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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Ties that Bind in a Digital Age

Michael Kirsch, in his article defending citizenship-based taxation, talks about how easier it is for American emigrants to maintain ties to the homeland in the age of the Internet.  I have seen the same argument in many different places, applied to many of the world's diasporas.  Email, Skype, message boards and the like are all means that migrants use to keep in touch with family and to stay abreast of major events in the homeland.

In my email in-box this morning I received yet another solicitation from the New York Times.  Yet another "special offer" enticing me to subscribe for a very modest fee.  Since the New York Times is, to a very great extent, one of the United States' few truly national newspapers, it might seem a no-brainer for an American migrant like myself to leap at the chance to stay up to date with what's going on "over there."

And yet, it really holds no appeal for me and I have to ask myself why that is.  Some of it is surely information overload.  There are only so many hours in a day and much to do:  gardening, going to the parish, going into Paris, going to the clinic, cooking, cleaning, quilting and, yes, reading books, email and on-line articles and writing.

But far more of it is probably related to my level of integration in my host country and the relevance of American events to my daily life.  Over the years what is happening here became much more interesting and useful to me personally then what was going on over there.  Reading about the fight over the "ecotax" here is not only of interest to me, it's something of interest to the people I meet every day.  It's news that not only sparks conversations but allows me to participate in ongoing ones.

Reading the New York Times just doesn't help me connect in my day to day social circle, and it's not just a matter of the topics which are very centered on the US but also a question of language.  Most of my friends here in Versailles either don't speak English at all or don't care to do so with me.  When I step out of my house French rules and it's the language I live in for the most part.  Furthermore, if some topic or event of international interest comes up then it will always be picked up by the local national papers like Le Monde and I can read about it there.  And then, if I'm really interested, I'll do a google search and see what the American papers are saying.

That's pretty much how it works for me.  Let me assure you that it wasn't by design and it didn't happen overnight.  It was a slow process that took many years and might change again if there is some pressing reason for me to once again follow the news from the homeland more closely.  Right now I am following the debates over citizenship-based taxation and FATCA with great interest but what I read is more likely to come from non-US sources since the American media hasn't been very interested in the story.

What about conversations with friends and family back in the US?  Are they a source of news?  Honestly, not so much.  Most of our emailing back and forth has to do with family matters:  health, jobs, gardening, children and the like.  Yes, every so often they will share their pleasure (or displeasure)  over some issue that has Americans talking (Obamacare, for example, or gay rights) but that's about the extent of it.

So from where I sit the idea that technology has dramatically changed the ability of a migrant to stay in touch with the former home is true and not true.  It's true that it is easier to stay in touch with friends and family.  I remember the days before skype and email - it was a time of expensive international phone calls and letters (you know the things we used to write on dead trees and mail from the local post office with pretty stamps?)  The ability to send a message to my mother and get an answer the same day, made a world of difference.  But the ties that are reinforced by this constant messaging are not national ones.  They involve a very small group of people in a particular place, the American west coast, and that's about it.  Because they are so limited by kinship and geography, I find that they do not serve to reaffirm my ties to the American nation.  On the contrary, sometimes I have the sense that, for me, the Pacific Northwest is the only part of the US that really counts with the rest of the country being a great mystery to me.  Something that was true, by the way, even before I left the US since I never travelled much around the country when I lived there.  I am more at home in Tokyo having lived there for a few years than I was in New York, a place I visited for only a few days a few years ago.  I've seen more of Shanghai then of Sacramento where my brother lives with my five nieces and nephews.

Based on what I have seen and lived, I would say that the picture of the modern diaspora eager for (and lapping up)  news from "home" is not entirely accurate.  The homeland news is there to read for anyone with an Internet connection, mail from family and friends is always welcome, and a phone call can make one's day (unless, of course, the caller took no notice whatsoever of the time difference) but to extrapolate from that and claim that these new communication methods fundamentally change the migrant's relationship to the home nation-state, that it is a factor (I've seen this assertion) in the non-integration of migrants in the host countries, and that one can now assume that all migrants everywhere are aware of the smallest details gripping the national consciousness on any particular day is a real stretch.  I genuinely don't think it works quite that way.

