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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

FATCA: Backpedaling on Reciprocity

The story continues and it just gets better and better.  For those of you just joining the conversation, the story, which is just now starting to make headlines, is about the implementation of an American law called FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act).  Back in 2010 the U.S. Congress had a brilliant idea: tired of spending time and energy chasing down alleged American tax evaders in foreign countries, they decided to force those foreign countries to turn over the account information of all Americans at home and abroad who have accounts with local banks in places like Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv.  The bill was signed into law on March 18, 2010 by President Obama and the fun began almost immediately with foreign governments signaling their deep displeasure at being coerced into doing the American government's dirty work.

We can have different opinions about the original intent of the law (some people think it's a fine idea) but what is clear today as we stand on the verge of it actually being implemented,  is that it was poorly written, has all kinds of unintended consequences, and U.S. politicians simply didn't have the courtesy (or common sense) to ask beforehand if other countries were OK with this.   Most weren't.

The U.S. Congress can pass any law it likes but they didn't stop to think about why any country would agree to force its own banks to spend millions (if not billions) of dollars/Euros/Yen re-tooling their information systems and chasing down American account holders if there isn't anything in it for them?  And as the law was written, there wasn't any benefit to them.  Not one.  Even worse, it was potentially quite harmful to their own interests since the costs of implementation are to be borne by their own citizens in the form of higher banking costs .

Enter the notion of "reciprocity."  OK, said some foreign countries, we see what you're trying to do and in principle we agree that this is a good idea.  After all, we have our own problems chasing down our own "exilés fiscaux" and we need revenue just as badly as you do. So here's the deal:  If we have to report on Americans holding accounts in our country, then we want to know about our citizens holding accounts in the United States.

Now, it's pretty hard to argue with that and the Obama administration didn't even try - FATCA simply won't work unless the U.S. is willing to offer other countries some incentives for compliance and they've made it pretty clear that they want reciprocity in return for their cooperation.

A few months ago a step was made in this direction;  the U.S. Treasury Department issued new rules (not a law, mind you) that would require U.S. banks to give those foreign governments what they want.    Starting next year U.S. banks would be required to disclose the accounts of foreigners with money invested (and earning interest) in the U.S.  The U.S. will then trade those lists for the lists of American account holders in other countries.  Sounds simple enough but, alas, is anything in U.S. domestic politics "simple" these days?

These U.S. Treasury regulations sparked a perfect storm of protest in the U.S.  and there is reason for concern here.  The U.S. is very welcoming of foreign investment and has shielded foreign account holders (other countries' tax evaders) for years.  The fear of many American politicians like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Florida) is that foreigners will start taking their money out of the U.S. as a result of this regulation because they don't want their home countries knowing about their banking activities in the "land of opportunity."  In this press release he called it, "a job-destroying mandate that would encourage billions of dollars to flee Florida’s economy."

Rubio and other U.S. politicians are  right that these new regulations are going to be a disaster for the U.S. economy.  This article from a U.S. newspapers reports that the threat alone of disclosure is having an impact already in the state of Florida:
“Since April 19 [when the regulation was passed], we’ve heard that several hundred million dollars have left Florida for foreign jurisdictions,” said David Schwartz, executive director of the Florida International Bankers Association. “Customers have said ‘we’re aware of what’s going on, and we prefer to take our money overseas.’”
Some U.S. banks (those with a large number of foreign investors who pull out of the U.S.) might actually fail as result.  If that happens the American taxpayer will pick up the bill since the U.S. government guarantees the deposits in those banks.

If all that weren't bad enough, U.S. banks are waking up to just how onerous compliance will be and how this information exchange is liable to be much worse for U.S. banks versus foreign banks.  A German, Chinese or French bank under FATCA is only going to required to report on U.S. citizens and Green Card holders,  but under the new domestic regulations a U.S. bank will have to report on the account holders of, let's say, 20 or more different countries.  This means they must find out the citizenship information of all their account holders and upgrade their information systems.  This will be outrageously expensive and the costs will of course be assumed by the American account holders at those banks.

But here's the crux of the problem:  How can the U.S. have FATCA be a success without implementing domestic regulations that give foreign governments the information they want in exchange?

Well, U.S. politicians are certainly trying to wiggle out of this dilemma.    A few days ago the U.S. House of Representatives (the folks that voted for FATCA in the first place) passed a bill that would suspend these new U.S. Treasury regulations (and all others) until such a time as the U.S. unemployment rate drops from 8.2% to 6%.  Until that welcome (but unlikely in the near future) event occurs, there will be no reciprocity with foreign governments with respect to FATCA.

This bill is not yet law since it still has to pass in the U.S. Senate.  No matter.  The mere fact that they passed this extra-territorial legislation, FATCA, in the first place without taking into consideration the impact on foreign countries and their citizens (not to mention attempting to force foreign governments and their domestic banks into compliance and let's call that what it is, imperialism)  and that they are now trying to kill reciprocity because they now perceive a threat to American interests in all this, well, that is just sheer hypocrisy.

Allow me to go one step further here.  Thanks to the Isaac Brock Society and Just Me's excellent Twitter feed, I've been following closely the media reports on FATCA and from where I sit, the American people (the "homelanders") seem to think that FATCA is a brilliant idea.

Fine.  But here's the deal:   If we (the 6 to7 million Americans abroad and the unknown number of Green Card holders abroad, and most importantly, all the citizens of all countries outside the U.S. who are impacted directly and indirectly by this legislation) are going to suffer then I think Americans in the homeland should suffer too.  Time for them to show their solidarity for this worthy cause by accepting all the unintended consequences of FATCA even if it:  costs U.S. jobs, loses foreign investment, drives American banks to fail, obliges every American to pay higher banking fees, discourages foreign companies and banks from doing business with U.S. citizens, and (the cherry on the cake) helps bump the U.S. economy back into recession.

It just wouldn't be fair otherwise, now would it?

(More information and a lively discussion about the House measure and the fallout of FATCA on Americans homelanders can be found here at the Isaac Brock Society).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Urban Rail Around the World

How ever did we amuse ourselves before we had the Internet?

Well, once upon a time there was this thing called "outside" and we had a lot of fun there.  Really.

But on a day like yesterday when the rain is coming down in sheets and the temperature has dropped to the teens (celsius), curling up on the sofa with a good book and the Mac just seemed like a respectable use of one's time.

So I went a'surfing and one click led to another until I went a click too far (thanks to a "fausse manip") and I found myself watching a video of people riding the subway in Tokyo - a trip to Shinagawa station which is not too far from our old house.  And that got me thinking about the other subways I've experienced in my travels and I went looking for more videos.

I found them all on Youtube:  Tokyo, Paris, London, Montréal, Shanghai, New York City.  I selected the ones that I thought most clearly matched my experiences and I offer them to you here for your viewing pleasure.  If you have any of your own to share, just let me know and I'll add them to the post.

I think you can learn a lot about a city and its people by looking at and riding the public transportation systems.  And when you set them side by side you can make some interesting comparisons.  Check out the Shanghai video, for example, and then watch the one from New York.  Or London versus Paris.

