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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Opération jardin

"Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant
nettles, or sow lettuce […] either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why,
the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. "
William Shakespeare, Othello

I love my little house.  It's not much size-wise (55 square meters/592 square feet) but over the years I've come to prefer small living spaces.  Less to clean and who in the heck needs more than one bathroom anyway unless you have a famille nombreuse (large family).  We stopped at two Frenchlings so we don't count (and I've seriously rethought this over the years since the French tax breaks starting with three kids are phenomenal).

The house has so many nice features.  It has two porches (front and back), tall windows that open wide,  old fashioned cast iron radiators (perfect for getting bread dough to rise just right), the funkiest old chandelier (so ugly and odd that it's beautiful), porcelain door knobs, old pine floors in the living and dining rooms and tile everywhere else and I do mean everywhere (the previous owner was a tiler by trade and he did good work).   Only thing missing right now is our Petit Godin and we're waiting on the Portuguese mason to come and raise the chimney.

As much as I love the house, I love the garden more.  For a house in the city this garden is huge.  The house is set back a bit from the street (thank God) and so there is a small garden area in the front as well as a larger one in the back.  The previous owner put in two lovely raised beds and laid a stone patio so there's no grass to tend and mow in the front.   When we moved I transferred much of what I had in the garden over at the old Flophouse to these beds.  So far so good - the peonies, hydrangeas and roses seem to have survived the migration quite nicely.


As we turn the corner into spring, my attention is now on the back garden and here I'm being a more cautious.  There has been a garden here since 1929 when the house was first built and the previous owner was a woman after my own heart - a gardener.  The most obvious signs of her work which can be seen even in the dead of winter are the lovely lilac, the two forsythia and an abundance of old climbing roses.  I did some investigating and came up with an old aerial photograph of the property and in it you can see that once upon a time there were other trees, bushes and hedges that are now long gone.  There is an old well-established perennial bed at the farthest end and so far I've seen daffodils, peonies, ferns and other plants that are coming up slowly but surely as the weather gets better.  I don't believe in radical do-overs when it comes to old gardens.  My job as I see it is to work with what is already there so that past and present blend seamlessly together.

One feature of the back garden that deserves a mention is the huge stone wall that separates my property from that of the apartment complex next door.  This wall is a little piece of Versailles history.  Constructed in 1849, it originally ran from the octrois on the avenue de Paris and was built to separate Porchefontaine from the adjacent neighborhood called Petit Montreuil.  Today the wall is still in great shape and my role here is to be a good caretaker of my portion of it so it will last for another 150 years.

So many potential projects here with what is not exactly a blank canvas.  Starting with the principle that it is best to  "make haste slowly" this is what I've been up to over the winter months:

General clean-up:  It's always safe to start with what we can all agree is not desirable in any garden in any era:  trash, weeds, dead wood, dying hedges.  The last was quite the project.  The previous owners had planted thuya hedges on both sides of the garden for privacy and I'm sure they looked fabulous for many years.  However by 2013 they were overgrown and the one on the right side was sick sick sick - some disease that caused the branches to die and turn rust orange.    It was too far gone to be treated (not to mention that it looked just terrible on the neighbor's side of the fence) and so, with the help of a small crew, they came out.

Ivy is pretty in pots but it's a nightmare in any other place in my opinion and when it comes to stone walls it's downright destructive.  Armed with a pair of pruning shears, a sharp knife and a tall ladder,  I took off all that nastiness that was happily growing in the crack and crevices of that beautiful old stone wall.

Pruning:    Started in January and is still on-going.  I started by removing all the dead wood on the climbing roses and more recently did a second pass to shape and encourage new growth.  I also fertilized as soon as I saw the forsythia was blooming.  Thus far I have been rewarded with lots of buds.  These are old old roses and I'm going to do everything I can to save them.  That said, they have a year to get cracking and I will replace them if they are beyond hope and don't produce to my satisfaction.

More recently I've been tackling some of the flowering shrubs and other hedges.  Last Tuesday I put out three large bags for the weekly collect of déchets végétaux (clean green).  I'm still waiting on the forsythia which has just started to bloom.  I was at a bit of a loss as to how to prune those since I've never had them before in any garden I've actually owned or been responsible for.  Thankfully my mother came through with a copy of Cass Turnball's Guide to Pruning.  It's all there, everything you need to know to prune right, and a fun read too.   Not only is the author a sensible sort, she's hilarious.  The "Poppa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear"  theory of landscape design had me howling but she is basically right and it's a good analogy to help you properly place trees, shrubs and ground cover in the garden.

Beds:  Digging up the existing perennial bed was out of the question until I knew exactly what's there and from what I'm seeing now that was a good move.  Would have been a shame to accidentally take out those peonies or daffodils.  What I could do was buy some better soil and lightly work it into the existing dirt and cover the roots that were exposed.

No such problem with the bed that was created after the removal of the thuya.  I brought the bed out about half a meter and bought huge bags of soil amendments that I worked into the old tired soil.  The first beneficiary of this new bed?  The neighbor's cat who said, "Cool, a new litter box!"  and proceeded to use it as such.  Often.  Good thing I like cats or I might have reacted badly.  Plus the poor thing has a collar with a bell which means that I and every rodent and bird in the vicinity can hear it coming a mile away.  Kind of defeats the purpose of a cat.  I'd say he's suffering enough and I don't need to add to the misery.

Planting:  Since I didn't go to all that work just to make the neighborhood cats happy,  I started planting once I had carefully reflected on what I wanted and what would work based on the size of the space and the light.  The old thuya bed is the sunniest part of the garden so it seemed to me the right place to put my potager (vegetable garden).    I started with the trees:  a peach, two apples and a fig.  The last was given to me by my neighbor as a "welcome to the neighborhood" gift.  I was so grateful that when I bought the other trees at Truffaut's I chose les arbres fruitiers en espalier (espalier fruit trees) that I will train along our common fence.  Very pretty and this way I won't ruin the light in her garden.  Then I planted lettuce and sweet peas.  The lettuce is already up.  As for the rest of the bed, the plan is to put in beans, tomatoes and pumpkins.  The tomatoes are already up in a little portable plastic greenhouse sitting in the living room.  My spouse came home, saw it, raised eyebrows, opened mouth, shut mouth and prudently let it go.  After 23 years of marriage, he knows better than to get between a woman and her seedlings.

Pot Rehabilitation:  No, I'm not talking about cannabis, I'm talking about those old lovely terra cotta pots for flowers and small trees.  The previous owner had tons of them scattered all over the garden (I'm still finding them under hedges) and on the patios.  With such bounty there was no way I was going to throw them out even though they looked terrible (plus I'm really really cheap and I won't pay to replace something I had the good fortune to get for free).  The inexpensive easy trick to making them look like new is vinager.  Just pitch them into a bucket with vinager and water and let them soak overnight.  In the morning throw them in the dishwasher.  I'm about halfway done and there is something so satisfying in seeing the growing pile of pretty pots on the back porch.

Compost:  Another source of marital discord over the years.  I believe in compost much like I believe in the Virgin Mary.  It's a mystery to me how it all works but I just know that it does.  When all I've had is a few pots on a balcony I've thrown the kitchen waste in them and when I finally had a small garden in our ground floor apartment on the avenue de Paris I made small trenches in the beds with the worst soil and put the kitchen waste in them covered with a thin layer of dirt.  Within a year the soil was better.  Within two it started to be fantastic.  My French spouse did not agree with my methods and he was convinced that I would be denounced to the garbage police and shamed and fined.  Never happened because it didn't smell and I didn't put anything in there that would attract pests.

