FATCA and compliance programs and the like all focus on the hunt for the "rich tax evaders."  So a very common problem I see is that the American au pair or visiting professor or artist or writer or musician or translator or English teacher or stay-at-home mother or university student (who most assuredly are not rich) do not see themselves as being concerned by any of it. "But I hardly make any money here!" is something I hear time and time again.  "Those rules are only for rich people!"

Sorry, but that's not true.  That American English teacher may be making very little but if he or she is making French minimum wage and works even part-time, it's not too hard go over the filing threshold of 10,000 USD/7300 Euros. (And believe me, if you live in France on that kind of money you are very poor indeed).  Or take the American student whose parents perhaps have wired him or her enough cash to pay tuition, first/last month rent and food money - if that student's bank account goes over 7,300 euros then he must file a Foreign Bank Account Report.

It occurred to me once, seeing all those American students at McGill University in Canada, that if the IRS/Treasury wanted to make some quick money (10,000 USD for every non-reported Canadian "offshore" bank account) they could simply get the born-in-the-US student list and start checking them (and their parents back in the US) out.

Few Points of Contact:  7 million US citizens (not to mention Green Card holders) scattered all over the world and even the US embassies and consulates can't count them with a reasonable degree of accuracy.  There is no requirement that Americans have to register with State and most don't.  In some countries there is an American community to plug into with clubs and churches but in many there really isn't - just an "international" community perhaps.  Often the US consulate is only in the main city and Americans who live in the countryside or other regional cities have to travel quite a ways to get to one.  There are around 290 US embassies and consulates in the world but only five IRS international offices, over half in Europe:  Frankfurt, Paris, London, Beijing and Puerto Rico.

In the 20 years I've been abroad I have never seen any tax information "pushed" by the US government to the American communities in any country including the ones that have an IRS presence.  (If you have had a different experience, please say so.) In a few places with large numbers of Americans I have seen non-profits and other volunteer organizations doing their best with tax seminars and the like but these reach only a very small percentage of US citizens abroad.  Given the recent tax troubles there are more events than there used to be but still looks like an American would have to be "plugged in" in some way in order to get any useful information. About the only reliable point of contact that I know of is the trip to the local consulate to renew a passport (every 5 years for minors and every 10 years for adults).

There are probably other factors I'm missing here but that's the general landscape.  Even with all the recent national and international media attention, there is still a lot of confusion about American "citizenship-based taxation".  Until that gets cleared up, there will be new American emigrant and immigrant "non-willful tax evaders" created every minute. (That was actually the headline of a recent article and we just howled with laughter when we read it.)  And we will be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years.  The recent IRS streamline amnesty program is a step in the right direction but that's slapping on a band-aid after the fact.   Common sense would dictate that perhaps it would be a good idea to address the communication gap as well as the compliance gap.

I don't pretend that there is one solution to all this but I can think of a couple of places to start.

How about a "tax note" to be given out to every individual applying for or renewing a Green Card or a visa, or anyone applying for or renewing a US passport inside or outside the United States that says in the clearest language possible: If you leave the US or come in to the US, you should know that the American tax system is a little different and there are some obligations you need to know about.
If you are a US citizen or Green Card holder living abroad you must file US tax returns  and report income earned in your country of residence just like you would if you were still living in the US. In addition to that you will be required to report your foreign-to-the-US-but-local-to-you bank accounts.  Please see IRS publication X or webpage Y for more information.  
If you are an immigrant coming in to the US,  you must report any earned and unearned income, and all your pre-existing bank accounts, from any country outside the United States including your home country/country of citizenship.  Please see IRS publication X or webpage Y for more information. 
I'd suggest that they play with the language a bit to see what is most meaningful to the target audience and what is most likely to get them to act.  Another idea would be to put posters up in conspicuous places in the US consulates and a note on the front page of every US embassy website around the world.  The key here is to challenge the default setting of American emigrants and immigrants and raise awareness.  Surely, mes amis, all this is doable.  More importantly, it's the right thing to do.  Without it, the whole business smells an awful lot like a deliberate trap - a "gotcha" game for emigrants and immigrants alike.  And that perception undermines....

Legitimacy.  Tax authorities can do all sort of very negative things to people who don't comply but enforcement efforts are expensive and most tax systems in developed countries don't rely solely on that.  Education is important and so is something called "tax morale" which just means that people voluntarily comply because they feel a moral obligation to do so, they see a link between their behaviour and a government which is providing valued goods and services, and it feels more or less "fair" to them.

That link is very tenuous to Americans living outside the United States because there are very few services for them abroad (even "protection" isn't really a reality in a lot of places).  Their first reaction is that it isn't fair at all and why should they, unlike all the other citizens/diasporas of the world participating in globalization, be reporting (and often paying taxes) TWICE.  You can call them all the names you like ("tax evader" and so on) and increase the already draconian fines, but the Holy Grail of international voluntary tax compliance will continue to elude everyone and poison the relationship between Americans abroad and the US government until someone stands up and starts the necessary conversation about Why This is Important and Necessary and Why We Need You to Do It.

So let's start talking already and may I suggest that HR 597 would be a good place to start?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Some Last Minute Help with those FBARs

It's down to the wire, folks, and there are just four more days to file your Foreign Bank Account Reports (FBARs aka FinCen 114).

Mine is done and since I like to think of myself as an honest broker, I will say that once I got out of version hell and got into the form, it was much better than in previous years.  So for the folks who clearly put in a lot of work to make it less onerous, I thank you, whoever you are.  I still hate doing it (and I still feel like I'm wasting everyone's time typing in the info for a piddly little account valued at 200 Euros) but it was better.

For those of who who are first time filers, there is a very helpful video (about 6 minutes) by Andrew Mitchel up on Youtube that takes it step by step with screenshots.