After I completed that task I got a phone call from the family in Seattle.  My father, who wins the family prize for the most travel to some really cool/out-of-the-way/exotic places, told me of a very useful and interesting site called Urbanrail.net.  Check it out - it's a fine resource.  In his words:
It's got maps (although they are like most urban transit maps, not geographical but schematic) as well as some photographs. It's got every city I've been in that has any kind of operating rail transit, EXCEPT Timisoara, Romania, which has trams, including a new line that was under construction when I was there several years ago, and Geneva, which has one tram line out to Carouge. I couldn't remember for sure about Dushanbe, but Wikipedia implies that is has only electric trolleybuses, which are endemic in former USSR.
Tokyo 


Paris


London


Montréal


Shanghai


New York City



Sunday, July 29, 2012

Non-National Competitors in the Olympics

Peter Spiro over at Opinio Juris (one of my favorite blogs) has a a fascinating piece about Olympic athletes who are participating in the games under no flag whatsoever.  They are called Independent Olympic Athletes (IOA):

What Will the Medal Count Be for “None of the Above”: Olympics Allows Non-National Competitors

These are athletes who, for diverse reasons, are not affiliated with any nation-state.  If one win a medal, no anthem will be played and no national flag flown.

How common is this?  Not very but it's not unheard of either.  Spiro says that over 50 of these IOA's competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (mostly from Yugoslavia) and there have been others from places like The Netherland Antilles, East Timor and Kuwait.

This year there is Guor Marial, a refugee from South Sudan and permanent resident (but not citizen) of the United States.  He may not have a passport from either his home or host country but in his mind he will be running for his home region, South Sudan.
"The voice of South Sudan has been heard,'' Marial told The Associated Press from his home in Flagtaff, Ariz. "The South Sudan has finally got a spot in the world community. Even though I will not carry their flag in this Olympic Games, the country itself is there.
"The dream has come true. The hope of South Sudan is alive.''

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Path to French Citizenship: Policy Change?

The 2012 French elections are behind us and with a new administration in office there are new actors and new policies.

Claude Guéant, former Minister of the Interior and author of the infamous  circulaire Guéant, has been replaced by Manuel Valls who has already announced his intention to unravel much of Mr. Guéant's work.  A few days ago Mr. Valls appeared before a commission of the French Senate and said that he would not implement the new requirements for naturalization that were passed under the previous regime:  the language and culture tests and the Charte des droits et devoirs du citoyen among others.  In his words, these requirements were a "course d'obstacles aléatoire et discriminante" (a random and discriminatory obstacle course) and represented a deliberate policy on the part of his predecessor to "exclure de la nationalité des gens méritants et ne posant aucune difficulté." (exclude from citizenship deserving people who pose no problem whatsoever).

Mr. Guéant wasn't having any of it and fired back in this interview with Le Figaro.  He defended his policies saying that they were just common sense:  good for the newly naturalized French citizens in the sense that it is essential that they be "reconnus sans aucune réserve comme des Français à part entière qu'ils sont" (recognized with no reservation for what they are, fully French) and good for France because they preserve "la cohésion de notre pays" (the solidarity of our country).

As an immigrant, a long-term resident of France and one who seeks French citizenship, where do I stand in this debate?  I think they are both right.

Of all of Mr. Guéant's policies the ones pertaining to naturalizations made a great deal of sense to me.  I read the Charte very carefully and had no problem with it.  As for having to demonstrate that I speak decent French and have a passing knowledge of French history, well, that seemed a perfectly rational request.  Why shouldn't I, in exchange for the honor (and I believe it is one) of becoming a French citizen, be required to meet some minimum standards showing that I have indeed integrated?

But Mr. Valls is also correct.  Having long-term residents (in regular or irregular situations) who are not citizens (and who do not seek citizenship because they perceive the process to be an "obstacle course") is not good for France.  Where one can have practically all the benefits of citizenship with a residency card without pledging allegiance to the country itself (and thus taking on the responsibilities or duties of that citizenship) is it not perfectly rational to simply content oneself with a 10-year residency permit?  Valls pointed out, in his testimony to the French Senate, that naturalizations are already falling rapidly: "Si rien n'est fait, ce nombre va chuter de 40% entre 2011 et 2012 après une chute de 30% entre 2010 et 2011" (if nothing is done, this number will fall 40% between 2011 and 2012 after already falling 30% between 2010 and 2011).

It's a chicken and egg problem.  The more obstacles one puts in the way of naturalizations, the fewer naturalizations you will have, and there will be fewer and fewer incentives to integrate in the first place.  Having been in this situation myself, I can attest to the fact that a residency card can and often does translate in one's mind to a kind of de facto permission to only integrate superficially (just enough to get by and not one inch more) or not at all.   Furthermore, where an immigrant perceives that the nation  does not want him or her to become a citizen, this can produce a kind of backlash where this "rejection" becomes a reason to in turn pay no mind to the customs, mores and even the language of the host nation:  You reject me and I will reject you.  What a terrible dance this is and not at all conducive to "la cohésion de notre pays" that Mr. Guéant was seeking.

Is there a middle ground between Valls' and Guéant's positions?  Of course there is but finding it is not easy.  This kind of debate has been going on in France for years with no resolution.  Perhaps part of the problem is that this dialogue seems to be mostly limited to agents of the governments (old and new), local politicians and those who are already citizens.  It might be helpful to ask the immigrants themselves what they think instead of treating them as passive actors who must simply submit to whatever the "aristocracy" decides.

It is fair and reasonable for the French nation to want citizens who are committed and integrated.  It is also fair for immigrants to examine the terms and to reject or accept them - it is simply not possible to force someone to integrate or to become a citizen.  A way out of this endless debate just might be fewer sticks, more carrots, and an open and honest dialogue among all the parties involved.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finding those Pesky U.S. Persons - a Training Video

This was just posted over at the Isaac Brock Society (hat tip to renouncecitizenship). It explains in very clear and easy to understand terms why FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliant Act) passed by the U.S. Congress is a concern, not just for U.S. citizens and Green Card holders abroad, but for anyone with the most tenuous connection to the United States.  One of the examples demonstrates how a French person who is not a U.S. citizen or holder of a U.S. residency permit and does not do business or have assets in the U.S. could be designated a "person with U.S. status" anyway (unless she and her husband can prove a negative - that they have no connections to the U.S.) and could see her account information passed along to the U.S. government (or perhaps have her accounts simply closed by her bank).

This is why everyone should be concerned about this nasty piece of extra-territorial legislation.  And for those of you out there there who are still saying, "They can't do that!"  I hate to break it to you but they already have with the cooperation of the governments of France, Germany, the UK and others.  I strongly urge you to go over and read the full post on Isaac Brock where there are more videos, more information, and a lively discussion on  the topic by diasporans from all over the globe (Europe, Asia, South America).  Then, please tweet it, put it on Facebook, and pass it along to your contacts.   Unless, of course, you want to see the old headline, "We are All Americans Now" become a reality on January 1, 2013.



Thursday, July 26, 2012

New French Law on Sexual Harassment

This week French deputies voted unanimously to adopt a new law against sexual harassment in the Hexagon.