Your thoughts?


Blaze said...

I remember OMG once said at Brock that IRS thinks anyone who ever French kissed a US citizen is a "US person."

This latest attempt to reclaim us based on technology is outrageous. Could it be an attempt to declare anyone who ever e-mails, Skypes or used or placed an order from a US website a "US person?"

The way things are going, that is not as far fetched as it may seem. They are trying to claim Canadian snowbirds who support US economy by spending winters in southern states as "US persons."

P. Moore said...

Well if we are all to be claimed somehow based on the technology we use and Skype was 1st developed by Estonians, then us Skype users must be Estonians for tax purposes. Blaze is correct in suggesting such a notion is ridiculous.

I actually find the most fundamental rebuttal for Professor Kirsch's defense of CBT is that 'what is good for the goose is good for the gander'. That is, if the US is justified in imposing CBT extraterritorially and also justified in using a FATCA style law to enforce it, then logically ALL tax jurisdictions are equally justified to do the same thing. So look at it simply from the USA standpoint. Can they possibly have all their FIs report on 'citizens' or 'persons' as defined by 190 countries to all those countries' tax authorities either directly or through the IRS? How about they try doing it in French for France and Chinese for China, etc., etc., and of course converting the values reported in the equivalents of the respective home currencies? Now imagine multiplying that chaos exponentially so all countries get their fair share of the CBT sweepstakes? In asking all countries to do this for the US, they should be prepared to offer up exactly the same, otherwise there is no justifiable defense of CBT and FATCA style enforcement in my mind. There is only arrogance and bullying. My view is that anyone who defends CBT has not begun to think it through from a moral or fairness point of view OR they simply don't care.

Ellen Lebelle said...

CBT based on technology? Well, that sure doesn't explain why the US has had CBT for so long -- over 100 years! And then, as P. Moore says, we should be Estonians for the invention, except that now Skype belongs to Microsoft.
I am still a subscriber to the INYT, formerly known as the International Herald Tribune. I read Le Parisien for the local stories, but I find I have no patience for reading Le Monde. I read the INYT for its international news and the funnies.
Speaking of the old forms of communication, do you remember trying to cram everything into an aerogram? Or waiting an hour or more for your call to the States to go through at the Post Office and being told to go to the booth? I bet you're too young!

Sauve said...

If Michael Kirsch is serious that tax should be based upon one person keeping up with family relation ships through technology (or not) then all three of my adult children, their spouses and their children, should be filing and paying taxes in California, Kentucky,and South Carolina since each one has made a life for themselves in one of those states. For me, and nearly anyone in military service, it would be a nightmare. If living for more than a year in someplace or keeping in contact with someone from that place was a qualifier then I would be filing taxes in New York, New Jersey, California, New Mexico, Colorado, and even though Texas doesn't have a state tax I am sure they would find a way to collect on such a great idea.

Betty said...

I have to give Mr Kirsch credit for his creativity. It takes a real stretch of the imagination to argue that we should pay taxes because we still have family in the US and are therefore still "a part of US society even while abroad". The US is simply broke and desperate to rake in some spare change wherever it can find it. Belgium has a lot of fiscal problems too, but doesn't stoop to the US practice of picking the pockets of its citzens who haven't lived in its territory for decades.

Anonymous said...

I think technology can and does make a difference but how people use it - to remain more attached to their country of origin or not - depends on how integrated they are, or have become, in the country of immigration. And it is not only news but culture, in terms of whether people follow TV shows and stations in their native language or country of origin, or migrate to local news and TV programming.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Absolutely, Andrew. In the early days of the migration journey it may take on a great deal of importance as the migrant settles in. It can be a source of stability at a time when the individual is really struggling. It might impede mastery of the local language but more the written language I think, not the spoken one since it's text based.

That would make for a very interesting study, wouldn't it?