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Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Earth Moved

About an hour ago as my daughter and I sat in the blue chairs reading and my spouse was watching his evening action movie, our 28-floor apartment building began to rock back and forth like a big creepy cradle.  The dining room ceiling light swayed.

"Earthquake,"  my daughter said.  And we all looked at each other and hung on for the ride which seemed to go on and on and on.

Low in intensity; but long in duration.

It finally stopped and we all leapt up and grabbed our me-machines to find out what the heck had happened and where.

A 7.8 and the epicenter was out in the Pacific Ocean (south of us).  The Japan Meteorological Society website has this map showing where it all began at 20:24 (x marks the spot).  Note that by the time it arrived chez nous, it was a 2 or 3 (maybe even a 4).

We were hardly alone in being jolted out of our evening routine.  This graphic from Fark Japan Quake map shows just how far and wide this one was felt.

Will the Fun Ever End? Possible New US Person Reporting Requirement

Some mornings I read some delightful missive in my inbox, and then I put down my coffee, walk over to the nearest wall, and knock my head against it.  Made for a very satisfying thunk back in Versailles where the walls were 1929 solid.  Not nearly as effective in my modern Osaka apartment since the room dividers are covered in cheesy thick white wallpaper which cushions the blow.

But I make do.

So what had me banging my head against a wall this morning?  A possible new US Person reporting requirement.

According to Allison Christians, a McGill University tax law professor and all around Fine Person (she loans me books and buys me coffee) based in Montreal, Canada, reports that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis  has decided to make its bureaucratic life easier, and by extension other people's lives much harder.

Their form (and isn't there always a damn dead tree form?) Benchmark Survey of U.S. Direct Investment Abroad, the BE-10a-d, was used by the BEA to gather information about US investments outside the Land of the Free.  It was voluntary;  now it's required.  The due date for new filers of this form is June 30, 2015 - the very same day millions of US Persons around the world must have completed their Fincen 114 reporting (aka FBARs).

Christians says that the now mandatory BE-10 filing concerns "any US Person that directly or indirectly held 10% or more of the voting securities ("US Reporter") of any non-U.S. business enterprise (a “Foreign Affiliate”). There are no de minimis exceptions: no matter how small your nonUS corporation might be (or have been-you must file for the year even if the corporation ceases to exist), you must report or face the penalty."

The penalty for non-filing is "$2,500 to $25,000 for nonfiling, plus $10,000, or a year in jail, or both, if the nonfiling was wilful."

That's the bare bones info.  I imagine that most of you have just one burning question and that is:  Does this filing requirement apply to US Person me, my investments, and my small non-US family business or consulting company?   Once my head stopped spinning from all that wall banging, I watched this BEA video and, for the life of me, I couldn't figure it out. Christians herself is looking into it, and if it isn't obvious to a professor of tax law, then no wonder little ol' me is confused.

Just out of curiosity, were any of you Costco (or local equivalent) shoppers out there aware of this?   Did anyone send you a note, give you a heads-up, cc you on the memo?    Or are you reading it here for the first time?

Because, setting aside for the moment the question Is this reporting necessary? (for some reason that escapes us peons) this highlights once again that there is a serious communication gap here between the homeland and Americans abroad.  Did the people at BEA think for two seconds that there might be 8 million US citizens and Green Card holders abroad (not to mentions those living in the US) potentially affected by this requirement?  And if those 8 million+ people were taken into consideration, might that not change how the requirement was designed, implemented and communicated to the population concerned?

It's not just the BEA but the entire US government that needs to get a grip on globalization and the fact that it has a Domestic Abroad, a population that does not live in the US and may never ever live there.  Yes, taking them into account makes things messy and harder to implement but if laws, policies and regulations are applied to these people regardless of where they live, and they run the risk of draconian fines or jail time for failure to comply, then, at minimum, government has an obligation to clarify and inform.

And don't give me that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" crapola.  According to one source, US Federal law has over 23,000 pages in 50 volumes.    The US tax code alone is over 7,500 pages written in the weirdest, obscurest language comprehensible only to a small, select group of scribes (some of whom charge 500 Euros an hour for the "translation").   With numbers like that ignorance isn't a choice, it's a chronic condition.

What to do?  Instead of roiling in fear and frustration one option is for us to start banging on their walls instead.  BEA has a contact email: be10/ and a phone number (202) 606-5566.  Ask for clarification and be sure to get them to put it in writing that you do or do not have to file this pesky form.  Let them know that you are not the only US Person abroad asking these questions and suggest that they provide additional information on their website pertinent to US Persons who do not live in the US. And then send everything to your US Congresspersons so that they are in the loop as well.

Maybe it will work and maybe it won't.  It's worth a try, if for no other reason than the possibility that sending those emails might just assuage some frustration and save a wall or two.

Update:  Professor Christian has updated her post and says that, as far as she can tell from the instructions, non-resident US citizens are not required to submit this form.  Between you and me, I would still ask them directly and extract an answer in writing.  Cover your ass?  Absolutely.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bi-lingual Word Play

A few things that are too good not to share.  First up is a site called Wordsmith which offers an English Word a Day message that shoots straight to my email..  Every morning in my inbox I get a new whimsical word with all the trimmings:  definition, pronunciation, etymology and usage.  I am enchanted..

This week they are offering a special treat:  French words that have become English words.  These are terms from the language of Molière that are now standard in the language of Shakespeare.  Here are the ones I've received so far this week:

de rigueur

But perhaps you would prefer to expand your vocabulary in French.  If so, check out Kristin's French Word a Day.  Same principle as the Wordsmith list but Kirstin adds her own flair to the service and it's always fun to savour her musings.  This week features an English word that is now used by the French:  Le Memorial Day.  Not sure that one is good usage in France but, hey, she found it on a French language Wikipedia site. Whenever I see this kind of appropriation from English, my burning question is always:  how do they determine if a borrowed word is masculine or feminine?  Is it arbitrary or are there rules?

If that weren't enough richesse (also a perfectly good English word used by both Chaucer and Spenser) for a lazy Friday morning reading email over coffee on the 14th floor of my apartment in Osaka, a note came in from the website of one of my favorite authors, Ilona Andrews.  This is actually the pen name for a couple who write drop dead wonderful Urban Fantasy.   The husband, Andrew Gordon, is American and the wife, Ilona Gordon, is originally from Russia.  Their "Magic" series is very popular and with good reason - I have dived into it at least three times;  they are rollicking good reads and I recommend them with no reservations whatsoever.  Last night, I decided to read them again and stayed up very late reading the first couple of volumes.

