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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What if?

I'm almost finished with a really good book by Alan Weisman called The World Without Us.  It's a thought experiment:  What if humans vanished tomorrow?  What would happen and would might the world look like in 10, 100, 1000 or 10,000 years?

I can't vouch for the science but it does support a suspicion I've had since I was a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the US:  the human race's grip on this planet is a lot more tenuous than we think.  I was raised in the western half of Washington state which is temperate rain forest and I did a lot of hiking in my youth.  Here's a video that will give you a good idea of what that looks like:

In order for anything human-made to last,  it has to be maintained with great effort.  In a few short years, that old field or house or road starts to deteriorate.  I saw this with a plot of land that my family owned back in the 1970's - we cleared an area and just a few years later had to get out the chainsaw to clear it again.  This is not an argument for humans doing whatever they want;  it's simply a recognition that there are forces that will take back what we make, much faster than we might imagine.

As I was reading the book and thinking about that, it occured to me that I had an even more recent example of this.  I spent part of my summer in Brittany, France where my mother-in-law owns an old fisherman's house.  I've been going to the same area for over 20 years now and what I see every time I visit is less and less land under cultivation (fewer farmers).  Some of the land was sold and there are new houses (or people trying to save old ones) but a lot of it has simply been abandoned.  In some places the only way you know that there was a farm and fields is because you'll see a little part of what was a stone wall peeking out from under the moss, ferns and trees.  Then you look closer and see that on the other side, there is forest but it's not that old (less than 100 years).  From field to forest (albeit a kind of scruffy forest with a lot of brush and shrubbery in addition to the trees) in one lifetime.  Even the stone walls, which in some places come up to my shoulder are being covered with vegetation and I've seen trees growing in these walls around those old fields, slowly tearing them down.

During dinner one evening this year we looked out the window and saw a chevreuil (European deer).  In 30 years my mother-in-law said that she had never seen one before that day.  Here's what they look like:

I really recommend the Weisman book and I'll leave you today with some pictures I took during our month in Brittany. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Old stone house which is occupied - in the foreground is the old stone wall

Four à pain (oven for baking bread).  It's not that old (probably 19th century).
The owners of this property are keeping the brush away from it but look at the roof.

Typical dirt road in the area.   You can still see the outline of the stone walls on one side.
Brush and trees growing on both sides which get hacked back to keep the road clear. If you
go off the road, wear high boots - there are snakes.

And finally, one of my favorite local spots and an example of two very old things that that have lasted up to the present day:  La chapelle Saint-Philibert in Trégunc.  It was built in the 16th century and is beautifully maintained.  The chapel however, was built next to a fountain which is ancient.  When I went one year on their annual pardon, I was told that it was definitely around in Roman times (pre-Christian era) and may date to earlier than that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

FATCA/CBT: See You in Court

It's been four years since the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Obama.  The collateral damage caused by this law and the unique US citizenship-based taxation system on Americans abroad has been reported to the US government through countless letters, testimonials and face-to-face interviews over the course of several years now.

In spite of all this advocacy, these efforts to get the US government to do something on behalf of the 7 million Americans abroad have come to nothing.  There are so many proposals on the table which range from mitigating FATCA ("same-country exception")  to replacing the current citizenship-based taxation system to a residence-based one, to a proposal to create a commission that would at least look into some of these issues.  Not one of these initiatives (even the modest ones) has moved forward.

It looks more and more like the hard work, goodwill and patience of Americans abroad is being met with indifference on the part of the US government.  Recently, in a stunningly stupid move,  they raised the fee to renounce US citizenship 422% which has offended even the Americans abroad who don't wish to renounce.

So it's not surprising that those who consider themselves to be the  FATCA/CBT collateral damage have decided that trying to get the US government to act is something of a lost cause and they are turning to the home and host country courts and international organizations for relief.

