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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

ACA Event: 21st Century Taxation of Americans Abroad

If you're anywhere near Toronto, Canada next week there is a not-to-be-missed event sponsored by the ACA Global Foundation.

It's called 21st Century Taxation of Americans Abroad: Citizenship-based taxation vs. Residence-based taxation.  It's serious look at the merits and demerits of what Americans abroad refer to as the CBT versus RBT debate.  (Say "CBT" to the average person in the American homeland and they don't know what the hell you're talking about. )

ACA has some good speakers arguing all sides.  I am particularly interested in the words of one gentleman I've been following religiously for a couple of years now:  Phil Hodgen who writes one of the best blogs on these matters.

Alas, I can't be there but I really encourage folks to go if they can.  Here's hoping that the papers (or maybe a video) of the event will be forthcoming so that the information presented gets the widest possible reach.

Americans abroad (about 7 million people) are having to act as their own advocates and many of us are in the position (since the US government is doing such a terrible job at it) of trying to inform other Americans abroad of how the US tax system does, in fact, apply to them.  Not to mention that many of us are presenting our situations, cases and arguments for a more rational (and less onerous) system to our elected representatives in the U.S. and sometimes even to our friends and family back in the U.S. who have a hard time understanding just what the heck we are all agitated about. (Just file, damn it, and stop griping!)

I think it would very useful if we had something that distilled the most important points on all sides of this debate so we could argue our case more effectively and get the maximum number of people pushing for change. A lot of what I have read is really really good but desperately needs executive summaries translated into language that everyone can understand and use when we are put in the position of having to explain the fuss.  I might just do that in future posts.  How I would I explain this CBT versus RBT debate to my Mom in Seattle in under 5 minutes?    Now, that would be a challenge...

Kudos to ACA for organizing this (and providing links to the papers already out by Michael Hirsch, Bernard Schneider and John Richardson) because out of this conference hopefully we will have more ammunition for our arguments as well as a better understanding of the arguments coming from the pro-CBT crowd.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Idleness is the Enemy of the Soul

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul.
Therefore the sisters should be occupied
at certain times in manual labor,
and again at fixed hours in sacred reading.
To that end we think that the times for each may be prescribed as follows.

From Easter until the Calends of October,
when they come out from Prime in the morning
let them labor at whatever is necessary
until about the fourth hour,
and from the fourth hour until about the sixth
let them apply themselves to reading.
After the sixth hour, having left the table,
let them rest on their beds in perfect silence;
or if anyone may perhaps want to read,
let her read to herself
in such a way as not to disturb anyone else."

Regula Benedicti
Chapter 48, On the Daily Manual Labor

For me the perfect life would be some combination of the above.  A mixture of manual labor, reading and contemplation.  Last week was all that and more.

Mike came up to Versailles from Dax and we scraped, sanded and painted every garden wall here at the Flophouse.  Our work accelerated after a quick look at the meteo (weather report) that predicted rain for Versailles later in the week and so we scraped, sanded and painted even faster.  It was an all out effort but we made it.  Here are the before and after pictures:

What I like about this kind of work is that it is perfect for contemplation.  I get a lot of thinking done in the garden - it's as if working the muscles frees the mind.  On my mind was a book I read a couple of weeks ago called Aftermath:  Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora by Daniel Kanstroom.  Your mileage may vary but it made my stomach hurt.  What he describes may be in complete accordance with the law but certainly does not culminate in what I would call justice. Victor Hugo's words sum it up quite beautifully:  "Le droit et la loi, telles sont les deux forces: de leur accord naît l'ordre, de leur antagonisme naissent les catastrophes."

Whatever the intentions (and it should be noted that with this law and policy there is complete continuity between George Bush and Barack Obama) this catastrophe has had terrible consequences for American immigrants and citizens alike. 

Now that I've had time to reflect on it, I will write a longer review of the book and we can discuss. Easy to point out the injustices of any system - harder to come up with solutions, but Kanstroom tries and what he proposes seems sensible.  Of course, it is too little, too late, for about 13 million people...

