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

Friday, October 23, 2015


As of yesterday, I am half a century old.

I celebrated this fact an ocean away from where I was born.  Osaka is about 9 hours by plane from Seattle - longer, in fact, because there are no direct flights.  My usual path, however, takes me in the opposite direction on a 13-hour flight to France where I have lived for nearly 20 years and have a house and all the other things that a fortunate person my age may have accumulated over the years.

With all this coming and going, to-ing and fro-ing, three "vexed institutions" - The United States, France and Japan - have set their bureaucraties to making me, in the words of James C. Scott, "legible".

What does that mean?  It means that for a state to fulfill its functions people must be defined in particular ways in order for the state to provide certain services and to tax and maintain public order.  Whether this is nefarious or benevolent depends both on the nature of the states(s) involved and on the temperament and perceptions of the individual concerned.

I was born in a hospital near but not in the city of Seattle in the state of Washington in the United States of America.  A Certificate of Live Birth certifying this fact and giving the names of my parents was filed with the local authorities.  This was the first and perhaps the most important document for all the nation-states I have encountered in my life -  this bit of paper stating that I was born in this place to these parents.  And by the laws of the United States in the year 1965 this paper establishes that I am a citizen of the United States by jus soli.

Which, if one examines the history of the place where I was born, was not a given.  In the 19th century this area was not part of the United States of America.  European countries claimed the part of the world where I was born:  Spain, Russia and Great Britain,  These claims were disconcerting (and deadly) to the tribes and peoples who already inhabited this land:

The various claims were more or less resolved by 1846 but the territory was oly officially recognized by the US in 1853 and did not become a state (the State of Washington)  until 1889.  So this region only became legible (with clear borders and boundaries) to the United States a mere 75 years (one or two generations) before I was born.   Think for a moment about what that implies;  prior to 1889 (or 1853 if you prefer) the settlers in this area were ALL emigrants/immigrants whether they came from Wisconsin, USA or Trondheim, Norway.  The area into which they arrived in the early part of the 19th century had, for the most part, no established government and was most certainly not under the authority of the United States:  no tax office, no border patrols, no immigration authority, no police force, and no authority that could issue such things as official birth certificates.   But they made do:
"Since – in the beginning – Congress paid little attention to the small settlements, they followed the example of earlier pioneer communities and made their own government. On July 5, 1843 in an old barn belonging to one of the missions, the settlers of the Willamette Valley by a vote of 52 to 50 drafted a constitution “for the purposes of mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves … until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us” (Boorstin, 244)."
Imagine how it might have been otherwise.  What if Great Britain had not ceded the territory to the US?  I might have been born a British/Canadian citizen and not American at all.  And had I been born a generation or two before the US extended jurisdiction to this area, I would not have a birth certificate at all - only (perhaps) a family bible or a certificate of baptism.

In 1965 American authority over this region had been firmly established, but my birth was documented not by the US federal government but by the local government, King County.  For as long as I have lived outside the country obtaining a birth certificate has meant applying to them, and not to the US embassy or any other federal authority.

Over the years the information that certificate of live birth has changed and this has to do with the shifting boundaries of local authority.  In 1965 Iwas born in an area outside of Seattle that was an "unincorporated" area which mean that it was not attached to the city of Seattle or any other city in the area.  So in the past 20 years or so different copies of my birth certificate give different places of birth.  For a time it was "Seattle" and now it is simply "King County".

This has posed an interesting problem for my legal status outside the United States.  How can I have been born in Seattle according to one set of birth certificates and then in King County in others?  To understand why that change was made one would have to know the changing history of what is (even in the Seattle area) a pretty insignificant part of the world of little concern to the US government and of no concern at all to the French.

But one must be made legible, right?  The solution of the US federal government on my passport and of the French authorities on my Carte de resident has been to drop any mention of city or county and to simply put "Washington" as my place of birth - a solution that leads to many misunderstandings because the "Washington" that most people in and outside of the US know is the capital city, Washington, D.C.

James C. Scott sees "legibility as a central problem in statecraft."  In premodern times, he says, states were blind when it came to their subjects.  Clear borders and jurisdiction, family names and social security numbers, places of birth and established places of residence with addresses are relatively recent and were created by men (and women) to manage other men and did not "successfully represent the actual activity of the society..."