I think they are right.  Look, it took 5 years for the US government to come up with a better alternative to OVDP/OVDI for the "non-willful non-compliant" (those US citizen taxpayers abroad who are part and parcel of the 99% whose only crime was ignorance).  Today, there is no sign whatsoever that the agencies and lawmakers plan on lifting so much as a pinkie finger to address the collateral damage to Americans abroad caused by FATCA or that they are even contemplating changing the US tax system.   And the signals that the US government is sending out right now to US citizens living overseas looks very much like (in the words of Phil Hodgen)  "the beatings will continue until morale improves."

So, in my view, they are right and our best chance for change is the courts and international organizations.  What do we have so far?

And in a development that I heard about yesterday, a new court case is in the works on behalf of those "Accidental Americans" who now face the horrendous cost of getting rid of a citizenship they didn't know they had and don't want.  The right to expatriate enshrined in international law is meaningless when a country puts a price tag on it that is outside the reach of all but the most affluent.
Here is their press release (English and French versions) and please feel free to copy it and spread it around as widely as possible.

Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty Retains Washington D.C Attorney to Change U.S. Expatriation Policies Applied to Canadian Citizens Resident in Canada

Today, the Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty (ADCS-ADSC) retained Jim Butera, a Washington D.C. attorney with Jones Walker LLP. Mr. Butera will explore legal options to reverse practices of the United States government preventing Canadian citizens who are “Accidental Americans” from freeing themselves of U.S. citizenship and obligations.

Accidental Americans include those born in the U.S. but who left the United States at a young age to live permanently in another country. Although they have no meaningful ties to the U.S., they are claimed as “U.S. citizens” and subject to lifetime taxation on their non-U.S. income. Accidental Americans not compliant with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are considered by the U.S. to be “tax cheats” not paying their “fair share”.

Many Americans ask: “Why don’t these people who don’t want to be U.S. citizens just renounce their citizenship?” The answer is that the U.S requires a variety of fees (expatriation penalties) to be released from U.S. citizenship and its obligations. Many cannot afford these different citizenship penalties which include the requirement to pay the professional costs of five years IRS compliance and the possibility of an onerous exit tax (designed to compensate the U.S. for losing the right to tax “Accidental Americans” in perpetuity). In addition, a new penalty is the increase in renunciation fee from U.S.$450 to U.S.$2,350, making it difficult for many Canadians to afford the cost of renunciation.

Kathleen is a Québécoise born in the U.S. to a French-Canadian mother and American father who left the U.S. at the age of three. She says ”I know I can’t possibly plan for my retirement in Quebec while following these U.S. tax laws” and hopes to be able to pay the costs to renounce her citizenship. A middle class mother of three, she had to pay a tax expert to calculate the cost to renounce obligations to the IRS. “The cost will be at least one full year of income that I could have used for my retirement, and may be a lot more” says Kathleen.

“We want to change U.S. policies that could force into bankruptcy innocent Canadians, like Kathleen, who want to free themselves of U.S. citizenship that was imposed without consent. Submissions to Congress have had no effect. That’s why we are exploring legal options” says Stephen Kish, ADCS-ADSC Chair.
Contact: Dr. Stephen Kish, Chair, Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty

L’Alliance pour la défense de la souveraineté canadienne retient les services d’un avocat américain dans le but de changer les politiques d’expatriation qu’imposent les États-Unis aux citoyens canadiens habitant au Canada

Aujourd’hui, l’Alliance pour la défense de la souveraineté canadienne (ADCS-ADSC) a retenu les services d’un avocat de Washington D.C., Jim Butera, de la firme Jones Walker LLP. M. Butera examinera les options légales susceptibles de renverser les politiques américaines empêchant les citoyens canadiens qui sont aussi des Américains « par accident » de se libérer de leur citoyenneté américaine et ainsi de toute obligation envers les États-Unis.

Le titre « Américain ‘‘par accident’’ » s’applique aux personnes nées aux États-Unis, mais qui ont quitté ce pays en bas âge pour s’établir de façon permanente dans un autre pays. Malgré le fait que ces gens n’entretiennent aucun lien avec les États-Unis, ils sont des citoyens de ce pays et doivent par conséquent payer des impôts à vie sur des revenus entièrement gagnés à l’extérieur des États-Unis. Les Américains « par accident » qui ne se conforment pas au système de taxation américaine sont considérés comme des fraudeurs qui ne paient pas leur « juste part ».