Saturday we rested (sort of) and went to the garden store, Truffaut.  I had a list of plants I wanted:  creeping thyme, astilbe and another ornamental tree for the front courtyard.   There was the list (and I did find everything on the list) and then there were the deals I just couldn't pass up:  flats of vegetables for the potager and two huge black plastic pots marked down to 10 euros each.  These are perfect for fulfilling a vision I've had for the front courtyard:  a small fountain just under the bedroom window to cut the noise from the street and add some whimsy.  Here's what it looks like so far:

I'm still filling the pot with water - I just turn the hose that direction when I go out to water and let the rain do the rest.  The next step will be to get a small floating solar water jet - something like this, for example.

This morning we are off to visit the King's Kitchen Garden near the castle and I will end this post with this prayer I read silently to myself as I was sitting in the pew at St. Michel on Easter morning waiting for the services to start.  A good one for all exiles everywhere...

Mon Dieu, sur la terre où je m’exile, où sont les chants de ta maison ? Dans le pays qui veut me perdre, où donc est le festin ? Dans les déserts où je m’enfonce, où sont les eaux de mon baptême? Viens me secourir : assoiffe encore mon cœur et ma chair, pour que je me souvienne, dans ma nuit, et que je te cherche, dès l’aube. Alors, de toute mon âme, je m’attacherai à toi, je lèverai les mains et je te bénirai. 
My God, in the land of my exile, where are the songs of your house? In the country that wishes to lose me, where is the feast? In the deserts where I sink every deeper, where are the waters of my baptism? Come to my aid: make thirsty my heart and my flesh so that I remember in my night to seek you in the dawn. And so with all my heart I will bind myself to you, I will raise my hands and bless you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Prendre le flambeau: A Writing Challenge

It's kind of astonishing that people trust strangers because of words they write on computer screens.

Howard Rheingold

When I started writing the Flophouse I was like the person who puts notes in a bottle and casts them into the sea with the idea that someone, somewhere, might find them dropped upon a beach by the tide, open them, and be amused by the messages or impressed by how far they had to travel.

Today that analogy no longer holds.  The Flophouse exists in its own little virtual space with its 800 or so posts on all manner of topics and the thousands of comments and emails.  It has readers who visit regularly and others who pass by when something pops up that interests them.  I know it's a destination in its own right not only because I have a dashboard that tracks the number of hits by region but because other virtual places have seen fit to put up signposts that say, "This Way to the Flophouse."  

Needless to say, I do the same thing with links to other blogs and articles that I like and believe are of interest.  And when we do that - all that reading and linking and putting up signs that say "Have a look at this..." - my little blog (or your big blog) becomes part of a community (or communities) of bloggers and readers all over the world.  What Howard called a wonderful "intersection between humanity and technology."  

Free of geographical limitations, these are communities where  "we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind."

One very human on-line community that I (and the Flophouse) am affiliated with is made of those living with breast cancer.  Not a group I ever aspired to join but one that I'm very happy to have at my fingertips.  When I was going through chemo and could hardly get from my bed to the couch, going to Paris on the train was just as impossible as flying to Seattle.  When your world shrinks that much, on-line may be one of the only ways to expand it.

Sweet serendipity, one of the first blogs I looked at for information (comfort, too) was Marie's Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.  What makes her blog special?  That signpost thing I was talking about.  Marie reads and then once a week she puts it all together and posts a roundup.  It's pure service and it makes all the difference to me (and to others).  Almost all the BC blogs that I follow today I found through her, and some of her readers found the Flophouse when something I posted here got included.  And that's how community on-line is made - through connecting with and to others.  

How do you say "thank you" to someone whose service made a real difference in your life? Well, one way is to say, "How can I contribute to this community?"  Last week Marie participated in a Writing Challenge where she answered 4 questions from another blogger and then passed the torch to others to do the same.  I volunteered.

So here goes - my taking the torch and running with it:  

1) What am I working on?

Sobriety:  Top of the agenda is and will always be sobriety.  Breast cancer was the second life-threatening condition I've faced so far in this life.  The story of how I got sober is here.  But the story of staying sober is still being written.  Everything I do and hope to do is conditional on my not drinking today.   Nothing I do is more important than this because if I can't stay sober, then everything else will vanish.  