According to Le Figaro:
Le texte voté hier à l'Assemblée décline deux modalités du délit de harcèlement sexuel: par répétition d'actes à connotation sexuelle et par «chantage sexuel», soit le fait, même non répété, «d'user de toute forme de pression grave, dans le but réel ou apparent d'obtenir un acte de nature sexuelle».
(The text voted on yesterday by the Assembly gives two conditions under which criminal sexual harassment can be said to have occurred:  repeated acts of a sexual nature and "sexual blackmail" - any situation (not necessarily habitual or repeated) where extreme pressure is used with the objective (real or apparent) of obtaining an act of a sexual nature.)
What does "par répétition d'actes à connotation sexuelle" mean in concrete terms?  Le Figaro quotes Claude Katz:
L'employé qui raconte régulièrement ses rencontres avec des prostitués, le chef qui pose tous les matins des questions à une salariée sur sa vie intime, le confrère qui fait des réflexions à caractère sexuel sur le physique… Toutes ces situations qui rendent une situation de travail particulièrement délétère rentrent dans le champ du nouveau texte.
(The employee who regularly discusses his meetings with prostitutes, the boss who ask a female employee every morning about the details of her private life, the co-worker who makes comments of a sexual nature concerning her physique...All these situations that make the work environment  uncomfortable/hostile are within the scope of the new law.)
And this kind of behaviour was not illegal before this law was passed?  Or at least regarded as highly unprofessional and sanctioned in some way?   Not really.  Yes, there were other indirect avenues for redress (the unions reps, for example) but nothing to my knowledge that explicitly made it a crime to behave this way or a rule (written or unwritten) with any kind of real consequence for those who, quite frankly, were making real asses of themselves in the workplace.

You can read more about the law here on Vie Publique.

There are already comments on the various articles about this new law where people are asking, "So what's the difference between flirting (la drague) and sexual harassment?  Where do you draw the line?"  Well, I think we are about to find out since there will surely be a number of not so clear cases where the courts will have to make that determination.  The penalties are quite steep (30,000 Euro fine and 2 years in prison) so I suspect that people will err on the side of caution and modify their behaviour tout de suite.

A View from the International Space Station

These are photos taken by the crew of the ISS and arranged and set to music by Knate Meyers.

Just stunning. Bravo, Mr. Meyers.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ordinary Swiss Bank Accounts

Earlier this year the American Senator Carl Levin (Democrat from the state of Michigan) grandly announced in support of his war against tax evasion that, "There is no such thing as an ordinary Swiss bank account."

When I first heard that statement, my first reaction was to start howling with laughter.  So, Mr. Levin, you're saying that there is nothing ordinary about those checking and savings accounts in Swiss banks that the Swiss use to pay rent, buy food or even pay their children's tuition at those over-priced American universities?

I had no idea.

If that statement weren't silly enough, Mr. Levin decided to be generous and allowed that there were perhaps a few Americans living in Switzerland who might need one of these not so ordinary accounts at a Swiss bank.  He implied that this might be OK with him since it was clearly an exceptional situation.

Those Swiss sending their children to American universities might want to rethink that choice since Senator Levin is the product of one (Harvard) and it's not pretty. Either he doesn't know the meaning of the English term "a few" (more than one but indefinitely small in number) or he never bothered to find out just how many Americans actually reside in Switzerland and really believes they number in the single (maybe double) digits.  A quick (under one minute) search of the Net reveals 1.6 million Americans in Europe and an estimated 30,000 U.S. citizens in Switzerland.

Context is everything, and to be fair to Senator Levin his primary target was American homelanders (U.S. citizens actually living in the U.S. like Madame Romney) who he thinks have Swiss bank accounts exclusively for the purpose of evading taxes or other nefarious purposes.  There can be no other reason, in his view, for the existence of these accounts:  they simply are not and never will be "ordinary" and the onus is on any American who has one to prove his or her innocence.

Levin's crusade is something that the average person in most countries would probably consider a worthy cause.  I certainly thought so.  But is it?  Does the mere fact that a person living in the U.S. (or any other country) has a Swiss bank account mean that he or she is clearly engaged in something very suspicious if not downright illegal?  As I examined my own feelings on this matter I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that my rather smug certainty that these people were up to no good was really an uninformed prejudice.  The cold hard truth is that I have no idea who these account holders are, much less what their intentions were when they opened these accounts in the first place.

Yes, it is reported that around 33,000 of them came forward to the IRS under the various amnesty programs in the past few years but we have no specific information about who they are or what they actually owed in taxes versus penalties for simply not having reported the accounts - the latter being a rather common problem these days as Americans and Green Card holders at home and abroad wake up to the fact that there is a lovely little form called an FBAR that they should have been filing all along (five years of un-filed FBAR's equals a penalty of $50,000 USD) even if they owed no taxes at all.  How many of these people were actual criminals engaged in tax evasion and how many were simply ignorant and entered these programs because they were ill-advised, thought they were doing the right thing, and then found themselves in a kafkaesque nightmare with few options and astronomical sums owed?  We'll probably never know unless some curious (and very brave) journalist decides to look into it.

Here is one thing we do know about those amnesty programs (like the OVDP - Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program):  there are legitimate questions about whether or not these programs were conducted properly and respected the rights of those who chose to participate.  In her 2012 report, the head of the Taxpayer Advocate Service (a watchdog agency designed to oversee IRS activities and to ensure that all U.S. taxpayers are treated fairly) Nina Olsen condemned the IRS for its "bait and switch" tactics used against those who did come forward and said that the IRS had seriously damaged both its credibility and its ultimate goal which was to bring non-compliant taxpayers back into the U.S. tax system.  These are serious allegations and merit a serious response though none has been forthcoming from the U.S. government.

For those who would like this to be a simple morality tale of the "good" (citizens who never do business overseas, never invest outside their home countries, and who only rarely leave their countries of origin to live very temporarily abroad) versus the "evil" (citizens under suspicion for having done any one of these things) these inconvenient questions do muddy the waters.  That I have raised them here will undoubtedly lead some to accuse me of coddling the unpatriotic and the selfish.

Here's what makes me suspicious:  a rush to judgement, certainty in the rightness of one's cause, a refusal to even consider facts that conflict with the standard story, and a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality.  There is something deeply disturbing about the sheer hubris of those who pretend to know (based on little or no empirical evidence) the intentions and thinking of people they have never met and know next to nothing about.

To condemn someone simply on the basis of one piece of information (a Swiss or any other overseas bank account) says very little about that person and a whole lot about us.  From what dark place in our hearts do we pull out this Pavlovian response that insists that there must be something evil and nefarious going on here?  It's worth looking deeply into our own consciences to find an answer.  We cannot know precisely what is going on in someone else's head but we can try to know ourselves.  This is not a complete cure for what ails us - a close encounter with our shadow side in and of itself will not necessarily make us better people - but it just might shame us into looking a little harder at our own motives.  That in turn might lead to more intellectual honesty and other qualities in short supply these days:  empathy and a willingness to listen to the other person's story.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Flophouse Garden - late July

Am up and about and getting reacquainted with my garden.  The bad weather has finally broken and both yesterday and today have been sunny and warm here in Versailles.  Here are a few photos:


This is the hedge that separates the garden from the parking lot.  As you can see, last week it was a bit out of control.  I usually trim it with a pair of hedge shears but I'm not allowed to do that sort of thing these days.  Instead, we purchased an electric hedge trimmer at Truffaut's and my spouse took care of it on Sunday.  Here is the result:


In both pictures you can see the horrible locust tree in the middle of the yard.  We hate it, the neighbors hate it, but the landlord has forbidden its removal.  So we just cut it back and let the cats use it as a scratching post.