One of the most common questions that I am seeing on Facebook, message boards and email is, "Should I (or do I have to) report this or that account?"  Checking, savings and other standard accounts are obvious but there are many others that are kind of country-specific, or at least a reasonable regular person can have a legitimate question about what it is exactly. Not easy to map some kinds of accounts in one country to a category on the US side.  Where to put a plan épargne logement (PEL), for example?  This is a French savings account meant to encourage people to save to buy a house or an apartment.  Is there an equivalent in the US?  I have no idea.

I can't answer these questions but we did get some advice from the local tax office here in France about reporting in the other direction (accounts in the US).  They said, "When in doubt, report everything." So that's what we did and I think that is a very safe and conservative "rule of thumb" right now whoever you have to report to.

Finally, I had a question from a visitor to the Flophouse a few months ago whose bank asked her for proof that she was up to date on her FBAR filings.  These days we file electronically so there is proof of filing this year, but what to do about the years where we submitted the forms by mail and never got anything to confirm that they were received?  How do you prove 6 years of filed FBARs?

I got the answer recently from a tax person and it is possible.  The procedure is here, buried in the middle of this page on the IRS website:

4.26.16.3.7.3  (07-01-2008)
Filing Verification

  1. Filed FBARs are entered onto the Detroit Computing Center’s Currency and Banking Retrieval System (CBRS) database. Filing can be checked by IRS personnel with CBRS passwords.
  2. A CBRS printout of a filed FBAR establishes that any retained FBAR was actually filed and that the retained FBAR has the same information as the filed FBAR. CBRS printouts should be obtained for both the filer’s name and his TIN.
  3. Filers can request verification of the FBARs that they filed 60 days after the date of filing. A request for verification of FBAR filing must be made in writing and should include the filer's name, Taxpayer Identification Number, and filing period. There is a $5.00 fee for verifying five or fewer forms and a $1.00 fee for each additional form. If copies are needed, the additional fee is $0.15 per copy. Checks or money orders should be made payable to the United States Treasury. The payment should be mailed to:
    IRS Detroit Computing Center, P.O. Box 32063, Detroit, MI 48232 Attn.: Verification
I hope some of the information above is useful to you.  Good luck, everyone, and I will light a candle at church on Friday and make an appeal to the Divine Mercy for all of us.

Hell, can't hurt, right?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Time for an update of the Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List - the best books and articles I've read recently about American people and communities abroad.  New books are in green.  

This time around I have added a new section at the very beginning about books that have not been published yet but that I plan on reading as soon as they come out.

As always, please feel free to add to the list or to recommend a title.  

The second part of the list has general books/articles - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues, like citizenship, others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad.  

The third part of the list has books I've read that are the accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live in Mexico, for example.   These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two or for a lifetime.  

The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 by Nancy L. Green. This is a new title by a very prolific author. She is always ALWAYS a great read and I am really looking forward to this one.  Here is an interview she gave about the book. Publication date is July 7, 2014.

The Citizenship of Americans Living Abroad: Democracy and Those Who Leave by Katya C. Long.  Expected publication date is December 1, 2014

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Migrants or Expatriates?  Americans in Europe by Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels. This one came in 2014 and is THE book to read right now if you are interested in knowing something concrete about just who those absent Americans (7 million or so of them) are:  socioeconomic status, political affiliations, host country, integration, identity and so much more.  Short Flophouse review here and an interview she gave about the book here.  

The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804 by Douglas Bradburn.  This came out in 2009 and it examines the development of US citizenship in the post-Revolutionary War period.  Fighting over citizenship in this newly independent state was influenced by what was going on in Europe (the French Revolution), the arrival of yet more immigrants and the naturalization question, and expatriation (how to give up US citizenship).  For the last look no further then the fascinating case of one Gideon Henfield, an American who, when accused of privateering, invoked his "right to expatriate" and informed the court that he was no longer an American, but a Frenchman.  He was acquitted in 1793 and allowed to leave and go about his business. 

Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization by Peter Spiro (2008).  This one is already on the Flophouse Diaspora and International Migration Reading List but it definitely should go here as well.  What has happened, in his view, to US citizenship in a globalized world?  I am planning on re-reading it with my American abroad eye taking into account what has happened in the world to US citizenship since 2010.

Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept by Nancy L. Green.  This article (available on-line) was published in 2009 in the The American Historical Review. Great essay about American expatriation in the legal and cultural senses.  How did the right to expatriate (the right to leave) go from a mechanism for "nation-building" to one of excluding Americans from the nation?

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al.
Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is: "Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007, a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women migrants.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996, this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights, and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

"Gilded Prostitution": Status, Money, And Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery.   The title is a bit off-putting but if you are an American woman married to a foreign national this is a good one.  The marriages examined here are between elites (U.S. and U.K.) over a century ago and yet some of the negative (and positive) attitudes about women who marry foreigners and leave America are all too familiar.  Under it all, of course, were questions of citizenship (should women lose their citizenship because they marry "out") and taxation where money followed these women abroad.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer
This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

"The inclusion of those overseas Americans in this category raises some interesting theoretical questions:  Can the Americans, who themselves are of diverse ethnic origins and are citizens of a civic state rather than an ethnic state, be regarded as belonging in the category of ethno-national diasporas, or do they constitute yet another borderline case?"

A Gathering of Fugitives:  American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (2002) by Diana Anhalt. a fascinating portrait of American political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." Flophouse review here.

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

Beyond Borders: Portraits Of American Women From Around The World by My-Linh Kunst
A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.

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The American (2007) by Franz-Olivier Giesbert.  A rather dark book but with a unique perspective.  The author is an Accidental American in France who wrote about his relationship with his American father.  Flophouse review here.

Second Skin (2012) by Diana Anhalt.  Some stunning poetry from the author of A Gathering of Fugitives. She writes about her host country (Mexico), languages (English/Spanish) and much more.  One of my favorite lines from her work:

"Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)"
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
This is a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's).  She was a serial expat but this book is about the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  Kapil has a fine blog called Iris sans frontières.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Transnational Politics: Fighting on the FATCA Front

"Political transnationalism is often characterized as from above (outreach by government) or from below (migrant-initiated)."