With the new garden I actually have room for a real tas de compost (compost pile).  In fact the previous owners already had one in the back next to the lilac and behind the forsythia.  It's pretty basic and made of concrete but it's a start.  And to be absolutely certain that I do not continue with my evil ways, my spouse sent me off to compost class.  Part of a local initiative called Opération compostage, it was one hour well spent last night at city hall.  At the end I was given a brochure, a little plastic pot with a lid for the kitchen (complete with sticker explaining what I can and can't compost) and, once I signed the CONVENTION DE PARTENARIAT POUR LE COMPOSTAGE EN HABITAT INDIVIDUEL, a pretty little wood compost bin that we loaded into the car and took home.  All free though I did agree in the convention I signed to submit to controls over my compost.  Imagine my spouse's relief.

All this is just the beginning - the basics.  I'm thinking more fruit trees (dwarfs) and a little pond next to the back patio for growing water lilies.  The pots once I get them all cleaned up and planted will go in the front all along and around the stairs.  I'm also contemplating a pair of small fountains on the front patio - get a little water action going there.  And more roses everywhere - you just can't have too many roses, right?

All this is wonderful for my morale.  I believe that gardens are magical places where wonderful things happen.  Every morning I get up and walk my garden to see what new delightful thing is coming up or budding or blooming.  Nothing is more soothing to me than digging in the dirt or just watching the sun as it illuminates the different areas of the garden during the day.  It is miraculous.  I do not know what the next year will bring but I plan to spend as much of it as I can watching living things grow and lending a light hand to help them along.  Because I believe this with all my heart:

"Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Friday, March 22, 2013

FAWCO

I received a very nice email in response to my post The American Diaspora:  Lobbying versus Protest pointing out a huge oversight on my part.  Today's post is dedicated to rectifying that.

When I wrote last week:  "There are American diaspora groups that are working on this. One is ACA (American Citizens Abroad). There is also the AARO (Association of American Residents Abroad). These are the two that are most widely known and both work within the U.S. system to try to effect change"  I completely neglected to mention a third organization that is also very well-known and is working hard on behalf of Americans abroad on FATCA/citizenship-based taxation and many other issues:  

FAWCO, the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas.  

Of the three FAWCO is the oldest (founded in 1931).  It's a worldwide network of over 75 member clubs in 40 countries with around 15,000 members.  Some examples of FAWCO member organizations:

Kenya - American Women's Association of Kenya founded in 1958
Denmark - American Women's Club Denmark founded in 1934
China - American Women's Club of Shanghai founded in 1997

(I used to be a member of the last organization which is based in Paris.)

FAWCO's mission statement:

"To serve as a resource and channel of information among its members;
To provide a voice for American women abroad and to support the rights of all Americans worldwide;
To contribute actively to the global community with a specific focus on education, the natural and human environment, multicultural understanding and international goodwill."

In 1995 FAWCO was recognized as an NGO (non-governmental organization) and has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

FAWCO representatives were there in Washington, D.C. for Overseas American Week this year and in past years.  They were instrumental in the creation of the Americans Abroad Caucus and, working with AARO, they launched the brilliant (and successful) Tea Bag Campaign in 1975 to make absentee voting possible for the American diaspora. 

Before that mail hit my in-box I had no idea of the scope and history of FAWCO's activities.  My heartfelt thanks to Lucy Laederich (Former FAWCO president and current president of AARO and FAWCO's U.S. Liaison) for very gently and kindly setting me straight.

A last word.  All three of the American diaspora organizations have rich histories, some notable successes and are doing all they can right now on behalf of Americans living abroad.  We can help them by supporting their activities and initiatives.  They can help us, not only through their lobbying efforts, but by tooting their own horns a bit more.  Enough of being shy and discreet, folks.  

The time has come for you and the American diaspora to ROAR.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My Cancer Journey

Ever mindful of my mother's gentle criticism that sometimes it's hard to find stuff on this blog pertaining to a particular topic (yes, I am 47 years old but that doesn't mean I don't listen to my Mom), after writing today's post I went back and gathered everything I've written so far about my cancer diagnosis and treatment here in France and set up a page for them and then I put a link up on the right-hand sidebar.

Here they are:  Cancer Journey.

Not sure how enjoyable they are but you might find them interesting. :-)

Vanity, thy name is....

"Personne n’est jeune après quarante ans mais on peut être irrésistible à tout âge. "

“Nobody remains young past 40, but one can be irresistible at any age.”

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971)
(From Jean-Jacques Auffet's Citation du Jour)

I read that this morning and my first thought was Coco never had chemo.  Or maybe she did at some point in her life.  I'd love to know.

Because, boy, the last thing I felt after coming out of the last fun filled year was "attractive."  Hard to put my finger on what bothered me the most:  losing my hair and I mean ALL of it everywhere including my eyelashes, seeing my muscles waste away the time I had to spend in bed or on the couch, the scars on my torso or that damn "chambre implantable" model Celsite ST215 by B. Braun which I still have and is so obvious when I wear a débardeur because I'm skinny (on a good day I'm 170-something centimeters and 57 kilos - that's about 5'7 and 126 pounds.)

Now before all this went down I was someone who spent a lot of time, energy and money on maintaining her appearance.  Part of it was an integration issue.  When I first arrived in France wearing my Seattle-style duds, people made comments and I didn't like that.  It wasn't about not being proud of my roots but rather because people in Paris in that era could be rather mean when I showed up somewhere in jeans and tennis shoes.  I decided to dress better because that way I could blend in better (camouflage for the stealth migrant I was) and it did put a stop to the ego-destroying comments.  Another reasons was my job once I actually had a real one where I had to look like a grown-up.  When I had to go into a big meeting or speak in front of hundreds of people, it was not only expected that I look good, it also helped my confidence to know that I was chic from my Jimmy Choo's and Gucci purse right down to my lingerie (and boy did I drop a bundle at Orcanta for that).  I used to jokingly refer to it as my "armor."

During my treatment though that all seemed so incredibly stupid and small.  Not a priority, I said.  And so I kissed my shoes bye-bye, firmly closed the door to my wardrobe, and threw the makeup in a drawer.  I didn't even avail myself of the services at the Maison des patients at the clinic that offer makeup help and advice choosing a wig or a scarf or a prosthesis.  The last I didn't even bother to get even though it's 100% covered by the national healthcare system here.  And I went with the head scarves and didn't bother getting fitted for a wig (also 100% covered).

(Funny story here.  I was walking down the Avenue de Paris here in Versailles with my scarf on and as I walked by an older gentlemen, he looked at me and I heard him mutter to himself, "Nous sommes en France quand même."  (This is France for heaven's sake).  He took me for a conservative North African Moslem woman wearing a headscarf.  The only thing he got right was that I am indeed an immigrant.  I laughed all the way home. )

I was wrong to put my appearance aside during and after my treatment.  I am not going to beat myself up over it but, as I come out the other side, it's useful to think about what I could have done differently.   Might be helpful for someone else and if by chance I have to go through another round of treatment, makes sense to apply those lessons learned.   

How did I figure this out?  I went to the doctor a few weeks ago for another problem and as she (a very well turned-out Frenchwoman) did her thing she asked me when my chemo ended and when I replied "a few months ago," she decided to give me her opinion.  And may I say that this is one thing I love, just love, about Frenchwomen?  They will tell you what they truly think.  Not in an unkind way but just the unvarnished opinion with very little mitigating language and zero BS.  To the question, "Does this dress look good on me?" they are very likely to answer, "No, it looks terrible and it's not your color at all. Try something green instead."  Never EVER ask their advice if you have thin skin and can't take a truthful direct answer.

Her take on it was that months after my treatment was over I still looked like I was going through chemo.  Get down to the hair salon, she said.  Just because it's short doesn't mean it can't look stylish.  Then try some makeup - a little color on the eyebrows, some mascara and some red lipstick.  And finally, dump the scarves and get some cute little hats that go well with jeans and a jean jacket.  