States are still blind in so many ways.  Their information is limited and is nothing more than simplified slices of  how societies function.  Even today states cannot capture all the economic activity in their own territories in order to tax it or control their borders to their own citizens' satisfaction. Cigarette smuggling is rampant in France. In the US there are still many many areas where someone can live "off the grid" or slip out of the country into Canada or Mexico.

Almost everywhere in the world where states demand documents, those documents can be forged.  I predict that one result of the US State Department's decision to charge over 2,000 USD for a US Certificate of Loss of Nationality will be the rise of an industry that will offer good copies for a reasonable price.  In short, all of the established ways of making people "legible" are problematic within a national territory and break down even more in the face of human migration in and out of different areas of authority.

A lot in there to vex various nation-states.  Or at least to make them a bit anxious.  What might these states do to make their citizens at home and abroad more "legible"?  What would be their motives for doing so?  Security is probably the most compelling reason. But another is, to put it very crudely, resource extraction (taxes).  How might these citizens abroad react to a distant state's assertion of sovereignty? How might diasporas and citizens living in other jurisdictions react to such an attempt?  Avoidance, most likely - the time-honored "weapon of the weak" used by emigrants everywhere from peasants to computer programmers.

All things I'll be thinking about for whatever time I have remaining.

Looking forward to it.


Inaka Nezumi said...

Happy Birthday!

Actually, due to the timezone difference, isn't it still your birthday in Washington? Arguably, you're almost a day younger than the calendar in Japan says -- so you can celebrate all over again.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

So I get one more day to be 49?

I like that. :-)

Tim said...


One thing I am seeing a lot more of is secondary and tertiary action. What do mean that. Essentially when one party has a dispute with a second party but involuntarily forces the involvement of a third party. For example their are a large number of US citizens living in Canada non compliant with US laws. Many of these citizens have a little or no contact with the US government and never travel to the US. Thus the US has very minimal means of direct action against these non compliant citizens.

However, other Canadians or Canadian business lets say might have a LOT of contact with the US. Thus the US can attempt to put pressure on this "third" group i.e. Canadian banks to take action against or put pressure on the original second group of non compliant US citizens in Canada. The issue is for many many years this type and style of enforcement and conflict was considered highly undesirable. In labour relations terms it was called secondary or tertiary boycott and was often made illegal. Having said "secondary" and "tertiary" actions seem to be making a comeback and it is not just FATCA.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Very good point, Tim. How does a state make its citizen abroad "legible"? Well, it has very few options. One would be to require some sort of registration with the local embassies. That doesn't work so well. Of the hundreds of thousands of French in the US, only a fraction bother. Another is a census of some sort but same problem. I think you're right and the US or any other country has very limited means of direct action against its citizens abroad and some of the possibilities are, well, difficult, unpalatable or impossible.

Yes, probably the most efficient way is to tackle the problem indirectly - to ask other countries to cooperate and reveal the "foreign" citizens resident there based on some shared concern like tax evasion which sounds quite legitimate. I suppose bank accounts and the banks are the best they could do to make people "legible".

But it's not going to be very efficient. The search criteria are known (hell they have been published) so those who wish to avoid know what they have to do. The simplest means of avoiding detection - just don't own any bank accounts or keep the ones he or she does have under the reporting threshold. Is this going to complicate people's lives? Absolutely. And yet it is doable. There are US Persons out there (whose names I do not know and do not wish to know) who have operated this way for years with accounts, assets and businesses in other names with citizenshps that do not cause comment. I am not kidding about false CLN's either.

I can see other methods too and I am hardly the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to understanding international tax law and FATCA. People seeking second passports that don't indicate birthplace so they can open accounts in relative tranquility. Or the creation of trusts and the like where the real owner is buried so deep it will take a lot of time and effort to uncover him or her. In some countries I imagine a simple bribe would be sufficient to keep one's name off any list. In others it will take some sort of local political power or connections in the local bureaucracy to be sure that the names (and accounts) don't get passed from the local government on to the US.

I also believe that there are some US Persons who are simply untouchable - the King of Thailand, for example, is I believe a US citizen but I have not heard the US IRS publicly and triumphantly announcing a tax investigation into his financial affairs so that he can be seen to be "paying his fair share" to the United States. :-)

Frankly with FATCA and CRS I think there will be more of this kind of activity, not less.

