To understand why the United States is trying so hard to chase down overseas Americans for taxes one need only look at this graph prepared by Senator Jeff Sessions' staff and reprinted in the Weekly Standard.
Rather frightening, isn't it? Yes, America’s per capita government debt is worse than Greece. This means while all of the countries on the chart are desperate for revenue the U.S. leads the pack.
The political process is the means by which such problems are faced and managed. Or not, as the case may be. Living outside the U.S. I'm at a disadvantage here when it comes to homeland politics since I am only getting an echo of the political debates going on right now over what to do about the American national debt. To those who argue that I could be perfectly well-informed if I would just regularly read the American newspapers, I would counter that it is not nearly enough. I read these articles in a vacuum. If I were living in the U.S. I imagine that this topic would be something I would discuss with friends, family and colleagues who would give me their points of view and share resources where we could all get more information. I'd be reading the daily local paper to know what my Senators and Representatives were up to. I'd be listening to the radio on the ride into work. I'd have a much better idea how my fellow Americans feel about what is going on around them and how it impacts them because I'd be swimming in the same waters. Since I don't have any of that here, I read the articles in the American media almost as if I were a foreigner. It really does seem that distant.
But here's the thing. I vote. The very efficient folks at King County Election will be sending a ballot this year to my address in France. I even have a voter registration card that I received a few days ago with my French address and U.S. contact information if I have any questions or a problem (partially written in Kanji by the way). And though King County seems to be in the know, I was a bit surprised to realize that neither of my senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell seem to be aware of their constituents from the Pacific Northwest who are living outside the U.S. (yes, they exist and I've met some of them in both Japan and France). When I go to the "Contact me" section of their sites, the only overseas constituents they seem to recognize are American military personnel abroad. I suppose I could pretend I still live in the state of Washington but that seems dishonest. Quite a conundrum, isn't it? I did sign up for both their newsletters and was quite amused that Patty Murray's form asked for an address but had no provision (unless I was military) for a foreign address. I finally just put in my French address and selected "Washington State." We'll see if her staff notices.
And yet, Washington state is, according to the book Leaving America, an important overseas voter state (along with Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio) with over 200,000 overseas voters in each of those states registered to vote locally. In a close election, politicians in these states could quite conceivably win or lose based on how overseas Americans decide to vote in 2012. And, to be quite frank with you, with the MOVE act which makes it much easier for overseas citizens to vote, the range of issues on the table today that have got us a bit riled up (citizenship-based taxation, FATCA and the like) and the existence of non-profit organizations like the Overseas Vote Foundation which has an on-line platform that makes it very easy for us to register, it's quite likely that more and more of us will choose to exercise our right to vote in the U.S. in 2012. This means that homeland voters and politicians in some states might just get a nasty surprise in November.
My purpose here is not to threaten people or our elected representatives in the homeland. Rather what I would like to propose is a deal that would make this situation work a little better to everyone's benefit. On my side I am painfully aware that I am not as aware of homeland issues as I could be and I promise to make a special effort during the ramp-up to the 2012 election to get as much information as I can to be able to vote responsibly. On the homeland side what I would like to see are people and politicians meeting us halfway. A good start would be to stop vilifying overseas Americans in the media. Every article or comment we read that labels us "disloyal" and "tax evaders," for example, just makes us paranoid and turns us into single-issue voters (just vote against anyone who supports FATCA :-). A second step would be an acknowledgement that we exist and it might be worth everyone's time to improve the dialogue with the 6 million Americans (civilians) outside the U.S. We are the "domestic abroad" and maybe we have something to bring to the debates going on inside the U.S. if people would suspend judgement and just listen for a moment or two.
The United States is facing some serious challenges right now. Going back to the graph at the beginning of this post, this is a very serious situation. It is not unreasonable, in my view, that all Americans be part of the solution. To be very clear (and here I diverge from the views of some other overseas Americans) I am not even against the idea of contributing financially to the resolution of homeland problems.
But, if that is what the homeland is asking of me, then I need to feel that I am a part of the nation regardless of where I live - that I have, not just a vote and representation, but effective representation, where my views and my interests are taken into account. And I will be honest with you, I don't feel that at all. This really is THE issue for me. It's not taxes. Taxes are the price of civilization. But if you want me to support American civilization (the nation) then I need you to acknowledge that I and 6 million other people are still a part of it.
If this isn't possible, if no one wants to go to the effort, if all homeland Americans want to do is punish all 6 million of us for the "sin" of living abroad by double-taxing us to extinction while making it difficult for us to have a voice, then our U.S. citizenship is worth very little. If you add to that a certain rejection on the part of the nation then, rationally, this is a citizen/state relationship which does neither of us any good. You don't need us yelling at you from across the oceans, surprising you when we actually dare vote and tip local elections, and hurting U.S. interests in our host countries. On our side we don't need you pretending we don't exist and yet passing laws that impact us behind our backs and then ignoring us completely when we protest.
So what will it be, folks? Do we try to work this out or do we give up on the basis of "irreconciliable differences" and negotiate an amicable divorce on terms we can all live with?