I listened carefully to what she had to say and then I marched myself home and hauled out my makeup, my nice shoes and my fancy clothes.  A few days later I went down to the center of Versailles and had my hair cut by Lydie and I even bought some new clothes in bright colors and new shoes (no, it's not possible to have too many shoes).  Still looking for the hats but with my new cut, I find that I don't really need to hide my head anymore. 

Do I feel better?  You bet your sweet patootie I do.  Having done all that I became aware of some of the nice things the chemo did for my looks.  The silver lining post-chemo is that your skin is so soft, just like an infant's, and all those little lines I was getting around my eyes and mouth have mostly disappeared.  It's like a facelift.  And the hair?  Wow, it's so soft, lush and thick.   

I wouldn't go so far as to say I look "irresistible" but I don't look half bad either.  My first outing with my new look was Sunday mass and it did my ego a world of good to have people tell me how nice I looked.  THAT led to what is probably the most important element of attractiveness in a man or a woman:  a big smile that radiates happiness and confidence.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Global Labor Mobility and Taxation


"Globalization has forgotten the worker.  Scholarship on the tax consequences of globalization emphasizes the movement of capital and corporations, neglecting labor."

Ruth Mason
Tax Expenditures and Global Labor Mobility

Alas, this is all too true.  In the debate about catching rich tax cheats and going after tax-evading corporations, the worker is hardly ever mentioned and the impact on him or her isn't even considered in the fights against tax evasion and the implementation of different and creative taxation regimes.

People migrate for many reasons but one of the most common is moving to another country because there are good employment opportunities there as opposed to where they are.  It's not just a question of different unemployment rates, it's also because a skill or a degree can be worth more in another market.   Speaking English in the U.S. or the U.K. is no big deal in the home country but a lot of English speakers can earn a living in other countries teaching that language or filling a job abroad where the foreign company has decided they want someone with native English.  The first is not well-paid but the latter can be if it's combined with other skills and talents including integration into the host country language and culture.  Other examples abound like plumbers, electricians, IT workers, secretaries, engineers, musicians, technical writers, construction workers and mid-level managers.  The terms "highly-qualified migrant" and "low-skilled labor" do not even begin to do justice to the diversity of the migrants seeking economic opportunity outside of their home countries.  Even workers from developed countries can better their situation by moving abroad if they find the right match and the right job.

For globalization to work for people, and not just to the benefit of corporations and elites, it is essential that natural persons (aka "human beings") be able to seek out opportunities all over the world and not just be "captive citizens" of their homelands while capital and jet-setters flow freely from one country to another.

The biggest impediments to global labor mobility are local laws and immigration policies.  The question today is:   Given the efforts of many states to combat cross-border tax evasion, talk of exit and diaspora taxes, and the attempt to create a worldwide system of financial information exchange are we putting a mighty tool in the hand of governments to extract revenue from their diasporas and to prevent emigration?

I think that is a real possibility.  We are already seeing how Americans abroad are disadvantaged compared to the migrants from other countries because of U.S. citizenship-based taxation.  Americans who seek work abroad can be double-taxed (owe taxes in both the host country and the U.S.)  This is a fact and you have only to check the IRS website to see that, while there are methods to alleviate that burden, they do not eliminate it.  Other possible impacts are having to pay for expert advice in order to fill out tax returns and to comply with reporting requirements (all required even if no tax is due).

How many Americans, if they knew the full extent of their own country's worldwide taxation regime and its consequences, would still contemplate taking a job in Canada, South America, Asia or Europe?  How many American companies, faced with the added cost and complexity of sending their U.S. personnel overseas, will simply fill the position with a local?  High-level managers (executives) will still be able to go but lower-level skilled people like an IT worker or a finance person will be shut out from all the benefits they might have expected to enjoy when they sought employment with a home country multi-national.

From that experience we can extrapolate and imagine what would happen if other countries developed their own "tax the diaspora" schemes.  Would a French person bother to go to California to start a small company if he knew he was going to have to report his financial activity and pay taxes to the French government?  Ditto for the young person from the U.K. seeking a job in Singapore or a Chinese national offered a job in Canada.  Much of it depends entirely on the ability to pay and this is where it could be become flagrantly discriminatory.  A potential migrant who is highly-skilled (an executive) or has a particular talent (a movie star) will probably command a high salary in the host country and will be able to pay experts to navigate the home country tax system as it applies to expats.  They will be able to take full advantage of globalization and international mobility because they can pay the direct or indirect tax on it.  The young who are just starting their careers, and those with skills that command only modest salaries, probably can't.

Many countries have floated the idea of taxing their emigrants.  You could almost say that the bigger the budget deficit, the more attractive it looks.  Very politically popular.  Plus, it would have the added benefit of discouraging emigration in a way that is just devious enough not to fall foul of international law.   So why haven't more countries gone ahead and done it?

One reason is because it was almost impossible to enforce.  A country can try to say to its diaspora, "OK, ladies and gentlemen, you owe us 1% of your earnings in the host country," but how in the heck to make that stick?    A Frenchwoman in Boston has a W-2 so the US knows what she makes and can tax her but that information isn't automatically passed along to the French government.   As for the contents of her bank account, American banks  are known for their fierce resistance to sharing that information with other countries even when it concerns a national of another country.  Other countries have similar policies and privacy laws to prevent it.

This is where automatic worldwide sharing of financial information comes in.  The scope of what is being proposed goes way beyond the idle rich and corporations (though this is given as the driver behind it).  It is no less than the exchange of huge databases containing private financial information on literally millions upon millions of people.  In these databases there will be retirees, plumbers, foreign language instructors, fast-food industry workers, stay at home mothers, and many many others who don't fall into the category of "rich".  FATCA contains provisions so that only accounts over a certain amount have to be reported but that is no guarantee that the databases won't still be filled with the lower or middle-income who have retirement savings, for example.  There is also no guarantee that other proposals like the French or UK FATCA won't apply different rules and seek a much lower threshold for their citizens living abroad.

The danger is not so much the automatic information exchange itself as it is the potential for governments to use that information in ways that have only a tenuous connection to the goal of unearthing those "rich tax cheats not paying their fair share," and everything to do with their own domestic agendas:  extracting tax revenue from all their diaspora members living abroad to balance their homeland budgets and, of course, slowing down emigration of the young, the skilled and semi-skilled, and the adventurous by making it onerous and financially disadvantageous to leave the home country.

The threat to global mobility as I see it is in the combination of a worldwide information exchange of financial information coupled with countries passing their own laws inspired by the American model of citizenship-based taxation.  With the first they would actually have means to enforce the second.

I personally do not believe for one moment that these countries would restrict the scope of these new tax laws to the entrepreneurs, idle rich and the investor class.  Why?  Do the math.  In 2010 there were around 40 million immigrants in the U.S.  Most are probably not rich or even upper-income.  If their home countries could get as little as 100 USD out of them, that would be a chunk of change, wouldn't it?  Same holds true for all other governments - even small amounts would make a difference where the diasporas number in the hundreds of thousands or millions of members.  And where these people do not have much political power in the home country and only modest salaries in the host country, they have few defenses against this.  As far as I've been able to determine there is nothing in international law that would prevent countries from doing this to their emigrants once their governments have the information in hand.  And you just have to ask to what extent global mobility would be slowed down by the implementation of enforceable diaspora tax regimes.

Maybe it won't ever happen.   Still, I would argue that someone should be watching this closely so that this sort of thing does not evolve into yet another impediment to global mobility and another nightmare for global migrants.  What is really distressing right now is that with all these potential impacts on the working international migrant is that international labor organizations and migrants advocacy groups are not more implicated in the discussions around information-sharing initiatives and cross-border tax issues at the international level.   There is a real potential here for abuse and the danger is that the burden will fall hardest on those who are least able to bear it.