So sweet serendipity was definitely at work here when I saw their email this morning.  Today's offering is a post about characters, change, and the creative process.  She writes:
"Despite being logical, I operate mostly on emotion when I engage with books, our own and others’. My emotions change from day to day, sometimes drastically from hour to hour. Every day when you sit down to write, you run the risk that you mind will become fascinated by a different aspect of the story and sometimes, when you are struggling with the narrative, and suddenly your brain presents a different route to get where you are going, it feels like true, genuine inspiration."
And that reminded me of the way I sometimes use my French and English:  to force my brain to find another pathway in order to solve problems and to get unstuck when I write.  Feeling frustrated because the words won't come and the sentences are stiff?  Switch to French. 

Why does this work?  I don't know but it feels like switching gears and tapping an alternate persona to take the wheel and steer for awhile.  I don't feel like I'm the same person in French;  I don't think the same way and I don't feel the same things.  The world is simply a very different place depending on the language I use to frame and view it.  And with the switch I can be a very different person without ever having to step out of my own head.  

Proof that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct?  I think there is something to it - though I am well aware that their theory does not enjoy the respectability today that it once did.  But that's just me overthinking things once again.  It doesn't matter if it's true;  what matters is that I believe it and it works for me.  I am surely not the only bilingual who does it either, although I have never had a direct conversation with any writer about the connection between switching languages and creativity. 

The topic makes me edgy and uncomfortable because I've never been able to describe it to my saisfaction.  It always comes out sounding like a share in a 12-step meeting:  "Hello my name is Victoria and my personality splits along linguistic lines..."  But here is part of a poem by Diana Anhalt which comes close to what I would like to say.  It is, as all poems are, an indirect and illuminating conversation that uses words and word play to transcend the limits of all language.. 

Spanish curdled my tongue,
turned me wordy, oblique, insincere.
With its treacherous Rs, languorous vowels,
devious music, each sound colliding
with the next, it yielded one unwieldy run-on word,
too big for my child-sized mouth.
Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Restoring Lost Citizenship

Very good post up today on the Isaac Brock Society website.  Eric, who writes from Asia, calls attention to the case of a South Korean pop star who renounced S. Korean citizenship in 2002.  Yoo Seung-jun (these days a resident of China) now wishes to reverse that decision - he wants to renounce his American citizenship and have his South Korean citizenship restored to him.   Here is the link to Eric's post:

An exile wants to give up U.S. citizenship and come home to South Korea.

Is it possible to regain a citizenship that a person has lost or renounced?  The answer is that it depends on the circumstances and the country.

Italy, for example, has a pretty straightforward procedure for re-acquisition of citizenship.   Italian citizenship is restored in two ways:
"1.  Automatically one year from the date in which they established residence on Italian soil, unless they renounce it within that term of time.
2. By specific declaration:
  • serving in the Italian armed forces; 
  • by being or having been in the employ of the Italian government, even abroad;
  • if a foreign resident, once legal residence in Italy is established, within one year of the declaration for reacquisition submitted to the Italian consular authorities; 
  • once legal residence in Italy has been established for at least 2 years, and it can be proven that the applicant has left the foreign government employ or military service undertaken despite express prohibition by Italian law."
 The conditions (as of 2008) for restoring Vietnamese citizenship are even more interesting:
"1. A person who has lost his/her Vietnamese nationality as prescribed in Article 26 of this Law and applies for restoration of Vietnamese nationality may restore his/her Vietnamese nationality, if he/she falls into any of the following cases:
  • Having applied for permission to return to Vietnam;
  • His/her spouse, a natural parent or a natural offspring is a Vietnamese citizen;
  • Having made meritorious contributions to Vietnam’s national construction and defense;
  • Being helpful to the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam;
  • Conducting investment activities in Vietnam;
  • Having renounced Vietnamese nationality for acquisition of a foreign nationality but failing to obtain permission to acquire the foreign nationality.
2. Persons applying for restoration of Vietnamese nationality may not restore Vietnamese nationality, if such restoration is detrimental to Vietnam’s national interests."
And what about U.S. citizenship?  The one where potential renunciants are warned and warned again that their loss of citizenship is "irrevocable"?  Well, not quite.  Read the fine print in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual Volume 9:
"A loss of citizenship is permanent and irrevocable, unless the U.S. Government subsequently overturns the loss for involuntariness or lack of intent." (Italics are mine)
According to Ben Herzog in Revoking Citizenship, between 1982 and 1985 the US Board of Appellate Review (the entity responsible for validating or reversing loss of citizenship cases at the time) reversed the loss of US citizenship in 35% of the cases reviewed - even those that involved a individual  who had formally renounced US citizenship at a US consulate.

Between 1973 and 1990 about 400 members of the Original African Israelite Nation of Jerusalem official renounced US citizenship.  After some members left the group, they asked that their US citizenship be restored.  "In 1990, the board dealt with eight cases.  It decided to restore citizenship in five cases, and rejected the other three.  Later that year, the board revisited those three cases and concluded that the renunciation had been psychologically forced and hence reversed its prior decisions."

So, regaining US citizenship even after a formal renunciation was possible;  the State Department had a procedure and a board that reviewed such cases.  A reversal was never guaranteed but there was a chance.

It appears that the Board of Appellate Review ceased to exist around 1991 - about the time the State Department changed its policies (following the results of US court cases that set a new standard for "voluntary" and emphasized "intent") about expatriating acts and dual citizenship.

Today in 2015 a renunciant can ask the State Department for an administrative review (see U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual Volume 7) of that loss of US nationality if any one of the following apply:
"(1) The law under which the holding of loss of nationality was made is later held unconstitutional; for example, a law concerning voting in a foreign election;
(2) A major change in the interpretation of the law on expatriation is made as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision; for example, the decision in Afroyim v. Rusk or Vance v. Terrazas;
(3) A major change is made in the interpretation of the law by the Department or is made by another agency and adopted by the Department. Most of these changes arose under previous statutes and prior to the decision in Afroyim v. Rusk; for example, cases involving naturalization of a minor; and
(4) Substantial new evidence of involuntariness or intent, not previously considered but contemporaneous to the time when the potentially expatriating act was performed, is presented by the individual."
And if the former US citizen is denied, then he or she can then file a court case asking that State's decision be over-ruled.

Given that standard for "voluntary" and "intent" what are we to make of the cases before us today? US citizens are renouncing in record numbers, but many openly say that they feel forced into doing so.  Not, mind you, because of taxes, but because of a tax system with onerous requirements with which it is difficult and expensive to comply.

I am dead certain that there will be requests for restoration of US citizenship in the future from some of today's renunciants.  How will the State Department judge those cases?  No idea.  Will it go to the courts?  Absolutely.

