New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Political Expatriates in Mexico

The 1950's were a particularly dark period in American history.  Lives, careers, and families were destroyed in the search for the enemy within (Communists and fellow travelers).  But not all Americans sat at home waiting to be denounced or for the subpoena or letter informing them that they had lost their livelihoods. Some fled and many went south to America's near abroad, Mexico.

Diana Anhalt has written a fascinating portrait of these political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." in her book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico.  She was well placed to write their history;  she was a young girl living in New York when her parents, Mike and Belle Zykofsky,  uprooted the family and slipped out of the United States in 1950.

The FBI (and it was the FBI not the CIA that kept them under surveillance in Mexico) called them the American Communist Group in Mexico (ACGM), "A loosely knit organization of a prominently social nature of persons who are present and/or past members of the Communist Party of the United States and their friends and associates who share a common sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union."

Anhalt is a bit more precise in her description.  They were "former labor leaders, 'undesirable' U.S. resident aliens, the Abraham Lincoln vets, Party organizers, Hollywood activists, and the unfriendly witnesses at Congressional and State hearings.  Some were members or former members of the Communist Party; others were not."

Why did they leave?  The answer seems obvious and yet, as Anhalt points out, many left before they became subjects of interest (it took the FBI four years to discover that her parents had left the country) and in many of her interviews with American expatriates they declined to cite homeland politics as their reason for leaving the United States.  Though the harassment was highly unpleasant and some went to jail or lost their jobs, the repression never turned deadly (there were no camps or executions).  Resident aliens had the least amount of protection - the tool of choice used against them was the threat of jail and deportation (Alien Registration Act of 1940).  There was a general climate of fear and anyone associated with the Party or leftist groups felt vulnerable and decided to get out while they could:

 "Therefore, the opposition, people like my parents, afraid they might lose their jobs or be harassed or detained for having associated with suspect organizations or individuals, fled to Mexico because the deteriorating political climate at home, like the signal lights at a railroad crossing, was a sign of danger."

Some stayed for a short time and returned to the U.S., others used Mexico as a stepping stone to further migration and a third country.  Others settled in and here Amhalt's book really shines because she recounts what happened to these sojourners in the years they spent just south of the U.S. border. Like many migrants most had no intention of living there permanently, "We didn't come down to stay.  We came down to cool off."  Their strategy was to wait out the witch hunts, watch the American political scene closely and to return when/if things got better.  For some that day never came and they died in exile.

This attitude  was not exactly conducive to integration but such is the power of  host country culture that most learned to speak some Spanish  and a few became quite fluent.  For the most part these American migrants were not rich and had to seek employment or start business ventures in order to survive.

There was another American community in Mexico at that time; a business community for the most part whose politics were on the other side of the American political spectrum:  "In time, we would discover we had run straight into the arms of the very people we were running away from:  white, middle class, conservative Republicans."  Anhalt says that there was a huge divide between the two groups and, in spite of a shared American identity, the only common neutral ground was that both sent their children to American schools.

In no place was this gap between the American business community and these political fugitives more flagrant than in how they were treated by the American authorities in Mexico.   The ACGM discovered very quickly that the home country had a long reach. Not only were they under surveillance by the FBI but their access to basic consular services at the American embassy was compromised.  Every political expatriate Anhalt talked to had "Embassy stories"or a "Passport/non-Passport story."  In some cases their passports were simply  revoked, in others the consulate withdrew protection or refused to register the births of their children.  When Anhalt's parents tried to do the latter, the Embassy attempted to seize their passports and when they refused to turn them over, "the Embassy reached the conclusion that they could no longer afford the Zykofsky's official protection or registration facilities unless they surrendered their, by then, expired passports and prepared affidavits explaining their alleged Communist activities."  The Embassy then informed the Mexican authorities of their decisions, an act that was essentially an invitation for the Mexicans to deport them.

It is not clear from Anhalt's book at which level these policies were decided but it was undoubtedly tied to the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (passed over the objections and veto of President Harry Truman).

Nonetheless, there was still some protection afforded by the Mexican government since the local authorities frowned on direct attacks on their sovereignty.  A very few Americans were apprehended (illegally) and sent back to the U.S. but in general, the American government "proceeded with extreme caution when engaged in unauthorized seizures of U.S. citizens on Mexican soil or 'unofficial extraditions,' as they were referred to in police jargon."

The period Anhalt writes about (and one she lived personally) is from 1948 to 1965.  Ancient history, some might say, or just a bad period that Americans at home and abroad lived through and learned from.  I'm not so sure.  In a post-911 world were there Americans who left the country for political reasons but did so with such discretion that we will never know them or their motivations?  In historical context,  laws like the Patriot Act seem frighteningly familiar.  Under every discussion Americans abroad have with the homeland is a request on their, or an offering up on our side, of the reasons why we chose to live outside the U.S.  And we all know that there are things to say that will establish us as "legitimate" expatriates in their eyes, and there are things not to say lest we rouse their ire.  The U.S. government's reach is still long and they hold both  the keys to our ever being allowed to return, and control over the breeder documents that allow us to be legal residents elsewhere.

And lastly, it's worth noting that at that time Anhalt writes about, there was very little support or sympathy from the homeland public for these people.  They were described as undesirable, un-American individuals - rich dissident creatives or former ungrateful troublesome immigrants living it up on the beaches of Mexico. Am I being too sensitive when I say that the rhetoric about America's emigrants has not exactly improved in the last 60 years?  What we hear in the American media today about us would seem to confirm that analysis. There is still something very un-American about us and the only difference now is that they have a new reason for suspecting our motives (which are still assumed to be nefarious until proven otherwise).

 Anhalt's words and her research deserve our attention because I believe there are lessons to be gleaned from them that are as relevant today as they were decades ago.  And it's a damn fine read to boot.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Some Citizenship Trends

Peter Spiro, author of one of my favorite citizenship books, Beyond Citizenship:  American Identity After Globalization has published this article in Opinio Juris:   Citizenship Round-Up: Nine Trends from 2013.

Yes, he talks about the rising number of Americans turning in their U.S. passports, but that is not all that is going on in the world of citizenship.  Some very interesting trends concerning dual nationality, denizens versus citizens, and the extension of jus sanguinas citizenship laws.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Lost Generation

It is cold and clear here the day after Christmas.  Sunny and dry enough, in fact, to finish the fall cleanup in the garden this afternoon.  But waking up to a chill in the air (which aggravates the arthritis) and then realizing that if one wishes a warm house, there is work to be done - clearing out the old ashes, gathering kindling, bringing in enough wood to fill the basket, nursing the fire from small embers to a roaring blaze - is not always pleasant even for someone as matinale as myself.

As I get older the list of things necessary for a modicum of comfort in the morning grows ever longer.  It used to be just coffee.  Two cups of coffee and I could face anything.  Now it's coffee, aspirin, breakfast, movement to loosen up and a warm fire. I'm struggling to find the optimal order of things in my new routine.  Do I eat first so I can take my analgesics so I can make a fire without feeling like my hips are about to give out?  Or do I make a fire first so that when I sit down for breakfast, the ambient temperature in the dining room is sufficiently warm so that I feel content and comfortable as I put enough food in my stomach to tolerate the painkillers?

In any case there is a lot of grumbling that goes along with my morning ritual.  I used to jokingly tell people that my highest aspiration was to be "old, evil and rich."  Now I know that old is inevitable, rich is over-rated and evil is too damn much work.

Speaking of work, last night I finished up a very good book called Writing the Lost Generation:  Expatriate Biography and American Modernism by Craig Monk.  All those late 20th century books that I have read about Americans in Paris (the ones that I refer to as "fairy tales") have a long pedigree.  Americans have been coming to France and writing about it since the days of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and  James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).  But the ghosts that haunt today's Americans abroad in France (and perhaps, by extension, all Americans living outside the U.S.) came in the period between the two World Wars (the 1920's and 30's).