This, on the other hand, is a tree we love.  It was a volunteer that appeared one year and it had such pretty flowers that we just decided to let it grow.  This year it was big enough (and we pruned it just right) to provide some shade for our favorite spot on the patio.


There are two vegetable beds in the middle of the yard.  This year I planted an artichoke, lettuce, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes.  Because I think vegetables by themselves are boring, I planted capucines (nasturtiums) and gladiolas too.



And finally in two big pots on the patio are the regular tomatoes (taller than I am) and some vines I grew from seed.  The latter should flower soon and I am eagerly awaiting the event since I threw away the package and no longer remember what they are supposed to look like in bloom.


For all its imperfections (many weeds, uneven edges, haphazard design) I love my garden.  When I am at my lowest, I feel better just walking on the grass and smelling the roses or sitting on the patio and watching the sunlight illuminate each bed, move over the grass, and end up at the end of the day highlighting the rose bed on the other side.  It's less work than you might think - I just carry my clippers and spade with me and do a little every day.  Good therapy too.  For “Where you tend a rose my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Evaluating U.S. Presidential Candidates

A few days ago I wrote about how I evaluate U.S. politicians from abroad.  At that time I focused my attention on the Senate races and didn't say anything about the presidential contest  (Obama versus Romney).

Recently, Just Me over at the Isaac Brock Society filled that gap with this excellent post:

As an American abroad, What assurances do I want from the U.S. Candidate for President?

He makes 5 points which are, in my humble opinion, just good old common sense.

Allow me to add 3 more points of my own:

1.  That the U.S. government be required to include Americans abroad in all future censuses.  Right now, American civilians abroad are not included and not counted because the U.S. government says that it's "too hard" to find them.  Nonsense.  If they think it's possible to find them for tax purposes then clearly they think they can find them, right?  Enough with this laziness.  Time to count us, homelanders!

2.  That some sort of agency be created within the U.S. government (perhaps the State department) that is responsible for managing the relationship between the U.S. government and the American diaspora.  These would be the "go to guys" when the diaspora wants to communicate with the U.S. government and vice versa.

3.  That an effort be made to inform the "Accidental Americans,"  those people who have no idea whatsoever that because of an accident of birth (birthplace or parent's citizenship) that they are considered U.S. citizens according to the laws of the United States.  Once they are made aware of their status, these people should be given a full disclosure about the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship and they should be given the chance to opt out with a fast and simple procedure and no penalties and no exit fees. If an "Accidental" chooses not to retain U.S. citizenship then a CLN (certificate of loss of nationality) should be issued on the spot by the U.S. embassies concerned.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Chemo Round Three

Last Thursday we were off to the hospital for another chemotherapy session.  This was the third of six which means that I am at the halfway point - 50% done which is a milestone of sorts.  Like the other "cures" (treatments) the procedure itself was not too bad.  Around three hours at the hospital spent reading and chatting with my fellow patients.  These days when I walk into the waiting room, I see many familiar faces....

The 48 hours following the treatment are another matter.  Ghastly is how I would describe it and I am well aware from talking to other patients that I am in the middle range when it come to side effects.  Others have had a much worse reaction so I can count myself among the lucky - someone who played the lottery and is happy to have won 10 Euros but is still well aware that it was not the 10 million Euro jackpot.  It is what it is and it's important to recognize that there's been a lot of progress.  One of my nurses gave me a short description of what chemo was like before all the anti-nausea medication and it sounded like sheer hell.  Still, as a family member said to me recently in an email, "I wonder sometimes if people in the far future will look back at us and shudder at our standard of treatment for cancer.  Like the way we view bloodletting or surgery with no anesthetic."

Round three caused me to rethink some of my earlier critical remarks about the standard use of tranquilizers in the Chemo Cocktail.  After one or two treatments the body and mind start to anticipate what is to come and that generates a lot of stress and anxiety.  Morale matters in this battle and not everyone is "bien entouré" with friends and family to offer support and comfort. Prior to being diagnosed I had heard stories of people who refused chemotherapy, or who tried to stop the treatments once they started. I understand much better now why someone would make that choice.  And I see all to clearly why someone going through this with less support, more fear and, not every 21 days as I do, but every week, might welcome something to blunt the sharper edges of that experience.

As I slowly surface, rising more often from my bed and reacquainting myself with my garden, the "bilan" (accounting)  looks like this:  not one whit wiser but experiencing from time to time an expansion of empathy and the stirring of a softer more forgiving heart.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

More Stuff from the Flophouse Archives

Every so often one of my friends here will ask me what it was like to grow up in the U.S.  That's a hard question to answer.  In some ways it was just like growing up anywhere and I always look for parallels with what I know of growing up in France.  There are just some things that make us all the same:  school, family doctors, schoolyard bullies, the agony of the first date.  When the goal is to connect, it seems wise to start with common ground and gloss over those things which are hard to explain or that might elicit disapproval or criticism.  C'était vraiment comme ca?  Ces Américains sont fous, n'est-ce pas? (It's really like that?  Those Americans are crazy, aren't they?)

So it's safer not to say too much - at least with people you don't know very well or even with people you know all too well.  And maybe that is one of the most subtle casualties of crossing cultures - you now live in world where you don't necessarily share the same conception of "normal" and so you watch your words, share a little (but not too much) and withhold parts of yourself in order to win acceptance and to outwardly integrate.  What's going in your head, however, can be something else entirely.  Eva Hoffman talks very eloquently about "Immigrant Rage" - the dark side of assimilation.  You would like to feel "bien dans tes baskets" in your adopted country but there is a part that isn't entirely comfortable and perhaps never will be.  To this uneasiness, and the terrible ambivalence one sometimes feels about about the compromises one has made in order to adapt, I would add something else:  a sense that neither the people you left behind nor the people you now live with have the slightest idea how much all this has cost you.

This is an old photo from the Flophouse archives.  I had completely forgotten that I had it and I looked at it for a very long time before setting it aside to be scanned.  It was taken sometime in the 1970's at the Evergreen State College radio station (KAOS) in Olympia, Washington (a small town south of Seattle).  My mother was a student there at the time and my brother and I spent a lot of time at the college while she was getting her degree.  The Evergreen State College was established in the late 60's as a an alternative, non-traditional school of higher education:  no grades and students were allowed to design their own curriculum.  One might say that a lot of the people there at the time were dragging out the 1960's as long as they could - the Pacific Northwest's very own soixante-huitards or, if you don't care for that analogy, let's just use the American term, "hippies." It was an interesting childhood - not only do I remember being allowed to read the news at the campus radio station, I also have memories of cooperatives and communes and parties where we (the child hippies) were set in a corner to amuse ourselves with a stack of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic books.