A suivre.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Frenchlings and the Fruits of Multilingualism

This week the younger Frenchling and I took the shinkansen to Tokyo.  The train system here in Japan is a marvel - clean, fast and comfortable,  Lovely ladies in cute caps glide through the aisle with drinks and snacks.  Conductors walk through the car making sure everything is as it should be, and when they reach the end, they turn and bow to the passengers.  From Osaka, Kyoto is a mere 30 minutes away;  Tokyo about two and a half hours.  A superior form of travel.

When the Flophouse relocated to Tokyo years ago, the Frenchlings studied at the Lycée Franco-Japonais (now known as the Lycée Français International de Tokyo).  They liked the school; I loved it.  It was this school that finally flipped on the English switch in my little darlings' psyches.

Prior to our moving to Japan the first time the Frenchlings attended French public school and their French was solid.  English, my first language, was used at home (One Parent, One Language) but it was the inferior language - the one their Red, White and Blue mother imposed on them for their own good.   That was my justification at the time  - that I was going to all this trouble to make English a living language in our house for them.  In retrospect, I see that it was a much for my benefit as theirs.  Bilingualism was a standard I set for our family that would prove that I was a good mother and a good American.  Oh, the tyranny of parental expectations!

Under my tutelage, and with the help of family in the US, they made progress and could understand spoken English and answer in the same when it was required of them.  But for all my efforts I could not make them love the language, or even force them to place English at the same level as French.  And once they left the house to go to school in Suresnes or Versailles, English was demoted to a household language spoken by an immigrant mother which had no utility - none of their friends spoke it and authority figures like teachers didn't value it.  Worse, it made them different, and what child wants to be different from her peers?

All that changed when we moved to Tokyo.  The Lycée Franco-Japonais was an international school that served the children of French expatriates and other nationalities who aspired to send their children to France for university.  This well-educated, well-heeled population had very high standards for the education of their offspring.  The parents also had a very different worldview - for many of these French families Japan was their second, third or fourth country. For all that the school followed the French national curriculum and taught for the French bac, multiculturalism  and multilinguism were the norm;  knowing only one language or culture was the exception.   (When the elder Frenchling moved to the US after university she was rather taken aback to be told by some of her American friends that her experiences in France and Japan were not what they meant by "multiculturalism".  Why, I'm not sure, but perhaps some of my readers in the US can clarify.)

This meant that there were many language options on the menu.  English was offered and for the first time in their lives the Frenchlings had grammar, literature and creative writing classes in the language of Shakespeare taught by native English speakers:  Canadians, British and Americans.  Their progress was phenomenal and was due as much to the environment and the values of their peers, as it was to the curriculum and the pedagogy.  English suddenly became not only useful, but essential.  As the Frenchlings went out and about in Tokyo with their friends, it was rare to find fellow Francophones but English-speakers were, if not common, certainly more prevalent.

The French school also had required Japanese classes.  It was here that the Frenchlings had their first initiation into that language and from the very start the younger Frenchling was captivated.  As for me, the parent who struggled for bilingualism, the idea that my children might be inspired to learn a third language was simply beyond me.  I was so invested in the language wars in our home that my linguistic world was strictly limited to the two European languages I knew;  I was simply not capable of encouraging a third language, an interloper in my grand, but strictly bi-lingual, plan.

We returned to France and the elder Frenchling went to an English-speaking university in Quebec (McGill) where she refined her English even more.  She graduated with honors and I was so proud to read her thesis  written in flawless English. The younger Frenchling on her own initiative found a French-English international program offered at a public French high school near Versailles. Delighted that she could continue her English studies, I barely noticed that Japanese was also offered and was only mildly encouraging when the younger Frenchling included that language in her program. (And I note here that the Frenchling's French grandmother was very disappointed that they never studied German - a language that she considers far superior to all others.)

In due time the younger Frenchling followed her sister to Canada.  At first it was physics, but after taking her first university-level Japanese class, she changed her major  and is now working on a degree in Asian Studies.  I find it rather amusing that she is living in Canada, attending a French-speaking university and studying Japanese.  How could I not have noticed all those years her efforts and persistence in finding ways to learn more and more Japanese?  The optional Japanese language classes in high school;  the request for a Japanese tutor in Versailles;  the hours spent watching Japanese anime on her computer.   What I dismissed as something peripheral to her main course of study is now the center of it.

When I was dreaming bi-lingual dreams for my children, I thought the sun rose and set with French and English,  My worth as a mother was to an appalling extent contingent on their language skills and I never questioned the tyranny of those expectations.  I could offer English up with every menu, but I could not make them chew on it with pleasure and swallow.  Such are the limitations of parental power.  I do not regret that they know these languages today, but I recognize that their bi-lingualism was only partly due to my efforts, and that school and peers played a much larger part.

Today what I face as a parent goes beyond accepting past truths:  in a role reversal that I was hesitant to accept, my Frenchlings have become my teachers.  From my talks with the elder Frenchling I am re-learning American culture.  It and the American language have changed in ways that sometimes irritate me, especially when I hear a word, phrase or cultural reference I don't understand  As for the younger Frenchling, she has been our guide and translator as we explored the Kansai region.  For, to my surprise, my Japanese instructor who is now tutoring my daughter during her stay, has pronounced my daughter proficient in Japanese.  She has a good accent, she said, and can hold her own in a conversation.  A conversation?

How astonishing, was my first thought, followed by harsh judgement of my own feeble efforts to learn the language.  For all that I raged all through the Frenchlings' childhood that English was not valued enough in our home, here I was making a similar judgement about Japanese.  I simply did not value the language as highly as French or English and I certainly did not see it as a language to love learning for its own sake as my daughter does.

So, when I agreed to go off to Tokyo with my daughter this week, I put myself in her hands.  I listened really listened to her speaking Japanese.  When I didn't understand or needed a word, I asked her.  And as we strolled through the Naruto exhibition at the Mori Arts Gallery and I looked up and saw a kanji that intrigued me, I turned to the younger Frenchling and asked, "What is that beautiful but terribly complicated character up there? "

And she smiled at her mother and replied, "Love, Mom.  It means Love."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

For Good and Evil: the Impact of Taxes

“The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations.”

James C. Scott

If you've been reading the Flophouse then you know that taxes are a frequent topic here. Frankly, I am less interested in the mechanics of taxation than I am in what I have heard referred to as the sociology of taxation.   Underneath all tax issues, I am learning, are a host of social and psychological factors.    

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has done some fascinating research about this and Ken Devos in his book Factors Influencing Individual Taxpayer Compliance Behaviour does a fine job of summarizing their work.  In particular, the discussion around "tax moral" - how taxpayers view taxes in light of their beliefs and societal norms - was illuminating.  Any lawmaker or citizen who says that the feelings of the citizenry around taxes don't matter because "the law is the law" is delusional.  The lower the tax moral, the lower the rate of voluntary compliance, which means less tax revenue.  Not simply because people don't pay, but because more and more tax money must be diverted to administration and enforcement.