They were called "The Lost Generation" - a term I think was coined by Gertrude Stein.  These were the days of mass exodus from the United States by people we would refer to today as "creatives":  poets, writers, artists, singers, actors, and the like.  Their departure and behaviour in the French capital was controversial.  They were admired by some homelanders, vilified by others.  Some were wildly successful and became cultural icons like Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Others returned home broke and broken. A few never came home at all like Stein who died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1946.

I read many of their works in high school and at university.  A few I picked up later when I was no longer a captive of someone else's curriculum and the one I liked the best was Henry Miller who wrote The Tropic of Cancer and Under the Roofs of Paris which was pure pornography albeit well-written eroticism.

Writing the Lost Generation was the first book I ever read that put these writers side by side and tried to make sense of them as expatriate writers.  What were they looking for when they left the U.S.?  What happened to them?  How did they relate to other Americans trying to live the same experience?  Why did so many of them feel compelled to write autobiographies?  From where came this  "persistent desire of expatriate Americans to chronicle their experiences abroad"?  And why is the "American in Paris/France" autobiography still so damn popular; this theme enjoys commercial success in the homeland even today.   To follow in the footsteps of the "Lost Generation" still confers cultural capital.

One thing seems clear to me - the American writers of the early 20th century were pulled, not pushed, to Europe,  though many claimed the latter and they sure succeeded in offending some homelanders with their criticisms of life in the U.S. and their behaviour once they arrived.  Still, some tried to mitigate their words by assuring their audience that they were still Americans and would always be Americans wherever they lived and however long they stayed abroad.  (Does that sound familiar?)  Their goal was certainly not integration/assimilation.  They lived in what I think is fair to call a colony, and few went outside Paris to visit other parts of France.

It was being in Paris that changed them, they seemed to be saying, not necessarily the French.  The freedom of life in a big old city, contact with other creatives from the U.S. and other countries and, frankly, an escape from the tyranny of homeland expectations about reliable employment and "making a living" were all very attractive to them.  There was (is) also, I contend, an environment here in France where an artist has honor even if he or she is struggling.  "Why," one author complained at the time, "was there, in America, no satisfying career open to talent?"

For better or worse, the expatriates were noticed and named and much ink was spilt on both sides of the Atlantic to explain what they were doing "over here/there."  Opinions varied.  Were they daring avant-garde escapees from "oppression"?  Or were they Americans who had "abandoned their 'moral bearings' once in Europe and estranged themselves from traditional principles"?

In all movements there is a struggle over definition and members past and present feel compelled  to write the history, to capture what it all means, not just for themselves but for everyone else who had lived the same experience.  Monk shows that there was this and more in the expatriate autobiographies that came out of that period.  Some of it was clearly an attempt to define this thing called "The Lost Generation", the "American in Paris,"  the "Expatriate American."  Taken together, the writers of this period paint a picture of an intellectually stimulating, cultured, hedonistic life in "Gay Paree" and many became famous in the American homeland and that led to commercial success.    "With their vivid memories of life in Paris, a wide variety of expatriates received attention from publishers in England and the United States, providing an audience the size of which was unprecedented for many of them."  No wonder that others tried to ride the wave.  That provoked a reaction from the "oldtimers" who then wrote works in response to revise the record and protect the "brand."

Today their works are standard fare in classrooms all over the United States and every American emigrant has surely been influenced by their words long before he or she cast himself upon a distant shore.  This is the path already taken though destinations have changed.  Pew reports that the American communities in Europe have lost population while Asia and Latin America/Carribean have gained.  In the individual's search for authenticity and experience, there may be more romance, and a different kind of cultural capital, to be had in Belize or Kyoto than in Paris or London.

But wherever Americans are landing these days the old self-conscious impulse to chronicle one's experience (conversion?) is still there.   Autobiographies abound and even Paris still sells.  I am reading more and more of them these days in my quest to produce a decent American Diaspora reading list.

As I read, however, I am more and more aware of the limitations of these personal accounts.  Two things about them disturb me:   They are all too often written as though the authors' lives and experiences were entirely unique (as though nothing came before they sat their precious selves down in that Paris apartment).  There is so little in them that ties the past to the present or  recognizes that a few million of their compatriots are on the very same train, seeking their own individual conversion experience.

The second is that each attempt (however the authors strenuously insist that this is simply their own distinctive and isolated experience) does shape our impressions of other Americans abroad and the homeland's view of us as a group.  There are persistent negative and positive stereotypes of Americans living abroad, some of which I think can be traced back to the Lost Generation,  that are confirmed by these popular self portraits.  It is as if there was a record playing "Americans Abroad" on an antique gramophone back in the homeland  and there are grooves worn down by the needle that sing:  "escape", "freedom", "cosmopolitan," "unpatriotic," "selfish."

And from time to time some homeland interest picks the needle up and puts the last two on continuous replay.

It does not follow from this that we should stop writing about our experiences.  Rather it is a call for some awareness of ourselves as part of something larger.   There is a past here that most of us know very little about that makes the present. We did not arrive here entirely by chance.   As long as we think of and write about ourselves as atomized individuals we can still be attacked as the community we deny that we are, and, as a result, we will have few effective means of defense.  We need to know our own history and we need facts to counter some of the more egregious arguments and ugly stereotypes being used against us.

Above all, I think we need to acquire a loose sense of solidarity. This does not mean that we form a herd and give up our cherished individualism and independence.  It just means a little more self-knowledge and a recognition that we have common experiences and, most importantly, a few common interests whether we live in Sao Paulo or Shanghai.

Or we can simply revive what Monk says was the original meaning of the word expatriate in 1920's American English:  "someone who had permanently abandoned the United States."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Crèche or Ferme?

A few years back in a small village in la France profonde, we were celebrating Christmas with the family in an old old house which had been spruced up and decorated for the holidays with many precious and beautiful things.  One of those things was an old crèche (a nativity scene) which my spouse remembered from his childhood.

Another family member was due to arrive with her children who were very young (much younger than ours) when the phone rang.  It was her and she had an important message to impart. A fervent atheist and a fanatical detractor of the Catholic church, she insisted that if we were asked about the crèche, we were to casually reply to her young and impressionable offspring that it was nothing more than a ferme (a farm).

After she hung up we all looked at each other and started laughing.   She was so afraid of Christian influence that she wanted us all to lie to her children.  Heaven forbid that they might actually learn something about this symbol of Christmas which surely they had seen elsewhere in shops and other places.  Unless, of course, she had them locked up in the house during the holiday season lest they be tainted by this aspect of  her own culture that she found offensive and dangerous.

Grace Davie in Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates talks about something she calls religious illiteracy in the more rabidly secular nations of Europe like France.  It's not really about religious practice per se but about basic knowledge of religious history and symbols that are absolutely essential for understanding other cultural goods like cathedrals or paintings or sculpture or references in books.  It's much broader than just learning about Christianity and extends to the basic symbols of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism.  How is anyone to understand the religious impulse which is still strong in the world outside Europe (and even places within it) if children and adults lack the basic vocabulary to be able to have a conversation with a religious person of any faith.

My take at the time about this collective hoodwinking of the young was to quietly remark that if we told these poor children that they were looking at nothing more then some sort of bucolic mise-en-scène, that they might repeat this to their friends who would have great fun treating them like the village idiots.   And that didn't seem fair to them. Nonetheless, we respected her wishes and I don't recall if the children ever raised the question.  But the story has passed into family lore and still makes laugh and shake our heads.  Ah well, no parent is perfect and that goes for every one of us.

Enter this short Mr. Bean video would have served her purposes quite well.  Or perhaps not.   Because to understand why it's funny, you do have to know something about what a nativity scene means.  The joke falls completely flat if it's just some slightly creepy man amusing himself in a store and getting caught.  I offer it to you this Christmas Eve day assuming that you will understand and enjoy it.  I certainly did.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Art and the Beginner's Mind

This morning I listened to Greil Marcus' 2013 commencement address to the New York School of Visual Arts on Brain Pickings.

