Friday, April 28, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - III

We got a brief glimpse of how Washington works (or doesn't) this week when Donna-Lane testified before a Congressional hearing, met with Congressmen or their legislative aides beforehand, and participated in a press conference after.

Here's a link to the hearing as posted on the Isaac Brock Society website. Donna-Lane's video testimony begins at the 27:45 mark: http://isaacbrocksociety.ca/2017/04/27/reviewing-the-unintended-consequences-of-the-foreign-account-tax-compliance-act-video-and-summary-of-hearing/

Here's a link to the post-hearing press conference. Donna-Lane's Q&A starts around the 6-minute mark (the announcers call her a "spitfire": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZoLSfyyjvI

The formal hearing itself could have been purely "political theatre" in that the witnesses' testimonies were already provided to the committee in advance. The real news came from the question-and-answer exchange, particularly for the manner in which the flustered designated Democrat, Elise Bean, first tried to deflect pointed questions with evasive responses (including the suggestion that she'd perjured herself because one of her statements of "fact" was contradicted by attorney Jim Bopp) and then blurted out some things she may regret having said on the public record -- that ALL Americans, including those living in the States, should be subjected to "extreme vetting" reports of their personal financial information. Though the Democrats have long been defenders of personal liberty and privacy rights, Ms Bean's recommendation to triple-down on FATCA by extending it to everyone with any connection to the US (inside and outside the borders) was right out of the FBI-CIA-NSA playbook of warrantless search.
The Committee room, prior to the hearing
Somewhat of a surprise was how few of the committee members attended the hearing -- two Republicans, including the chair, and three Democrats. There were perhaps a dozen aides either seated behind their Congressperson or standing in the wings.

My read is that it is the aides who truly drive much of the agenda in Washington. In our individual meetings in the offices of Representatives on the committee, most of the meetings were with aides, rather than the Congressman himself. Of the two elected officials we met, one seemed rather disinterested at the beginning of the meeting, then distracted by an issue with his car. The other Representative was much more engaging and asked some probing questions to learn more about the issue.

In the meetings with aides, two of them seemed to be well prepared. They understood the issues around FATCA, and one had read the witness testimonies already posted online. There were some discussions of requesting hard information from the IRS about the costs of FATCA implementation against the revenue generated (to hopefully counter some of the wildly inflated revenue claims that FATCA-natics have been floating). We walked away thinking this might be more than constituent-courtesy lip service.

A couple of the aides, frankly, were not up to speed and did not inspire confidence. Nuff said.

The aide for committee chair Rep. Meadows, Graham Haile, seemed very sharp and a key factor in getting the FATCA Repeal legislation into the Congressional docket. I could see him holding elected office someday.

Most of the Representatives' office suites seemed cramped. In addition to the Congressman's office, there were usually several staffers in adjacent offices and cubicles. And our group of 10 filled every available chair, with some of us standing. The walls and shelves were stuffed, too, with memorabilia reflecting the district represented and books reflecting the Congressman's political philosophy. And most offices had some common decor that seemed out of an official Capitol Hill catalog, like a set of emblems for the five military services.

We ate in the same dining room as the politicians and their staffs, but had no opportunity to accost the Representatives in the rest room as they have their own personal bathrooms in their office.

I would suspect that many full-time lobbyists must be in very good shape because we got our exercise over the two days, walking back and forth between the Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon House office buildings, which are set on a slope. A lot of walking in the corridors, too, as these are large buildings (all the government buildings in Washington seem large - a lot of people working to sustain their bureaucracies). We even did some extra walking for the 4-5 times our group leaders got confused which direction to go to the next meeting.

After our visit to the legislative sausage factory, we caught our breath at a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant, serenaded by live accordion music. The long, wearying, hopeful day was over. But based on what we learned, it seems the battle is just beginning.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington - II

Proud, proud, proud of my wife and best friend, Donna-Lane Nelson, for her stellar performance Tuesday and Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Despite no longer being American, she helped carry the fight to Congress on behalf of 9 million US citizens living overseas, as well as Accidental Americans, whose lives have been devastated by an Obama Administration 2010 law that has made it nearly impossible to have basic banking services in the countries where they live.

At our own expense (and we are not wealthy), we flew from Europe to the States to participate in several meetings with Congressmen and their legislative aides (the people who really drive the agenda in Washington) and to testify before a House committee reviewing the "unintended consequences" of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. The office meetings have their own fascinating nuance, which I will try to relate in the next post.