Faith:  Alcohol abuse was one way I faced my fears (not a long-term strategy that I would recommend).  I was able to stop drinking but once the anesthetic wore off here I was with all the emotional baggage accumulated over 48 years of awkward graceless living.  I chose, as the Big Book says, to accept spiritual help and I think this passage from John Waters describes beautifully where I was and where I want to be:
"Previously, I was terrified of a world that I did not trust to support me.  I feared everything, mistrusted everything.  Now I accept, as a matter of fact, that I am a part of reality,  that I can throw myself into the stuff of everyday and be sure it will embrace my surrender.  I cannot think this process into being, I can only do it.  It depends on action based on trust, and feeling based on a state of harmony with the world, which can also be called grace."
Service:  Part of recovery is service and the question, of course, is how and where.  Some of it is through the blog and other writing for another community, Americans abroad.  But every day is a question mark for me because positive advocacy can all too easily turn toward negativity and resentment.  It is a slippery slope of justified anger toward a situation that one feels is unfair, and around which emotions are running high.  However, it is very dangerous for me to go there and when I write those kinds of posts I feel myself inching toward the edge of a cliff that drops off into a dark dark place.  Here is the advice of the Big Book which is, I think, very fitting for me:  "We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it."  I can't handle it.  Period.  And when that sort of writing conflicts with sobriety, then it's time to write about something else.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre and 3) Why do I write what I do?

The Flophouse is just one of millions of blogs out there and I'm not sure that it fits into any particular genre or category.   One criticism of the Flophouse that I hear over and over again is its lack of focus on one particular topic.  If the goal is to get hits then the critics are right and I'm not doing myself any favors here.  But if the goal is to connect then I think diversity has a lot to recommend it.  Think of it as a way of instantiating Amin Maalouf's examen d'identité (an examination of identity).  It's the diverse topics (with my take on them) and how those topics and interests connect to other people and communities that makes the Flophouse a distinct place - unique in exactly the same way as every other blog out there. 
Je fouille ma mémoire pour débusquer le plus grand nombre d'éléments de mon identité, je les rassemble, je les aligne, je n'en renie aucun.I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them.Chacune de mes appartenances me relie à un grand nombre de personnes; cependant, plus les appartenances que je prends en compte sont nombreuses, plus mon identité s'avère spécifique.Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people;  however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific.Grâce a chacune de mes appartenances, prise séparément, j'ai une certaine parenté avec un grand nombre de mes semblables;  grâce aux memes critères, pris tous ensemble, j'ai mon identité propre, qui ne se confond avec aucune autre.Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me;  thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other.
4) How does my writing process work?

I get up, I read, and then I mentally parse the topics that I could write about until I feel the universe give me a little tug.  That one, Madame.  And then I sit down and start tickling the keyboard.  When I'm done I try to remember to run the spellcheck and then I hit the "Publish" button and get up to walk the garden or do the dishes.

The funny thing is that hardest part of writing is not the activity, it's the letting go.  That, in and of itself, makes it an exercise worth doing.  Everything in me that wants  (in spite of all experience to the contrary) to have complete control over what I put out there for others to see, hear or read, is provoked when I write.  Nothing has the potential to bring out all my character faults like this does -  every fear of saying the wrong thing, every misguided desire for perfection, every nightmare of "everyone is going to hate me" is lurking in my subconscious and just needs a twitch to manifest itself in unhealthy obsessive behaviour:  re-reading a post 10 times or checking the hits after I publish to assure myself that I haven't done a poor job of expressing myself.

So the trick here for me is to remember the two works in progress:  sobriety and faith.  I am not perfect and I will make mistakes.  I write a modest little blog that gives me and others pleasure (service).  The universe will steer me toward what to say that day to make a difference to someone, somewhere.  With these things as my foundation I can write what feels right and then I just put it out there and let it go.  

"Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us…"

Pema Chodron

Here is the other blogger who took up Marie's challenge:  Audrey Birt of Edinburgh, Scotland in a post called Words Tempted by a Page.  I loved this paragraph which I think beautifully echoes Howard Rheingold's words in describing what happens in on-line communities:

"BUT I have also felt the power of its connection, felt the realness of the contact that can reach across continents, generations, cultures and help build relationship in such a expected ways. I have learned from people I will never meet in person, I have laughed with them, I have grieved for them. We travel a road together which creates a bond, which especially recognisable when its broken by advanced illness or death. "

And now I would like to pass the torch to someone else.  Is anyone out there game?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Early Spring in Versailles

Weather was outstanding this week and it was much too nice to stay inside and tickle the keyboard.

The cherry, peach, and apple trees are blooming.  The beans, cilantro, and radishes are up.  The raspberries, however, are making a break for it (those little libertarians) - they are trying to spread willy-nilly all over the bed and will have to be disciplined.