Lots of  High Culture and High Art around me.  Versailles is filled with it - beautifully preserved and accessible to the public.  So much, in fact, that when I first arrived the city felt like a museum.

The center of everything, of course, is the Château and I've always found that a bit unfortunate.   If you come to Versailles and have some time after the obligatory pilgrimage to the castle, take a turn around town with two things in your backpack/purse:  Versailles Secret et Insolite by Nicolas Jacquet and the excellent guides published by the mayor's office.   The ones I enjoy the most are Curiosités architecturales and L'Itinéraire des Droits de l'Homme.  The last, in fact, should be required reading for Americans because to walk in certain parts of Versailles is to walk the path of the Founding Fathers.  Every American should remember that once we were a small, poor, struggling, renegade nation and our first diplomats were supplicants to the court of the French King, desperate for money, arms, troops and recognition.

The most obvious art in Versailles is the Art of Shock and Awe. How extraordinary, you say, as you and a few thousand tourists stand gaping before some gilded monstrosity constructed for the glory of the monarchy.  That's usually my first impression.  The second is less charitable,  "My God," I think,  "How much human suffering was required to build that?"

And from that you might conclude that I have a prejudice against High Art.  Yes, there is an association in my mind between the gaudy and the gilded and exploitation.  Where did this come from?  Probably my childhood.  I have vague but persistent memories of people around me speaking approvingly of Socialist Realism (or was that Social Realism?) and the art I was exposed to was usually local, produced by modest people who chose modest subjects.  Elton Bennett is a perfect example.  Born in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, he produced many lovely silkscreens of things like tall ships and ferns.  I have one of the latter - an original Bennett that graces the wall of my living room.  It came to me as a gift from a French-American woman whose French parents were friends with the artist.

The first step in overcoming your prejudices is recognizing them.  Today I shamefully admit that this attitude was a kind of reverse snobbery - a disdain for art that was not produced by the people for the people but was the product of the Establishment (whatever that was at the time).  It was also pretty provincial in the sense that it implied that the only authentic art was local.  And that's just nonsense.   Since then I've learned to love Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance paintings and baroque music but I still don't know enough about these things to speak knowledgeably.  Call me an artistic idiot and I will own up to it.  I still think the Versailles castle is gaudy but if anyone out there believes they can reveal it in such a way that I might learn to look at it with new eyes, well, I'm open to that.

Assumption of the Virgin (Titian)
Greil Marcus talk is about what he thinks is the ridiculous (and false) distinction made between High and Low culture.  He talks movingly about how this painting in the Santa Maria basilica in Venice left him "in a puddle of acceptance" that the only true art was done for the glory of God.  Something, he says, he got over very quickly after he left the church, but felt very true when he was in the presence of this work by Titian.  It changed him:

"That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for — to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for — by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement — something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth — art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work."

I recommend his words to you.  His  talk is only 20 minutes and he is a very good speaker - passionate and eloquent .  I agree wholeheartedly with Maria Popova that his definition of Art (High or Low) is a darn fine one.
"What art does — maybe what it does most completely — is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed."
Yes, I agree that it's about what it provokes in us but we have to be looking at it with a Beginner's Mind in order for that to ever happen.

Whatever it is,  it can't change us if we are not willing to be changed.  And it's as much about giving up our cherished politically correct mindsets and quaint notions about "authenticity" as it is in learning to be shocked and awed. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Experts' Take on the France/US FATCA IGA

Back in November I wrote up a short summary of the France/US FATCA IGA.  This was a layperson's take on it - I am not a lawyer or an international tax expert.  Just someone who has been swimming in the FATCA-infested waters for a few years now.

Luckily for you (and for me) there are people with that kind of knowledge and talent out there sharing their expertise and trying to help people make sense of it all.  Professor Allison Christians of McGill University is one ( Tax, Society and Culture).  Phil Hodgen is another (Phil Hodgen's Blog) .

To that distinguished list I would like to add John Fredenberger and Tim Ramier - two American attorneys who practice here in France.  John, apparently, has been practicing law here in the Hexagon for over 40 years.  Impressed?  Me, too.

Earlier this month these two held a seminar here in Paris on FATCA and Inheritance in France.  From what I hear this is an annual AARO event.  I went and I can tell you that it was well worth the time.  It was not just the talks but the Q & A that made it so valuable.  If you live in the Paris area, I'd strong encourage you to attend next year.

AARO has very kindly put the videos of the seminar up on their website.  The first is John talking about FATCA and the French IGA -  F.A.T.C.A.:  French-American Treaty Calms Americans or French-American Treaty Causes Alarm?  The second is Tim talking about Surviving Death in France as a US Citizen and how it works when you have two countries  keenly interested in your estate.

Here is the link:  FATCA Update and French Inheritance Law

John Fredenberger and Tim Ramier are members of the board of AARO (the Association of Americans Resident Overseas).  Full disclosure here - so am I.  I joined very recently and it has been a learning experience - not just the scope of issues facing American abroad today but also the collective knowledge this organization possesses going back 40 years.  If you have a question about Americans abroad and the issues we've faced in the past and the present, chances are excellent that someone in AARO has the answer.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Flophouse Milestone: 250,000 Hits

Sometime last night the hit counter on my blog dashboard reached 250,000 hits.

I started the Flophouse back in 2008 for reasons that seem rather vague today.  I knew I wanted to write but I couldn't muster the effort to publish more than 3 or 4 posts a year.  That changed in 2011 when all of a sudden I started posting nearly every day.  From 30 km an hour to 200.  Something just clicked and I think it had everything to do with getting sober.  I know that we all dream Hemingway dreams but, for me, any creativity I possess was only unleashed after I put the genie back in the bottle and set it aside for good.

2012 was, depending on the point of view, my annus horribilis (terrible year) or my annus mirabilis (year of wonders).  I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer (three tumors and it had spread to the lymph nodes).  But, oh miracle, I got through the poison and the rays and came out on the other side with my sanity intact.  The blog was a big part of that.  I couldn't even walk at one point but I could always write no matter what else was going on.  Today there are over 750 posts on this blog on a wide range of subjects.

I've been told that I would get many more hits if I just focused better.  I'm sure they are right.  There is also the name of the blog - the Flophouse - which some people look at and and think, "ce n'est pas sérieux."  Fair enough.  Personally think I wasted many Life Credit Units taking myself way too seriously and what a relief it was to, as Pema Chodron puts it "lighten up."  As a result I don't plan what I write and there is no publishing schedule.  I just get up every morning and have at it.  If it's meant to be then something will present itself as the topic of the day and I do believe that this impulse does not come from me but from something outside of me.

Certain posts and some topics get more hits than others but, in a sense, it's completely irrelevant.  It's exactly like "sharing" at an AA meeting.  There is structure - you raise your hand, the speaker gives you a nod and you have so many minutes to talk without interruption - but what you say is up to you and comes from the deepest parts of your soul.  This exercise is not only good for you (gets things off your chest) but it's also good for others.  What you have to say just might be exactly what just one person in that room needs to hear that day.  It's service. I hope that this blog is like that.  Whether a post gets 5 or 500 hits doesn't matter as long as it served its purpose and reached at least one individual who really needed that information or those words at that moment.

As I look at the counter again I'm a bit astonished.  Some days I still can't believe that I have readers - I just don't have enough relatives to account for the 250,000 hits. And some of you I've come to know over the past couple of years through your comments, emails and snail mail letters.  You are  amazing - thoughtful and kind - and I am so fortunate that you came into my life.  Whatever you may get from this blog, believe me, you've given so much more - the gift of your time and your attention.

Frère David Steindl-Rast is, I think, fundamentally right when he says that happiness comes from gratitude. The unexpected kindness, support and generosity that comes from strangers who become friends is something I never imagined would come my way (especially in very dark times).

As 2013 winds down I am so grateful to be sober, to be alive, to have had the chance to know you, and to be right where I am in this chair, in this house, happily tickling the keys and publishing these words on my odd little blog. 