Plusieurs Américains demandent : « Pourquoi les personnes qui ne veulent plus de leur citoyenneté américaine n’y renoncent-elles tout simplement pas ? » La réponse est que les États-Unis leur imposeraient des frais (des pénalités d’expatriation) en échange de leur libération. Plusieurs n’ont pas les moyens de répondre à toutes les exigences du gouvernement américain, qui incluent des frais comptables pour la production de cinq années de déclarations de revenus à l’IRS et la possibilité de
subir de lourdes pénalités pour leur droit de sortie mises en place pour indemniser les États-Unis pour la perte du droit de taxer ces personnes à perpétuité. De plus, une nouvelle pénalité entrera en vigueur, empêchant certainement un grand nombre de Canadiens de renoncer à leur citoyenneté américaine : les frais de renonciation passeront de 450 $ à 2 350 $ US.

Kathleen, une Québécoise née aux États-Unis d’une mère canadienne-française et d’un père américain, s’est établie au Canada à l’âge de 3 ans. « Je sais qu’il m’est impossible de planifier ma retraite ici tout en répondant aux lois américaines», dit-elle en espérant pouvoir payer les frais associés à la renonciation. Cette femme de classe moyenne, mère de trois enfants, a dû avoir recours aux services d’un fiscaliste pour estimer les coûts d’une probable renonciation. « Il m’en coûterait
l’équivalent de revenus nécessaires pour une année de retraite, et possiblement plus », ajoute-t-elle.

« Nous voulons changer les politiques américaines qui pousseraient plusieurs citoyens canadiens vers la faillite, des citoyens sans histoire, comme Kathleen, qui voudraient se libérer de cette citoyenneté américaine qui leur est imposée sans leur consentement. Des soumissions présentées au Congress n’ont rien changé, c’est pourquoi nous explorons la voie légale », dit Stephen Kish, président de l’ADCS-ADSC.

Pour plus d’informations : Dr Stephen Kish, président de l’Alliance pour la défense de la souveraineté canadienne, Toronto, Canada (

Monday, September 8, 2014


I use my e-reader more and more these days.  I have a small house with limited space so I can't be too much of a packrat.  It's also been a godsend for travelling; as long as I have an Internet connection I can always access the books I want to re-read, and purchase those that I stumble upon when I'm off visiting somewhere.

That said, my book  collection (the dead tree variety) is still growing.  Not all the books I want to read have a digital version.   Some are too old and some are academic books which only appear in hardback. I also still hit the bookstores wherever I land - for example, the McGill University bookstore is one of my haunts when I go to Montreal.

In a nutshell, I'm running out of space.  Furthermore, a lot of these books I read once and won't read again.

In this morning's email, however, was a possible solution to this:  BookMooch.  An international reader of a site I follow wrote in to say that she uses and highly recommends it.  Wow, I thought, I should check this out.

What is BookMooch?  It's a book exchange where you enter a list of books you want to give away and a list of ones you want.  All the other members do the same thing and the idea is to make a match - I have a book a member wants and yet another member has a book I want.  Membership is free as are the books.  The only cost to you or me would be the postage to send the book off to the member who requests it.

A nifty idea.  So who came up with it?  A guy named John Buckman who has a very interesting bio:
For 11 years I started and ran Lyris, a email newsletter (list server) and anti-spam company, which I sold in 2005. I also run Magnatune, a online record label that isn't evil.
I was born in London, raised in Paris, France, and spent my high school years in New Haven, CT where I started work at age 14 at Yale University. After college in Maine (Bates College) and a Masters from the Sorbonne (both in Philosophy), I lived in Washington, DC and worked at a think thank (the Academy for Advanced and Strategic Studies) and then at the Discovery Channel.
Among the reasons he gives for starting BookMunch are two connected to his nomadic bi-lingual life:
Fourth, as I live half the year in England, I'm often reading about books that have been out for some time in the USA but aren't yet available in the UK. For instance, the snarky "ICon" biography about Steve Jobs still wasn't available in the UK six months after it was featured in Wired Magazine.
Lastly, I grew up in Paris and went to graduate school there, and like to read books in French. These are almost impossible to get in the US unless I order from or FNAC. BookMooch should be place that expats and foreign language readers can get books in other languages.
I can't recommend BookMunch to you because I haven't really tried it.  Yet.  I signed up this morning and entered 10 books I would like to find homes for.  If you're interested, go have a look at the site.  So far this morning I have two books on my list that other members want.  If asked, I will send them off and hopefully someone somewhere in the world will be able to fulfill some of the items on MY wishlist.  I'll keep you posted and if I like it I will put their widget on the Flophouse so you can see what I'm giving away.

