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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bopping at Reid Hall

Anyone remember Crocodile Rock?  Elton John?  All that "hopping and bopping"?

When I heard that James Bopp Jr and Senator Mike Lee were coming to Europe, I swear that "bopping" was the first word that came to my mind.  Go look it up on-line -  the term has a long and venerable history.  Really. And something tells me that James Bopp Jr has probably been hearing jokes about his name all his life.  But hell, folks, it could have been worse:  Citizens United, anyone?

No offense whatsoever to that distinguished gentleman who has taken on (much to our relief and joy) the sisyphean task of fighting FATCA in the US. Qui aime bien châtie bien.

On Monday, October 6, he will be in Paris with Senator Mike Lee for an information session at Reid Hall.  The event is being sponsored by Republican Overseas and the Association of Americans Resident Overseas.  I think we all be fools to miss it.  I have my ticket and if you want to attend too, best to order yours today.  I hear that it is almost sold out.  I hope to see you there bright and early Monday morning.

For a quick preview of their case to repeal FATCA, Republicans Overseas Hong Kong has released this short video.  It's quite good (and distressingly accurate).

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Trials of Trying to Be a Better Reader

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 

Dr. Seuss

Early last week the Flophouse experienced a most fortuitous event:  our Internet connection died.  That's right, over four days of no access to email, on-line media and all the other goodies at one's fingertips.

Once past the whining "Whatever shall I do?"  I picked up two books that I had been trying to read in fits and starts over the past few months and finally finished them:  Imaginary Homelands and  Great Books.  The first is a set of really fine essays covering a wide variety of topics by the famous novelist Salman Rushdie.  The second is a tale about second chances and how a man exposed to the Great Books in his youth goes back to university to read them again decades later.  These are fine books and I liked them both for different reasons.

Rushdie is simply a master essayist and could write beautifully on any topic.  David Denby is a film critic for the New Yorker and not nearly as good a writer as Rushdie but could you imagine a juicier topic?  Family man nearing middle-age heading back to university to read Homer again (and discover Virginia Woolf for the first time).

I finished both, the Internet magically came back to life after the intervention of a technician from Orange, and, as I sat down to deal with my overflowing email in-box, I felt no sense of relief or gratitude.  I went from the world of slow reading and contemplation to "staccato signals of constant information."   Perhaps it's my age but I realized that I can't do both.  I can't give a good book my full attention and be jumping up every few minutes to check the latest link or missive that has just popped up on my screen.

So my resolve is to do for myself what the storm did for me last week:  shut the Internet down every day.  

Is that all there is to it?  Shut down the Internet and instantly become a better reader?  No, I think this is simply a first step - a reversal of pernicious habits acquired over the course of years.

I never have a destination in mind as I make my book selections, but oddly enough I tend to stumble on things that turn out to be more or less what I need at any particular moment (a lot like going to an AA meeting.)  And so, as I was hardening my resolve to limit my on-line life, I came across Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, a title that is easy to mock, and yet...

A surprisingly good read.  Some of my pleasure was surely in finding that what I have always been told are bad habits, are, in his view, perfectly reasonable things to do while reading.  Like taking copious notes on the inside cover, foxing pages, writing in the margins, highlighting, and even skimming (he calls this "Inspectional reading").  For deeper levels of reading (analytical and syntopical) he gives a guide to how to go about it:  the tasks, the questions to ask and answer.  

Very useful for reading non-fiction (what he calls practical and theoretical "expository" books).  What about fiction? Or poetry?    "Read it quickly," he says, "and with total immersion."  Suspend your disbelief, enter the world of the author, and don't puzzle over things and characters you don't understand right away. In short, give it a chance to work its magic - something that takes time and attention.  As for poetry, read it once and then it read it again out loud. (This also applies to Saint Augustine's Confessions which were probably spoken live to an audience.)

Most of Adler's book is very precise and sometimes a bit pedantic.  Where he becomes vague is when he talks about what to read.
You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity.  You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head.
And then, in the appendix, he has a list of books that are difficult reads and are likely to be a stretch for many of us.  Fair enough and having read some of the books on his list, I think he's right.

But I think he underestimated the prejudices we bring to certain books and our own arrogance.  There are books we pick up and because of the genre or the cover or some signal that we latch on to unconsciously, we assume from the start that the book is a "light read" or "trash" and we treat it as such.  And then something happens to us once we've finished it:  as hard as we try, we can't stop thinking about it.