Best Christmas present ever.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

About That Consular Protection in the U.S.

And this time it's about a diplomat.

Lynne sent a link to an article about this affair between India and the U.S. that is getting very hot right now.

An Indian diplomat was arrested in New York on charges that she underpaid her maid, another Indian citizen. While Devyani Khobragade, the India deputy consul general, was in custody she was strip and cavity-searched. Something New York law enforcement said was "standard."


I had no idea.  

OK, New York is now permanently off my list of attractive places to spend my vacation. Look, if that's the way they treat diplomats, have to wonder how they treat the hoi polloi like me.

In fairness, New York's finest claim that she was, in fact, treated quite well.  The Indians, however do not agree and so far the backlash has been pretty ugly.  This article says that, in retaliation "U.S. diplomats were stripped of ID cards that make clearances easier, and bulldozers removed security barricades outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi."

Here is Al-Jazeera's reporting on the incident:

So far U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed "regrets" for the incident.  One report I read said that they were really shocked that the Indians went so far as to remove the concrete blocks that protect the American embassy with tow trucks and backhoes.  Another said that India might start checking all US diplomats and their families for violations of Indian law.

The Indians say they want a full apology and I think there is a good chance they will get it.

Ignoring Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations - The US Does It Again

This is not about guilt or innocence.  This is about not respecting an international agreement that gives foreign nationals some basic rights when they get in trouble in another country.

It's called the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the most important article in it pertaining to individuals is Article 36 which says:

1.  Consular officers are free to communicate with their nationals and vice versa in a foreign country.
If you are a German visiting Canada, you have the right to talk to your consulate and the German consulate has the right to talk to you without interference from the Canadian government.

2.  When a foreign national is arrested or detained, the local authorities in that country will notify his consulate that he is in their custody.  That foreign national also has the right to communicate with his consulate and any messages he wants to send must be forwarded "without delay" to his consulate.

A Frenchman arrested in the UK has the right to send a message to the French consulate and the UK authorities are required to pass the message along.  The UK also has an obligation to inform the French consulate that they have one of their nationals in custody.

3.  The consulate has visitation rights.  If one of their nationals is in prison or in police custody they have the right to visit her, talk to her and arrange for representation.

If a Japanese in France goes to jail, he has the right to be visited by someone from the Japanese consulate and the consulate can help him get a lawyer.

Finally, when the foreign national is arrested the local government is required to inform the detained foreign national of the above rights.

This is basic stuff, folks, and frankly, it's not much protection if you get into trouble while traveling or living in another country. The consulate can't get you a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, they can't stop a trial from taking place, and they can't prevent you from going to jail if you are convicted.    But it's something.  Generally, it is respected because, hey, no country wants to see its nationals abused while abroad.  It makes the sending state look weak for one thing - if a state cannot protect its people, what good is it?

Americans might be surprised to learn that there is one modern democratic nation-state, the United States, that not only does not respect this Convention but its own citizens - American citizens - are not necessarily covered under it.   This is the "protection" that we are ostensibly paying for through our tax dollars.

Surprised?  Me, too.

Some examples:   in 1999 Germany brought a case(LeGrand) against the U.S. for breaches of this convention before the International Court of Justice.  The U.S. responded and admitted it was at fault:
"Through this inquiry, the United States confirmed that the competent authorities of the State of Arizona did not inform Walter and Karl LaGrand "without delay" that they could request that a German consular post be notified of their arrest and detention, as required by Article 31(1)(b) of the Convention. The United States of America bears responsibility for such non-performance of U.S. obligations under the Convention by Arizona. Accordingly, the United States acknowledges that, as a result of the failure to inform Walter and Karl LaGrand of their right to consular notification, there was a breach of a legal duty owed by the United States to the Federal Republic of Germany under the Vienna Convention."
In 2003 Mexico brought a suit before the ICJ -  Avena and Other Mexican Nationals - on behalf of 51 of their nationals for breaches of Article 36 and the ICJ ruled in Mexico's favor in 2004.

There have been other cases but they all seem to follow a pattern:  local US law enforcement ignores the convention, the foreign country finds out and tries to do something, the US courts and state-level government says "to hell with that,"  and  the US Federal government ends up apologizing.  Apply, lather, rinse, repeat.

And if you think "to hell with that" is too strong, consider this:  in 2008  the United States Supreme court ruled that the convention is not binding because the US Congress has not passed domestic legislation to implement it.  To date Congress has still not done that with the Vienna Convention which means that it isn't enforceable in the United States and by extension it calls into question the right of Americans travelling or living in foreign countries to the consular protection of their government.

And here we go again in 2013. The state of Texas is about to execute a Mr. Tamayo.  There doesn't seem to be any argument over the facts - this Mexican national was not informed of his rights under the Vienna Convention.  Furthermore, the ICJ told the US to review the convictions of Mexican nationals in the US following the Avena case which nearly 10 years  later, nobody has bothered to do.

All this does not seem to trouble the sleep of homeland American citizens.  It should.

First of all it sends a very interesting message to foreign nationals living in or visiting the United States.  Their rights under this international agreement that the US signed will not necessarily be respected. It says that the US doesn't take that convention seriously.  Something everyone outside the US should  think about before buying a plane ticket to Austin, Texas or Tampa, Florida.

And second, it sends a message to other countries where American citizens visit or live.  If the US doesn't take this convention seriously then why should they?  Do Americans really want to live in a world where they go off for a nice vacation or take a job abroad, end up in some sort of trouble (yes, it happens) and the local authorities refuse to allow them to contact the local US Embassy?  The United States of America has its own "hostages to fortune" - about 6 million Americans citizens living outside the U.S. - and quite a few of them live in Mexico.

And I can hear the chorus starting up: "Do the crime, do the time" and "Why don't these people come back to the US where it's "safe"' (And I could barely type the last words of that sentence with a straight face.) I repeat, it is not about guilt or innocence which is a matter for the local courts to decide. The Vienna Convention is just about access, communication, and representation.  

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is well aware of the international repercussions and the potential blowback on American citizens abroad.  He has written to the state of Texas asking them to tread carefully as this may impact the State Department's ability to help Americans in other countries.  “Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation."  This article Who Ya Gonna Call? The Consular Notification Compliance Act by Emily Sharpe is a good summary of just how delicate this matter is and how important it is for Congress to lay this latter to rest once and for all.

Will Texas listen?

I doubt it.

Will the U.S. Congress rectify the situation by passing the necessary legislation to implement the Vienna Convention?

Not any time soon.

Which means, as a practical matter, every American who qualifies should think hard about getting a second passport - it may be the only reliable consular protection you will get if you travel, work or live outside the U.S.

(The Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO) has a short and sweet position paper on this matter which ALL Americans abroad should read.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Industrial Paternalism and Low-Cost Housing

In yesterday's post about my house in Porchefontaine I alluded to something called paternalisme industriel.

This term describes attitudes and policies that French companies in the19th and early 20th century France had to ameliorate the living conditions of their  workers.  It was a combination of private sector altruism, self-interest and social control.  In an era before national health and retirement programs (and the infamous HLMs) companies had various schemes to improve the lives of their personnel and to change their habits: better hygiene, reduction of alcohol consumption, and help for mothers and children.  Part of the goal was to improve production (epidemics were not good for owners or workers) but they also wanted to discourage strikes and atempts by the working class to get laws voted in their favor that were not in the interests of industry.  Laws like the one that was passed in 1919 that limited the working day to 8 hours.

Affordable housing was part of that and it took many forms: apartment complexes, barracks, dorms, and houses (single-family or duplexes). Around factories and mines entire complexes were constructed called cités-ouvrières. Here is a short video about one called la Cité Lafarge which was built in two phases - the first in the 1880's and the second in 1913.