And as I was writing this I got a request in my inbox for my copy of Ungoverned Spaces from a woman on the US West Coast....

Friday, September 5, 2014

Intergenerational Circular Migration

A couple of years ago I started noticing a new (for me) category of newly arriving Americans abroad:  young Americans, the product of European migration to the United States, returning to the ancestral homelands in Europe.  Perhaps they had an Irish grandparent or, in the case of one young woman I spoke with, an Eastern European parent.

 Born and raised in the United States, they learned that they also qualified to become citizens of an EU country.  I don't think they are counted as migrants in these countries' official immigration statistics because from the point of view of these nation-states, they are not really "foreigners".  No need to apply for a residency card, they arrive with passports and full citizenship in these countries.  And by virtue of that citizenship in an EU member state, they are also automatically EU citizens and have the right to live and work in almost all the other 28 states.

This is a description of a relatively recent phenomenon which we could perhaps call Intergenerational Circular Migration (if there is a better or more precise term for it, please say so).  The above example uses Americans moving to the EU but other examples abound.  Any country that has a history of mass immigration like the US, Canada, Australia, or Brazil is probably experiencing this type of emigration now and it is the result of a combination of factors:

Acceptance of plural nationality:  the child of a French citizen  living in Canada can get a French passport without losing Canadian citizenship.  That's not unusual.  Many countries now accept that their citizens can be born with more than one citizenship and no longer object when their citizens naturalize in another state and become duals.

Combination of jus soli and jus sanguinas citizenship laws:  Countries of immigration want to make new citizens so they tend to like an automatic system that simply declares all children born in the territory to be their citizens (jus soli).  Countries of emigration,  thinking ahead and wanting to get their citizens or their children back,  allow for citizenship to be passed along through a blood tie (jus sanguinas).  It's the interplay between the citizenship laws of  countries of emigration and countries immigration that makes plural nationality much more common than it used to be.

Reversals of fortune:  In mom and dad's day leaving the Old Country made a lot of sense.  In the destination country there was a booming economy, lots of jobs, excellent chances for social mobility.  Fast forward to this generation and these children of immigration are seeing economic stagnation, perhaps a high youth unemployment rate and, lo and behold, the ancestral country seems to be doing as well as (if not better) than the country they were born in and live in now.

All of these things are described and documented in David Cook-Martin's book,
The Scramble for Citizens: Dual Nationality and State Competition for Immigrants (2013).

He uses the case of Argentina - a country that experienced mass immigration from two European countries of emigration, Spain and Italy.  His point is that this process of welcoming and assimilating immigration is not uni-directional;  it can be reversed in a process that he calls "dis-assimilation."
"I argue that the citizenship link can be reconfigured because competitive dynamics have produced particular memberhship patterns that under propitious institutional and structural conditions affect individuals' relation to states, the nation, and the resources they monopolize.  People assumed to have been culturally integrated and embraced by a nationalizing state are becoming differentiated along specific and significant dimensions."
Interesting argument and, if true, easy to see how this might be a bit disconcerting for countries of immigration and downright destructive of a democratic nation-state's ambitions to make and keep citizens.  Why?

The first (my point) is how it skews citizen equality in a particular nation-state that has traditionally been a country of immigration.  A US citizen who is born with the potential for another citizenship is in a much better position to emigrate then his fellow citizens who don't have that possibility.   The former will find it easier to be globally mobile, while the latter must stand in line and apply (often in vain) for the right to enter another country.