In my previous blog, I provided links to D-L's video testimony during the committee hearing, her written testimony, and the testimony of the other witnesses. (http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.com/2017/04/madame-nelson-goes-to-washington-i.html)

The shock of the committee hearing was not that the Democrat Representatives on the Committee were attempting to salvage core elements of FATCA, but that they opted to attack Donna-Lane and their fellow US citizens (including Danny Kuettel, who had served in the US Army) who are suffering irreparable harm from this law:

1. The designated Democrat "expert" witness, Elise Bean, essentially called Donna-Lane a liar, suggesting that the FATCA law was not a valid reason for D-L's citizenship renunciation.

2. Ms Bean was dismissive of those former Americans who have renounced their citizenship (about 6,000 last year alone), comparing their outmigration with the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming into the States. Go ahead and leave; there are plenty more to "replace" you.

2. Ms Bean tried to get away with the falsehood that FATCA reporting by overseas banks was no different than US banks providing the IRS with a 1099 form. Under questioning from the committee chair, Rep. Meadows, she "amended" her deceit with the disingenuous comment, "1099 is a form, and the FATCA report is a form." Jim Bopp, the attorney for a lawsuit against FATCA, pointed out that in addition to the taxable interest earned, which is the only item reported on a 1099, the FATCA reporting by overseas banks adds highest balance, deposits and withdrawals, and other data -- information which has nothing to do with taxable income and would require a court subpoena to obtain in the US -- a clear violation of the US Constitution against invasion of citizens' privacy.

3. Then, during questioning, Ms. Bean put on her Police State hat and said she would like to see the more extensive and intrusive FATCA information reported ... on all US citizens by all banks in the United States! Without a warrant! I gasped involuntarily when she threw this zinger out.

Through the week's meetings with mostly Republicans, Donna-Lane (a lifelong Democrat who has always been very active politically) had refrained from commenting on non-FATCA issues with which she strongly disagrees with their views and votes. (I teased that she had a hidden "hold your tongue" button that she kept pushing when her blood pressure would rise.) 

She/we were in Washington for one purpose -- to help get FATCA repealed on behalf of all those being wronged by it. It would be counter-productive to engage in arguments on other topics which might undermine the FATCA effort.

One Republican Congressman (whom we won't name to protect his reputation), hugged Donna-Lane and called her his "favorite Democrat."

However, during an unexpected recess in the committee hearing so the Representatives could respond to a roll call vote, Donna-Lane confronted Ms Bean and let the so-called FATCA 'architect' know exactly what she thought of her and her law. "You don't know what you're talking about. You should live overseas for a year. And you are responsible for ruining thousands of lives." Later, during a press conference, in response to a reporter's question, D-L said she would like to slap her, which probably wouldn't have been suitable for the decorum of the committee room.

I don't know if Donna-Lane's comments had an unsettling effect on Ms Bean in the questioning when the hearing resumed, or if it was Rep Meadows' holding her feet to the fire to answer the questions he asked, or if she was merely unprepared that her veracity might be challenged. I was seated in the row immediately behind Ms Bean (D-L was now observing from the back of the room, no doubt still seething), and the Democrats' hired-gun witness was clearly out of ammunition. She was extremely evasive in her answers, or offered irrelevant non sequiturs which only served to demonstrate lack of compassion. In short, she was trying to defend a bad law which she had written and which had been very badly implemented.

After the committee hearing adjourned, as people stood around chatting in small groups, I engaged with a representative of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), which is pushing the Democrats' faux FATCA fix of the so-called Same Country Exception (SCE). 

SCE is no solution, as it would leave in place the core unConstitutional aspects of FATCA. Moreover, the overseas banks who have chosen to purge themselves of American accounts are highly unlikely to change course and accept some American accounts (bona fide residents) and not others -- with a Damocles sword penalty of 30% poised over them, a few expat accounts are certainly not worth the bother.

Ms. Bean was standing with the ACA rep, and surprisingly, when I said the real problem was citizen-based taxation (CBT) ... or as I prefer, taxation-based citizenship ... and that we need to abandon CBT and adopt RBT -- Residency-Based Taxation -- which is the way every other civilized country in the world administers taxes, SHE AGREED! That's right, Ms Bean, oppressor of expats, said she is for RBT instead of CBT. Now, she may recant later, or say I misheard her, but then again maybe she did absorb some of the pain she and her compadres have inflicted on innocents.

I won't get into the obvious errors of fact from the Democrat chair, such as his statement that most other countries practice CBT (sorry, sir, Eritrea is the only other country to tax its citizens on their worldwide income), or his suggestion that there are plenty of banks around the world who will accept American accounts (plenty of data otherwise). Or the bizarre linkage of FATCA which implied that the IRS needs Americans' overseas bank info because there are terrorist, sex trafficking, and drug cartel financiers hiding among our group.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating three days. Three months ago, when we thought this hearing was supposed to take place, Donna-Lane could not have done this. She was extremely fatigued from what we finally learned was an overactive though tiny thyroid. She's doing much better now, thanks. It was only a year ago that she was coming out of the final chemo and radiation treatments of her second successful battle with breast cancer.