"Discussions of political transnationalism usually draw on research on South-North migration...with the result that many of the broader explanations for transnational engagement have an underlying assumption of South-North migration.  These assumptions do not hold in the case of Americans - North-North migrants..."

Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels
Migrant or Expatriates? Americans in Europe

Transnational political activity on the part of developed country migrants in North America, Europe and Asia has not been the subject of much interest by academics working on international migration. It's not even on the radar in the local or international media.  And yet, in the case of US migrants, it's been going on pretty continuously since the 1950's.  For the French abroad (over 100,000 in the US by the way) they have had direct representation in the national homeland parliament since 2004.  Both groups have the right to vote in their home countries and, if they are duals, the right to vote in both countries.

Both Americans abroad and the French abroad (not to mention any other migrant group) have broadly very similar political options before them.  They can work to influence politics both back in the home country and in the host country.  Or, in the case of duals, they can be very effective political actors in both countries of citizenship.  They can also appeal to supra-national organizations like the EU or internationals organizations like the OECD or the UN.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) has generated a lot of controversy and a fair number of unintended consequences on a global scale.  Out of the outrage over the "collateral damage" has come political activity on the part of, not just US citizens abroad, but also migrant groups within the US because both are deemed to be US Persons by the American government. (Yes, a "US Person" can be, and quite often is, someone who is NOT a US citizen).

So just as Americans around the world are experiencing banking discrimination, so too are migrants, legal residents, in the US who are seeing their bank accounts being closed in their home countries just because they live in the US or have some connection to it.  This is a particularly pernicious problem for STEM migrants - those much sought after "highly qualified migrants in the US - who had accounts in their home countries where they lived and worked and paid taxes long before they ever moved to the US

Let's take a look at some of the political activity on the part of both US Persons inside and outside the US.  It's an interesting mix of initiatives, court cases and appeals to elected representatives.

Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty (ADCS): This is a coalition of US Persons who live in Canada:  American citizens (many duals) and Green Card holders; "Accidental Americans" who just became aware that they are, in addition to being Canadian, also US citizens; and individuals who believed that they had lost their US citzenship when they became Canadians back in the 1960's/1970's and who are now facing questions about their citizenship status.  Because the US and Canada share a very long, relatively porous border, Canada has one of the largest "US Person" populations in the world (estimated at well over 2 million).

ADCS is fighting the "extraterritorial application of U.S. law in Canada." Whatever their connection to the United States, they are Canadians living in Canada, they say, and as such should not have to live as second-class citizens with fewer privacy rights than their compatriots. FATCA, they argue, "violates the Canadian Constitution in general, the Canadian Charter of Rights in particular, numerous other laws of Canada, the principles of Canadian democracy and the fundamental rights of all Canadians."  They are fighting back by taking the Government of Canada to court.

What is fascinating here is that political support for their position is coming from the Green Party of Canada (definitely Left-wing/progressive) which is hardly a bastion of support for international tax havens or tax evasion/avoidance.

Republican Overseas:  The two major political parties in the US have branches which are committed to organizing Americans outside the US:  Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas.  Both are working on FATCA but from different angles.  DA is arguing for reform while RO is working for repeal by the US Congress and on a challenge to FATCA in US court.

The last is very interesting because like the Canadian challenge this is a challenge based on citizens' rights but, in this case, it's the rights of Americans under the U.S. Constitution (wherever they live) that they are defending.

The lawyer, Mr. James Bopp, Jr (a very well-known US "superlawyer") they retained has said, “It is our preliminary opinion that the potentially meritorious claims are a violation of the treaty power, an 8th Amendment Excessive Fines Claim, and a 4th Amendment Search and Seizure Claim. We believe that these three claims form the basis for a successful suit that would stop the damage that FATCA and FBAR have inflicted on U.S. citizens.”

Stay tuned because this one promises to be interesting.  While Americans abroad do not have direct representation in Congress like the French abroad, this does not mean that they are completely without influence in US elections.  Dr. von Koppenfels notes that there have been at least 5 recent homeland elections that were "tipped" because of overseas ballots.  THE reason in all 5 cases that a Democrat or Republican won was because of the overseas vote which made Americans abroad the "deciders".

Since 2014 is an election year (called "mid-term elections") with many US Congressmen and women facing re-election battles, the big question (or fear) is how Americans abroad will vote.  Will the RO efforts have an impact and will Americans abroad favor the Repubs over the Dems?  Hard to say but there certainly is an opportunity there and given the widespread anger against FATCA it seems likely that many Americans abroad will favor the political party that is perceived to be working hardest in their interests.

Congress/National & EU Parliaments:  There are representatives in national and supra-national parliaments who are working to defend their constituents who are living the negative consequences of FATCA.  Lots of letters, lots of email from the people they represent and in turn these reps are doing their job by bringing the situation to the attention of other lawmakers, government agencies, and the media.

Jaime Herrera Beutler is a US Congresswoman (Republican) who represents the 3rd District in Southwest Washington State (US West Coast).  She has been raising questions in hearings based on mail she has received from her consituents - US citizens living abroad facing banking discrimination.  She clearly takes the mail very seriously and you can see her here raising questions to the new IRS commissioner.

Sophie in't Veld, a MEP (Member of the EU parliament) from The Netherlands has been very active in defense of dual citizens and the privacy rights of Europeans.  Her party is the social liberal party Democrats 66 (part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.)  Go here for her remarks at the EU public FATCA hearing last year.

Frédéric Lefebvre (UMP) represents the French abroad in North America (Canada & the US). Following contact he had with a number of his constituents in the US - French citizens who had their bank accounts in France closed as a result of FATCA -  he started speaking out on their behalf.  The Huffington Post recently published an article he wrote called FATCA:  a Reminder of the Social Role of French Banks (French version here).  He also met recently with two dual French/US citizens and a report of that meeting was just published here.