Perceptions, ethics, and social systems matter.   The battle for hearts and minds and wallets is conducted in the political arena where different interests squabble over the meaning of "fair" or "equitable".  For every tax or tax system there are attempts at persuasion - mostly transparent morality tales that paint the uncooperative citizens or the greedy grasping government in the blackest possible terms.  

When I picked up Charles Adams' book For Good and Evil:  the Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, that is exactly what I was expecting - a polemic on good and evil taxes and tax systems - all the more since I had a vague impression that Mr. Adams was something of a libertarian.  Whatever his ideology, he did a very good job of putting those opinions firmly in the background.  A careful reading of the text will expose them, but they are not the focus of his book.

Instead Adams tells a series of stories about taxes, tax systems and strategies going back to antiquity.  It is not a definitive history of taxation by any means, but it is not a bad place to begin thinking about the historical context and to see how the social, psychological and even religious context around taxation has always mattered a great deal.

How interesting to read that taxpayers in the Middle Ages had "God on their side."  Unjust or excessive taxation on the part of kings was a sin and incurred the wrath of God.  Conversely, a king who taxed justly and modestly would enjoy peace, prosperity and be "blessed with many sons."

New (or unheard of) taxes were particularly odious.  This principle was called exactio inaudita (which we can summarize as "no new taxes")  and greatly limited the raising of revenue by royalty.  Europe's rulers were daunted by this until they found a population that, in their eyes, did not have God on their side - the Jewish people - and laid that burden upon them.

Taxes played a role in the spread of Islam. The jaliya was a tax on Jews, Christian and other non-believers.  Since Moslems did not pay it, the fastest and easiest way to relieve one's tax burden was to convert.

Adams point out that this was very close to the Greek practice of taxing foreigners, not citizens. In ancient Athens foreigners paid a monthly tax called the metoikion.  The opposite of modern citizenship-based taxation, and completely contrary to the notion that taxes are a responsibility of citizens, only non-citizens (metics) were consistently and directly taxed.  Citizens themselves were only directly taxed in extraordinary emergency circumstances like war - the eisphora.  Not only were these taxes canceled once the reason for them was over, "if there was any booty from the war it was used to repay or refund the eisphora."

Those who rail against international tax competition in our day should know that, far from being a new phenomenon brought on by 20th century globalization, it has a long and venerable history.

Around the 4th century B.C., says, Adams,  the island of Rhodes became a thriving center of banking and commerce. Internally, it was politically stable.  Externally, it successfully avoided becoming embroiled in other countries' conflicts.  Rhodes was also a port of call for ships coming from the east to deliver cargo to Rome and Greece.  The port charged a 2% harbor tax "based on the value of the cargo, even if the cargo remained on board."  When Rhodes found itself in conflict with Rome, the Romans attacked them indirectly by creating another port in 166 B.C. on the isle of Delos which, in addition to possessing good facilities and services, was tax free.  The result?
"The trade of the east immediately bypassed Rhodes and went to Delos.  In one year trade declined by 85 percent.  Annual tax receipts, which normally had run about 1 million silver drachmas, declined to 150,000."
Which just goes to show that "harmful tax competition" has at least  a 2,000 year-old pedigree.

"Tax habits could be to civilization what sex habits are to personality.  They are basic clues to the way a society behaves."  Ideas about what is "fair" and "equitable" change - surely the Christians of the middle ages in Europe found taxing the Jews to be very fair indeed, and the Athenians had no problem exempting their citizen-selves from any direct tax obligations.  What do today's most pressing tax issues tell us about the societies in which we live?

For the most part, Adams tells his stories straight without manipulative moralizing.  He believes that taxes can be a force for good, are necessary for civilization,  and have "built great nations and brought much good to their inhabitants."

But he also argues that there are taxes and tax systems so bad that they actually undermine the civilizations they are meant to support.  Tax systems that are overly complex and ultimately unenforceable generate contempt, not revenue.   Governments that approach their citizens or subjects with arrogance, and rely mostly on compulsion to fill their coffers, fare badly as avoidance and evasion become rampant.  And anyone who believes that harsher laws and draconian punishments are the only proper response to widespread non-compliance should take a few moments to look at the ATO research.

And while we are speaking of punishment -  if it is good, right and necessary for taxpayers to be under threat, then surely a case can be made that governments and their agents need it too in order to be properly motivated and compliant with their responsibilities to those they govern.

In ancient Egypt under the pharoah Haremhab "a tax-collecting scribe found guilty of overcharging a taxpayer was sentenced to have his nose cut off, followed by banishment to a desolate part of Arabia."

With that kind of punishment, and if we could convince the US Congress that taxing simply and coherently would "bless them with many sons", the bureaucrats and lawmakers just might find the motivation to undertake that politically dangerous but desperately-needed tax reform.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Nara: Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines

This weekend one of my spouse's colleagues took us on a tour of her hometown:  the city of Nara.

Nara is located in the Kansai region and and was Japan's imperial capital from 710 to 794. In 794 the emperor/empress moved to Kyoto but the many temples and shrines remained.   It's a city every bit as magical as Kyoto and we had a fine time walking in Nara park, feeding the deer, and visiting the Kasuga shrine (Shinto) and Tōdai-ji temple (Buddhist).

In the modern Christian countries I know best in Europe and North America there are many debates about the role of religion in society, and between atheism (there is no God) and monotheism (there is one God).  There is another, older ism and that is polytheism which posits that there are many Gods and Goddesses.  As we strolled through Kasuga I asked our guide to explain something about Shinto, a religion that was not part of the curriculum at my Catholic high school (though Buddhism was).

She confirmed that there were indeed many gods in the Shinto pantheon but there was a hierarchy with some gods being more powerful than others.  When she was a child, she said, there were several shrines in her parent's house to which she brought offerings.  Not so common today, she noted, but important life events are still marked by a visit to a shrine to, for example, present a newborn child for the priest's blessing 30 days after the birth.

Though I thought I would be on firmer ground at the Buddhist temple Tōdai-ji, I was soon confronted with just how little I knew about it.  Buddhism has many different schools with subtly different philosophies. Tōdai-ji is the center of the Kegon school of Buddhism in Japan. And I should note here that there is another ism that I should add to my previous list and that is nontheism.

 Buddhism is, in my mind, most definitely a religion but one that has "no reference to such a singular, personified deity."   But "If we interpret the nature of gods, small ‘g’ and plural, or divinity even more broadly conceived as a sacred basis of reality, then certainly Buddhism has much to say on this matter."