Not the rich who have access to expensive international legal counsel and who will undoubtedly move their money around to whatever country decides not to share information with the others.  But on those who dream of distant shores and on those who are already there and terribly vulnerable twice over:  as immigrants in the host country and as emigrants from predatory states.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The American Diaspora: Lobbying versus Protest

Three years now since Congress passed the HIRE Act and with it the now infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) which would require foreign FFI's (banks mostly) to report the accounts held abroad by U.S. citizens.  James Jatras calls it "the worst law most Americans have never heard of."  I've referred to it as "a road to hell paved in the service of one good intention."

Its original purpose was to expose American citizens living in the U.S. who might be hiding taxable assets abroad. Somehow in the making of this law it escaped the notice of Congress that there are around 6 million "regular folks" (Americans who live and work abroad as wives, husbands, teachers, managers, nurses, and so on) who are directly and adversely impacted by it.  The consequences of this law for Americans abroad are very real and hit us right where we live.  In some countries Americans are being shut out of local banks since the easiest way for financial institutions (foreign to the U.S. but local to the American expat) to avoid having to comply with U.S. reporting requirements is to "fire the customer."  Not easy to live anywhere without access to a basic checking account and can you imagine the surprise (and horror) of these people when this happens just because they are American citizens?

Another impact has been on Americans who are married to non-Americans (mostly women).  These foreign spouses are tainted by association.  Not only is their financial privacy at risk since their "American connection" means that their information may soon be shooting off to the American IRS along with their spouse's but they too can be shut out of some banking services where the local bank doesn't want to take the risk associated with a "U.S. Person."  This has led to some foreign spouses telling their American wives and husbands, "You can stay married to me or you can renounce your U.S. citizenship.  Pick one."  In other cases we've heard about the foreign spouse has simply taken the American spouse's name off their bank accounts thus rendering her completely dependent on her husband for cash in order to go about her daily business.  Where the American spouse may be an older woman (often a stay at home mother) with children who she cannot bring with her if she is forced to return to the U.S., there isn't much choice here.

There are other impacts that I won't go into here but just go over to Isaac Brock Society or check out the ACA website for more information.  Needless to say these things have not received much media attention back in the U.S.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans who lived abroad are not exactly viewed positively by people in the American homeland.  We are assumed to be either rich tax cheats or a bunch of hippy-dippy lifestyle migrants who need to stop messing around and get their asses back home.  Neither of the two main political parties in the U.S. (nor American lawmakers) want to touch us with a ten-foot pole given how we are framed in the media and in the imaginations of the homeland voters.  Too much political risk for an uncertain return on their investment.

Another reason that was brought to my attention recently by a friend in the U.S. is that things basically suck right now in the U.S. and homelanders are having a very hard time.  There are some hopeful signs that the economy is recovering but there are still many people un- or under-employed and the fights over the budget, immigration, and many many other contentious topics are leaving an already tired and fearful American public reeling.  Given that FATCA does not directly impact them right now (though I think that is going to change very soon), it's understandable that they don't want to divert any mental energy into considering the problems of people who are not actually living in the U.S.  - people they tend to not like much anyway.

That said, those of who who do live outside the U.S. and are impacted by FATCA (and citizenship-based taxation) are fighting this.  Aside from writing lots of letters and articles and responding to the latter on the Net, we basically have two possible courses of action:  lobbying and protest.

Lobbying:  There are American diaspora groups that are working on this.  One is ACA (American Citizens Abroad).  There is also the AARO (Association of American Residents Abroad).  These are the two that are most widely known and both work within the U.S. system to try to effect change.  They prepare position papers and proposals - ACA has a very fine one that argues for a system of residence-based taxation to replace the actual citizenship-based taxation system we have now.  They also offer services like AARO's Tax Seminars which I've been told are excellent.  Both try to mobilize Americans abroad to support initiatives like Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney's H.R. 597
Commission on Americans Living Abroad Act.  Both were present in Washington recently to directly lobby U.S. lawmakers during Overseas American Week.

All good stuff and I'm one who supports their efforts.  However, it is not clear how effective they are at mobilizing the 6 million Americans living abroad.  Yes, they have access and frankly, they are the only representation we have in the belly of the beast that is the U.S. government.  Some of it is a communication problem (which they are addressing with forays into social media and updated websites) but it's also a sense that they are something of a private club, the inner workings of which are completely opaque to those of us looking at them from the outside.*  That is a perception that may have no basis in reality but it still matters because when one has to make a decision to join or not, that may be all one has to go on.  If I may also address the elephant in the room, there are two of these organizations, so there is the question of which one to join.  Anytime someone has to make a choice like that it slows down the decision-making process (or cuts it off completely).  What's the difference between them?  Should one join one or the other or both?  It's confusing and I think an impediment to Americans abroad joining either of these organizations.

Another issue is that of direct action other than lobbying and letter-writing.  Neither of these organizations call for things like demonstrations.  Why is that?  Well, some of it surely has to do with not annoying the American government too much.  Organized protests in front of a few American embassies around the world would certainly get a lot of attention but it would most likely get the American government and public really angry, especially if the international press or foreign governments used it in ways that would not be helpful to American interests.  There is also the problem that many American abroad really would rather not go public - they may have unresolved compliance issues or they may simply think that it is not wise to make themselves targets for retaliation.  Okay, it's not like Obama will send a drone or the Marines to take them out but what about audits or problems getting a passport to come home and see the family, and stuff like that?  And for those who have decided to quietly relinquish or renounce, what would be the point?

Protest:  Those are a few of the problems with direct action like demonstrations.  But are there other options?  Yes.

Pressure on local government:  FATCA can't work if foreign governments don't agree to it.  So some people are writing letters and lobbying not only U.S. lawmakers but also local representatives.  This is most effective, of course, where the American citizen in question is a dual citizen.  In Europe some people are not only talking to their local lawmakers in their country of residence but also to the European Union.  The Canadians are also very active in fighting this - they are writing letters to people like Jim Flaherty, the Canadian Finance Minister, and attending forums where they can directly ask questions about what the Canadian government will do to protect its citizens.  Is this working?  Well, please note that Canada has not signed a FATCA intergovernmental agreement with the U.S. and that is a big problem for the U.S. government.

Litigation:  It's probably not realistic for Americans to fight FATCA in U.S. courts, nor is there much hope for legal action on the international level.  However, where FATCA conflicts with local law (privacy or anti-discrimination rules) there is the possibility of taking the local government to court if they allow FATCA to go forward in that country.  In this letter Canadian constitutional scholar, Peter Hogg, talks about the ways that FATCA violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  I'd say that given the level of anger about FATCA in Canada and the growing public awareness of what this legislation means for Canadians, someone will sue the Canadian government if they try to implement it. I believe that European dual citizens will do the same.

Renunciation/relinquishment:  This is still on the table for a lot of people and you have to wonder if the wave of U.S. Citizens trying to get compliant is not a sign that people are willing to submit to U.S. tax and reporting requirements, but rather prudent preparation for the day when FATCA becomes a reality in their lives and they can get to the U.S. Embassy to shed their U.S. citizenship without too much hassle (the rules are that an American must be tax compliant before he or she can renounce.)  The Isaac Brock Society continues to be the place to go for information on how to go about this and more importantly they provide moral support to U.S. citizens who are living in fear, feel deep anguish over the choices they must make, and who feel a deep frustration with the American government, the American public and even those diaspora organizations I mentioned above.

The Secret Americans:  Try to imagine for a moment the position of an American citizen or a U.S. person evaluating this situation and trying to formulate a personal strategy to meet it .  Can't figure out which diaspora organization he or she should join (and not sure that would be a good use of money in any case).  Doesn't see any hope that the U.S. government or public will wake up anytime soon.  Gets upset every time he or she sees an article that implies that he is a criminal, a rich tax cheat, a Benedict Arnold, and a selfish, ungrateful, immoral human being.  Sees his or her local government joining the FATCA bandwagon with great enthusiasm (the UK is a good example here).  Too afraid of the U.S. government (and maybe the local one too) to go public and work for change.  Doesn't see how he or she could even get compliant if he wanted to without taking terrible risks (going to jail, paying exorbitant fines, draining the retirement accounts to pay an expensive international tax lawyer and so on).