I also recommend this article about worker housing in a region of the Maine-et-Loire Department.  Same era as above but the housing was constructed around the extractive industries (like mines).   One page 3 they talk about single-family housing developments that were built after the First World War.  These were clusters of little houses with gardens.  This population density (300 houses in one area) made it possible to have the kind of amenities that turns a planned housing development into a community:   post office, police station, sports, music, and churches.  The companies themselves often organized events for the workers.  The article also points out that these communities and companies had an important role in the integration of immigrants:  Poles, Czechs, Italians, Spaniards and Moroccans.

As I was reading all of this I had to wonder if I had seen vestiges of this mentality in one of the companies I worked for here in France long ago.   It was an old company founded in 1912 and still had a very strong identity when I worked there.  My colleagues and the management proudly described it with smiles all around as both paternalistic and franco-française.  Looking back, the culture shock was profound (I'd never experienced, or even imagined, anything like it) and yet I think it was very effective in integrating me not only into the company, but also into the larger society.

One of the rules was about speaking French at work which was perfectly normal but at times it was even extended to situations where I was dealing with fellow English speakers.  If they spoke any French at all, I was supposed to use French.  If they didn't, management used me on several occasions to shame the non-Francophones.  "If an American can learn to speak French, then you, ladies and gentlemen, have no excuse."  They had high expectations for integration but this was balanced with my sense that they genuinely cared and were willing to help in the process.  If integration is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, they made sure that it went down with a spoonful of sugar.

If you have some time to kill (about one hour) this video is very interesting and is the most complete tour of the subject I've found.  This is Antoine le Bas speaking about  Le logement ouvrier : de l'utopie à la réalité and is available on the Net through the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine.  Some great pictures and comments about worker housing in places all around France. Enjoy!

16.Le logement ouvrier : de l'utopie à la réalité par Cite-architecture

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière

A topic that I am tenaciously investigating right now is my house.  It is a weird little house. Though there are many detached houses (pavillons) in Porchefontaine, mine does not resemble any other in the immediate neighborhood old or new.  The front facade is covered with a funny yellowish brick and each individual brick has "EBD" stamped on it.  I have seen exactly the same bricks used for early 20th century apartment buildings in other parts of Versailles.

Around the front porch are wood railings and decorative woodwork.  There is a small niche carved into a corner where two outside walls meet.  Decorative ironwork can be found around just one window (a garde-corps) and on the old door which has an opaque glass window that opens behind a grille like this one.

In the back and on the sides I can't tell what's there because it's covered with what is commonly called crépi, a kind of cement/mortar that forms a protective layer on the exterior of many houses and apartment buildings (sometimes walls too).  The house itself  is elevated about one meter from ground-level and there are steps going up/down front and back.

The roof reminds me of old houses I saw in Tokyo and is, I think, a pyramid hip roof  because it has a peak sloping off into four corners covered with tile, not slate. And there is not enough room under the roof for an attic and there is no access from inside the house so it's pretty much wasted space. To get under the roof you have to get a ladder, climb up, carefully lift off a section of tile and drop in.

What the fireplaces might have looked like
Inside the house the floor plan is interesting:  3 small rooms, a tiny kitchen, a closet with a toilet and a bathroom.   Smack in the middle of the house is a long corridor and there are doors off the hallway to each room with oval porcelain door knobs.  Once upon a time there were corner fireplaces (wood or coal) in at least three of the rooms and there was flat panel wainscoting (still visible behind one of the radiators) and crown molding around the 3 feet high ceilings.

What we call in the U.S. "French doors" with 8 clear glass panes separate the two largest rooms (living and dining) which means there is a lot of light - the sun rises on the living room side through the tall windows/doors that open onto the front porch, and sets on the dining room side (east-west orientation).

Here is the floor plan from my files and to give you an idea of the size, the biggest room in the house, what is shown here as the salon,  measures roughly 3 x 3 meters (about 10 x 10 feet).

 The house is basically a 55 square meter (592 square feet) box plunked in the middle of a lot with a front courtyard and a big back garden.

Who built this house?  Why did they build it here?  What did it look like when it was first built?

I've been looking for answers to those questions and this is what I have unearthed so far.

From the documents the notaire gave us during the sale, I have a few names and a few crumbs of information that he passed along after his due diligence on the property.  The property was sold at a public auction in 1876 or 1877.  There were some interesting conditions to the sale:   the right to access the property with a horse or a car and that owners assumed full responsibility for the "conduire des eaux de toute nature" from the property to the street at their own cost, risk and peril. The owners were also responsible for a creek, called the ru de Marivel, that ran adjacent to the property.

The property finally passed to a Madame Wynhaut who sold it on September 3, 1929 to Madame Seitz who was, I presume, the builder of this house.

The city architect in a telephone conversation said that he knew the house well as an example of a maison ouvrière (working-class housing).  It is, he said, one of the last of its type remaining in Versailles - a style of architecture common in the late 19th/early 20th century in working-class neighborhoods like Porchefontaine, a quartier populaire on the other side of town about as far away from the Château de Versailles as you could get.  In the early years of the 20th century it even had its own slum called le Camp du Maroc.  The year this house was built, the city of Versailles was just beginning to put  in water, sewer and gas services.

People had wells in their back yards and outhouses.  Almost all the roads were dirt roads with the exception of my street and that was only paved up to the train station.  There is a very good site here that has pictures of the area in the 1930's.  Scroll down to the section entitled Le Halte and the photo right after the postcard  4. Avenue de Porchefontaine - Rue de la Ferme is an old picture of my street.  My house is on the right hand side (I think I see a corner of the roof).  The architect has no old photos of the house in his files but the day we decide to repaint, he said, he wants to come by so he can know what color the woodwork was when it was first built.

So looking back at the house as it is today what might we be able to deduce from the information presented so far?  Let's have some fun speculating....

 Madame Seitz might have been a person of modest means, perhaps a widow (this is the period after the sanguinary First World War).  She had some money because she could buy property and build a house but not enough to do so in the nicer parts of town.  She might have been a shopkeeper in the area or a rentier with a small income.

Or (and this idea came from a craftsman who passed by the other day) it was associated with the Truffaut gardens and housed a worker (and his family)  who was employed either in the show gardens or in the fertilizer factory.  The craftsman was very insistent that this house would not have been suitable for cadre (management) but he could see it being offered to a working-class family as part of a company policy of paternalisme industriel.

"But it's so small," I said. "How could you fit a family in this little one-bedroom house?"  He just looked at me and then patiently explained a little about the living conditions of the French working class in the early 20th century.  Even a very small house like this one, a single-family dwelling with room for a vegetable garden, he said, would have been a dream come true for a family in that era.

And there we have it - I'm looking at my house through late 20th/early 21st middle-class American eyes and I'm trying to put myself in the context of another world that had very different rules and conditions from the one I grew up in and the one I live in now. Today's world where we take for granted things like running water (hot and cold), where we can turn up the thermostat if we don't feel like firing up the purely optional wood stove, where there is a minimum wage and standards for decent housing, and where a sick women recovering from a life-threatening illness can sit at a computer and type these words knowing that she is warm, doesn't have to spend 70% of her non-existent income on food, and won't end up sleeping in a tent in a bidonville.

Damn.  Kinda looks like progress, doesn't it?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Close Encounter with a French Evangelical

One result of trading an apartment for a house has been the dropping of a barrier I was only vaguely aware of.  A typical French apartment complex has codes to enter the residence and/or the buildings and that discourages drop-ins.  Our house has none of that;  just a bell that can be rung from the street and is loud enough for me to hear in the back garden.  Oh and do I get callers.  Last week it was the pompiers (firemen) selling calendars and the éboueurs (garbage collectors) asking for donations. There are also a number of craftsmen and laborers (usually, but not always, immigrants) who swing by and offer their services.  "Madame, you really need a new roof."  Well, yes, I probably do, Monsieur, but not right this minute.

It's a whole new world and honestly I don't mind a bit.  The "sell" is never unpleasant or pushy and most of them are delighted to stand around and chat for a bit.  If they are local, the gossip is loads of fun and I've managed to glean from it a lot of information about my house and the surrounding neighborhood.