Becauuse when people believe that they already stand accused of criminal activity, and see no recourse available to them, what do they have to lose?

Will the information flow with these tax information agreements? Indeed it will. But will it be accurate, complete, or useful? Most importantly will it be worth the trip and the billions of dollars spent? No one really knows the answer to that, do they?

pat mathieu said...

I was born in Worcester, MA which issued a birth certificate and as was the practice at the time parents registered the my birth where they lived in Grafton, MA which also issued a birth certificate. I have birth certificates issued by two different municipalities. Happy birthday, it's nifty to be fifty, hopefully you are healthy enough to do all the things you want to do, wise enough to enjoy in moderation everything you should not it is OK to be a little naughty. I will be 70 in five weeks

Tim said...


One issue is countries generally have to have similar interests in legibility for example most countries in Europe reserve the right to deny renunciation and also reserve the right to take away citizenship from those who are "undesirable." Now neither of these things happen very frequently however they are both government powers that are jealously protected in France and elsewhere.

Last year Canada started to go down this path that had been initiated by many EU countries. However, as of last Monday's election it turns out to not have been a good idea(after it became a big election issue along with the niqab) and thus the newly incoming Canadian govt has pledged as a first order to repeal these powers even before they are challenged in court. Even members of the outgoing Conservative govt admit these citizenship revocation powers were a mistake that cost them the election. Having said all this nothing that happened in Canada this week I suspect will cause France to change its views on this issue.

Tim said...

Note: In terms the US the citizenship revocation issue has been long settled back in the 1950s by Trop v Dulles.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Pat, A friend on FB just told me that 50 is the new 40 and 70 is the new 50. :-) Doing OK healthwise except for the damn breast cancer pills. I love your story about the two birth certificates. Talk about throwing a wrench into bureaucratic legibility. Best wishes for your 70th birthday!

One document the French had that I had not seen elsewhere is that fiche d'etat civil. It was necessary for all sorts of administrative things. The US Embassy in Paris issued them tongue in cheek. They could not be what the French wanted them to be - the US embassy could not guarantee that you were not already married in one of the 50 US states. And yet the Embassy would give you one to submit to them. It was a bureaucratic dance, a compromise, so that a US citizen could be made legible in France. They were, I hear discontinued on the French side in the year 2000.

Anonymous said...

Just a small point about creating a CLN.Make sure that your date of renunciation does not predate the print date of the form at the bottom left.

Cindy said...

When I naturalized as a German citizen, there was the question of how to list my place of birth. My birth certificate said "Spring Township", which nobody would have ever been able to find on a map. Anyway, the spot in Spring Township where I was born is now part of the Borough of Bellefonte, which can indeed be found on maps. I pointed that out and it was decided to use the current name of the place. (I was not asked to prove this. They took my word for it. I think they were just still overjoyed that they were getting me.)

I'm glad it was decided that it was not necessary to list anything other than "Bellefonte" as my birthplace on my passport, i.e. neither state nor country. I believe that is the reason I have never had to present the photocopy of my CLN that I carry on entering the US. (Instead, I get compliments on my good English.)

Marie Ennis said...

Happy belated birthday :-)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Cindt, That's a wonderful story. And I was greatly amused by your experience with American immigration officials. Legibility loses. :-)

And here is the weakness of state attempts to impose legibility - once one knows the rules, it is possible to route around them. The state (and its officials) only "see" what is relevant to them. What doesn't fit, isn't acknowledged or allowed any reality.

A family member (now deceased) had no birth certificate at all. Trouble only came when he applied for a passport in his old age and could not produce a birth certificate. It was an interesting kind of limbo because no one was trying to get him kicked out of the US (where would he go?) and he was voting and collecting his social security. But they balked at the passport. I believe it was finally resolved after an appeal to a Congressperson.

Here is a very good article about US birht certificates. Looks like mandatory birth registration varied according to the state which wasn't a problem until the 1940's. Interesting story. Worth a blog post, I think.

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated still when I look at my birth certificate from Michigan. Not only does it list my parent's' occupations, it also states my mother was free from syphillis, and that she had two live births before mine. TMI in my opinion. But I do like knowing the time of my birth.

When I renewed my current Canadian passport, I asked that my place of birth not be noted. I was told that was possible, but cautioned that I could be denied entry to certain counties if place of birth were eliminated from my document. When I asked which countries, at the top of the list was the USA.