Quite a lot going on.  What they all share, of course, is that they are working though the political/legal systems in each country on what is clearly a transnational/cross-border/international issue.  Different angles of attack (sovereignty, guaranteed constitutional/Charter/EU liberties, and migrants' rights) certainly, but what I notice immediately is that it is impossible to take all of this activity and place it in a box that says Right-wing versus Left-wing or Conservative versus Progressive.

An interesting example of international political action "from below" - it was not governments or political parties who led the initial fight against FATCA - it all started with migrants/expatriates taking action and organizing themselves, and then raising their concerns to people in the political realm.

How will it end?  I have no idea but I contend that it is one of the best shows on earth right now and I am astounded that it passing unperceived.

Perhaps all politics isn't local after all.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Committee

“It helps to resign as controller of your fate.” - Anne Lamott

"Sortes meae in manu Dei sunt." (My fate is in the hands of God) - Philippe Aries

Surrender is such a sweet word.  In my case, it's more of an aspiration than a reality.  Having spent much of my life as a foot soldier for international capitalism (French, not American, for the most part), vestiges of that mentality remain.  If you aren't a success working 8 hours a day, work 12.  If you are having trouble balancing your dwindling departmental budget and the long list of tasks required by management, just keep staring at the spreadsheet into the wee hours of the morning and surely a solution will come to you.  (If you are still in that world, I heartily recommend Bonjour Paresse by Corinne Maier.  Dilbert works, too.)

Powerful conditioning at work here and it was only after being slammed by two life-threatening events (alcoholism and cancer) that I began to see that there might be another way to approach life - an approach beautifully summarized by Reinhold Neibuhr's Serenity Prayer.  Yet finding the right balance between the things one can and cannot change (between acceptance and right action) is, well, tricky.   And it's the small everyday stuff that can tip one back into insanity - trying to control the uncontrollable and falling into the If-I-just-try-a-little-bit-harder trap.

The trap is there in every project, no matter how small.  Painting my front porch, for example.  Three days of poisonous chemicals, two days with the sander breathing dust and after five days of work,  looking at it and only seeing how imperfect it still is.  And if you think it's bad when I'm painting, believe me it's about a hundred times worse when I'm writing. 

The sign of incipient insanity (or how I know I'm channeling my inner control freak) is something I call The Committee and Ms. Lamott calls radio station KFKD.  I doubt I could better her description, so here goes:
"Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on."
I don't know about you but the part of me that loves to write, to dance with words, to play with ideas, just shrivels and dies in the din. Working harder or longer doesn't help here because the cacophony cannot be caged.  The more I say "I will", the more the voices in my head reply, "Really?  What makes you think that?"

At this point I think that you, my dear reader, have probably determined that I am either suffering from depression or writer's block.  Guilty as charged on both counts.  Or, to look at it another way, The Committee has taken over and it's direct democracy in there - everyone has an equal voice and nobody has anything worth saying.

How to restore order?  I don't.

The Committee derives its power using the classic tool of all dictatorships of the people - isolation.  To survive it must be a closed system where its tenets cannot be tested against another reality.  So instead of fighting the voices that want to make my world very small, I'm letting them deliberate in some dark corner of my mind while I go out and find other voices to listen to.

For me that means less writing, more reading.  Not with the intention of writing anything specific or of beating The Committee up with fresh ideas, but haphazardly - whatever takes my fancy at the moment which could be a steampunk romance novel, a classic of the Western Canon or (something I just discovered) fiscal sociology.

All good stuff.  Or at least I haven't read anything yet that I really regret having picked up. On the contrary, I'm finding some real gems (other perspectives) in unlikely places. What a pleasure it was to pick a book randomly off the shelf and discover a really fine essay by C.S. Lewis about why modern people should read ancient books.  I will leave you with a few of his words and I wish all of you a very restful Sunday.
"Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characterstic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook-even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides might be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against earlier and later ages - by a great mass of common assumptions...
None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truth we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds..."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Breaking Bad

We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Then climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

In the week preceding Father's Day my spouse received a package in the mail from the U.S.  The elder Frenchling gifted her father with Breaking Bad:  The Complete Series.  The tranquility of the Flophouse has been shattered ever since.

I wasn't planning on watching it but our living room is so small, and my reading chair so close to the television, that it was almost impossible to ignore.  My only other option was to go read in the bedroom but that would have deprived me of the company of my spouse in the evening.  So I surrendered and started watching it with him.

To catch up on the parts I missed I went on-line and tried to find a site that could give me the story line.  To my astonishment, I discovered that this series (which I had never heard of) was something of a phenomenon in the U.S.  It first aired in 2008 (just about the time the U.S. started to implode) and according to the Wikipedia article it "has received widespread critical acclaim and has been praised by many critics as one of the greatest television dramas of all time."

I chose not to read any of the reviews (and there were many).  Instead I decided to watch it more attentively with a Rip van Winkle eye.  Think of me as someone who wandered off years ago and now I've come back and someone hands me a CD and says, "Take a look at this.  Everyone is watching it."

Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a rather mild nondescript fellow who has had more than his share of bad luck.   He has a good education - a STEM degree (chemistry) - but he's struggling financially and works two jobs:  a chemistry teacher at a local high school and as a worker in a car wash.  His son was born disabled and his wife is about to have another baby.  He is not in a good place and there is a certain ambiguity about his life's trajectory up to this point because it is a mix of bad choices he made and events that he simply had no control over.  In an argument over internal versus external locus of control, both sides could find elements in the back story to bolster their arguments.

What did it say to me?  This is a world where intelligence and an advanced science degree are not guarantees of anything.  He can't even support his family with what was (and clearly is no longer) a very respectable, even honorable profession, teaching high school chemistry. The family is barely clinging to middle-class status and disaster is just one small step away.  And sure enough, it strikes when Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

Everything that happens up to his diagnosis is like a confirmation of every cautionary tale and negative impression I've ever heard about the United States outside of the United States.  It's the Wild West over there with good people losing the cosmic crapshoot of life through no fault of their own and having to struggle just to survive.  At the beginning of the series Walter looks like a modern Job:  "blameless and upright," a gifted teacher, a good husband and father who is coping as best he can with his bad luck.   After the Great Recession hit and the world watched America implode I heard comments from people in my host country about how Americans seemed to be doing so well in the face of so much personal catastrophe:  losing their homes and retirement incomes, going bankrupt and so on.  Such optimism, they said, and what a commendable lack of whining.  (Not to mention no riots in the streets.)