But the other day one of these chats turned into something else.  This fellow was a bit pushier than usual and I pushed back by explaining that I was unemployed and had some serious health problems and that I was in no position to pay for a complete redo of the exterior of my little maison ouvrière.

 His face changed completely and he began to preach.  "You know who can help you, Madame? Jesus."  Took me a few seconds but I finally realized that I was standing in the presence of a French evangelical - a creature I had heard existed but thought was a myth or an over-reaction of the French to the idea of religious diversity.  And I have to say that he was eloquent and passionate and had his spiel down pat.  Clearly, this was not the first time he had witnessed to a complete stranger.  The only sour note came when he saw the statue of Mary in the niche on my porch and informed me,  "She can't help you, Madame, only Jesus can."  (Note to other evangelicals - If you can't say something respectful about Santa Maria to a woman with a statue of her, don't go there).

I thanked him for his words and he left saying, "I will pray for you, Madame, and so will our church."  I liked that very much.  The past couple of years have taught me to be very grateful to have people pulling for me and prayers are always deeply appreciated.

That encounter sparked a latent curiosity in my mind.  Protestant Christians are definitely a minority here. The few I have met were luthérien (Lutherans) and that was only because there is a Lutheran church near the Eiffel Tower in Paris that collaborates with a Catholic church in the same area for the annual Stations of the Cross on the Champ de Mars.  From what I could tell these folks were mainstream Protestants (or at least I think that's what they would be in the American context).

The evangelical movement is actually something separate from denomination (established Christian churches).  Though it is usually associated with Protestant Christians - in fact it originated in England in the 18th century - nothing in theory stops Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christians from being evangelicals in spirit as well - spreading the Good News being something ALL Christians are called to do and it says so right there in the Bible.  The latest word from Pope Francis is all about evangelization - Evangelii Gaudium - the Joy of the Gospel. (And to the American conservatives who think the whole thing was an attack on capitalism, well, they might try actually reading it.  It's NOT the economy, idiots.)

However, in most people's minds the evangelical movement is associated with a particular strand of Protestant Christianity and churches and refers to people who have a particular set of beliefs about spreading the Gospel (among others).  Some evangelicals find a home within established churches, others belong to independant Christian churches - ones that are not affiliated with a particular denomination.  In France my sense is that there is great discomfort with this lack of structure and hierarchy.  When the French government wants to talk to, or has an issue with, the Catholic church, they know who to call.   But who do they talk to (or fight with) when they want to communicate with this loose network of evangelical churches?

Well, I did find this organization called the Conseil National des Evangéliques de France (CNEF) which was established in 2003 and became an official legal entity in 2007.  Their site is a goldmine of information about Evangelical churches in the Hexagon: numbers, beliefs, mission and so on.

I find it very interesting that they define the core beliefs of evangelicals as:
"Un profond attachement à la Bible. Elle est la Parole de Dieu. Elle représente l'autorité pour toutes les questions relatives à la vie." (Bible-centered)
"C'est par une conversion personnelle et délibérée à Jésus-Christ que l'on devient véritablement chrétien. C'est l'idée d'une « nouvelle naissance » par un acte de foi libre." (Personal conversion)
"Chaque évangélique entend répandre l'Évangile autour de lui." (Spreading the Gospel)
All of the above can be found to a greater or lesser degree in many Christian denominations.

But in the very next paragraph they place themselves firmly within the Protestant tradition:
"Oui, les évangéliques adhèrent pleinement aux principes théologiques de la Réforme protestante du 16e siècle. Aujourd'hui ils restent fidèles à ses principes : la foi seule, la grâce seule, la Bible seule."
(Yes, the evangelists adhere fully to the theological principles of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Today they remain faithful to these principles: Only faith, grace and the Bible.)
And take exception to churches that call themselves "evangelist" but really aren't in their eyes:
"Cette fidélité aux principes du protestantisme permet de distinguer les Églises évangéliques d'églises qui se nomment abusivement « évangélique » sans appartenir au protestantisme évangélique. Lorsque dans un groupe la parole du « pasteur-gourou » compte plus que la Bible, que le marketing remplace la simplicité évangélique et que le credo s'éloigne de l'exemple de Christ et promet à tous richesse et santé... il ne s'agit certainement pas d'une église protestante évangélique."
(This fidelity to Protestant principles allows us to distinguish evangelical churches from those who wrongly call themselves "evangelical" without belonging to Protestant evangelicalism.  When in a group the word of the "pastor-guru" counts more than the Bible, when marketing replaces evangelical simplicity, and the credo distances itself from Christ's example and promises riches and health...this is surely not a Protestant evangelical church.)
CNEF lists about 2300 churches in France that they consider to be authentically evangelical.  (To put that in perspective there are over 40,000 Roman Catholic churches in the Hexagon.)  Still, that is enough to raise eyebrows.  This article in Le Monde is a good example of the general reaction.  The title alone - How the Evangelical Church is Conquering the French - says volumes.  It's not one church, folks, it's many and the use of the verb "conquerir" in this context is a bit ticklish since it can mean "to win by force of arms" or "to pursuade or seduce".  In a country where freedom of conscience is the rule  it is clearly the latter - no one is forcing anyone to convert here.  If there are French in those churches (and there are) then it is because they want to be there.  

I would like to find a local French evangelical church so I can learn more. Religious pluralism was my "normal" when I lived in the U.S. and I miss it.   It's not about shopping for another belief system, it's about being around something that is rather rare these days: "the person (of whatever faith) who takes religion seriously." (Grace Davie, 2000)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Exodus by Paul Collier

The word "exodus" has two common meanings that can be distingushed by whether or not the first letter is capitalized.  Exodus with an upper-case-E refers to the second book of the Pentateuch, the first five books of Jewish and Christian scripture.  The same word with a lower-case-e is used for any mass migration  or departure of people.  It's a Latin word that comes from the Greek "exodos" which literally means  "road out." (ex - hodos = way/road)

It is a word I would use very carefully in the context of contemporary international migration since it has picked up a lot of baggage ever since it was added to Old English in the 17th century.  I do concede that it does make a very catchy title for a book (or a movie) and is certain to invite curiosity whether the potential reader is thinking Exodus or exodus.

Paul Collier is a professor of Economics and Public Policy and the author of a number of popular books:  The Plundered Planet, The Bottom Billion, and now Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World.

Exodus is well-written, well-argued and accessible to the general reader who is neither an economist nor a political scientist.  However, Collier's background does drive his approach to the topic.  Both the political and economic consequences (the "winners" and "losers") figure prominently in his argument, though he does talk about the social consequences as well.  His concern for the impact of emigration on developing countries shines through and he summarizes well the pros and cons of free outbound migration from the world's smallest struggling countries.  Steering a careful course between the Open Border advocates and the ani-migrant forces, his conclusions are interesting but there are statements in his book that I question or outright disagree with:

The Diaspora Function:  Collier says that we should not be looking at the net migration rate (flows in and flows out) in formulating migration policy but rather the size and the behavour of diasporas.  Diaspora is another word that is used promiscuously these days and it's a hard one to define precisely.  Collier argues that the most important characteristic of a disapora in any country is not where they were born but how they act in the host country.  "What matters for the rate of migration," he says, "is the number of people who are related to new migrants and who are prepared to help them."

I think that this is very often true, but is it really dependent on the diaspora in the host country retaining some sense of connection and responsibility toward migrants from the home country?  Not all diasporas are prepared to help new arrivals, even kin.  I learned very young from one of my grandfathers in the U.S. that we should never help new immigrants from the home country even if they were related to us.

Perhaps the kin relationship and the willingness to aid new arrivals is not as important as he thinks.  It may be that the simple existence of a distinct community of nationals in another country is sufficient to encourage further migration.  Having cleared the way, the older migrants have already served their purpose as role models and no further action on their part is needed.  And are there any cases where older arrivals actually discouraged new arrivals from the same country?  Did their behaviour have any impact at all on the inbound migration flow?