Faced with all this I think (and Peter Spiro already raised the possibility on Opinio Juris) that a lot of  American citizens abroad impacted by FATCA and citizenship-based taxation are......

Doing nothing.

They are continuing to live their lives abroad with one eye on the media reports and the other on a Plan B.  They won't come forward but they won't renounce either. Instead they are trying to figure out ways to get off the radar like switching over to a local credit union if their banks kick them out or allowing their spouses to take their names off the joint accounts and closing the personal ones.  Stuff like that.  I wouldn't underestimate their creativity -  after all, adversity is the mother of invention.

Then they just put the U.S. passport in a drawer and fuhgeddaboudit.  Forget about going to the States on vacation, don't register the kids with the U.S. Embassy and never EVER tell anyone in the country of residence their citizenship status unless it's absolutely necessary.  Move full speed ahead with integration into the host country.  No more being an unpaid ambassador or arguing the finer points of American politics with the locals - forget being an American abroad and be French, Chinese, German, Venezuelan.  Cut off the American family still living in the U.S. (or tell them that they have to buy a plane ticket to come see the nieces, nephews, siblings, cousin and grandkids).  Take the children out of any American cultural organizations or schools and if they are young enough, don't even tell them they are American.  If they were born abroad, they may never have to know.

Is this doable?  Maybe.  It is a calculated risk but I think it's one that many are taking.  This is not the path I've chosen but may I say that I sympathize with them and I completely understand why someone would do this.  Look, folks, if the American government can't give these people a clear palatable path to follow and they don't see any way out of this terrible conundrum, then don't be surprised if they clear one for themselves using whatever resources are available to them.

And, who knows, perhaps one day things will be better and they (or their children) will be able to come out of the closet and be Americans again.

(*I just read my email and there is an outstanding letter from ACA in my inbox detailing their efforts and accomplishments in this fight.  This is exactly what is needed.  Bravo.  Also they recently re-designed their website and I had a look when I was writing this post.  Much much better.  I encourage everyone to go have a look.  Here's the link again:  American Citizens Abroad.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam

And the bookies blew it.

The election yesterday of the very first Latin American pope left me stunned and hopeful and I've been eagerly scanning the Net for all the information I can find on this man who apparently came very close to becoming pope during the last papal election.  The 2013 election of the 266th pope is interesting on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.

As I talked about a few days ago in this post, The Papal Election and the Nationality Question, country of origin is an important factor in the choice of a new pontiff.  It sends a message to the world and, yes, it is of general interest because this is the man who will be leading an international organization with over 1 billion followers.  In that context his nationality and cultural origins are not and probably never will be neutral attributes and this has an impact on global and local politics.

The new pope is from Argentina, a country in Latin America (a region that has a Roman Catholic majority.)    These countries, like the ones in North America, are what has been described as "settler colonies."  The modern nation-states in the Americas are the creation of immigration (colonization) from Europe.  The differences between them today can still be traced back to the cultures of the original sending countries. The United States became an English-speaking Protestant country while Argentina is a Spanish-speaking Catholic country.  Centuries after these countries became independent these differences cause cultural tensions.  When people in the U.S. think about immigration/integration in 2013, they are primarily focused on migrants from Latin America.  Language is one issue (Spanish speakers moving into an English speaking area) but so are religious differences.  I think it's less true today than it was in my youth but just see Samuel Huntington's recent book Who Are We?  for the argument that traditional American values are fundamentally Protestant and that is one reason why he thinks that America is a better place than Mexico (or Brazil).

Add to this the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs and you'll start getting a good idea why the reaction of the people of the Americas to the election of a Spanish speaking pope from Argentina might be framed a bit differently as you go from north to south.  This is not to say that North Americans aren't wildly enthusiastic about the election but the cultural and political contexts around the election of a Latin American pope is particular and I'm sure that Americans are wondering what the impact will be on domestic politics.   For the Hispanic community in the U.S.:  Knowing that we have a new pope whose first language is Spanish is a source of pride” and “The College of Cardinals know that the hope of the Catholic Church is in the Hispanic Catholics, even here in Chicago.”

With that in mind will the new pope, for example, speak out on behalf of Latin American migrants in the U.S.?   It's entirely possible and Pope Francis is in a good position to do this since he is the child of immigrants himself.   Or what about his strong views on social justice and his criticism of globalization - the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”  That word "imperialism" is loaded with meaning in the context of the relations between the peoples and governments of North, South and Central America.

It's not just the people of Argentina who are thrilled by the news, it's all of Latin America.  Le Monde reports celebrations from Mexico to Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador.  The President of Mexico is said to have twittered his approval.  Again, the frame is important here.  This a region that has traditionally been Roman Catholic but has seen a rise in membership in evangelical Christian churches.  The Catholic Church has been accused of supporting authoritarian regimes in the region but it has also been instrumental in movements against them.  This area was the birthplace of a political movement called Liberation Theology which took the Christian message and applied it to poverty and social justice issues.  The new pope is not a supporter of that movement but he has made it crystal clear that social issues (poverty, development, human rights) are at the top of his agenda and not issues of doctrine.

The choice of a Latin American over North American, African and European candidates is being seen as a sign that the center of gravity in the Church has moved out of Europe and they have high expectations.  Here is a round-up from Le Monde of some the comments and reactions of people in the region:

Brazil: "Nous pouvons espérer beaucoup du fait qu'il soit latino-américain" (we are expecting a lot from that fact that he is a Latin American) from the "continent de l'espérance" (continent of hope).

Chili: "Le fait que l'Amérique a en François le premier pape de l'histoire de ce continent qui mène une vie chrétienne depuis plus de 500 ans, reflète la maturité de l'Eglise en Amérique Latine"(The fact that American has in Francis the first pope in history from this continent that has been Christian for over 500 years, shows the maturity of the Church in Latin America).

Cuba: "Le fait qu'il soit latino-américain signifie que l'Eglise est entrée dans un monde dont l'Europe n'est plus seulement le centre, l'axe, mais bien une société qui comprend tous les pays du monde" (The fact that he is Latin American shows that the Church has entered a world where Europe is not only not the center, the axis, but is now definitely an organization that includes all the countries of the world).

So how are the Europeans taking the breaking of their monopoly on the papacy?  Quite well.  You could see him a kind of bridge between Europe and the Americas.  He was born in Latin America but his parents were immigrants from Italy. Everything I've read in the French press has been pretty positive.  The media seem to really like his stand on globalization and social justice issues.  Criticism has been pretty mild and limited to pointing out that he is not a "progressive."  It will be interesting to see if his election has any impact on the "mariage pour tous" (gay marriage) debate still raging here in France  Given that the leaders of the French church have mobilized against it, will he publicly give them his support?

I spent the entire morning thinking about the election (and writing this post) and my conclusion is that the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was absolutely brilliant.  I don't think they could have done better.

My only disappointment so far?   He's a soccer fan. 

Ah, well, "De gustibus non est disputandum."
  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Immigration and Internet Proxy Marriages

“Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth all submit to technical efficiency and systemization.”
― Jacques Ellul

To Jacques Ellul's list we can now add a technology-enabled technique around the institution of marriage. According to this recent article, You May Now Kiss the Computer Screen, in the New York Times, some immigrant communities in the U.S. are turning to modern technology to conduct marriages by proxy via Skype.

This is the conjunction of something old and something new.  Proxy marriages where either the bride and groom are not physically present for the ceremony have a long and noble history. It's been used for centuries - the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, for example. In Europe the practice goes back to the Roman era though at that time there were different rules for men and women. The bride had to be residing in the husband's place of residence while the groom could be anywhere. The Harvard Law Review article I found on this said it was because of the legal requirement that the bride be led to her husband's home but I strongly suspect that the reason behind it was to make it easy for soldiers or other men who travelled outside their home regions to contract marriages with women back in the home town.