An individual who wishes to emigrate back to his parents or grandparents country will find that the move is facilitated though that country's citizenship law and he will arrive in that country, not as a migrant, but as a full citizen.  That is a pretty powerful incentive provided that there are other positive factors in that decision like good employment prospects.  Furthermore, since this emigration is facilitated by blood ties it 1.  Favors the children of more recent immigration (those whose families are "native" for many generations won't have this option) and 2.  It's not strictly about class or money  - a working class person can, at least in theory, take advantage of it just as easily as those Highly Qualified Migrants provided that an individual has the right parents or grandparents. (However, Cook-Martin says that it is mostly the struggling middle-classes that take the opportunity.)

The second (his point) is that it is the very act of seeking to claim that citizenship in another country changes people.  As they document (and it is much easier to find that documentation with good 20th century recordkeeping) the history of their families and the original move to another country, what started out as a purely practical exercise (a "just in case" second passport) becomes something else.   They create an emotional tie to the ancestral country.  

He talks about this in the long chapter "The Quest for Grandma's Passport."  As much as some of his contacts talked about how the second passport was "just a piece of paper," a kind of hedge against the devaluation of their own nationality, they were going to a lot of trouble to get it.  Days, weeks, months of digging through archives to find documentation.  "Clients are emotionally overcome when a search is 'successful'" and they are "thrilled" to have the proof in their hands.  Clearly, that second citizenship is "meaningful" to them, though their attachment is going to be very different from that of a citizen actually born and raised in the ancestral country.

(I suspect that the "it's just a piece of paper" is, at least in part, a signal to the home/first country.  A kind of, "Please don't make too much of this, we are still your loyal citizens and our efforts should not be taken as an indication of our desire to lose citizenship here." )

Cook-Martin is making an argument that what he has found in the Argentina/Spain/Italy migration relationship, is applicable to other countries of immigration/emigration and he is daring enough to say this of the US:
"With the recent downturn of the U.S. economy, the descendants of Irish, Italian, Greek, Latvian, and other immigrants have started to apply for the nationality of their forebears."
I have some anecdotal evidence for this but his source is a 2008 article written by Andrew Abramson for the Palm Beach Post.  This simply is not sufficient to prove his case.  That article was written as the US economy started to founder and it's not surprising that some Americans saw an opportunity at that time.  Is it still true in 2014? Hard to know.

What Cook-Martin lacks in his book when he makes such broad statements is hard numbers.  Yes, I think he's correct in that it is happening, not just in the US but in countries of immigration that are now experiencing economic stagnation, higher inequality, fewer opportunities and less social mobility.  However, the magnitude of that phenomenon has yet to be proven.

I suspect that we will never have the data to prove it.  Countries of immigration who have citizens in the process of "dissassimilating" and taking on second or third citizenships, simply have no incentive to quantify it.  They have their myths as Lands of Opportunity and they have every interest in  ignoring anything that might contradict or make those myths less powerful.  On the receiving state side, they don't want to put these returning citizens in the category of "immigrant" (which they are and are not) and they have every interest in having them slip into the country quietly and take their place as citizens who just happened to born abroad.

Still, overall, a very good book that is well worth the read.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Flea-Infested Flophouse

Well, so much for la rentrée.  The Flophouse has fleas (les puces).

How the hell did that happen?

We think that when we went on vacation in August our two cats, Tatou and Minoche, went wandering in search of low company (which they clearly found).  Took us a couple of weeks to figure it out and so the entire house has been infested.

Which presents some challenges.  Last time I had to deal with fleas, I was a teenager living in Olympia, Washington 30 odd years ago.  What do people do about this today?  Surely flea fighting technology has evolved, right?  

It also presents a linguistic puzzle.  How do you say "flea collar" in French?  (Where is that damn dictionary?)  Hey, I never had any reason to know that up to now;  the Alliance française did not impart to me the vocabulary of pest control.