Migration Controls:  "Migration thus affects many different groups, but only one has the practical power to control it:  the indigenous population of host societies."  This I reject utterly.  The home country has enormous power here as well.  True, it is very rare to see a country that openly prohibits emigration but there are many indirect ways they can actively discourage it.  For example, home countries retain a monopoly on the travel documents necessary to leave the country in the first place and they control migrants' access to the "breeder documents" so necessary to establish legal residency elsewhere.  They also use indirect threats like a refusal to renew home country passports while abroad,  loss of property or assets that are still within their borders, limiting the "right to return" to live or visit family, unfavorable taxation regimes, controlling representation and voice in the political system,  changing citizenship requirements, refusing or limiting access to home country national social welfare networks,  confiscation of remittances, pressure on relatives, or even asserting a right to kill them outside home country due process laws under certain circumstances. The home country even controls how a migrant can permanently leave a nation-state and join another by putting into place onerous procedures and high costs for renouncing citizenship.

Nothing impractical about the exercise of one or more of these options by the home country.

The "Best" Migration:  "The most beneficial migration is not permanent exodus but temporary migration for higher education."  I think he is saying this in the context of mass departure from developing countries.   One of the rationales behind the infamous Circulaire Guéant (2011) which limited opportunities for foreign students to stay on and work after their studies was to encourage graduates to take their talents and skills directly back to their home countries.  Collier claims that through the host country higher education system, "students absorb the functional political and social norms of their host country."  My answer to that is "maybe."  Students are in many respects shielded from the larger society and exist in a world that can be quite separate.  It is through work (for the most part) that migrants meet the host country people and culture and learn their values (which, it must be said, are not always positive ones).

Collier is placing quite a lot of faith in universities to impart  (and make attractive) a purely theoretical vision of the home country social model in a mere 3 or 4 years.  Furthermore, one of the reasons these students chose foreign universities over local ones is the possibility of working in that country for a time after graduation in order to get work experience and apply their skills to the  "real world".  When France announced that it would limit the number of work permits for graduating students the students didn't go meekly home, they looked for opportunities in third countries.

I think a better way  to look at it is that education is just one step on the long journey of accumulating useful human capital.  However long a migrant chooses to stay outside the home country, as long as he or she retains a connection to the homeland (and the homeland reciprocates) there is always the possibility that he or she will return one day.   It may even be at the end of his working years when he can not only bring back not only his skills, talents and experience, but often his investments and pensions earned in other countries (payable and spendable anywhere) as well.  This is an important reservoir of human and financial capital that can be nurtured (the impetus behind many government diaspora recognition programs) or it can be cast away.

What I would have liked to have seen in Collier's analysis is an overview of these home country efforts and some idea of their efficacity.  Assuming that Collier thinks that return migration is essential for the future of the developing world, then let's ask this question:  Do some countries do a better job than others of getting their desperately needed citizens back?

There is much much more in this book (including a proposal that developed countries compensate developing countries for their loss of human capital which I personally think sounds like just another form of human trafficking) but I will stop here and let you explore Collier's ideas for yourselves.  Nathan Smith over at the Open Borders site has published a chapter by chapter analysis of Collier's book that is well worth the read.

Bon weekend!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The History of the World in 2 Minutes

It's Friday and I've got way too many ideas swirling in my brain from all the reading I've been doing.   There was Paul Collier's Exodus:  How Migration is Changing Our World,  Robert Morris' FATCA and the New Birth of American Empire, and Uncertain Demographics and Fiscal Sustainability (J. Alho, Editor).

I need time to process and the best way to do that is to do my duty at church this morning and then come back home for some heavy lifting in the garden.

But I did want to share this with you.  It was sent to me by my father in Seattle who said that he wasn't sure who created it but he thought it might have been a high school student.  No matter, it's very well done.  It reminded me that all the books and all the ideas I've gone over this week will not only be irrelevant in 50 years (if not 5) but will certainly be utterly forgotten in 500.  What we live right now, and our preoccupations which take up so much of our time and we think are so important, are really just blinks in time.  This is not a call to cast away all our efforts, but a reminder that one day we will be long gone and none of what we are doing, thinking, writing today will matter one whit.   I find that rather soothing.  Sure takes the pressure off, doesn't it?  Enjoy the film and your Friday.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Roots of a Dysfunctional Democracy

I get questions from time to time about the state of the American political system.  Looking at it from outside the U.S., it really appears dysfunctional - an analysis often shared by many Americans in the homeland who are frustrared, angry and downright disgusted by the behaviour of the U.S. politicians.  That lawmakers in the U.S. were willing to take the country to the brink of economic catastrophe is bad news - one would think that patriotism alone (something Americans are known for) would have set some limits on just how close to the edge lawmakers were willing to dance to make a political point. Apparently not.  And that's frightening because if they are willing to destroy themselves,  then what's to stop them from playing dice with the rest of the world?   Which in a sense they already did because a failure of the U.S. economy would have serious consequences for other countries and their people.  

What it looks like is here's this really paranoid guy (or gal) waving a gun and no one is sure whether he's just going to shoot himself  or take out a few innocent bystanders before he does himself in.

(And I realize, having used the above analogy that some of my readers will say, "She's clearly a Democrat!  Not only is she disrespecting her country but she believes in gun control!"  Well, actually, no, I'm not.  Furthermore,  I'm perfectly comfortable around firearms provided that the person carrying one in my presence is sane and that his daddy (or mommy) taught him what he needed to know about gun safety and made it stick.)

I find that the longer I live abroad the less patience I have for homeland partisan politics.  When Americans abroad meet each other, the Conservative/Progressive divide is not, in my experience, something we discuss much.  Not only are these labels not particularly relevant outside of the national context but our numbers are so small and the the joy of meeting a compatriot is so great that picking a fight and taking a side over some homeland issue is the last thing on our minds.  Really, what would be point of that?  Of all the Americans abroad I know, unless they have shared in passing membership in Dems or Repubs abroad, I really couldn't tell you their political orientations in the homeland context.

I see three things that Americans abroad could bring to the homeland political landscape:  distance which allows us to be concerned without becoming irrationally partisan, some idea of the opinions and concerns of the world outside the U.S. and a tendency to look first at what unites Americans and not at what divides us. Trust me, an American will never feel more American then when he or she is swimming in social, political and cultural waters outside the U.S. (My French friends abroad say the same thing about France.)

Distance, however, should not lead to a complete lack of empathy.  I may not follow the US newspapers or delve too deeply into homeland debates that, frankly, don't seem particularly thoughful or productive, but there is a thin strand of something that stops me from not caring at all.  I don't go looking for understanding what's happening in my home country but I'm willing to listen if someone clues me in to a serious reflective discussion.

Just Me passed this podcast along via email and I listened to it this morning.  It's an interview with Jon Haidt who wrote a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided over Religion and Politics.  I had never heard of this book before and have not read it. It was apparently a bestseller in the U.S. a few years ago and that fact that I am only now noticing it should tell you a lot about how little I know about the U.S. these days.   But I enjoyed the interview so much that I watched his Ted talk as well.  He has a very interesting take on just why the American political system is so messed up and why Americans in the homeland can no longer talk to each other without descending into ad hominem attacks.

Here's the Ted talk for your enjoyment this morning over your coffee. The talk is not entirely US-centric and he includes data from other countries as well. His point about cooperation decaying without punishment may be one pausible explanation for the complete lack of homeland interest in overseas Americans' tax issues. His proposal that people should "step out" from their personal moral matrix is something that I think many Americans abroad have done (not always willingly) which means we just might have something important to offer the homeland in national discussions.  You want diversity of opinion, America?  Try talking things over with some long-term U.S. expats from Canada, Germany, Nigeria, or Russia.  Their take on things might surprise you.