Proxy marriages were also used in settler colonies like the U.S. or Australia where there were very few women from the home country and in the Old American West where ladies from "back East" married men (miners, farmers...) by proxy and then made the long journey west across the country to join their husbands. Before Americans dismiss this practice, they might want to check their family histories since it's quite possible that they have ancestors that did this.

The new part is the use of technologies like Skype to conduct these marriages.  Are modern proxy marriages via Internet legal? And more importantly can a couple marry this way and benefit from immigration laws that allow for a citizen to legally bring in his or her spouse? The answer is that it depends on the country and, in the case of a bi-national couple, how each one referees the conflict between the domestic laws of the nationals concerned.

France, for example, is a country that does not allow "mariage par procuration." Though the question has been raised often enough that the Minister of Justice added a few words about it to their FAQ. They say that it is not permitted for the following reasons:
C’est l’article 184 du code civil qui sanctionne le défaut de comparution personnelle d’un ou des futurs époux. L’officier de l’état civil doit s’assurer de l’identité des futurs époux et surtout du consentement de chacun des futurs époux.
(Article 184 of the Civil Code does not permit the non-presence of one or other of the future spouses. The civil status officer must be assured both of the identity of the future spouses and their agreement to the marriage.)
In the United States four states still have proxy marriage laws on their books:  California, Colorado, Texas and Montana.  The last allows for what's called "double-proxy marriage" which means that neither the bride nor groom have to be present for the ceremony.  Who is taking advantage of this?  People in the U.S. military where a soldier has been posted abroad but still wishes to get married to his or her sweetie back in the States.  I have to concur with Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Drew who said "It's not very romantic" but it got the job done and it's perfectly legal according to American domestic law.  

The two examples above cite what domestic (national) law has to say about proxy marriage but what happens when it's a citizen marrying a non-citizen and the marriage ceremony is conducted in another country where proxy marriage is perfectly legal?  And what is the status of the non-citizen spouse for immigration purposes?

In general nations recognize marriages conducted under the laws of other countries even if those laws are not the same.  The principle is called lex loci celebrationis (the law of the place where the marriage is celebrated).  Let's say, for example that my French husband and I had decided to get married in the U.S. instead of France and under the laws of my home state (State of Washington marriage law) we got married by the priest in the local Catholic Church.  That is not the way it works in France which only recognizes a legal marriage conducted at the mayor's office.  Nevertheless, France would have recognized that American marriage and I would still have benefitted from family reunification immigration laws before the French authorities provided that we respected the procedure (a dossier to be sent to the French consulate, banns to be published beforehand and so on).      

So what happens if the marriage is by proxy instead?  If I'd been in the U.S. in Montana and my future spouse had been in Paris, France and the ceremony had been conducted in the States?   I found the answer to my question in a rather indirect way in this note published by the French consulate in Brazil (a country that does allow proxy marriages):
Il est important de noter que conformément aux dispositions de la loi française, le mariage entre Français et entre Français et étranger, contracté en pays étranger, dans les conditions précitées, est valable, s'il a été célébré dans les formes usitées dans ledit pays et si le conjoint français a personnellement comparu lors de la célébration (le mariage par procuration n’est pas reconnu en France). 
(It is important to note that in conformity with French law, a marriage between French nationals and between a French national and a foreigner, contracted in a foreign country, under the aforementioned conditions, is valid if it was celebrated under the forms of that country and if the French spouse was personally present during the ceremony (proxy marriage not being recognized in France).
So from that one can conclude that the French authorities will not be troubled by Internet proxy marriages anytime soon and any Franco-American couple who might wish to benefit from Montana's marriage laws are out of luck as far as the French are concerned.

Just for fun, let's turn it around and look at what would happen if a marriage by proxy had taken place between me and my French spouse and we had decided to live in the U.S.?  According to the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual that marriage would be valid in the U.S. (in all 50 states) and acceptable for immigration purposes provided that the marriage is consummated (i.e. "marital relations" had commenced, or to be very direct about it - the couple has sex). 
A proxy marriage, that has not been subsequently consummated, does not create or confer the status of “spouse” for immigration purposes pursuant to INA 101(a)(35). A party to an unconsummated proxy marriage may be processed as a nonimmigrant fiancé(e). 
Isn't that interesting?  I just had to wonder after reading this what proof of consummation would have been required of me and my spouse if we had gone the proxy marriage route in the U.S.    Cyrus Mehta at ILW.com says:
The immigration authorities do not require definitive proof of consummation, and proof of the two parties being together physically after the celebration of their proxy marriage, along with a statement affirming consummation, ought to suffice. 
Internet marriages are potentially a problem for the U.S. authorities and other countries that recognize proxy marriage.  It's not just about marriage fraud for the purposes of immigration (les mariages blancs) but also about forced marriages and the potential for sex-traffickers to use these laws to more easily bring women into a country to work in the sex trade.  All that was true before the advent of  "Skype marriage" but where technology makes it a little more efficient to do this, it's probably wise to keep a close eye on it.  

May I add another consideration as well?  Some Americans perceive all this as a fine business opportunity and for a fee there are companies that offer to facilitate these kind of marriages. I also saw at least one site on the Net as I was doing the research for this post that offered "proxy marriage services." But are these people reliable and are they well enough informed about different marriage regimes around the world to be offering "expert" advice on it?  I think not because the site I saw implied that U.S. proxy marriages are valid everywhere in the world which is not true.

My take on it is that if you are in a bi-national relationship that you wish to formalize according to the laws of one or the other of your respective countries take nothing for granted and don't get your information off the Internet.  At the very least head down to the consulate and ask. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Papal Election and the Nationality Question

Lot of speculation out there right now about who the Church will tap to be the next pope.  For a good round-up of articles about the resignation and election check out Father Stephen Wang's blog, Bridges and Tangents.

Alongside the spiritual/theological/doctrinal questions and the overall direction of the Church as we slide deeper into the 21st century is (surprise) the question of nationality.  The Roman Catholic Church is an international organization with about 1.1 billion members scattered all over the globe.  HQ may be in Rome but there is a fair amount of circulation of "middle management" - expatriate priests who are called from one country to serve parishes in another.  When I was growing up in the U.S. my parish priest was Irish.  In the church I attend today my local priest is French but my confessor is from Madagascar.  My brother's church in California recently welcomed yet another priest from France (they have had several over the past few years).  This is likely to become even more common in the future since some regions like Europe are seeing a decline in vocations while Africa, the Americas and Asia are seeing growth.

If you look at the raw numbers three of the top five Roman Catholic populations are in the Americas:  Brazil, Mexico and the the United States.  The Philippines comes in third place and the first European country (Italy) is in fifth place just ahead of France.   And yet you might have noticed that popes tend to be European by origin.  Pope John Paul II was, as we all know, Polish and the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is German but most popes in the recent past have come from Italy.

So what are the chances that the conclave will elect a pope from North or South America, Asia or Africa?  That is one of the burning questions being discussed among the faithful all over the world in every country.  The next pope will be elected by a conclave of 117 cardinals of which the majority are from Europe.  What will they be looking for in a new pope?  Here is a nice summary:
Each cardinal looks for three things. First, he looks for someone who would be a good pope, which means someone who agrees with the cardinal’s values and vision for the church.
Second, he looks for someone with whom he can have a good relationship. Ideally, he wants one of his cardinal friends as pope, someone who will listen to him. Personal relationships matter.
Third, he wants someone who will be well received in his home country, or at least someone who will not cause problems in the cardinal’s county. For example, U.S. cardinals would not want a pope who does not understand the sexual abuse crisis and says stupid things like “it is a creation of the media.” Nor do cardinals from countries with lots of Muslims want a pope who says stupid things about Islam. As Tip O’Neil said, “All politics is local.” This also applies to the Catholic Church.
I don't disagree with the last but in an worldwide organization the global dimension matters a lot:  global politics and the larger context of this multi-lingual, multi-national, (dare say it?) multi-cultural organization.  Country of origin, linguistic skills, and the ability to cross cultures matters in this context.  And will the cardinals take this into account?  You bet they will.