In the face of his cancer diagnosis and the news that he has less than two years to live, Walter, having played by the rules all his life, decides that there is no longer any percentage in trying to be good guy and he sets out to become very bad indeed. Using his chemistry skills he launches a new career as a metamphetamine "cook" and with the help of a sidekick, learns the business rules of the American drug trade.   I found that things got rather boring and predictable at this point as each episode simply revealed new depths of depravity and cruelty.

I have to ask:  where is that much touted informal social network of family, friends and faith-based organizations that is supposed to replace (and some say are superior to) the government-run networks in other countries?  It's strangely absent here.  Walter is going at it pretty much alone - he does not seem to have health insurance or to be part of some sort of private institution that might help him financially or even give him some moral support. Though, there are offers from well-off friends to pay for his treatment.   Offers that he declines  since he doesn't want to be beholden to people he holds partially responsible for his current problems.

How to express just how unimaginable his situation is to any citizen of a country with a decent social safety network?  This is the United States as dystopia - a horrible place where man suffers alone and being a "good" person gets you nowhere.  The U.S. government (federal) is represented by his brother-in-law, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who is a strange mixture of blustering bravado and a kind of creepy cheeriness.  He smiles and uses a slightly stiff but deceptively pleasant tone as he uses his authority to verbally beat up a street person.

This is the other side of the much vaunted American "niceness."  When I was working in the city and the Americans would come over from HQ to poke around the subsidiary and check things out, I noticed my staff basking in the warm attention, and melting under the smiling visage, of the big boss.  And I took them aside and said something I never imagined I would say:  "Beware of the smiling American," I said.  It doesn't mean he's a nice person and it sure doesn't mean that he likes you or that he will help us when it matters.  (Something, by the way, that turned out to be 100% true.)

That "niceness" infects all the interactions among the characters in the series.  They are all so civil, so apparently well-intentioned, and so incredibly infuriatingly passive. They question nothing about the world they find themselves in.  5000 USD in cash to get in the door to see a doctor and they wince and then pay it.  When they get angry, they blame each other for not being open and honest or (strangely enough) for being too honest and not observing the "nice" code.  When Walter starts telling people what he really thinks of them, he has clearly crossed a line and is destined for hell if he continues to speak his mind and defy the norm of outward civility to all (and with never a hint of the quiet desperation within).

Unknown to his family he is already there and he discovers the he kind of likes it.  At least he finally finds a domain in which he can be a wild success (drug lord).  The supposed acceptance of his uninspiring not-so-wonderful life at the beginning of the series turns out to be a deception. Under the outward resignation and "nice fellow" facade was bitterness and resentment.

Watching his journey toward evil, I have to wonder just how prevalent his feelings are in 21st century America.  Something about his situation and how he reacted to it struck a chord with Americans and made this series a huge success. Is this a revenge fantasy for every American who lost his retirement after a lifetime of hard work, who watched the banks get bailed out while people were thrown out of their homes, who lives on the edge just one illness away from bankruptcy and who, in spite of the promises that if he/she obeyed the rules and did all the right things, that success was within the reach of anyone willing to work hard enough for it, still got screwed anyway?

You tell me.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Frustrated by the FBAR? Send Your Comments to SAMS

From the mail I'm getting, and the comments and questions I see on the on-line conversations I follow, many of you are assiduously working on your U.S. Foreign Bank Accounts Reports. June 30th is the due date for these to be submitted electronically to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The good news is that more people seem to be aware of the filing requirement.  The bad news is all the frustration people are feeling as they try to comply.  I had my own moment this morning when I tried to download the form and got this on my screen instead, "If this message is not eventually replaced by the proper contents of the document, your PDF viewer may not be able to display this type of document" and then told me to upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Dropped straight into version hell and my first reaction was "Well, that does not bode well..."

U.S. citizens and Green Card holders have been told that this form is very VERY important and they must do their duty and comply forthwith lest they be subject to criminal prosecution and draconian penalties (10,000 USD).  People (especially first-time filers) are approaching this exercise with a great deal of trepidation.   If they encounter a problem at the very beginning of the process, they are not going to find that reassuring.

Does it get better once the filer has access to the form?  Not really.

There are 19 pages of instructions for how to fill it out with language like this:
"Throughout these instructions the phrase “check box” and similar wording is used to
denote checking an appropriate box in certain data items on the electronic discrete FBAR. This is deemed equivalent to instructions in the Electronic Filing Requirements to enter appropriate codes in the same data items in transmission files. For example, the requirement to check a box in Item 2 “Type of Filer” in the discrete FBAR is the equivalent of entering one of the codes A through E in “Type of Filer” in the Electronic Filing Requirements Filer Information (2A) Record. "
Furthermore people are reporting that help is hard to come by.  A Flophouse reader left this comment:
"Two days before the deadline, we are still lost in the maze of FBARs, 3520s, and 8938s. We have visited the local IRS office, phoned the "help" lines, and not one IRS representative will help. Never mind "can" help--they will not answer questions, will not let us speak to a supervisor, and direct us to call phone numbers we've already tried."
What a mess this all is and what in heaven's name can we do about it?  Well, here's one idea.

Start by documenting every glitch, every error, every incomprensible paragraph in the instructions, every request for help that went unanswered by the bureaucrats.

And then complain as loudly and as forcefully as you can to the Taxpayer Advocate Service.  This is Nina Olson's shop (she's the National Taxpayer Advocate and a goddess). FBAR problems are looking a lot like a systemic issue, one that "impacts a segment of the taxpayer population. It involves systems, processes, policies, procedures, or legislation; and requires study, analysis, recommendation(s), and action to effect a positive resolution."