Walking through the Kasuga shrine and Tōdai-ji I found that "sacred basis of reality". There were many things that felt comforting viewed from my own religious tradition, Catholicism.  The use of water, for example, to purify oneself before entering a holy place; the use of fire - the votive candles lit by believers and laid around the statue of the Buddha Vairocana; and, of course, the many monks and priests in their special garb.

As we left I was stung with regret that I did not have a better grounding in either religion.  Like a cathedral, everything in a temple or shrine has a pedagogicial purpose, but I didn't know enough to be teachable.  I could only admire and speculate.

But ignorance, once diagnosed, is curable, and I like what Thomas Merton had to say about studying other traditions:  "The Christian scholar is obligated by his sacred vocation to understand and even preserve the heritage of all the great traditions insofar as they contain truths that cannot be neglected and offer precious insights into Christianity itself".

Wherever I go in the world I carry a rosary in my purse that belonged to my great aunt and I often wear a medallion around my neck with a picture of the Lady (the Blessed Mother).  To this collection I have now added a Shinto shrine charm - a talisman called omamori that, according to our guide, confers protection against bad luck or evil events.

At Tōdai-ji the younger Frenchling made an offering for a ceramic tile - one on which she was asked to write her name, the date and a desire, and will be used to replace a damaged tile on the temple roof.

And what was her request?  Her wish? Her heart's desire?

To one day publish a book.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Another Front in the Fight Against FATCA: The Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty

"And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed..."

Luke 2:1, King James Bible (1611)

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act is, in its own weird way, a kind of census.  Among other things, it tells the American government where those it considers to be taxable under US law live and work and raise families. 

Having tried and failed miserably at conducting an accurate census of Americans abroad, the American government looked for other ways to find those "US Persons" (a term that includes US residents and Green Card holders, as well as US citizens).  Their method was delegation - an admission of failure in a sense - because FATCA requires foreign financial institutions (FFIs) to do what the US government couldn't manage to accomplish on its own:  to seek out all US persons in the world (their names, addresses, and account balances).

Those of you who have already been FATCAed, know all too well what that means.  Those of you who have not yet signed a W-9 or had your accounts closed, please don't feel left out, your time will come.

Americans abroad organizations like AARO, ACA, Democrats abroad and Republicans Overseas are fighting FATCA and you can read about their efforts here.  

But I would be remiss if I did not mention other efforts which are equally important.  The one I have been following (and cheering on) is the other lawsuit filed in Canada by the Alliance for the Defense of Canadian Sovereignty (ADCS).  

This is a grassroots initiative that pushes back against FATCA in Canada. ADCS argues that the Canadian legislation that implements the FATCA intergovernmental agreement with the United States "violates the Canadian Constitution, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the principles of Canadian sovereignty and democracy, and the fundamental rights of all Canadians."

By signing an agreement to turn over the private information of Canadian citizens to a foreign government (the United States) the Canadian government is violating, they say, the rights of those whom the US is unilaterally claiming as taxable US Persons, but who consider themselves to be Canadians first and foremost.  They reject utterly the idea that another country can simply demand that Canada provide the private information of individuals who have some connection to the United States, however nebulous it may be.  

The plaintiffs in the case are two Canadian women "who have never held a U.S. passport or developed any meaningful relationship with the U.S." but who are, nonetheless, considered to be US citizens by virtue of being born in the US."  They never consented to that citizenship and see no reason why it should be foisted on them now just because the US says so.

There are citizens in just about every country in the world right now who are in exactly the same position as the two plaintiffs:  people who thought they were "just French" living in France or "just Thai " living in Thailand.  Many are finding out that they are indeed US Persons when they receive a note from their local banks informing them that they appear to be US citizens under US law.  

I could not think of a worse way (or a worse source) for someone to learn that he or she might be a US citizen.  I find this not just shameful on the part of the US, but an extreme and worrisome delegation of sovereign power.  Foreign financial institutions should not be in any way arbiters of US citizenship or status, or be tasked with implementing a US extraterritorial national census of any sort for any purpose whatsoever.  

Among the different fronts against FATCA, this is a very worthy effort because it asks a nation-state like Canada to take a stand:  Are these people claimed by the US really Canadian citizens with all the right enumerated in the Charter? Or has the Canadian government downgraded them to semi-citizenship status based on the claims of a foreign power?  

Funded entirely by small donors, ADCS has miraculously raised enough money so far to hire very competent legal counsel, and on August 14, 2014 they filed their suit in Canadian Federal Court.  I back them 100% and have contributed even though I am not an "Accidental American" or even a dual.  

You can support ADCS by making a donation here.  They are excellent transparent communicators and you can follow the progress of the lawsuit on their website, at the Isaac Brock Society, or at Maple Sandbox

And finally I invite you to watch this superb video which they prepared after testifying last year before the House of Commons Finance Committee.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dangerous Assumptions about Dual Citizenship

Making assumptions is hardly a mortal sin but it can get us into real  trouble when when crossing cultures or national boundaries.  The consequences on a personal level are bad enough, but they are life-altering when they touch on legal matters - the kind that come about when the laws of different countries are different (even subtly so) or when they collide.

Citizenship law is one where making assumptions is downright deadly.  Most of us have only a broad understanding of what our citizenship law is that we've gleaned over the years from personal stories and news reports.  To add to the confusion, citizenship law changes - what might have been true a few years ago, may be not true today - and the interpretation of the law may or may not be the same from one year to the next.  Just ask the average American, Japanese, or French native about what his country's citizenship laws are and how they actually work right now in 2015, and I doubt they could give you an accurate answer.

It's pretty chaotic out there and a few days ago a friend on Facebook sent me a link to this case which I think is a very good (and horrible) example of the kind of life-altering trouble those matters can cause an individual and his or her family.

A bi-national couple where the wife is Norwegian and the husband is Australian, they have three girls:  one born in Australia and the other two in Norway.   So a reasonable (but dangerous) assumption might be that three girls could be dual citizens by either jus sanguinas (blood) or by jus soli (soil).  But to be safe, the couple asked when the eldest was born in Australia and it was confirmed by the Norwegian authorities that she could indeed be a dual Norwegian/Australian citizen. (Norway is a country that limits dual citizenship.)

So when the couple had twins, this time in Norway, they thought no more about it and they applied for and obtained Australian citizenship (by descent) for the younger girls.  To their utter shock this resulted in Norway stripping the two younger girls (the ones born in Norway to a Norwegian mother) of their Norwegian citizenship.  How did that happen?