Photo from the blog DorpatSherrardLomont
In later years in Seattle, the scene was much the same.  My parents were associated with a listener-supported community radio station called KRAB.  My mother recently sent me this link to an article about the station which has a photo of some of the earliest volunteers and founders.  I recognized some of them as frequent visitors to the Thackeray Street Hotel (predecessor to the Franco-American Flophouse) and a few I knew quite well.   Tiny Freeman for one (he ran for Congress in 1972 as a Republican) and my stepfather the radio engineer who wrote a "how to" section of Lorenzo Milan's very passionate and fascinating book on listener-supported radio, Sex and Broadcasting: a Handbook for Starting a Radio Station for the Community

How to draw a line from that childhood to my decision to move to France and to stay in the Hexagon for the past 20 years?   Not obvious, is it?  Most of the time I try not to think about it too much but to be completely honest as I search my memories for my first impressions of my adopted country I find that, in addition to the joy and wonder of discovering a new culture and language, there was also a certain amount of resistance and angst on my part.   I found much to admire here but I was also put off by the sheer conservatism of the people I met in the beginning.  Even the "radicals" were, in my 20-something view, somewhat constipated and very middle-class and conventional in their worldview.  There did not seem to be much latitude given for alternative prospectives or lifestyles. And heaven forbid that a woman might defy that convention and dress comfortably (badly in their eyes) just because she wanted to and didn't care what people thought.  Like all first impressions, it turned out to be erroneous and I learned to appreciate that things were just different here and not better or worse than where I came from.

But there are still days like the other day when I came across that photo of me and my friends at the college radio station when the nostalgia breaks over me like a tidal wave and  I wonder what I might have been if I had never bought that plane ticket.  Fundamentally the same person or something radically different?  As odd as my American childhood was, it was a formative experience.  That it does not translate well is one thing - denying it is something else.  That I have often felt compelled to do so over the years is the source of some grief (even rage) and is perhaps an indication that I am not as well integrated here as I assumed.

All things to ponder as I head off to the cancer clinic this afternoon for my third round of chemotherapy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Neighbors I have Known

Yesterday. our cat Minouche had her lunch, strolled out of the house, installed herself in the sun on the stone wall between our apartment and the neighbor's, and then leaned over and threw up her Carrefour Bouchées Sauce in a discreet corner of the neighbor's patio.

I parsed my brain for the appropriate response to this and came up with nothing.  I simply was not equal to the event since, I assure you, in nearly 20 years something like this has never ever happened.  If there is a specific etiquette appropriate to the occasion, I don't know it.  My French spouse was no help at all.  When I told him what had occurred he simply said, "Thank goodness Minouche didn't throw up on our patio."

In the absence of any information from my main cultural informant , I fell back on the tried and true all-purpose response to any disagreeable and potentially embarrassing situation here - just pretend it didn't happen.

How to describe the relationship we've had with our neighbors over the years in all the different cities we've lived in in the Ile de France?   The best analogy I can come up with is that it's like a faucet that is firmly closed in the beginning and is opened only gradually over a long period of time.  It only start to drip when one is able to get past the crisp "Bonjour" and actually begin to exchange pleasantries.  It is more or less open when real conversations (sometimes very short) begin to take place over the wall or in the entryway.  It never, however, becomes an effusive flood.  There has generally been a certain distance - an almost radical respect for (and defense of ) privacy.  But it is always been an exquisitely polite distance.  A greeting is always given when we encounter each other in the common areas and the children are never rude (their parents have them under strict control).   Issues between neighbors tend to be solved in an indirect manner.  When we moved in to the apartment here in Versailles, we heard a bit of grumbling about the garden which I started working on straightaway but a specific grievance (a tree that had grown so high that it was blocking the sun in the apartment overhead) was not brought to our attention by the neighbor directly concerned but by another who came across my spouse in the garage one day and casually informed him that the tree had become a nuisance and people were getting very annoyed about it.  Operation "Kill the Locust Tree" started that very weekend and some months later we were thanked in a roundabout way by yet another neighbor.

This distant cordiality, indirect communication and respect for privacy hides something else however.  Just because we all pretend to be oblivious about each other's affairs does not mean that we do not keenly observe each other's behaviour and activities.  Amazing what you can learn indirectly about someone and their family when you've lived next to them for over 6 years even if you've only exchanged one or two words with them every few months.  The very few neighbors I've come to know reasonably well over the years (and I can count the number on one hand with digits to spare) knew an astonishing amount about what was going on in our household. I learned to do the same thing and discovered that this indirect method (observation as opposed to direct conversation) is very effective and kind of fun once you get into the spirit of it.  It's slow discovery fed by diverse sources.  And once the ice breaks completely (rare but it does happen) there is the sheer pleasure of having one's deductions confirmed (or not)  and things beyond your wildest dreams revealed.  A few stories for your amusement:

The Concierges:  For many years we lived in the city of Suresnes which is a small community on the outskirts of Paris.  The apartment complex was managed by a couple from the countryside.  When we moved in they were very helpful and we learned to rely on them for many things.  If you needed something fixed, Monsieur was always up to the task and took care of it it immediately.  The mail was always delivered on time twice a day since Madame knew exactly who lived where (not an easy feat since there were several hundred of us and much coming and going).  Took me a few years to realize that they knew just about everything about everyone in the complex though they were very discreet about it.  It took me even longer to learn their story and understand the level of their bitterness and discontent.  They came from a small town in rural France where they were very happy, owned their home and had many relatives.  They were the victims of a "plan social" when the local factory closed (they both worked for the same company) and they were too young and had too little money saved to retire.  So they took a position as apartment managers in Suresnes and were simply biding their time until they could retire and go back to their hometown.  They loathed Paris - even Suresnes was almost too much for them.  Both had very sharp words for "mondialisation" (globalization) which they most definitely did not care for as they perceived themselves as the victims of it.  We left Suresnes eventually for the city they despised (Paris) but I still think of them occasionally and I sincerely hope they were able to leave and are now happily living in their house in their region of origin surrounded by their friends and family. So much patient suffering deserves a happy ending.

The Couple from (or in) Hell:  We never had a lengthy conversation with these neighbors in the public areas of the complex but we were party to many a private conversation between husband and wife.  This couple lived directly above us and 99% of the time we heard not one word from or about them.  It was the 1% that was sheer hell.  Every so often the husband would disappear in the evening and not return until the wee hours of the morning.  These little jaunts of his were apparently not authorized by his spouse since he always came back quite drunk and he was always met with a really pissed off wife.  To those who might be harboring the illusion that the French are somehow more sophisticated and casual about such things, all I can say is that this Frenchwoman wasn't having any of it.  He would come in at around 4 AM and the fun began.  She would start shrieking, he would return the fire by yelling back, and the evening/morning would end with her declaring to him (and to the entire building), "Tu me trooommmmpeees!" (you're cheating on me) at the top of her lungs and slamming the door.   Peace reigned after that.  To my knowledge no one ever complained or discussed it openly - there was something so tragic and horrible about it all.  Meeting them casually in the garage we all simply pretended that it never happened and exchanged our crisp and casual "Bonjour" with them and went about our business.  Needless to say these were neighbors we did not miss when we left.