The TAS wants to know and has an on-line Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS) to capture your comments and problems so they can bring them to the attention of the IRS Commissioner and Congress.   You have 2000 characters to tell them what a cluster f#$%# this is.

So let them know already.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Truly Great Garage Sale

 It's that time of year again - the annual Porchefontaine vide-grenier (garage sale).

I went last year and it was fabulous.  They close off the streets just past the Porchefontaine train station (RER C line ) and by mid-morning it's packed with stands and folks out there looking for goodies.

It's organized by a neighborhood association, CLAP (Comité de Loisirs et d'Animation de Porchefontaine).  Porchefontaine in Versailles is  like a village within the larger city with its own newspaper (l'Écho des Nouettes) and lots of civic-minded individuals who really care about their quartier.  In addition to the annual garage sale they also organize: a Saint Valentine's celebration, a children's carnival, a plant swap, a toy fair, neighborhood cocktail parties and much more.

What made it fun for me last year?  Walking along the streets and meeting people I knew from church or local businesses I frequent.  Also meeting folks I didn't know in a very relaxed and convivial atmosphere.  It's a "come as you are" sort of thing - wear jeans/shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes and you'll fit right in.

I will be out there at 8:00 sharp Sunday morning.  To see what last year's finds looked like, here's the 2013 post.

Bon weekend!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How to be Uninsured in France

Well, this is a fine situation.  I'm not sure how it happened but I apparently have no health insurance here right now.

Just before we left for Canada I received an urgent note from the cancer clinic saying that they needed an attestation, a piece of paper that confirms that I am indeed covered by the French national health insurance.  I found that odd because in 2012 I was  accorded something called the 100% which covers my care through my cancer treatment (five years).

My spouse was in the neighborhood of the social security center so he went and asked for the document and they replied that we should just go into ameli (a website for the insured where you can do basic stuff like payment info and address changes) and download it.  Well, we tried and the darn system said, "Sorry, no can do.  Come down and see us."

OK.

So on the way back from church and my weekly visit with Madame G I stopped by to see what was up.

After giving the lady at the counter my insurance card and the note from the clinic,  she consulted my account.

"You have no rights!" she said.  And I said, "What?

And then we tried to figure out what happened.  Do you work?  said she.  No, I replied.  Are you getting unemployment?  No.  What are you doing then?  Uh, living?

I swear that the woman was more upset than I was.  At one point I said, "C'est pas grave." (It's not a big deal) and she shot back, "Oh, yes it is, Madame."

Here's the deal.  I was covered for two years after I took myself off unemployment at which point I should have gone down and had myself added under my spouse's social security number.  I didn't know, there wasn't any notification and so they just cut me off.

All fixable.  She gave me a form (isn't there always a form?) and a list of documents to gather and bring back to them and then they'll work their magic so I will be insured again.  I thanked her profusely for her kindness and went home and had coffee on my back porch.

Another bit of business to add to the already very heavy load of paperwork to be done this month.  For those of you not in the know June 15 is the date for Americans abroad to either file their US taxes or ask for an extension.  June 30, of course, is the date to file those loathsome FBAR's (Foreign Bank Account Reports).

The French taxes have already been filed.  All on-line and the few questions we had were ably answered by a nice gentleman at the local tax office.

Looking at all this I find it interesting that on the French side none of this administrative stuff stresses me out.  Systems and procedures are not always well-designed but there is access to real live competent human beings when there is an issue.  Above all, is the sense that they are on my side.  They want me to be insured and they want me to pay my taxes (and, yes, I do see the connection between the two).  And there are people available to help to make both of those things happen.

On the American side is, well, not much trust at all.  Just a lot of stress when I look at the arcane language of the documents designed to "help"; a certain frustration with systems that don't work very well (I had to contact tech support via email last year for the on-line FBAR);  and above all precious few human beings to talk to if something does go wrong.  Not the fault of the US government agencies, by the way, but of their political overlords who seem to think that handing them major legislation to implement and then starving them for funds will have some sort of beneficial outcome.  How they think they can square that circle is beyond me.

I don't like to make comparisons between my home and host country - it is unfair because different doesn't mean better.  It's entirely possible to have divergent means to reach similar objectives.  But I have this uneasy feeling that efficient delivery of public services by dedicated, independent, and competent people (folks mandated to do their very best to help their fellow citizens navigate the systems that lawmakers have made) has been under attack for some time now and we are now in a vicious circle where because there are limited funds, service is poor; and so the average American is left wondering why he should pay taxes at all.

I find it rather ironic that here I am in France - a legal resident but not a citizen - and I have more faith and trust in the French bureaucracy then I do in that of my native country.  Yes, I have had bad experiences with bureaucrats here but overall it's been rather good and yesterday's experience was one exemplary example.

Ronald Reagan once said, "The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."  A rather broad indictment that is subject to diverse interpretations.  Let me be very unkind here and note that he said "English language" which implies that it is Anglo-Saxons who are simply incompetent (or have evil motives) when it comes to government.

Rubbish, I say.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Consenting Citizens

A year or so ago I was reading a bibliography at the back of one of the many citizenship books I have read and found one with a title that I found most intriguing -  Citizenship Without Consent by Peter H. Schuck and Rogers Smith.  It's been on my to-read list because it touches on something that I've been thinking about ever since the American Diaspora Tax War kicked off in 2012: if membership in the political community of a democratic nation-state is strictly voluntary, then at what point does an individual give his or her consent and agree to all the duties and responsibilities of that citizenship?

Just think back to your childhood.  At what point did you understand that you were a citizen with both rights and responsibilities either to the place where you lived or to that distant land whose passport your parents applied for on your behalf?  And was there a moment where you with full awareness of the meaning of that membership, accepted that you were part of a community by birth that made you one with the "We"?