The rule in Norway is that applying for and obtaining another citizenship means losing Norwegian citizenship (there are some exceptions to this but that is the general rule).  Their elder child didn't need to apply for Australian citizenship - she was born there to an Australian father.  But when that Australian father signed the papers to request citizenship by descent for the twins, the Norwegian authorities decided that this application for another citizenship by a parent on behalf of minors meant they could no longer be Norwegian.

The irony is that the child born in Australia could legally be a dual, no problem.  But her sisters born in Norway, couldn't because of the way the Norwegian authorities interpreted citizenship laws.

You can read more about the case here.    This citizenship case really rocked one of my assumptions;  under US law a parent cannot renounce or relinquish US citizenship on behalf of a minor child.  It appears that Norway will allow that and that really surprised me.  Depriving a child of a nationality because of the actions of a parent seems the antithesis of the "best interests of that child."

I also note that the consequences of that decision fell hardest on one of their own - the Norwegian citizen spouse.  It changed the balance of power in the bi-cultural marriage since it basically gave the non-Norwegian spouse effective veto power over whether or not the children can be Norwegians or not.  How interesting that under that ruling it was the non-Norwegian spouse who could make that decision unilaterally by simply applying for citizenship by descent in his or her home country.  A move that could be useful in the case of marital problems or custody battles.

In addition, the Norwegian wife could not return to Norway easily with all her children - she could move back with the eldest (provided her spouse agreed because that child's residence is in Australia) leaving the other two behind for a year, and then apply for family reunification to bring the other two to Norway.

And one had to ask: was the Norwegian citizenry OK with that?  Is losing citizens on a technicality the will of the people, or would the average Norwegian be just as shocked as I was?

I'm happy to report that they were shocked and the family received a lot of support.  In 2014 the Norwegian authorities changed their minds and reinstated the girls' Norwegian citizenship.

A happy ending but the lesson for me is crystal clear:   Never assume anything when it comes to citizenship law.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Defining Terms: Migrants, Expatriates and Travelers

Contempt before investigation is a most perilous mindset and I was skirting the edges of it as I reluctantly picked up  Self-Initiated Expatriation: Individual, Organizational, and National Perspectives  by Maike Andresen, Akram Al Ariss , Matthias Walther (Editors).

Self-initiated expatriation?   The meaning was (I thought) clear but why invent a term when others already exist?  I feared that it was just another bit of academic nitpicking designed to glorify the "adventurers" of the First World to the detriment of other migrants.

To my surprise, the book is quite good and I'm glad I gave it a chance to surpass my low expectations.  I will discuss the difference between Self-Initiated and Assigned Expatriates in another post (in the book there is a good, if limited, study of both in Japan).

Today I'd like to talk about the very first chapter where the three editors  take a stab at defining terms.  What is the difference between migrants and expatriates?   And what distinguishes both from long or short-term travelers?

These are not easy questions to answer.  Sometimes migrant and expatriate are used in the same way citizenship and nationality are used:  as interchangeable and having more or less the same meaning.  Often they are used (especially when people label themselves) to make a distinction between someone from the developed world versus a "real" migrant or immigrant from the developing world.  This distancing reveals not just global hierarchies, but also says a great deal about the self-perceptions of  Europeans or North Americans.  (See this Flophouse post on Immigrants vs. Expatriates.)

 Even academics and researchers use these terms in different ways.  The editors looked at English-language journal articles and found 74 definitions for expatriate and 84 for migrant.  They concluded, "there is no consistency in the literature regarding how each of the three individual terms [migrant, expatriate, and self-initiated expatriate] is defined."  They then took it upon themselves to clear up the chaos.

Their model is a good one, I think, and worth using.  It is perfect but it is, I contend, more objective and deftly avoids the trap of trying to define migrants/expatriates by their countries of origin, socioeconomic class, and intentions.  They are defined instead by what they do when they hit that distant shore.

The first step in cleaning up these categories divides the "people who move around" into two groups based on the answer to this question:  Is there a geographic relocation across national borders and a change in the dominant place of residence?  If the answer is No then the person is not a migrant, but a traveler.  If the answer is Yes then the person is put in a big bucket called Migrant.

Under the category Migrant are subcategories and of them is Expatriate (others might be Entrepreneurs, Retirees, Education, Marriage or Family Reunification Migrants.)  But what is the one thing, say Andresen et al, that always puts someone in the Expat group?  An employment contract.

"Individuals," they argue, "who move to a foreign country without taking up employment cannot be categorized as expatriates."  This can be a contract with a home country organization or company, or one with a host country organization or company.

And that is the difference between the Assigned Expatriates (AEs) and the Self-Initiated Expatriates (SIEs):  the former is sent by a company in the home country (or country of residence) and the latter deals directly with an organization or company in the target country, signs a contract with them and relocates on his own dime.

I like it.  Under this model an engineer, professor, aid worker, programmer, teacher, hairdresser or agricultural worker with a work contract who hails from North or South America, Europe, Africa or Asia are all Expatriates.

"But, but, but..." (I can hear some of you sputtering.)

OK, I agree that this model is not perfect, so let's discuss.   Tell me what your objections are and, if you like, propose your own model.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Making and Unmaking of a Citizen in Japan

A few weeks ago a blogging confrère left a link to his site Becoming Legally Japanese.

I have had a look since and I recommend the site to you if you have an interest in citizenship law.  The site is in English and has good information on how to become a Japanese citizen, and testimonials about why people have taken this step - the latter, of course, being the more interesting question.  You can also read this Flophouse post by an American emigrant and long-term resident here in Japan who is also On the Path to Citizenship in Japan.

Citizenship in a democratic nation-state is an odd beast.  It retains some characteristics of an older status - that of subject - in that it is a personal status between an individual and a state (or a monarch).  But unlike subjecthood, it is (in theory) a status that a person chooses and can be renounced unilaterally.  A citizen (in theory) does not need the permission of his state to sever ties with one country and attach himself to another.

The reality is more complex than that.  Often, there are conditions to be satisfied before a person can change allegiance.  Some sending states require that another citizenship be obtained prior to renouncing.  This is meant to prevent people from becoming stateless persons;  the ideal being that every individual must be attached to some state, somewhere in the world.

On the other side, the receiving country has more power.  There is no absolute right to naturalized citizenship in any nation-state I know of.  Governments and their citizenry can and do place conditions that must be met before they allow an individual to become a full citizen.  In short, nation-states can be very selective about whom they accept for full membership.  In those conditions we find a blueprint of sorts for what that nation-state thinks is the "ideal citizen" and what they believe their citizenship means.

One of the conditions of Japanese citizenship is that the new citizen renounce all other citizenships.  The Land of the Rising Sun is well known for its rejection of dual or multiple citizenships.   To be Japanese is to have allegiance to one state, Japan, and no other.  Since the trend in citizenship law in the world is toward acceptance of multiple citizenship (even Germany has blinked), there is speculation that Japan, too, will change its ways.