Honestly  I don't know if Haidt is right (though he is a very engaging speaker) but I think what he has to say is worth considering.  Feel free to throw in your .02 in the comments section.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Very Fine FATCA Q & A

Allison Christians, a professor at the McGill University Faculty of Law and author of the blog Tax, Society and Culture, has just published a post with a very clear and concise FATCA Q & A. If you are new to the subject and need to learn something about FATCA for professional or personal reasons this is a good place to start. If you are someone who has been in the FATCA fight for some time then this is an excellent reminder that sometimes the best communication is simple, straightforward, and above all, digestible.

Some very good questions in this Q & A: What is FATCA? Why was FATCA part of the HIRE Act? What was its purpose? What are the costs versus benefits? What is an IGA? What is the impact on financial institutions and the final customer?

These questions are relatively easy to answer. There are facts and a reasonable person's interpretation of those facts. But the last question is the hardest one because here we venture into the unknown: What should people who are worried about FATCA do?

A tough question because everyone has an opinion.

The US government via Robert Stack's FATCA Myths is saying: Don't worry, it's all in your head. If you've done nothing wrong then you have nothing to worry about. Furthermore, all those folks around the world getting their banks accounts shut down, groaning under the compliance burden, and dumping their US passports? Myths. They don't really exist.

Uh, guys? Since this whole boondoggle began we (the American diaspora) have been talking to each other (ain't the Internet grand?) We know the people who have lost their bank accounts, got shafted through the IRS "amnesty" programs or who have renounced citizenship. And now through the BBC and other international and national media outlets, the world is getting to know them too.

At best Stack's statement looks woefully out of touch. At worst it confirms the thinking of those who believe there is a conspiracy in the U.S. government to crush the American community abroad. Either way I think I'm on safe ground when I say that no American abroad slept better after reading that statement. So no help there.

Compare that to other messages Americans abroad are getting right now which do insist that there is something to worry about:

Cross-border tax experts who do say there is something to fear and they have the solution: compliance or a restructuring of ones finances to lower the compliance burden. They are more than happy to help for a fee. Some Americans abroad can pay and some can't. That's not the only impediment - there are many stories floating around of innocent Americans abroad on fixed incomes getting sucked into IRS programs on the advice of the experts and ending up losing a substantial portion of their retirement savings to lawyer fees and penalties (not taxes due).

To those who are reading this and thinking that Americans abroad are just paranoid and should be a bit more trusting in the goodwill of the US government and the compliance industry, this interview with Bill Yates, a retired IRS attorney (IRS International Division), which was widely circulated and read, did not inspire confidence. In his words, this is what happened to US citizens who were unknowingly non-compliant but still came forward using experts and tried to make things right with the US government through one of the IRS tax amnesty programs (OVDI/OVDP):
"Whatever course of action taken by a taxpayer, the OVDI terrified and angered a great many people. I received calls from many practitioners who told me stories about “accidental citizens” who had RRSPs [Canadian retirement savings accounts -  like IRA's in the US]  who came forward and eventually were handed a 20% penalty of an account which represented their entire savings. From what I was hearing, an RRSP with approximately $100,000 was pretty much the norm. So, IRS takes a $20,000 chunk out of it. Practitioners told me that many of their clients were in tears when they were informed of what was going to happen to their savings. This is unacceptable."
There are organizations like ACA (American Citizens Abroad) or AARO (Association of Americans Resident Abroad) who have their own advice: join their organizations and start sending letters to elected representatives back in the U.S. This is action that is easy and doable - most of the lawmakers in the US have tools on their websites where they take letters from their constituents. The problem is what to do after that and as Americans abroad watch and wait to see the impact of their actions, it's not looking good.

FATCA is marching forward, there are still millions of Americans abroad who are non-compliant and deeply worried and, as far as I can tell, the US government is not paying much attention. OK, we wrote our letters. We talked to our reps. Now what?

ACA does have two proposals on the table that are very well done and everyone should go and read them. There is a proposal for Residence-based taxation (RBT) and another for a new amnesty program called the Comprehensive Compliance Program. Both were released last summer but there's no news about what impact they have had (if any). Perhaps it is too soon but it would be nice to hear some follow-up from time to time lest we lose heart.

There are some really basic questions here that are unanswered: What do I do if my local bank closes my accounts? I just found out that I'm a US Person but I've never filed - how should I proceed? I've been filing 1040's but I didn't realize I had to file FBAR's too - help! I'm looking for a cross-border tax expert - can you recommend an honest, reliable and affordable one? I've read the IRS streamlined compliance program description on their website and I don't understand how it works. Can you clarify - give me something in plain English so I can figure out for myself if I should do it or not? I've been filing and I just got a statement from the IRS saying I owe a few thousand dollars in US taxes - I don't understand the bill because I am well under the foreign income exclusion. Who do I talk to about this? I've heard about the Taxpayer Advocate Service - who are these people and can they help me?

Into this information void marches the Isaac Brock Society - an Internet-based social movement that tries to answer these questions and much much more. It's not experts giving definitive answers - its members simply responding with what they did or what they have seen others do. It's a forum and almost anything goes. It has the merit as well of being a very broad movement that includes all US Persons under its umbrella, even Accidental Americans (folks who had no idea they were US citizens) and former US citizens. 

To be very clear, they will propose one option that the US government and all the advocacy organizations won't talk about and that is renouncing U.S. citizenship. I just checked and the website is now up to over 5 million hits. The secret of their success? Action and options that go beyond what one will hear in other places and above all, this message, "You are not alone. You are not a myth. And we will try and help as best we can." Powerful stuff. What the Brockers are not well-placed to do, however, is to negotiate with or lobby the US government. They could protest, however, either in the US or abroad - something that they are already doing.

That is the landscape as I see it. Everyone has a little piece of the puzzle and someone looking for an answer to the question, "I'm worried about FATCA - what should I do?" will get a different message depending on where he or she lands after googling the topic.

Here is my unvarnished opinion of the situation today:

 ACA's RBT proposal will go nowhere. At most they and other advocacy organizations might get a redefinition of "foreign" so that local bank accounts in the host countries will be exempt. That, I think, is possible. But a complete change of US tax policy? Not a chance in hell right now.

Renunciations will continue and even accelerate. I doubt this will be reflected in the US government's quarterly renunciant list because, as we have already seen through Eric's excellent research, those lists are inaccurate and I don't see any real desire on the part of the US government to fix that. It's simply not in their interests and that says to me that the data will be manipulated so that the "renunciation effect" (aka "voting with their feet") will be muted.

Everyone else is going to live with it by paying to get compliant, taking a chance on a QD (quiet disclosure) or by finding a way to get and stay under the US government's radar. Not easy to do but don't underestimate people's creativity fueled by fear.

FATCA itself, I believe, is going to implode at some point. A badly written law with too wide a scope - there will be too much information coming in and even the IRS is having trouble getting their IT systems up to speed (and just imagine what the banks are going through). The "final" regulations keep changing, every country so far has its own little specialized IGA with rules and exemptions tailored to that country, and there is serious domestic (U.S.) opposition to reciprocity with lawsuits and the like. And, for the cherry on the cake, coming soon is another information exchange model about to be voted on by the EU. What does this say to me? That it's going to take a long long time for all this to get hashed out and there will be revision after revision for the foreseeable future. No one has any idea what all this will look like a few years down the road. In the meantime, the collateral damage will pile up.

I could be wrong about some or all of the things I just said.  If you have a different take on it, please feel free to say so.

Back to Allison's (and our) question:  What should we do NOW?

The only thing one can do under such uncertainty - take a deep breath and give everybody a fair hearing. Read Stack's note, have a look at what ACA and AARO are saying in their position papers, pay for (if you can) a quick consult with an international tax expert, go to Isaac Brock and say a few words about your situation or ask a question and see what comes back.

Once you've done your due diligence, find a quiet place to sit and think. I can't guarantee that you'll make THE right decision (whatever that may be) but I do think you'll find a solution you can live with.