I have a couple of books like this on my Best Reads list and I will give you one of them as an example.  I have read it twice and it still bothers me:  The Reluctant Dom by Tymber Dalton.  If you read the title and thought Fifty Shades of Grey, you are kind of right.  It is one of those modern erotic romances with BDSM and polyamory and stuff that seems to shock even the most modern and liberal of sensibilities.  I have struggled mightily to express why I think the book is much more than that and can be read and re-read on different levels.  Here is one stab at it (my latest):
A modern couple very much in love but one partner has come to the marriage deeply damaged.  Completely by accident they find a way of coping together which is deeply satisfying for both of them but is outside the boundaries of what the larger society finds "normal".   The stakes are very high:  it's not whether or not the two will stay together, but whether or not the wife will live or die.  And then the husband, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and while his death is certain, he commits himself to his wife's survival.  That means bringing in another person and trying to build intentionally what he and his wife came to accidentally.  Right up to the very end of the book, it is not clear if this is going to work or not,  with terrible consequences if it doesn't.
There is nothing simple about this tale.  It was, and still is, a stretch for me.  Not because the language is difficult (Dalton is a good writer) but because wrapping your mind around all that's going on this book is hard if you read it as something more than just erotica.

So, from Rushdie to Denby, from Great Books to ones that will never be part of any canon but are considered to be worthwhile, I think "free range reading" is important and time should be allocated to it:  picking up a book at random, or even better picking one from a genre that you don't usually read (and perhaps have strong prejudices about) and giving it a fair reading.   That's how I found The Reluctant Dom, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter and Clifford Geertz's Interpretation of Cultures.  

I suspect that Adler would have applauded two out of three; but he's dead and I'm not reading for his or anyone else's approval.

Time to shut down the computer, work in the garden and then set myself to some serious reading this afternoon.  Have a lovely day, everyone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Return to Our Wandering Ways

"The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves-because they are so defined by others-by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves. The migrant suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier.” 
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
If you've read the short post, What is a "Flophouse"?  then you know that our little Franco-American household has set up shop over the years in all kinds of places around the world like Seattle (USA), Suresnes, (France) and Tokyo (Japan). 

Oh, those wandering ways of ours!  Why?  Why pack up every few years, leave friends and family, and all that is (or has become) familiar, for a distant shore halfway across the world?  I could be disingenuous and give you the short answer - work -  but that's not the whole story.

We go because we can.  Because opportunities present themselves.  When asked, "Would you like to go to...?" our answer has always been a resounding, "Yes!"  As Susan Ossman points out in Moving Matters, having packed up and left everything once, twice, thrice  the destination may be a mystery, but the feelings and the process are now very familiar.

Kansai region (dark green) - Wikipedia Commons
The next destination for the Flophouse is Osaka, Japan

This is a city on the sea in the Kansai region, not too far from Kobe and Kyoto.   

Japan is not a complete mystery to us - we lived in Tokyo years ago - but I know next to nothing about this region.  All the traveling I did when I lived in that great city was out of the country across the water to Korea and China. (It was a little like living in the Paris area and traveling to London, Brussels or Munich but never Lyon, Marseilles or Bordeaux.)  In short, there is more to France than Paris, and there is much more to Japan than just Tokyo.

I will not hide, however, my feelings which were (are?) mixed:   the thrill to be going off on another adventure is tinged with anxiety.  This is Asia where not only do I not know the language well, I can't even read it with any fluency.  I am cancer-free but still under treatment and it will be wrench to lose my clinic and my beloved oncologist (both of which have managed to keep me alive these past few years).   And this time around I will not be working, so making a life for myself will take effort on my part.  

Against all that vague uncertainty is recognition that the universe is indeed benevolent and is offering a second chance.  If I left Japan last time having missed a great deal, and with a sense of not having done much except work like a demon (and, alas, drink), then is this not an unexpected but most welcome opportunity to do better?  Japan is simply one of the most extraordinary countries I've ever lived in and has a graciousness and quiet beauty the likes of which I have never found in either North America or Europe.  