The cold frames turned out to be an excellent addition to the potager.  This year I started the lettuce in them and it grew so fast that we now have fresh lettuce for dinner salad.  Today I will move the cold frames around and put out the tomatoes I grew in our dining room.

Daffodils are long gone but they were replaced by some magnificent tulips from Amsterdam.The roses are about to bloom as well.  The ones in the front courtyard are the vision of health and loveliness even without blossoms:  nice strong canes and shiny leaves thus far free from fungal and other infestations.

The peonies in the back yard were a huge surprise and delight.  These were planted by the old owner, Madame B,in the back of the yard in a place that probably got sun once upon a time but is today shaded by a lilac and that big beautiful stone fence.  After consultation with the owner of a local garden ship who warned me that peonies really REALLY don't like to be moved, I moved them anyway much closer to a section of the yard that gets full afternoon sun.  Well, yippity skip, they not only survived the move but for the first time since we moved in they are actually going to bloom.

It was even warm enough for me to get out some of the solar lights and fountains I bought last year to add whimsy to the garden.  I still want a pond, darn it, but negotiations with my domestic associate have broken down and every time I try to raise the topic there is much mumbling about it being Too Much Trouble.

A few projects have come to fruition and others are in progress.

The Trellis:  The one you can see in the picture above was looking rather shabby so I sanded it down and threw a coat of varnish on it.  Much better.  The wisteria I planted under it is finally taking off.  Give it a few years and it will be lovely.

The Front Gate:  I wrote about my feelings on this one here.  We finally decided that we had to replace it since it was falling apart and scattering rust all over the sidewalk.  We asked for bids which came in as high as 6,000 euros (cough, cough).  Uh, no.  We finally found a shop that would do it for us for a decent price and the workmen came and did the install before I left for Washington.  Here are the before and after pictures:

Old gate (1929)

New gate identical to the one installed in 1929
Front Courtyard Posts and Walls:  Now that the gate is up we need a mason to come in and redo the posts (one is cracked) and the cement finish on the low wall inside and out.  We are still getting bids but hopefully it will be done early summer.  We would have liked to replace the ugly chain link fence too (painted red and covered up with a truly hideous blue plastic that I in turn covered up with something a little nicer) but it will have to wait.

Other Garden Walls:  Now this I can do myself.  When we took out the juniper in the back I gained half a meter of garden space but it also exposed an crappy, unfinished, partially painted garden wall. Ugly as hell and the bricks aren't even beautiful so the logical solution is to paint the damn thing. I'm thinking that I'll just slap a coat of red on it and be done with it but if you have other ideas, feel free to say so.

Other projects in the works are a woodshed (arrived last week and needs to be assembled, varnished and the fire wood that is sitting on the front porch stacked in it to dry), the chicken run (still haven't decided if this is a good idea or not), the rotting railings on the front porch (to be replaced and painted) and the holes in the gutters fixed (this one is probably the priority but, hell, this is least sexy of all the projects on the list and surely it can wait until Fall, right?)

Off to the hardware store this weekend where we will once again spend far too much money under the guise of Protecting Our Investment.

Who are we kidding?  Home improvement is fun, if a bit addicting.  We are like coke addicts when we walk into the store and Leroy Merlin is definitely our preferred dealer.  

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Trans-State Politics: American Migrants and the First World War

"The foregoing analysis shows that because of the nature of diasporic entities, their members tend to become deeply involved in the political affairs of host countries and homelands, as well as in regional and international politics."

Gabriel Sheffer
Diaspora Politics:  At Home Abroad

What ever did we do before Google? (We probably worked harder for our knowledge and were the better for it.)

I promise to stop being a curmudgeon now and give credit where it is due.  This document came up this morning in response to one of my Google alerts.  A Message from Americans Abroad to Americans at Home published in December 1916.

World War I was raging in Europe at the time but the United States was still neutral and had yet to take a side.  From what I have read most Americans in the homeland supported Wilson's policy of neutrality and it took time for those attitudes to change.  The United States finally joined the conflict in April of 1917.

This open letter from Americans abroad (in Europe) was an attempt to influence the American government and homeland public opinion about the war.  It lays out an argument against neutrality and appeals to the conscience of Americans using words meant to resonate with Americans.