The Celibataire:  One of the strangest but most interesting women I've ever met. It is not the custom here as far as I know to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood (or apartment building) but she did just that when we moved into her rather tony apartment building in the 16th district of Paris.  I met her coming down the stairs (the elevator was very old and was often "en panne" (out of order) and she marched right over, introduced herself and the interrogation began.  This was most unusual and I was a bit confused as to how to respond.  It was even odder because she seem to understand that she was defying some unwritten rule about not being nosy because she asked very personal questions and then put her hand to her mouth and declared rather disingenuously, "But I am being terribly indiscreet, Madame."  Once her curiosity was satisfied during our first encounter, she more or less left us alone but we met often because she lived in the apartment right across from ours.  She was always very polite, very pleasant, but it was only after we had been there a few years that she started inviting me over to her apartment for a kir and a chat.  Now, from my observations I deducted that she was either a widow or a spinster since she was quite old, lived alone, and went to Mass regularly (several times a week).  I was wrong and it was over a couple of drinks that she finally returned my disclosures on that first day with a few of her own.  She was in fact married, had been so for over 40 years, and her husband was still alive and well.  They simply didn't live together and hadn't seen each other for over 20 years.  This situation came about after they had been married for some years (no children) when her husband went on a business trip to China and brought back a girlfriend.  Since they were both devoted Catholics divorce was out of the question so they came to an arrangement.  She kept the apartment in Paris along with the summer house in the country and he provided her with a generous stipend to cover her living expenses.  He got the girlfriend and avoided having to divide his property in a divorce proceeding.  After the separation, they never ever met in person but they did talk often and quite cordially over the phone.  When her car at the country house broke down, for example, she simply called him up and he took care of it for her.   Of the two of them, I personally think she got the better deal though perhaps her absent husband would disagree with me.  She was a lovely woman, charming and funny, and completely devoid of any rancor or bitterness.   She led a very full life, had many friends, and lived in style and comfort.  She was very old when I knew her and she is probably no longer with us but I think of her from time to time with great fondness and I hope, wherever she is, she is well and laughing.  I simply cannot imagine her otherwise.

All of the above are old stories and I have named no names or given enough information for the people involved to be easily identified.  I would not think of giving you more recent stories since I respect the privacy of my current neighbors and expect them to return the favor.  We also haven't been here long enough for these kinds of conversations to occur (five years is not nearly enough).  Give it time and perhaps in a few years there will be something interesting to savor and perhaps report but only after many more years have gone by and there is distance.  If I may paraphrase a proverb?   Wit, writing, or any other form of entertainment without discretion is a "sword in the hands of a fool."  May I never be a fool.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

St. John's Night in Poznan

This is just stunning.  From the Designboom website:
On the shortest night of the year in the city of Poznan, Poland, residents and visitors have helped to illuminate the night sky in celebration of the summer solstice with festival organizers fundacja ARS- a foundation for the promotion of creativity, culture and the arts. st. john's night, as it is known in the polish city, coincides with the current 2012 UEFA EURO European football championship on now. this year brought a new world record for the launch of paper lanterns on the 21st of june. a massive crowd gathered to let go of 15,000 lit balloons into the darkness. before releasing the slow-soaring objects, each attendee scrawled their wishes upon their respective pieces, allowing their desires to float away with the collection of glowing dots.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The French/American Divide on Religion

There are few subjects over which Americans and French are more divided than religion.  Some of it has to do with their two very different religious traditions:  France is still very Roman Catholic while the United States is predominantly Protestant. But the mutual incomprehension goes far beyond the rivalry between Christian sects and has more to do with the fundamental question about the role religion should play in each country's political and social life.  To summarize the arguments of my French friends, they see religion playing too great a role in public life in the U.S. and they feel there should be more separation between the two.  It is not appropriate, in their view, that American presidents should call upon their deity to bless the activities of the government or that political parties should publicly use their faith to justify their support/rejection of public policy.  As for the role of religion in France, Americans seems to have this vision of the Hexagon as a secular paradise (or a godless Socialist hell).

Neither of these visions is entirely true.  On Easter Sunday my French bishop is more than happy to advise his flock on how they should vote and the Catholic church in France is doing well and is still very powerful in a discreet way. And while Americans are accustomed to their presidents and political leaders using biblical references and asking that "God bless America" in their speeches, not everyone is happy about that.  How well this rhetoric translates into votes depends greatly on the region.

Both countries see religion through very different lenses and came to the separation of church and state by very different paths.  In France it was about curbing the power of one establishment religion, Catholicism, and allowing for "la liberté de conscience."  It was a 1905 law that got the French government out of the religion business and the church out of the government while guaranteeing freedom of conscience.  It was a subject of enormous debate at the time and Pope Pius X was firmly against it.  It is still being debated.  This article from Le Monde argues that  this law is being used today to limit the religious freedom of some (mostly immigrants and their descendants) by attempting to entirely eliminate the visibility of religion in the public sphere - something the author of the piece says it was never intended to do.  He also points out (and I did not know this) that there is one region in France where the national law concerning the separation of church and state does not apply.  Alsace-Moselle is exempt from both the 1905 and the Jules Ferry law.  The region has four official approved sects, their pastors/priests/rabbis are paid by the local government, and the public schools include religion in their curriculum.  This is an exception but an important one.

That is not the only issue.  As France enters the 21st century, it is becoming more and more religiously diverse:  not only more Moslems but also the missionary activities of other sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Some French may be uncomfortable with Islam but they are even more so with sects that are disturbing to them because they are so very far from the mainstream:  Mormons or  Pentacostals.  But I would argue that these debates do not demonstrate that the French are against religion.  On the contrary, it is alive and well here and the churches I've been to are very well attended.  But religion is not part of the language of politics.  Even the most conservative political parties like the Front National support the principle of "laïcité."

From the founding of the United States the situation was entirely different - it was about accommodating many sects and the founders didn't have much choice in the matter.  In the Colonial era (pre-independence) alone there was already a lot of variety:  Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Deists and so on.  Many of the colonies were, in fact, founded by religious people whose goals were not in any way shape or form to create secular societies.  As Andrew Preston says in his superb book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, about religion in America and its influence on foreign policy, "Crucially, colonial America was established as a Reformation society, founded by Protestant radicals who took refuge from the religious wars and economic crises of Europe." Today the religious realm is even more chaotic, a "deregulated marketplace of faith." This site lists the top 25 denominations in the U.S. and Canada (out of 217) and says that in addition to that, in 2010 there were at least 35,000 independent (non-denominational) churches serving more than 12 million people.  And while the focus is all too often on the religious political and social conservatives, one could argue that there are just as many churches and parishioners that swing to the Left of the political spectrum.

Preston points out that whatever the opinion of the elites in the U.S. (from the founding of the nation to the present day) they cannot ignore the fact that so many Americans do believe and find it perfectly normal that their views, informed by their faith, are included in national debates.  They in turn expect their political leaders to answer back using terms and references that respect those beliefs.  It is a top-down, bottom-up dialogue that is very disconcerting to many outside the U.S. (and to some Americans as well). I think it is fair to say that the majority of Americans simply do not believe that separation of church and state means that faith has no place in the public sphere.  Religion in the U.S. is a part of the language of politics.