Perhaps.  And I say this because I am discovering that the current system is far more flexible than people think.  There is the law and then there are the "facts on the ground."  There are Japanese citizens in France who have become French citizens.  The Japanese embassy in Paris is aware of this.

According to my source, they don't seek them out, but they will investigate if it comes to their attention - a Japanese citizen, for example, who has lived a very long time in France and cannot produce a French residency card when he visits the consulate for some reason or another.  Since France and Japan do not exchange citizenship databases there is no easy way for the Japanese government to know that a Japanese national has become a citizen of the French Republic, or of any other country for that matter.

Where single citizenship can be enforced is when a person applies to become a naturalized Japanese citizen.  The authorities can ask for documentation and proof of renunciation of all other citizenships, but even that isn't a sure thing.   The Japanese authorities do make allowances for subjects of countries that do not allow for unilateral renunciation.  Also, in some cases they have looked the other way unless the dual citizen is "outed" in some way so that it simply cannot be ignored.

So Japanese citizenship law is clear on the matter of dual citizenship, but the application of the principle is, well, a grey zone.

And that makes this post American had to forfeit naturalized citizenship due to hiding his lack of relinquishment up on Becoming Legally Japanese very interesting.  Nation-states make citizens and they can unmake them, too.  (For an excellent read about this I recommend Patrick Weil's  outstanding  The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic.)

What is fascinating about denaturalization (taking away a person's citizenship) is that nothing shows more clearly the difference between birthright and naturalized citizens.  In democratic nation-states it is generally very difficult to take away the citizenship of someone who was born with that citizenship.  Usually it requires proof of some sort of extreme wrongdoing incompatible with citizenship and even then it's not a simple process. At least, not in our time.

Naturalized citizens, on the other hand, can be unmade more easily and the most common method is to prove that there was some sort of fraud involved.  Even Hirsi Ali who was an elected member of the Dutch Parliament was not immune to charges that she obtained her Dutch citizenship fraudulently.

And that was the charge against this American emigrant to Japan who applied for Japanese citizenship, received it and then had it revoked.  To make matters worse, the authorities did not reinstate his previous status, that of Permanent Resident;  he was downgraded to Long-Term Resident. (See this site for a summary of the difference between the two.)

I will stop here and let you read the story for yourself.  I would appreciate comments or corrections from those who know more than I do about Japanese citizenship law.  It is an interesting case on so many levels, and I have the feeling that there is more to the story.  In particular I was curious about his rationale for not taking the steps to relinquish his US citizenship.  Note that both FATCA and the US Exit tax are mentioned in the article.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Americans Abroad and the Founding Mothers

A very nice post up on Ellen Lebelle's blog Thinking Out Loud.  It's called Lost Potential and the perspective is one familiar to many long-term American citizens abroad, but perhaps not as well known as it should be to young US citizens living outside the US right now.

If the United States of America has Founding Fathers, Americans abroad have Founding Mothers:  Phyllis Michaux and friends.

In 1961 they founded an organization called the Association of American Wives of Europeans (AAWE) and then in 1973 formed the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO) which launched two fights with the homeland:  the right to vote from overseas and the right to transmit US citizenship to children born abroad.

The Right to Vote:  Not nearly enough American citizens today vote;  and this is just as true of Americans at home as it is of those living outside the US.  But prior to 1976, Americans abroad couldn't vote at all. In the early 70's, AARO, FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas founded in 1931) and the Bipartisan Committee on Absentee Voting started a grassroots campaign which ended in victory when President Gerald Ford (on the advice of Barry Goldwater) signed the Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Rights Act on January 2, 1976.

This was the Teabag Campaign and every time I read the story on the AARO website, I take heart.   Make no mistake about it, the homeland was not exactly falling over itself in its eagerness to give us the vote.  It took unity, political savvy and persistence.  And they (we) won.

US Citizenship for Children Born Abroad:  Another battle and one that is still controversial (see this award-winning article from The Foreign Service Journal called What Makes Someone an American Citizen?) was the fight to transmit US citizenship to our children born outside the United States.  If you are an American living abroad today and have gone to the US consulate to register your child's birth as a US citizen, know that just a generation or two before that would have been very difficult, if not impossible.

It was due to Ms. Michaux' and these organization's tireless efforts (and all of them putting up with an enormous amount of crap from dubious bureaucrats and politicians in Washington who did not take them terribly seriously at first - not even Phyllis who was a WW II veteran) that the citizenship laws of the US were changed to be more favorable to transmission of US citizenship through jus sanguinas (blood).
"Strenuous AARO advocacy helped to abolish in 1978 the law requiring that a child born abroad to a U.S. citizen married to a non-American reside in the U.S. for a specified period of time in order to keep the American citizenship the child was born with. In 1986, largely through our efforts, the period of residence in the U.S. required to transmit citizenship to children born abroad was reduced from ten years to five."
Today we face yet another challenge - homeland efforts to strenuously enforce its unique tax system, citizenship-based taxation, and its onerous reporting requirements (FBAR and FATCA).  Those women I've talked to who fought so hard to obtain citizenship for their foreign-born children are very worried about the impact this will have on them and their children.  As Ellen says:  
"The ones most likely to renounce are the American children born abroad and the accidental Americans, the ones born in the US to foreign parents and who never really lived in the US. The US only sees their potential as taxpayers, none other, so the country will lose them as potential ambassadors. In addition, the country will lose those of us who followed our hearts and chose to live and work almost our entire adult lives elsewhere."
This is the hand we've been dealt, mes amis, and the situation is dire with renunciations of US citizenship reaching all-time highs..  But every time someone tells me that I and others are wasting our time taking on the all-powerful US government, I have to wonder if they know their history - the history of Americans abroad and the fight for legitimacy (the right to have rights as American citizens wherever we live.)  It was not something we just have today that we can take for granted;   it was something the Founding Mothers had to fight long and hard for.  CBT and FATCA/FBAR are just another battle (like voting and citizenship) in the long long war for recognition of the American Diaspora which goes back to the middle of the last century.

So I would humbly suggest that the naysayers take a good long look at that history.  The facts are clear - those Americans abroad who came before us fought and won.  

And if they could do it,  damn it, than so can we.

Thailand: Tigers and Trains

“We don't understand the power of nature and the world because we don't live with it. Our environment is designed to sustain us. We are the domestic pets of a human zoo called civilization.”

Laurence Gonzales 
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

"Free vitamin D,"  said our guide every sunny morning as we stepped out of the hotel and got on the road.