What I find most interesting about it is the first paragraph where they respond to an unspoken but clearly anticipated argument about their standing as Americans living outside the United States.  Who are we to be writing this to you?

Part of the answer is in the address:  "Fellow-Countrymen".  The use of that term makes it very clear that they may live abroad but they are still American citizens and this conversation is between compatriots and equals.

But perhaps not so equal because they go on to justify themselves:
"It is often said that Americans staying abroad lose their right to counsel those living at home, since foreign residence directly affects their opinions and sympathies." 
Ah, the evil "foreign influence" - the idea that their presence abroad may make them rather suspicious since the homeland can no longer be sure where their true sympathies lie.
"The latter part of the statement is true:  but we should also remember that residence abroad gives many opportunities of observation and that those who follow the course of events close at hand are in a better position to get direct impressions of fact upon which adequate conclusions can be based." 
So they admit that they are influenced by their host countries but they also point out that they are in a much better position to understand what is really going on since they are there on the ground and can see for themselves what is happening.
"While, therefore, not at all concealing our sympathies, we the undersigned Americans at present abroad, venture to present certain considerations on the war to you, our fellow-countrymen.  We speak for hundreds of our fellow-citizens abroad, who share our views."
I just love the "Americans at present abroad" because it's rather coy, isn't it?  The implication here (at least when I read it) is a kind of assurance of the temporary nature of that residence outside the U.S.   And for many of those Americans abroad it probably was true that they were only temporary migrants.  One does have to wonder, though, how many became, as  Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels calls them, "Accidental Migrants."  We know, for example, that Gertrude Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 and was a very permanent resident of France - she died in that city in 1946. (Nothing "temporary" about 40 years of residence abroad.)

The note concludes by noting the actions of a "sister American republic", Brazil, whose parliament made a motion to condemn neutrality, and strongly suggesting the America should do the same thing:
"We did not take this initiative, but we can follow this example....Let us adopt these words and do our utmost to uphold them - everyone of us who loves his country and believes in the principles of American Independence."
Fascinating. A shot straight to the heart of patriots - one which bases this call to action firmly on American political tradition.

Last word.  Take a good look at those who signed this message - in many cases their professions are noted after their names.  There are architects, doctors, lawyers, exporters, professors, merchants, authors, artists, relief workers and electrical engineers.  Quite a diverse group.

I don't know any more about this document - on whose initiative it was circulated, for example - but I am interested.  If you have more information, please share it.

I've embedded the book at the end of the post.  It's a bit hard to decipher but don't immediately lose heart because there are tools in the reader to zoom it, and you can also get it in PDF format suitable for printing.

Enjoy the read and your Friday, too.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Moving Rivers

A week of the worst jet-lag I've ever experienced.  I came back from Washington, poured myself into my bed and have been taking it easy ever since.  I do not recall it being this bad in my youth but my memory is not what it was.  Yes, I know that I'm not even 50 yet but this body and brain have gone through the cancer wars and I feel it every single day.

I did however make it to church yesterday.  I was there at noon sharp and it did me a world of good. It was exactly what I needed to shake off a week in the States and to put my priorities firmly back in the right order:  faith, family, friends.  Everything else gets what's left of me once those things are taken care of.

 Just a few short years ago the French church was a mystery to me.  The Mass in English was one of the last things I was still holding on to after a couple of decades in the Hexagon.  After I became a lapsed agnostic and returned to the faith of my childhood in the U.S. it was familiar and comforting to head into Paris to the anglophone Catholic church.  Truth be told it was not exactly like going to church in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  Yes, the language and the ritual were the same but the accents, the community, and some of the customs were different.  Still, it was as close as I was going to get here, a few thousand miles away from where I grew up.  As my father used to say, "Good enough for government work."

For some reason I started thinking about all that as I was sitting/standing/kneeling in the chapel. After all that angst and fear and trepidation - after making such a Big Deal about the whole business of going to Mass in French - here I was as comfortable (and happy) as I could be and not missing one beat, one response, one gesture.

When I went looking for a local francophone church here I think I was expecting a repeat of the original experience when I first moved to France with all the negative emotions that I associated with that.  It was "living in the wreckage of the future" and expecting it to be hard  with a dash of uncertainty:  What if I can't do it?  Yes, I wondered about that. Why, since I was reasonably successful in integrating, did I have so much fear around something as simple as going to a new church?