As for keeping myself occupied and content wherever I land, all that I have lived in the past few years (sobriety, cancer, and the transformation from technologist to wordsmith) give me every reason to be optimistic and to fully feel the lovely frisson that comes with rejoining the world of "the people who move around." I can stay sober, live with cancer, and write anywhere on this planet. So....
“Let us simmer over our incalculable cauldron, our enthralling confusion, our hotchpotch of impulses, our perpetual miracle - for the soul throws up wonders every second. Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death; let us say what comes into our heads, repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what the world does or thinks or says. For nothing matters except life.”  
Virginia Woolf

Friday, September 19, 2014

FATCA Now the Law of the Land in France

For those of you who missed the FATCA debate yesterday in the French parliament, here are the essential links:

The video of the discussion (go to the box on the right side of the screen and scroll down and click on ACCORD FRANCE-ÉTATS-UNIS D’AMÉRIQUE RESPECT OBLIGATIONS FISCALES (LOI FATCA)
The transcription of the debate

I watched it this morning and here are few of my thoughts.

First of all, I was impressed by the high caliber of the discussion. All the individuals who spoke did so clearly and thoughfully.  I heartily wish American politicans could do half as well.

Framing:  I was very interested in seeing how the pro-FATCA camp framed their arguments and addressed certain reservations already put forward in previous debates.

The larger context, of course, is the Good Fight against tax evasion and fraud.  Even Pierre Lellouche (UMP) who spoke against the law admitted:
L’objectif affiché se passe bien sûr de toute discussion. Il s’agit d’œuvrer pour la transparence fiscale et de mettre fin, grâce à la coopération des États et à la transmission automatique des informations, à la fraude fiscale massive que connaît le monde : environ 6 000 milliards de dollars qui échappent à toute imposition.
De ce point de vue, personne ne peut être contre. Comme disent les Américains, personne ne peut être contre la tarte aux pommes et la patrie, apple pie and motherhood ; tout le monde est pour ! (Sourires.) À mort la transparence !
(The objective obviously needs no discussion. It is about fiscal transparency and the end, thanks to cooperation among states and the automatic transmission of information, to widespread tax evasion in the world:  6 000 billions of dollars that escape taxes.
From this point of view, no one could be against it.  As the Americans say, no one can be against apple pie and country, apple pie and motherhood;  Everyone is for! (Smiles).  Death to Transparency!
Is FATCA THE Solution to Tax Evasion?  Not one speaker thought that FATCA was perfect, they simply differed as to how bad it was and whether or not these problems were deal-breakers.

Expressions of discontent peppered the debate: "extraterritorial", "unilateral"  and the rather grim indictment, "Americans have a tendency to privilege their interests over international law."  If a better, more multilateral proposition had been on the table, then that would have been preferable.  But it's not a perfect world, said its proponents, and it's better than nothing.  If nothing else it has had the salutory effect of moving other information-sharing initiatives forward (OECD, for example) which means that FATCA is just a step on the way to a true and legitimate worldwide standard.

Reciprocity is a Problem:  I was pleasantly surprised that they were aware of just how fragile the US commitment to reciprocity really is.  US law does not at the moment permit the US government to provide the same level of information to France, but the FATCA proponents did not mention ALL of the potential legal and political problems with FATCA on the US side. Mme Odile Saugues:  
Tout d’abord, il existe une incertitude sur le principe de réciprocité, et notamment sur le solde des comptes et la valeur des actifs. Les États-Unis se sont formellement engagés à transmettre ces informations dès que leur droit interne le leur permettra – ce qui n’est pas le cas à ce jour. Les élus républicains du Congrès – Rand Paul, sénateur du Kentucky, et Bill Posey, représentant de l’État de Floride – bloquent actuellement la transmission de ces données dans le cadre du dispositif... Cette situation risque de durer jusqu’aux élections de mi-mandat aux États-Unis, qui auront lieu le 4 novembre prochain.
(First of all there is uncertainty about the principle of reciprocity and especially about account balances and stock values. The US has formally committed to sending this information as soon as their internal laws allow it. Republican lawmakers in Congress - Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky, and Bill Posey, representative from the state of Florida - are blocking the transmission of this information in the context of this law... This situation may continue until the mid-term elections which will take place on November 4.)
Interesting. To my knowledge there is no projet de loi on the American side, just a brief paragraph hidden in the Obama budget bill. Furthermore, there are court cases launched (or about to be launched) in the US and Canada which are a real risk to FATCA. The American lawsuit, in particular, should have been mentioned since it calls into question, among other things, the legality of those inter-governmental agreements on the American side - those IGAs that the French government says they were in part responsible for forcing on the US along with other European countries like Germany.  

I would also say that even if the Democrats were to win and take control of the US Congress, Americans banks and financial institutions are important campaign donors to both parties and they will surely have something to say about reciprocity on the US side.