I find it interesting that many of us actively encourage our children to question institutions and groups that we grew up with, or that we see others belonging to from birth, (religion, for example) and yet I don't see those parents asking their children to actively question their birthright citizenship.
On the contrary, in homelands that espouse certain democratic principles, the issue of choice isn't raised within the family, at school or by any other institution that I am aware of.  It's simply taken for granted.  And where the issue of choice is more evident (children born abroad) I have seen American, French and other parents going to some trouble to be sure that their children have homeland passports and accept without question their attachment to those communities.

And lastly, we should all be aware that existing citizenship laws combined with international migration in a global world is creating large numbers of "accidental" citizens.  Is there is a developed democratic nation-state with liberal citizenship transmission laws out there today that actually knows just how many citizens (or those with a claim to citizenship) it has in the world?  I doubt it.

The "accidentals" are individuals who may have never lived in that country but who can come forward at any time to claim their place in another country based on blood or birthplace.  This can work in the other direction as well with a state saying to an individual that it recognizes him as having citizenship in that state and as such has responsibilities to it.

And that begs the question of what recourse an individual has if he or she feels that a citizenship claim by a state is not legitimate because he never gave his express consent to being included in that particular political community.   Can the lack of informed explicit consent on the part of an individual be a reasonable basis for denying a citizenship claim by a state?  And who would decide that?  A tricky question that hinges on so many things like sovereignty and the right of every nation-state to determine who is a member and who isn't; and also how one defines "consent."

So I was delighted to find a copy of Schuck and Smith's book sitting up there on the bookshelf of a friend in Montreal.  She kindly loaned it to me and I read it on the flight back to Paris.  The book was written to address the question of citizenship for the children of undocumented persons in the United States but it also (as I hoped) provides a nice summary of the different theories about citizenship and consent.  It is not a new problem by any means and it touches on some fundamental ideas about liberty, informed choice, and the ability of the individual to make that choice meaningful by having access to alternatives.

Ascription:  Before people were citizens, they were subjects. An individual was born into and grew up under the protection of a sovereign.  This relationship was conceived of as something very similar to a family relationship.  Just as it was unnatural (not to mention ungracious) for a child to disavow his relationship with his parents, so too was it contrary to natural law for an individual to cast off his subjecthood and replace his allegiance to one sovereign with another.

To some extent, vestiges of that old idea are still prevalent today.  Looking at the reactions of a people to news that someone is renouncing his citizenship, there is a visceral reaction to it.  The most often cited reason for the censure is this sense that the renunciant is reneging on some sort of primordial debt.  Just replace "king" with "the people" as the guardians of that debt and it sounds like an argument for perpetual allegiance. It may be perfectly legal to expatriate under international law but it remains morally suspect. A child born and raised in France, for example, is seen as owing something to France and therefore it not normal that he be allowed to simply sever that relationship unilaterally.

Assent:  But we are no longer subjects, right?  Revolutions, We the People, the Rights of Man, those Declarations of Independence and all that jazz.  Today we are voluntary members of a political community.  In fact our governments are deemed legitimate only if they have the consent of the governed and, in theory, we can get rid of a government we don't like or we can leave.   That is exactly what the ancestors of many of us did.  They severed their "natural" attachment to a sovereign and explicitly consented to a new kind of government and a different kind of political community.

So what is the nature of this "consent" if one is a birthright citizen (a citizen by jus sanguinas or jus soli)?  Unlike naturalized citizens, consent of birthright citizens is almost always assumed.  A young American living in the United States or abroad  is not asked at age 18 if he or she wishes to be an American citizen or not.  Assent is assumed and I have never heard of any American citizen by birth being asked the question and offered an alternative.

Schuck and Smith argue that this is by design.  As much as modern democratic nation-states tout the voluntary nature of their political communities, these governments and their people fear giving individuals (especially young people) a choice in the matter.  They want a system of quasi-automatic "opt-in" that retains the principle of ascription (people as "subjects" with little choice) but maintains the illusion that there is actual consent in there somewhere (without which there would be no foundation for the legitimacy of the political system).

Is that a realistic fear?  Maybe.  A thought experiment:  assuming that there was some sort of process for explicitly consenting to citizenship and the state was in some sort of crisis (like an unpopular war or the Great Recession, for example)  wouldn't one one way to register dissatisfaction with the social contract would be to say,  "No, I don't want to be part of this community.  As long as the government is doing X or requires that I do Y, then no, I don't take the deal."  Imagine thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) of young people doing that and, oh my, what a crisis that would be.

Citizenship Without Consent was written to address what the authors see as the shortcomings of the Fourteenth amendment (unconditional jus soli).  They believe that the U.S. should be more restrictive and not confer US citizenship automatically on children born in the US to undocumented residents.  An interesting argument but frankly, it makes me very uneasy that democratic nation-states allow birthright citizenship (with or without explicit consent) at all.  As a category, the "natural born" citizenry feels an awful lot like a hereditary aristocracy and I rest unconvinced that it is possible to square that with Égalité.

What I did like, however, was their rather ingenious (I thought) solution on how to make consent to citizenship meaningful and choice accessible to everyone.

They propose that every American be given an opportunity at age 18 to accept or decline American citizenship, no further questions asked and no explanations required.  Those who declined to become citizens would nevertheless have the right to remain in the United States as permanent resident aliens.  Those who choose to expatriate later, after having lived elsewhere perhaps and acquired another nationality, would also have this right to return to the United States and live there as non-citizen residents.

I find that solution to be both rational and elegant.  It neatly solves the problem of implicit/explicit consent (and I strongly feel that every democracy should base citizenship on explicit consent) while offering humane alternatives.  It would make real choice possible because while there would be consequences to choosing either way,  declining would not lead to a catastrophe like exile.  It would also ensure that those who gave up their citizenship for another would still have a right to return to the United States as visitors or residents.  The cherry on the cake is that it would tidily solve the problem of "accidental" citizens.  Those who don't show up and say, "Yes, I want to be a citizen" could not be claimed against their will even if they were born in the U.S. or if their parents filed a Consular Report of Birth Abroad and obtained a US passport for them.