Because it meant leaving my comfort zone. You can live in a country for a very long time but that doesn't mean that dark and dangerous areas do not exist for you.  A country is cut up into regions and towns and a culture is filled with sub-cultures - worlds within worlds.  Even when we look back with nostalgia to the place we were born and spent our formative years,  at some point (one hopes) the light comes on and we realize that our experience was very limited in so many ways.

For example, how well do I really know the United States, the place where I was born?  The truth is not very well.  I was born and raised in a particular part of the country and if I am honest, places like New York or Texas are complete mysteries to me.  I don't know the people there and what they think or how they live.  I have impressions but those were formed primarily by what I hear on the radio and see on TV.  I am just as ignorant about them as any non-American who has never set foot in the States.  Furthermore, those worlds have moved on since I lived there.

Other countries and cultures are the same.  The Hexagon is not just one world or one culture, it is many.  At some point in the integration process, you get comfortable and have the illusion that you now know all you need to know to survive and thrive.  But inside there is an awareness that there are deeper different waters out there - that you have simply skimmed the surface of all that this particular place and culture has to offer.  But having achieved a sort of stability, you don't want to venture out of your comfort zone.  Who knows what's out there in the wilds of Brittany, at that church in the center of town, or even just next door?  

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more it slips through your fingers.  An image I read recently that I really liked was one of trying to take that river and pack it up in a box to Chronopost it to a friend.  The moment you trap the water, it ceases to be a river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.  

If you can think of languages, countries, cultures and sub-cultures as moving rivers it changes everything.  It's not a question of aggressively tackling the unknown and trying to achieve some sort of stability.  In fact that may be the worst strategy of all because the more you wrestle with the river, the more likely you are to drown.   It's more about jumping in feet first and letting the current carry you along.

And that was how I joined a local French church.  I just got up, got dressed, and went to Mass one day.  And to my delight (and surprise) people were very welcoming and kind. For the first few months I was a bit lost.  It wasn't just having to learn the responses in French, it was also about diving into this world within a world which was very different from anything I had experienced previously in my life here.  Their perspective on France, the church and many other topics was one that I only knew through others' opinions and prejudices.   You might not agree with their take on things but, for me, it was well worth getting my feet wet.  I still don't understand everything about this country I live in (and never will but then I don't really understand where I came from either) but I now know more than I knew just a few years ago and I find that some of that understanding seeps into other parts of my life here - the other worlds I belong to.

In retrospect the fears I had seem so ridiculous now but as I contemplate other barely known worlds that exist just at the periphery of my vision, I find the same fear lurking underneath my curiosity whether it is here in France or in the United States or any other place.  Why?

Surely part of it is the possibility of drowning - not all forays into different worlds end well.  But I think there is something else going on here and that is losing our sense of self.  To think of oneself as a cork in a river being swept downstream is a vision few of us like since it engenders feelings of helplessness and loss.  That if we allow life and experience to have their way with us, we will no longer have an answer to the question, "Who are you?"

And the true answer to that is that you and I are not the same person as we were yesterday and we will all be something different tomorrow.  That would be the case even if we never learned another language or never went further than five miles away from the place of our birth. There are rivers one can choose to dive into that can change our lives, but all of us already live in rivers of experience that are constantly moving us along without us even being aware of it.  And all we are at any one moment is the sum of all those experiences.   When we try to stop the stream and hold it in our hands and hearts and heads, it has slipped away and we are already something new. Something other than what we were just a few moments ago.

That means that not only do we live in moving rivers, but that "I" itself is one.

We can respond to this by making our worlds as small as possible in order to keep as much of the change at bay and our sense of control alive for as long as possible.  Or we can kick and scream and grip the bank of the river with our fingernails until we muster up enough courage to swim.

Or we can let go of the illusion that all of this is under our complete control and live in the ever-changing present.  We are less than the gods and more than the beasts and "we suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold on to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos." (Alan Watts)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lay of the (Home) Land

"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

Pericles (495 BC-429 BC)

Five days of constant motion and ever since we returned to the apartment last night I've been trying to organize my thoughts with an eye toward giving you my impressions, observations and conclusions.  Reading Steven Mopsick's post this morning I decided to use his thoughts as a springboard for mine.  