An American pope?  Recently there has been a very open discussion about what it would mean to have a pope from the United States and why some think it wouldn't be a good idea.  Cardinal George Pell of Australia in this video was very frank about the implications of such an election:



This was followed by an interview with the American cardinal Donald Wuerl who seemed to concur that it would not be wise to have a pope from the U.S. because "I think the conventional wisdom, which I think is correct, is a pope from the superpower would probably have a lot going against him when he's trying to present a spiritual message to the rest of the world."

So if I follow this argument correctly they are basically saying that just by virtue of nationality and their connection to a "super-puissance"  the American cardinals are out of the race even before it begins.

A South American Pope?  What about a pope from South America?  One candidate who is getting a lot of attention is  Cardinal Leonardo Sandri from Argentina.   He was born in Buenos Aires but his parents were Italian and he speaks 5 languages and is known for his skills as a diplomat.  But spite of the large numbers of Catholics in Latin America that region does not have a lot of representation in the conclave (only 19 out of 117).  So the election of a Latin American pope rests on the decision of the European cardinals to consider (or not) a non-European to the papacy and their choosing a Latin American over an African.

An African pope?  Two solid candidates in the running according to the bookies:  Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana and Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria.  Cardinal Turkson seems more likely because he is younger but who knows?  If the cardinals do choose an African it would be the first one in 1500 years - the last pope from that continent was Pope Gelasius (492-496).

All of the above (and so many more) are possibilities and but clearly some are more "papabile" than others.  Nothing I've said above should give any of you the idea that country of origin is the primary consideration in the election but it is important and it appears to be a deal breaker in at least one case (the U.S.) and probably others as well.

Do I have a preference?  Well, clearly I don't have a vote in this and honestly that doesn't bother me one whit.  I'm simply not qualified to make that judgement and I'm perfectly OK leaving that burden (and what a burden it is) firmly in the hands of the conclave.  There are so many different considerations that the cardinals must weigh that one can only hope that divine inspiration will heavily inform their votes.

But may I simply say that there are three qualities that I would like to see in the next Holy Father?  The first is that the new pope be truly global - multi-lingual with deep experience and contacts with cultures outside of his own.  The second is that hard to define quality (but you-know-it-when-you-see-it) called charisma - an inspirational leader with eloquence, persuasive power, and likability. The third is the power to heal - lot of open wounds right now in the Church and there is no hiding that fact.

As the conclave prepares to meet (and I believe it opens tomorrow) these are the things I hope and pray for in the soon to be elected 266th spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Footnoting History

I have found yet another "time sink" on the Net but this is a good one and it's one that does feed the mind.

The site is called Footnoting History and it has a series of short podcasts about some of the more esoteric topics that might rate only a footnote in a serious history book or an academic paper but are interesting in and of themselves.  I can't vouch for the reliability of the information since I am not a historian but it sure was fun to listen to.  They have great suggestions for further reading, too.  Here are a few of the podcasts I listened to this weekend and really enjoyed:

Papal Abdication:  When the pope resigned recently a lot of us scratched our heads and said, "Hey, I didn't know he could do that."  This podcast puts Benedict XVI's resignation in historical context.

Hungry Heretics and Hoarding Homosexuals:  Medieval conspiracy theories.  Cathars, Templars, Iron Maiden....

Zombies in Thietmar of Merseberg:  Had to listen to this one twice because it's pretty strange.  Dead people walking around in 11th century Germany?  Have to wonder about that bishop and substance abuse when he wrote all this down....

Bon dimanche, everyone!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Free Movement within the EU

"The United States of Europe" is a work in progress.  Critics abound.  There are some who say that what is being created is nothing more than a huge, anti-democratic, opaque bureaucracy.  Almost every day I hear complaints about those "technocrats in Bruxelles."  There is some truth in that criticism.  But personally I am awed by the sheer scope of the project and how ambitious it is.  It's worth recalling that within living memory Europe was a world of sanguinary conflict with her countries at odds with each other to an extent that is inconceivable today.   This is progress and if anyone out there thinks otherwise, I would be highly interested in knowing why.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Are Europeans better off because of this project?  On the balance, I would say "yes" though the benefits are not spread equally among the people here.  If you are older, mono-lingual and not blessed with useful (marketable) training or good diplomas, then chances are good that you feel a bit left behind and that is a serious problem.  But if you are young and talented and mobile then Europe has a great deal to offer.

For those who believe in open borders, Europe is the place to look since it is something of a laboratory  for seeing what really happens when countries within a zone drop the barriers to migration.  Free movement is at the heart of the European project.  Where adjacent countries have interesting opportunities and fewer bureaucratic hurdles to overcome in establishing residency, one would think that Europeans would take advantage of that.  Today I would argue that EU citizenship is probably one of the most valuable citizenships to possess since it facilitates access to a huge market where opportunities abound. And for someone from the UK or France or Italy or Eastern Europe, it's still close enough so that going "home" is a simple matter of a few hours of travel via train or plane.

But as we watch this grand experiment unfold, there are issues.  There are the low-skilled that I mentioned above but there are also questions about other impacts of this migration on the different countries.  What does this increased mobility means for social welfare programs, for example?  Or taxation?  Or the defense of local culture and language?  Assessing that impact is important in order to mitigate some of the less desirable consequences of increased regional mobility.

This month the Migration Policy Institute published a very interesting report called How free is free movement? Dynamics and drivers of mobility within the European Union.  It's not long (about 25 pages) and is a lovely synthesis of the major trends in inter-EU mobility, the impact of the financial crisis on that mobility, the major drivers behind EU migration, and the impacts on the receiving and sending countries (and how public services are affected).  There is also a fine list at the end of the report to other articles and reports that might be of interest.

A few things of note in the analysis.

Trends:  In the section on Trends in Intra-EU mobility, the report said that in spite of facilitated access for EU nationals, Third-Country National (non-EU) migration is still more important than regional European migration.  What?
While 4.1 percent of EU residents are from outside the European Union (‘third-country nationals’), only 2.5 percent are EU nationals living in another Member State (see Table 1).  Most foreign nationals reside in the ‘old’ European Union, the so-called EU-15. 
Some of this, they say, may be because EU citizens may work in other countries temporarily but don't necessarily bother to establish residency.  I still found these numbers to be surprising because it seems to fly in the face of the principle that most migration tends to be regional.