As one speaker put it about those IGAs and American promises: "Cette rédaction alambiquée est, pour qui connaît les institutions américaines, une vaste plaisanterie, qui rappelle le vieux proverbe selon lequel, en politique, les promesses n’engagent que ceux qui les écoutent."  (This convoluted text is, for those who know American institutions, a joke, reminiscent of the old adage in politics, promises only bind those who listen to them.)  Well said.

Impact of FATCA on French Citizens and Residents: Frédéric Lefebvre was the only speaker who addressed the impact of this law on French citizens. He spoke very eloquently in defense of the French abroad, the "Accidental Americans" in France and the 100,000 US citizens who are legal residents of the French Republic. (The full text of his speech is here.) No one will weep for the tax evaders caught in the net, he said, but:  "Il faut cependant prendre garde, je le dis avec gravité, aux effets pervers du dispositif tel qu’il nous est proposé." (You must be careful, and I say this to you with utmost seriousness, of the perverse effects of this law that you are proposing." )

Frédéric Lefebvre's motion to delay the implementation (and the vote) until these matters can be studied further was voted down and the law implementing FATCA in France was approved.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

John Oliver on Scottish Independence

For those of you who are following this story, this John Oliver piece is well worth watching.

FATCA Debate in the French Parliament

Got an email yesterday from a Flophouse reader pointing out that the UMP Quebec 2014 twitter feed recently tweeted two Flophouse posts.  That was unexpected but pleasantly so.  Thank you to whoever manages that feed and I hope that those who follow it will be inspired to action.  As of this morning there are 29 comments about the US renunciation fee raise on the website and it would be good to have many more.  Please be aware that you can leave a comment anonymously.  That's right, you do not have to give them your name or contact information.

As I was reading the feed I noticed a note from Frédéric Lefebvre, the Député des Français d’Amérique du Nord.  If you are a French abroad in North America, he is your representive in the French national parliament.  He has been an excellent advocate for his constituents who are, alas, part of the collateral damage brought about by FATCA.  In June he met with two dual (French/US) citizens to talk directly with them about how this American legislation impacts them in France.

He says that there will be a parliamentary debate TODAY (September 18, 2014 and it's number 4 on the morning agenda) concerning the legislation that is needed to implement FATCA in France.

For those who are interested (and you are many) here is the projet de loi for FATCA that was introduced in July by Laurent Fabius and passed by the French Senate (via an "accelerated procedure").

And here is a report about the FATCA legislation prepared by Ms. Estelle  GRELIER for the Assembly which was presented and discussed by the Commission des affaires étrangères on September 10.

Hopefully the debate will be recorded and if so I will post it here on the Flophouse.

Update:  You can watch the debate en direct this morning here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tribes and Truth

This delightful Ted video was posted by Andrew over at Multicultural Meanderings.  Hans Rosling is back with his son Ola to explain How Not to Be Ignorant of the World.  A few heuristics for rethinking what we think we know of the world.  To Andrew's short summary of Ola Rosling's points I would add one that I call (for want of a better term) Tribes Never Tell the Truth.

We are social creatures and every human group (family, tribe, clan, class, country, nation, state) we belong to has a story about itself and about the people and places beyond its boundaries and borders. Arjun Appadurai put it quite well when he pointed out that "No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius."

 These stories contain facts mixed with myths to form powerful narratives and we cannot help but evaluate the input we get from the world against the storyline of whatever group we identify with. Even the most indepdendent of thinkers can find himself struggling mightily to incorporate information that challenges what he thinks he already knows about the world.   Those who are quick to recognize this about religion or nationalism should acknowledge that there are quasi-religious narratives lurking under the surface of their "rationality".  As Mircea Eliade said:
"Mythical behaviour can be recognized in the obsession with 'success' that is so characteristic of modern society and that expresses an obscure wish to transcend the limits of the human condition;  in the exodus to Suburbia, in which we can detect the nostalgia for 'primordial perfection';  in the paraphenalia and emotional intensity that characterize what has been called 'the cult of the sacred automobile.'"
These stories are another impediment to seeing the world clearly because challenging them (and finding them wanting) gets us kicked out of a club we desperately wish to belong to.  Most groups (even ones comprised of "free thinkers") do not tolerate even small deviations from the common story.  Is it not true that perceived apostates are treated even more harshly then those who are clearly in the camp of the enemy?  Every group has its own Inquisition, ready to ferret out those who "belong without believing."

So I would add this heuristic to the list - one that was beautifully expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens -  "How do I know that I know this, except that I've always been taught this and never heard anything else? How sure am I of my own views? Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you're bound to be OK, because you're in the safely moral majority."