So, in no particular order, here are the things that a Washington newbie and American citizen fresh off the boat from abroad found interesting, encouraging and disheartening.  And, yes, it was a little bit of all those things.  I do want to say before I begin that the opinions and impressions that follow are my own and do not reflect the positions of the different diaspora organizations I work with.  On this blog, I own my own words.

1.  FATCA is not going away.  Even the people I listened to who hated it and might even have some clout if they wanted to work harder against it, are resigned to it.  It's gone too far and too much work has been done to make it happen.  Yes, there is awareness that it will be a "train wreck" and "chaotic" on July 1, 2014 but that is not going to be enough to stop it.  The most any one can hope for at this point would be a delay until the end of 2014 and the chances of that are slim.

2.  No Champions in Congress.  Today almost no one in Congress with the exception of Rand Paul will publicly go to bat for the people who are the eggs being broken in the making of the FATCA omelet.  And when I say "go to bat" I mean publicly defending the victims of FATCA or introducing laws to repeal or revise it.  Some of this reticence has to do with how the homeland public views Americans abroad - those champagne-swilling, yacht-owning residents of exotic lands- and some of it is the partisan nature of American politics which is leading to gridlock on any number of topics.  Asking these folks to vote for legislation on our behalf, be it a repeal FATCA attempt or trying to change to a residence-based tax system, is just about impossible right now.   

3.  Consequences Are Known.  What was encouraging is that almost everywhere we went people were aware of the banking discrimination and the renunciations.  The few who didn't know, we were more than happy to educate and they were horrified by the stories. I was at more than one meeting with people who had relatives living abroad and had heard from them directly about the consequences of FATCA.  Others had letters from constituents. Quite a few of them brought up the renunciations as well  and wanted more information about that.  

There was a great deal of sympathy on the part of the people we talked to in Washington.  Over and over I heard things like "disproportionate penalties", "collateral damage" and "you are being punished for the actions of a few bad actors."  But, frankly, most had no idea what could be done about it.  Repeal FATCA was clearly off the table and so they were struggling to find something that they could do.

4.  Mitigation.  As I said most were receptive to ideas that would address some of the worst consequences of FATCA.  The proposal to redefine "foreign" and exclude reporting on accounts located in the same country as those US citizens - like my bank which I pointed out was right across the street from my house and was certainly not "offshore" - was one that many thought was quite reasonable.  My understanding is that this would not require legislation and so it would be easier to do.

Another possibility comes through the IGA's  some of which have clauses that say that financial institutions are not to discriminate against US Persons.  It was pointed out that the IGAs have not yet been implemented and so one avenue Americans abroad have is to watch the host country legislative process carefully and jump in if we don't see those non-discrimination clauses included in the local laws that implement FATCA.

5.  Next Steps.  So where does that leave us?  What can we do at this point that stands a chance in hell of making a difference?

Letters:   Keep those letters to lawmakers coming.  If you have written before, write again.  They are receptive and if you don't get an answer, call them and insist on one.  It really does make a difference.

Media:  Give interviews to the media.  I was told in more than one case that after getting a letter from a constituent, the staffers went and looked for information on the Net.   The more articles (and the more recent the articles), the better.

Friends & Family in the US:  I heard more than once that the staffers and agency staff had a relative living abroad or who was thinking about moving abroad.  Ask your contacts back in the US to write or call.  I also noticed that some of the staffers we met had been Americans abroad themselves and that made them even more empathetic.

Local Parliaments:  Whether you are a legal resident or you are living in your other country of citizenship, find out where FATCA implementation is at in the legislative process.  Read the IGA, follow the implementing legislation, and keep the pressure on local lawmakers.  Look for rules that would prohibit discrimination against US Persons.  If it isn't there, insist on it.

Vote:  If you are still a US citizen one of the most powerful acts is to vote and to let your US lawmakers know that you are a voter and a constituent.  The meetings I attended where I was a constituent as well as an AARO delegate, I was listened to all the more attentively.  It does make a difference.  

Last word.  For years we have been going about our lives outside the United States with the impression that U.S. politics does not directly concern us while we are outside the homeland.  We certainly never imagined a FATCA in our future.  This is our wake up call.  American politics is a blip on our radar, but now we are certainly on theirs and not always in a good way.  We are being forced by the homeland to make decisions.  

We can choose to engage or disengage, but invisibility or simply being left alone is clearly no longer an option for any of us.