And I'm not the only one who is struggling here.  My French spouse didn't know either.  He went off late last week to purchase a product for our furry little friends and he blew it.  He picked up wimpy flea repellent, not flea killer which means our first pass at it did no good whatsoever.  So much for our fancy French and American educations.  Book smart, life stupid.  Yep, we have been humbled.

So he fired up an Internet search engine and I called the church ladies.  Between the two sources, we figured out what we needed and ordered it.  Everything arrives today.  I will be unleashing flea Armageddon this afternoon so the Flophouse is definitely closed to visitors.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pew: 7 Facts about World Migration

Check out this article from Pew Research:

7 Facts about World Migration

Here are two that I found particularly interesting:

What country has the most diverse, multi-cultural migrant population?

The United Kingdom

What nationality has the most destination diversity (that means that the emigrants from this country tend to spread out and have the largest global presence).

The French

Pew says:
"The French like to live all over the world – emigrants from France live in more countries than emigrants from any other nation. Using the Herfindahl index, the destination diversity of emigrants born in France is 95 on a 0 to 100 scale. It is 89 for American-born people living outside of the U.S. There are at least 1,000 French-born people living in each of 83 different countries and territories; the most popular destinations are Spain (220,000) and the United States (180,000)."
Fancy that. :-)

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Anchor" Babies and "Illegal" Children

I had an exchange recently with a family member here in France and it went something like this:

FM:  If it weren't for all those immigrants our social security system wouldn't have a deficit.  Foreigners are taking advange of us and we need to do something about it.

Me:  You think so?   All immigrants?

FM:  Most of them.

Me:  OK, can we quantify that?  Do you have a percentage or a number of those who are cheating the system?

FM:  I'm trying to drive here.

Immigration is a topic where feelings definitely trump facts.  I was reminded of this when I read on Andrew's blog, Multicultural Meanderings, that some Canadians were getting a bit under the collar over "birth tourism".  This is where foreign women come to Canada for the sole purpose of having their children born on Canadian soil and thus becoming Canadian citizens at birth (jus soli).

My first thought when I read that was:  Wait a minute, I've seen this before...  Oh yeah, people in the US worry about this, too.  Well, if two countries in North America are concerned about this, it must be a big problem, right?

To my surprise and delight the Canadian government took the stories very seriously and went looking for evidence.  (My goodness, what a sensible thing to do.)  And what did they find?
The proposal, marked “secret” and with inputs from various federal departments, found fewer than 500 cases of children being born to foreign nationals in Canada each year, amounting to just 0.14 per cent of the 360,000 total births per year in the country.
Forgive me, but with numbers like that the brouhaha over "birth tourism" which is being used to attack jus soli citizenship law in Canada looks more like a solution in search of a problem and not the other way around.

Given that the same kind of arguments and anecdotal evidence appear in both Canada and the US - two counties of immigration with relatively generous jus soli laws (citizenship conferred at birth based on place of birth) - then clearly there is something about it that makes people uneasy and want to either restrict it or to move to a birthright citizenship system based on blood (jus sanguinas).

Those emotions make it very hard for the Canadian government to come up with a politically acceptable response.  When human beings feel very strongly about something, law and policy-makers can be as rational and evidence-based as they please, but they can't make their constituents like (or accept) what they have to say.   The facts as they stand today will not prevent this myth from coming back in a future news cycle.

Birthright citizenship (both jus soli and jus sanguinas) makes me uneasy but for reasons completely unrelated to "birth tourism" and you can read what I've said about it here and here.

And finally for your viewing pleasure is a wonderful Jon Stewart piece about a recent immigration crisis in the US:  tens of thousands of children entering the US illegally causing a humanitarian and security crisis.  What I love about Jon Stewart is how he uses humor to make his point.  Every episode is a guided discovery where he invites his viewers to come along with him for a ride which almost always ends with  "Aren't we being a bit silly about this, folks?"

And that's a damn good tactic.  Answering an argument from the gut with facts is, alas, not very effective in changing people's minds about anything.  Worse, it can stop the conversation completely; ("Just shut up and let me drive.")  Just something to think about on a Monday morning...