The figures for France were very interesting.  Using data from the Labor Force Survey (LFS) they say that in 2011 France had only 3% of the mobile EU-12 nationals (about 117,000 people).  This is very low compared to other Western European countries like Germany which had 667,000.   Looking at the table on page 3,  the total number of foreign nationals in France in the same year was 5.9% of the population of which only 2.1% were EU and 3.8% were third-country nationals.
A possible explanation for this is that France applied ‘transitional provisions’ (restrictions on the free movement of EU-8 workers) until 2008, which was relatively late compared to other major EU destinations. It also has a relatively rigid labour market, thus dampening demand for labour migration. In addition, France’s deportations of Roma communities to Bulgaria and Romania may have made it appear a hostile destination to Eastern Europeans.
Public Services:  The impact on public services in different EU countries is unclear.  The big question concerning migrants (be they EU or third-country nationals) is whether or not they are a drain on the public welfare systems. Anecdotal stories abound in my host country of how migrants are responsible for the public healthcare system deficit.  What is the reality?  Hard to know because it depends on the country, the age of the migrants, and other factors.  Where migrants are young, mobile and have yet to start families, the impact seems to be minimal (in fact these migrants tend to be net contributors - they put in more than they get out of these systems).  
In the United Kingdom (which has the largest evidence base on this question), studies have found that EU-8 migrants who have resided in the country long enough to become eligible for benefits are net contributors to the public purse and low users of public services. Evidence also points to a parsimonious use of health care among EU citizens, in part because many of them are young, single, and move frequently.
The picture is very different however in areas that welcome many retirement migrants.  In general, older people use more healthcare and this can be a big problem where there is also an exodus of the young who are no longer paying into these systems.  But it is difficult to measure this impact precisely.  On one hand retirement migrants with national pensions (Americans on Social Security or Brits on a state pension) living in the south of France are bringing money into that country and spending it locally. In general countries tend to welcome this kind of migration.  However, where some retirement migrants do not ever register as permanent residents, the host countries are unsure how much funding is needed to cover them in case of a medical emergency.  Some  retirement migrants even maintain nominal residency in the home country in order to access home country benefits if needed.  
In fact, the practice of making fraudulent claims for benefits in the sending country is so common that it has been given a name:  ‘grey abuse.’ In the United Kingdom, fraudulent claims for pension credits are thought to exceed the cost of fraud committed by people working while claiming unemployment benefits.
The Future:   What does the future hold for European mobility?  The report is direct and honest in saying that they really have no idea where this is going but it would be a good idea if someone was looking into it.

The authors of the report concluded (and I think they are safe in saying this) that the migration of the young and highly-skilled is likely to continue but it's also equally likely that the flows from Eastern Europe will drop even more as their populations age and the local economies improve.

(It should be noted as well that this is also an issue for the United States.  The major sending countries to the US are also undergoing demographic change and will probably not have the surplus population to send in the near future.  This puts an interesting spin on the immigration debate in the US.  Are US lawmakers actually taking this into account?  I very much doubt it.)

A good report overall with a lot of useful information.  Some might find its refusal to say too much about the future to be disappointing.  I personally found it rather refreshing and I was satisfied by the areas of research they recommended.

The questions that I would have at this point are:  Why is there not more mobility in Europe today given the relatively open borders?  What is stopping the movement?  Most discussions around immigration/emigration tend to revolve around the laws and procedures and whether they should be easier or harder.  Well, here is case where things were made much easier (closest thing we have right now to an open border experiment) and mass migration did not happen as a result.  Why is that?  The reports cites very briefly language and family ties as the most important barriers to mobility but this is based on public opinion surveys.  Is this true or are there other factors?  And does the EU have an interest in addressing them and making mobility within Europe more of a reality or is everyone content with the status quo?





Thursday, March 7, 2013

Checkpoints USA

This video was recently posted on the excellent site States Without Nations.  It was hard for me to watch until the end because it shows an America that I no longer know or understand.  When I left the country in 1989 such a thing would have been inconceivable.  How things have changed in a post 9-11 era.

It concerns internal checkpoints where people circulating within U.S. territory are stopped, asked their immigration or citizenship status and, in some cases, detained.  To be clear this is not about border security because these checkpoints are inside the United States.  It is also not about people doing things which might lead the American authorities to believe that they have a reasonable suspicion that someone might be up to no good.  It is simply stopping people who are otherwise going about their business and refusing to let them leave until they have answered a series of questions to the satisfaction of the agents of Homeland Security.

Where are these checkpoints located?  According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) the Department of Homeland Security has created this "Constitution Free" 100 mile zone and placed checkpoints along all these zones, including my hometown of Seattle, Washington:


Is this legal?  Is it constitutional?  I am less interested in the answers to those questions than I am in trying to figure out what changed in the American mentality in the last 10 years to make this sort of thing acceptable to the American people.  There have been demonstrations, editorials and, of course, the ACLU which is fighting this in court.  However, from what I can tell the most common reaction to these checkpoints is a kind of passive acceptance - a sense that this a necessary evil in a world where the United States is threatened by evil people.

Do these checkpoints actually make Americans safer?  Does Homeland Security actually have any metrics by which they measure the success or failure of these checkpoints?  How many terrorists have they caught? How many plots have they foiled?  It would be interesting to know these things.  Or is this just "security theater"?  I suspect that it is.  Just look at the map for a moment and those huge borders, the thousands of miles of roads, and the sheer number of people (millions of them) circulating in these areas and it becomes quite clear that, even with an army of men and women stopping people every morning and every evening, this is mission impossible.  Or do Americans really think that a terrorist is going to be tootling down one of these roads and will meekly pull over and submit to questioning when he sees the uniform?  Think about it - there are plenty of ways around these checkpoints if one really is interested in evading the authorities.  It's a big country, folks, and there simply aren't enough people to make this work.  That is my take on it - feel free to disagree.

What it does do is cause a great deal of annoyance for the average person and here we come to the second flaw in the logic behind the checkpoints - to make the checkpoints work smoothly, they rely on the cooperation of the people being pulled over and questioned.  And what if people do not cooperate?  That is what you will see in this video.  A few very brave people simply refusing to play their part in this play and asking their own questions about why this is necessary and by what right this is being done to them.   And what I see as I watch each scene play out is the sheer impotence of the authorities when the script does not go as expected.



Americans have always resisted the implementation of a national identity card and the idea that the authorities can simply stop people willy-nilly and ask for their papers.  In my youth I was taught that the fact that these things didn't exist in the U.S. was a point in my nation's favor.  We are free, I was told, and we are not like those evil totalitarian "papers, please"  societies.  And now some Americans seem to think that perhaps those totalitarian societies were on to something.  Good to know.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fragile

Been a few weeks, folks.  To all who sent notes - thank you so much.  

Not long after I posted my updated reading list I came down with a very bad cold which rapidly turned into something a bit more disturbing.  I spent the better part of a week in bed and am slowly coming back.

I'm not sure why something so simple as a common cold laid me low but I suspect that I'm living a very fine line these days between "sick" and "well."  I feel mentally and physically fragile .  Since I stopped active cancer treatment and went on parole I've had some terrible bouts of anxiety and depression.   No desire to do anything - not even to get out of bed in the morning.  Physically I was having odd symptoms like joint and muscle pain if I walked or gardened too much.  The medication I'm taking also has some side effects that are rather interesting - I'm taking an estrogen blocker called tamoxifene which is wreaking havoc with my body and my head.  I'm cold most of the time except for these moments when I have hot flashes and then I'm stripping down to my underwear because I'm way too warm.  The cold that laid me low finally was nothing in the beginning - a few sniffles and a sore throat- but I went downhill with a rapidity that scared the living daylights out of me.

Is this my "new normal" or is this just a post-treatment period that I have to get through?  I really don't know.  I've been looking for answers in some very fine blogs that I've found recently.   One that I would heartily recommend is called Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer which delves deeply and thoughtfully into the issues that survivors face.  This post in particular (and the discussion it started) is a must-read, Establishing Your New Normal:  Life After Cancer.

The message that I am getting from this and other blogs is simply that what I'm going through is not at all unusual.  Just because active treatment is over doesn't mean that I can put parentheses around the past year and call it a "petite pause' or  a "minor blip" in my life.

So how to face this?  Well, it sure helps to have a program (AA), to have friends and family and to have faith.  In the middle of all this I received a package from some friends in the U.S. and in it was something they called a "God Box."  When I'm worried or depressed or just feeling awful, I write down on a piece of paper what's going on, put in the box, and turn it over to God.  It's a way of saying, "Look I can't seem to fix what's wrong here (in fact it's beyond my power to fix) and I'm all out of ideas so I'm going to give it to You and I'm going to trust that You will take care of it for me."

Pretty powerful and, believe me, it works.  Not in the sense that that suddenly everything is suddenly going my way but in the sense of regaining serenity - accepting the things I cannot change - and courage to go on and do the very best I can with what I do have.