Is this a good or a bad thing?  I find that I don't much care for the question. Context is everything.  Traditions and histories differ.  What makes sense in one world makes no sense at all in another.  I find there is some merit to the purging of religion from public discourse in worlds that have known incredibly strife because of it.  If we can't agree (and are willing at times to kill each other over it) perhaps it's best that we not discuss it at all.  On the other hand, where would the U.S. be today without the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr?  Or for that matter does anyone really think that France would be a better place today if l'abbé Pierre had been told to take his person and his beliefs back to the monastery?  I cannot speak for anyone but myself but I personally would not like to have been deprived of the pleasure of reading these words addressed to the American public by the president in 1865:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Evaluating U.S. Politicians from Abroad

A few days ago I cross-posted Why Americans Abroad Should Vote to the Isaac Brock Society website and  received some very interesting comments in response.  One in particular sparked my interest:  OK for voting, he said, but who to vote for - that is the real question.

And it's a darn good one.  2012 is a major U.S. election year .  In addition to the presidential race there are quite a few Senate seats  up for grabs in 2012.  If Americans abroad decide to vote in large numbers it is quite conceivable that they will have an impact on how some of these races shake out.

Now I would not even think of telling anyone how to vote.  All I can do is tell you what is important to me and what I look for in a candidate.  To that end I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take a few of these races at random and tell you what I see when I look at their websites, platforms and biographies.

As an American abroad what am I looking for in a candidate?  First of all I would like to see some life experience that includes studying, traveling or living/working/serving in the military outside the U.S.  If the candidate is already in Congress, I want to know if he/she a member of the Americans Abroad Caucus and how he/she voted on FATCA.  For that matter,  does he/she ever mention issues of direct interest to Americans abroad (taxation, voting rights, citizenship, strong interest in foreign affairs) on his/her official website(s) or even acknowledge the fact that he/she has constituents outside the U.S.?  Is that website "expat friendly".  In other words,  is it easy or hard for a constituent overseas to contact him/her via email or to make a contribution to his/her campaign?

I also include for each state an estimated number of expat voters from this site, the U.S. Elections Project and I used the 2010 "Overseas Eligible" numbers.  No idea if this reliable but it was the only information I could find.  For those who are interested in how some of the incumbents and candidates (those who are already in Congress) stood on H.R. 2847 (111th): Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act (father of FATCA) you can find their voting records here.

Hawaii:  Estimated number of eligible expat voters:  20,090.  Here is their Factsheet for voting from abroad.  What is the situation in 2012?  Senator Daniel Akaka (Democrat) is retiring.  Democrats appear to be divided between two candidates:  Ed Case and Mazie K. Hirono.   The Republican candidate is Linda Lingle.

Ed Case:  Former U.S. representative from Hawaii.  A quick look at his agenda shows no particular interest in issues of direct interest to Americans Abroad but he does have some experience traveling outside the U.S.  In his biography he says, "Perhaps the trip that influenced me most was a low-budget six-month backpack through Asia..."

Mazie K. Hirono:  A naturalized U.S. citizen (she was born in Japan). Three terms in the House of Representatives.  Member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.  Not a member of the Americans Abroad Caucus.  Official website is not  "expat friendly" and does not make it easy for non-residents of Hawaii to contact her.  I could not find anything on her campaign website mentioning issues of direct interest to Americans abroad.  Hirono voted for FATCA.

Linda Lingle:  Former governor of Hawaii.  No experience abroad noted.  Her website does indicate that she is interested in Asia-Pacific economic relationships and in tax reform.  Like many others her "Donations" page asks for a U.S. city, state and zip code. It is possible to contact her campaign directly through email or snail mail here.


California:  Estimated number of eligible expat voters:  486,207.  California's Secretary of State has this very nice, very friendly website for those voting from abroad.  The incumbent senator, Diane Feinstein (Democrat), is up for re-election.  Her opponent is Elizabeth Emken (Republican).

Dianne Feinstein:  Her biography lists no overseas experience but she has a strong interest in foreign affairs.  Her website does not reveal any particular attention to civilian Americans abroad.  Her "Contact by Email" page requires that an overseas constituent select a U.S. state and give a local zip code. Feinstein voted for FATCA.

Elizabeth Emken:  Her biography shows that she studied in the UK at Cambridge University. Looking at the list of issues that is interested in, most of them appear to be local.  Her "Donations" page does not allow for a foreign address and the "State" field will only permit her military constituents to indicate that they are out of the country (Armed Forces Europe/Canada/Asia).


Pennsylvania:  Estimated number of eligible expat voters:  203,791.  For help voting from abroad there is this website for overseas civilian voters.  The incumbent for this senate seat is Robert Casey (Democrat) and his opponent is Tom Smith (Republican).

Robert Casey:  No overseas experience on his official biography but under his Issues and Priorities he shows a strong interest in foreign affairs and is a frequent traveler abroad:  "In July, Senator Casey led a Senate delegation to the Middle East to discuss the ongoing threat posed by Iran and to review developments in the Middle East peace process. Senator Casey traveled to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and Egypt where he met with top officials. He met with U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait. In Iraq he also met with Vice President Biden and General Ray Odierno, Commander of U.S. troops."  The "Contact" page on his website calls for a state and county but the only overseas voters that are taken into account are military (FPO/APO).

Tom Smith:  No experience abroad on his biography and there is no particular attention to the interests of Americans abroad on his Issues page. His "Contributions" page only has a few options for those living outside of the U.S. (American Samoa, Virgin Islands....)


Wisconsin:  Estimated number of expat voters:  33,788.  The State of Wisconsin has this fine site explaining overseas voting.  The incumbent in this senate race, Herbert Kohl (Democrat), is not seeking re-election and the primary is not until August.  Tammy Baldwin is the candidate from the Democrat party and I count no fewer than six contenders on the Republican side so I will select two at random: Marc Neumann and Tommy Thompson.

Tammy Baldwin:  Her biography reveals no overseas experience and her Issues page is almost 100% devoted to domestic concerns. She says that "fighting for Wisconsin’s middle class is her top priority."  Not clear if she would include the interest of middle-class overseas Wisconsin constituents in her fight.  In the State field of her "Donations" page an overseas voter can select some areas outside the US:  AA, AE, AS (I think this is for overseas military voters) but also GU (Guam?) and PR (Puerto Rico).  A bit confusing for a civilian voter from, say, Europe.  Baldwin is currently serving in the House of Representatives but does not appear to be a member of the Americans Abroad Caucus.  Her "Contact" page is not expat-friendly. In fact it clearly states, "Regrettably, I am unable to reply to any email from constituents outside of the district."  Baldwin voted "Yes" on FATCA.

Marc Neumann:  No experience overseas on his biography and no particular attention to Americans abroad on his website.  He is, however, a supporter of tax reform, "a simpler, fairer, and flatter tax system with fewer loopholes."  Not sure if this can be interpreted as something that would help Americans abroad. His "Donations" page requires a State and it's not clear if an overseas donor would be able to complete the form with a foreign address.

Tommy Thompson:  No overseas experience on his biography and I found no issues of direct interest to civilian Americans abroad anywhere on his website.  He is, however, for tax reform and wants to "simplify taxes for individuals."    His "Donations" page requires a State but a voter can select AE, AP and the like if one is (I think) overseas military.  Again it is not clear if a civilian voter can complete the form with a foreign address.  His "Contact" page does not require an physical address - just a name and email address.