Last week my spouse and I were in Thailand for a four day tour of the sights in Kanchanaburi, a province about 2 hours west of Bangkok by car.  (About the same distance Paris is from Tours, or Seattle is from Olympia.)

How to describe Kanchanaburi?  The landscape was green and lush and it reminded me at first of the rain forests in the Pacific Northwest.

A closer look revealed bamboo instead of fir and I found the landscape slightly unsettling.  So beautiful, I thought, there must be a catch here somewhere.  And there was.  Behind the bucolic beauty were king cobras, vipers, tigers, wild elephants and another danger I didn't recognize until it was almost too late:  the heat.  

The air-conditioned car and the hotels were like a small spacecraft with a thin protective shield and a life support system set to an environment we could cope with.  When we stepped outside, we were completely dependent on our guide, Mr. P.  - an ex-Thai boxer turned chaperone for visitors like us. Not once did he steer us wrong and he took us to some amazing places like Erawan National Park where we hiked the Seven Waterfalls Trail - a 1.5 km (3 km round trip) trail straight up the mountain which became progressively steeper until falls 5 - 7 where the track became a goat trail punctuated by a series of steep slippery stairs.  

Sturdy shoes, a good breakfast and a lot of walking in the parks around Osaka got me to the top. Halfway down the hill, however, I ran out of water.  It was 41 degrees Celsius (about 105 Fahrenheit) with around 90% humidity.  Luckily our omniscient guide had an extra bottle and he handed it to me without comment.   

I was luckier than I knew.  That night we made it to our next hotel without incident and set off the next day to visit Hellfire Pass and to ride the Thai-Burma Railway (Death Railway) from Hintok.

It was on this platform that I really got into trouble.  It was another 40 degree Celsius day and it was so hot - and I was feeling slightly sick to my stomach - that I didn't each much for breakfast. (But I had nonetheless faithfully taken my cancer medication.)  I was tired from the exertions of the previous day but I didn't think much of it since we were just going on a train ride, right?   

Waiting on the quai for the next train suddenly the world starting turning and my eyesight blurred and I grabbed my spouse's arm and said, "I need to sit down,  Right NOW."  The guide took one look at me, pressed a bottle of water into my hand and sent my spouse off to get some Sprite and an ice cream cone. 

I recovered enough to get on the train and when we arrived the guide found me a nice place to sit with a view of the train trestle.  

And I finally had the conversation I should have had with our guide before we set off on this journey - the one where I explained that I was a 50 year old cancer survivor who was still on meds and was still recovering from a year of surgery, chemo, and radiation.

What was I thinking?  I wasn't.  In those periods between visits to the cancer clinic in St. Cloud, France, I try very hard not to think about that year of treatment and the aftermath.  I cling to the delusion that I am just the same as I was before my diagnosis.  In this fantasy I am not older, I am not taking pills with pages and pages of side effects. and I can still muscle my way physically through anything on just a cup of coffee and a pastry for breakfast.

There is an acronym used to describe a certain type of heroine in an urban fantasy/ paranormal romance novel:  TSTL.  It stands for Too Stupid to Live.  This describes a heroine who commits one boneheaded deadly act after another until the reader is wincing and grinding her teeth and damned near hoping she gets killed.  And the more I thought about it, the more I was horrified to realize that the shoe fit.  I barely survived in the zoo called civilization;  outside of that element, a little (nay, a lot) more prudence was called for.

Thankfully,  it was not too late for corrective action.  I spoke to the guide who took the intensity of the program down a notch with more time for rest, recuperation and rehydration.  The rest of the trip passed without incident with a walk through the Mon village, playtime with the baby tigers and many trips by boat up and down the River Kwai.

We are now home safe and sound in Osaka, Japan with weather that feels downright chilly (about 25 degrees Celsius) by comparison.  One Frenchling has arrived from Montreal, Canada and the elder Frenchling comes in tonight from Seattle, USA.

I will leave you today with the very best memory I have from our Thailand trip:  the sight of the train rounding the corner and slowly, ever so slowly, winding its way and hugging the mountain on that most magnificent trestle.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

John Oliver's Defense of the IRS

It was with mixed feelings that I watched John Oliver's  defense of the US Internal Revenue Service on his show Last Week Tonight.

For those of you who don't know him, Oliver is a British comedian who had the good fortune to land in a country - the United States - where the political system is so screwed up that it sits up and begs for political satire. As a US citizen living abroad I've stopped following too closely the US political scene because it is predictably pathetic.  And it is not just the crazy Republicans either;  the Democrats are a few bricks shy of a load, too.

None of this lunacy will be healed any time soon (and, alas, I know of no medicine for what ails us) , which means that John Oliver possesses something that millions of US citizens would love to have:  job security.   And he will never run out of topics as long as he lives in the "Land of the Free" because even in good times the US is a big messy democracy, something that H.L. Mencken enjoyed so much because:  "It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."

His defense of the IRS is amusing but not his best work.  The song at the end is sappy and silly and not particularly funny.  His attempts to tug at our heartstrings, however, is.  They do a necessary job, he says, for which they are hated.  Yes, that's true.  In fact it's true of just about any country on this planet.  When Oliver describes the venom Americans spit at their tax authorities, he's not giving us a shining example of Americans exceptionalism - he's just showing that Americans are no different from anyone else in the world where it's simply a reality that nobody loves the local "fisc".  

Oliver's point, however, about the IRS budget cuts was right on the money.  But he missed a fabulous opportunity to explain something important to the American people.  It's not just the budget cuts that are causing turmoil in that agency, it's also the expansion of the IRS scope and responsibilities. Congress, in its great wisdom (or complete insanity) handed them both the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and something called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

The IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, have fired back pointing out to both Congress and the American people of something that every competent project manager understands:  you don't expand scope and cut budget at the same time.

A truly funny aspect of all this is that FATCA was supposed to be all gain and no pain. Hell, it was written so that all of the cost would be borne by those foreign financial institutions.  Foreign countries didn't find that amusing at all and agreements were reached that require American banks to do similar reporting to countries outside the United States.

But the bill on the US side goes beyond the banks:  Koskinen drew a straight line for Congress between FATCA implementation and those "courtesy disconnects" and long lines at IRS offices that Americans in the homeland are suffering..  We must implement these things on your orders, he said, and with lower budgets something has to give.  That something is customer service.

So Americans in the homeland - the ones who can't afford professional tax help -  are paying for FATCA, albeit in an indirect way.  I think it's worth mentioning because it is rather ironic, isn't it?
That a law to catch "rich tax evaders" instead causes direct harm to working Americans everywhere.

And the faute (and it is a faute lourde) should be laid exactly where it belongs - with the not so funny repercussions of a dysfunctional political system.