Locke said it best: “It is plain then, by the practice of governments themselves, as well as by the law of right reason, that a child is born a subject of no country or government. He is under his father’s tuition and authority, till he comes to age of discretion, then he is a freeman, at liberty what government he will put himself under, what body politic he will unite himself to….”

To those who might take exception to this scheme and who prefer tacit consent and restrictions on expatriation, Schuck and Smith point out, "limitations on expatriation...are disturbing for they imply that the nation does not believe that a government that is genuinely "by the people" can avoid perishing without imposing such nonconsensual and illiberal restrictions."

Imply?  Oh, let's just be brutally honest here.  Of course citizens are deeply afraid of what would happen if individuals could just unilaterally opt-out of a nation-state whenever they felt like it. People on the Left are convinced that this would kill the social welfare state.  People on the Right believe that the social fabric of the nation itself would rip apart if people were allowed to walk away from the land their ancestors built with blood, sweat and toil.  They are united in thinking that giving people that kind of freedom is a terrible idea.

In every citizen (myself included sometimes and I should know better) there is a very conservative and thoroughly undemocratic part of us that finds enormous appeal in the idea of ascriptive citizenship and perpetual allegiance. We don't really want our children to choose - we just want them to be French or American or whatever we are - and we don't want our fellow citizens to pack up and leave us with the mess we've made of things.

But do we not live in this wonderful modern world where we are free to question and seek the Good however we might define that?  No one seriously expects adults these days to be bound by the personal philosophies and attachments of their forefathers. Nor are they required to be members of the church into which they were baptized as infants or marry the person their parents chose for them or vote for the same political party or hold the same values as their parents.

Is it really such a stretch to say that every individual should also have the freedom to choose the country, culture and political system that most closely conforms with his personal preferences and is willing to welcome him?  And that no one should be punished or permanently exiled for choosing not to be a member of a political community?

How about a little bravery on our part?  Let's extend the explicit informed consent we require of naturalized citizens to birthright citizens, and let's remove all impediments (however convoluted and indirect) to expatriation.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Most Memorable McGill Graduation Ceremony

"Man plans, God laughs."

Earlier this week the Flophouse was in Montreal for a very important family event:  the Elder Frenchling's graduation ceremony at McGill.  The Phinney Ridge contingent was there as well (the proud grandparents who flew in from Seattle).  We all stayed at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, just down the street from the Notre-Dame Basilica, and we had a fine time eating dim sum and talking to each other en direct without computer-mediated communication (a nice change).

Tuesday morning we got up and put on our Sunday best (suits all around) and headed down to McGill early so we could grab good seats. Bright-eyed and bouncy young things were passing out programs and directing people through tunnels into the huge tent that had been set up on the lawn to shelter the families and graduates in case the weather became inclement.

And for the first hour or so it seemed that they had over-compensated because the weather was fine.  It was so sunny and humid, in fact, that the tent turned into a sauna and we were wiping sweat off our faces while we waited anxiously for the event to begin.  Off came the suit coats and once we had perused the program and located our daughter's name (she was graduate number 680), those lovely programs made fine fans.  

At last the ceremony began and the graduates began to file into the tent serenaded by bagpipes.  It took over 20 minutes to seat everyone before the chancellor could open the ceremonies.

There were the usual speeches, the conferring of an honorary degree on Denise Chong who then gave the commencement address.  Finally we came to the heart of the business and the first undergraduates started crossing the stage to be "tapped".

And then everything went to hell.

While we were watching the action, the weather turned.  A storm blew in and there was (how to describe it?) a huge gust of wind and the tent snapped and billowed just to the left of where we were seated. There was a collective "Oh..." and a pause where we all look around to see what had happened.  It was not reassuring at all.  The big monitors that hung from the ceiling were swaying and the left side of the tent was sagging.  Behind us some parents were rushing over to hold down the supports.

There were at least 2000 people in that tent and it was fascinating to watch how such a large group reacted to the situation.   Looking around there was clearly a reason to be worried but it was hard to judge just how dangerous the situation really was.  Was the tent going to collapse? Were the monitors going to fall?  Some parents acted to shore up the side of the tent but mostly people seemed paralyzed by indecision.

Then, from the podium, the Chancellor said, well, it looks like they have everything under control so let's continue.   Then after a brief pause he came back to the microphone and said we need everyone in the back to start moving very slowly toward the exits.  This was followed by yet another announcement that called for everyone to start evacuating the tent.  Some people moved and some didn't.  Why?

From what I could tell it was a combination of factors.  The parents in the back were worried about their children in the front and didn't want to leave them.  The exits on the side that was sagging were closed so for those of us on that side the exits were far away and already clogged with people trying to leave.  It was raining so hard and it was so windy outside the tent that there was a sense that there was danger out there as well and I think it slowed people down.  And finally people were watching each other and the McGill management at the podium for cues.

Finally someone pulled the fire alarm and from the front of a room there was a clear directive for everyone to get out from under the monitors and to exit the tent NOW.  That, and the fact that we could see that they were evacuating the graduates (our children) at the front,  got everyone moving.

We got outside the tent about the time the Montreal fire department showed up and we followed the crowd up to Leacock Hall where we stood in the hallway trying to figure out where the kids were.  Turned out that they were continuing the graduation ceremony in the amphitheater but there wasn't enough room for the parents and the graduates.  My spouse managed nevertheless to slip in though a back door and he filmed the elder Frenchling getting "tapped."

Not exactly the graduation ceremony we had in mind but the miracle here is that no one got hurt, everyone was graduated, and we all got home safe and sound and went out for a very nice dinner.

As for our daughter she was very disappointed not to have her moment of triumph on stage.  She graduated in three years with Distinction (in the top 25% of her class) and with High Honors (this means a student in the Honors program who maintained a GPA above 3.5).  For my French readers, this translates to a "mention très bien."

We are so proud of her.  OK, this graduation ceremony was a bit of a wash but there's always graduate school, right?