I'll stop there.  All the information above was what I was able to glean from on-line sources.  It is entirely possible that the above candidates have a more complete (more nuanced) approach to their overseas constituents that they just didn't feel compelled to share. If that is the case, I'd be delighted to hear their reasoning for hiding their light under a bushel.   As always, feel free to disagree with (or correct) me if you feel that the candidates above are misrepresented.  And finally if you are an American abroad who plans to vote in 2012, I would love to hear your take on the federal elections in your home state.  Just add a comment or send me an email.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Meet My Escargots

Seattle and Versailles have another thing in common:  snails and slugs.  All this inclement weather has made the little bastards darlings fat and happy.  I no longer recall what the Seattle ones look like but as I was venturing out on the patio this morning I found the Versailles versions happily munching away on one of my potted plants.  One had a lovely Dijon mustard yellow shell while the other looked a lot like something I've eaten during a Christmas Réveillon.  





As much as I admire their perseverance (and the long trek they made from garden to patio to plant) this simply will not do.  OK, guys (or gals) you have 24 hours to vacate the premises or else.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Diaspora Engagement Policies

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”
Salman Rushdie, 

All emigrants discover at one point or another that their relationship to their home government substantially changes when they leave their country of origin.   For some this is an expected and welcome development - for others it is a rude awakening.  The worst shock is when the home country actually reaches out and attempts to actively exert its sovereignty over its citizens living in foreign countries.  

The result of these efforts is always uncertain and depends greatly on the context.  Do these emigrants still consider themselves to be active citizens of the home country and can they be persuaded/coerced to cooperate?  What kind of leverage can a home country hope to use against someone whose entire life is lived abroad and he/she no longer has assets or interests in the old country?  Do the emigrants have any influence (through voting rights, for example, or remittances) in home country political or economic life which would enable them to push back and have their interests taken into consideration?  

There is also the link between the home and the host country governments to consider.  If these citizens are duals, the other country of citizenship and residence can protest attempts by the other state to win the contested citizens' loyalty or to force them to act in ways that are contrary to the interests of the state of residence.  It is not a simple situation and real people (emigrants) are often caught in the middle.  It is clear that citizen/sovereign relationship is simply not (and cannot be) the same when the citizen is no longer physically present within national borders.

Many nations have come to realize that a new relationship must be negotiated.  Mexico cannot simply snap its fingers and expect Mexican-Americans to act on its behalf.  This is true of all diasporas, including the American and French ones.  Nations interested in connecting with their "Domestic Abroad" sometimes form what are called Diaspora Engagement Policies, something Alain Gamlen says is just another word for "emigration management."

In his 2006 paper, Diaspora Engagement Policies:  What are they, and what kinds of states use them?, Mr. Gamlen has some very interesting things to say about how states attempt to govern those who have "slipped the leash" (so to speak).  What does he think is the ultimate purpose of these policies?
At specific moments, a number of states have deliberately coordinated their diaspora
engagement policies so as to ‘reinscribe’ (Gupta 1992) the place of the nation as a “transnational social field” (Levitt 2001). These projects are bound up with challenges regarding the “management of [spatial] scale” faced by home-states as a result of international migration (see Rogers 1998). States hope that diaspora engagement policies will help them to manage the scale of their political and economic manoeuvres; both by leveraging powerful expatriates to upscale their concerns into global-scale arenas, and by exerting control on urban-scale transnational dynamics through closer engagement with migrant civil society.
In short, to better their relative positions vis a vis other states and to that end they see their expatriates as potentially useful assets.  In his paper he identifies three types of relationships that states attempt to forge with their expatriates in order to achieve their objectives.  


The very first is about communication which involves convincing the diaspora that it is indeed still a part of the nation.  These communication policies, which really are the foundation upon which all else depends, "comprise of a broad range of initiatives and programmes to increase emigrants’ sense of belonging to a transnational community of conationals, and to boost the profile of the state within this community."  They must feel that they belong and this can be accomplished through domestic rhetoric extolling their virtues or through websites, publications and special programs. Some states even hold conferences or conventions for their expatriates.  Jamaica, for example, has this site for Jamaicans Abroad and India has its very well-known annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. In some cases institutions are created for the sole purpose of managing this relationship: government agencies or migrant organizations that have an advisory role.   Very often these initiatives are a complete about-face for the nation concerned which may have, in years past, vigorously denounced these emigrants as traitors. 

It is one thing to act more inclusive, it is quite another to actually include citizens abroad in the nation's political/social/economic life.  The second relationship is one where the emigrants are offered real rights (to vote, to hold dual citizenship, to be excused from military service) or benefits like social programs and protection.  The last is a bit problematic since it is very hard to realize because another state is involved.  The U.S. and Mexico is a good example of this.  Gamlen quotes Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez who said this about the dance with U.S. authorities:
Most immediate and evident obligation of the Mexican government is to protect the interests of its citizens abroad….[A]lthough any state enjoys the sovereign prerogative of controlling its borders, the defense of Mexican immigrants rights in the United States is a dominant and legitimate concern of their homeland, a goal that Mexico will actively pursue within the limits of international law….When dealing with local authorities, the trick is to be effective without appearing confrontational, since every hostile encounter jeopardizes the long-term relationship that the consulate needs to cultivate with immigration, police, and civil authorities….
The third and final relationship is one where the nation tries to directly extract some profit (political or economic) from its emigrants.  Taxes are one example but there are others:  fees for emigrants workers, "brain drain" and "exit" penalties, attempts to divert remittances, and policies that encourage expats to return with their skills and assets acquired elsewhere to be invested in the home country. 

From the examples cited above, one might get the impression that Diaspora Engagement Policies are the province of small, poor nations.  Gamlen argues that this is not at all true.  On the contrary, "States using diaspora engagement policies are found in all geo-political regions. They are not all poor, and some of them are transnationalizing a civic model of citizenship."  Sometimes its not entirely clear that a state has engaged in such policies since, in some cases, it has less to do with one overarching grand design and more to do with clusters of initiatives and programs that add up to a de facto policy that evolves over time.  France's policy toward its emigrants is quite transparent but, using Gamlen's typology, it's possible to see an actual emigrant policy in the United States - it's simply much more implicit and very badly organized.  

One could argue quite convincingly that there is a policy to actively discourage emigration from the United States by taxing the worldwide income of those who live and work abroad and by imposing onerous exit taxes on those who leave the country and renounce their citizenship.  It's almost as if, following Gamlen's description of the different relationships possible, that the U.S. started with relationship three (extraction of profit), is grudgingly moving toward extending some rights (yes to limited voting rights for some U.S. emigrants/citizens abroad but no actual benefits or incentives or protection) and is light years away from actually institutionalizing the relationship with its diaspora and communicating with it directly.  The reason for this, I think, is the incredible discomfort that Americans feel when they learn that there are large numbers of their compatriots who do not choose to live in the U.S.  America is a place people come to - it is not a place people leave.  Or that is what many would like to think.

Perhaps one day they will get it right.  I live in hope but I don't expect in my lifetime.  After all, as Winston Churchill once said:   “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”