Knowing her, even if she was feeling underwonderful, she would have made the trip. She would not have missed the opportunity to fight for a just cause. She has always been someone who does whatever she can to help others. Because someone needs to do it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Madame Nelson Goes to Washington -I

The normally neutral Swiss invaded Washington this week, occupying Capitol Hill on behalf of 9 million Americans who live overseas.

D-L Nelson and I, together with Daniel Kuettel, his wife, daughter, and young son, all Swiss citizens or residents, flew to Washington DC at our own expense to urge Congress to repeal the draconian FATCA law (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). We were joined by US citizens who live in Albania, the Czech Republic, and Albania, together with leaders of Republicans Overseas (one of whom left Communist China to become American) to lobby Congressmen and their legislative staffs prior to an official hearing Wednesday.
Here's the essence of FATCA:
1. The Democratic Obama Congress snuck the FATCA legislation into the HIRE Act in 2010.
2. The legislation requires overseas banks to report the accounts of all Americans to the IRS.
3. If the banks miss reporting any American accounts, the IRS will impose severe penalties on the foreign banks, possibly putting them out of business.
4. The easiest option for the banks is to close the accounts of Americans. No Americans, no IRS penalties.
5. Many Americans, therefore, cannot have even basic savings and checking accounts, no debit card, no online banking, no credit card, no car loan, no home mortgage, no investments. It's rather difficult to live your daily life without a bank account, eh?

FATCA is unconstitutional (invasion of privacy, illegal search and seizure) as well. 

You can read more about FATCA on the Republicans Overseas website: https://republicansoverseas.com/.

Donna-Lane had to give up their US citizenship in order to keep her bank accounts. She renounced in 2011, and it was a wrenching decision, something she equates with the death of her parents. Last year, nearly 6,000 people gave up their American citizenship, and the numbers are growing each year.

She, Danny, and the other expats are also part of a lawsuit against the Treasury Department and the IRS which has now been going on a couple of years and may end up in the Supreme Court.

When she/we started this battle, many folks, including expats, said why bother, it's a hopeless, Quixiotic quest. You'll never succeed against the power of the IRS and the US government. Our response: someone has to try to right this wrong.

Today we had meetings in five Congressional offices - key Congressmen who are on the committee which will hear testimony on FATCA repeal tomorrow. There is proposed legislation in both the House and Senate to repeal FATCA.

Who would have ever thought we'd get this far? Who would have thought that D-L would become the leading female crusader on behalf of 9 million Americans (more people than live in the whole of Switzerland and more than live in 37 of the US states) to strike down a law that has cost banks billions of dollars in paperwork just to try to root out damn Yankees?

At the hearing tomorrow, they will play a video of Donna-Lane's testimony. Since you've read this far, here's a link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/px66c6pvr8yejpj/Donna-Lane_NELSON_FATCA_FINAL.mp4?dl=0

And her written testimony: http://republicansoverseas.com/wp-content/uploads/Donna-Lane-Nelson-Testimony.pdf

And testimonies of her fellow plaintiffs: https://republicansoverseas.com/ro-publishes-testimonies-fatca-hearings/

The Congressional hearing will be live-streamed beginning at 2 pm Eastern time Wednesday. You can connect to it here on the IRSMedic youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9ZqWYUiFOw.

The battle is far from over, but we are making tremendous progress and victory is in sight!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hair Architect

I went to see my hair engineer today - Sam. Samantha, actually.

For the past few months she's been working on adding a bit of curl to my hair, which all my life has been as fine and straight as can be. (By the way, at age 65 ... 66 tomorrow, I'm thrilled to have a full head of hair; take that, Lou.)

I curled it just for fun to begin with, but turns out I like it. So does D-L, which is even more important.

I explained to Sam that we were going to Washington this week, where Donna-Lane is going to testify before the U.S. Congress on the repeal of FATCA (https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2017/02/06/dear-president-trump-please-repeal-fatca/#18edd7ed31f6). After the hearing, which may be televised on C-Span, there's a press conference.

I expect to be in the background, but you never know. So I don't want to take a chance that, as D-L's husband, my hairstyle might given someone pause about getting rid of this draconian law because they think I look like a hippie (I prefer the term Bohemian.). I told Sam that in American culture, men with long straight hair are often assumed to be homeless (can't afford a haircut?) Ponytail? A high school loner who never wanted to grow up. However, men with long curly hair are more likely to be regarded as, shall we say, trendy.

During the process, Sam applied two different solutions to my hair after it was in curlers. So I asked her the purpose of each. Seems the first breaks down the "disulphide bonds" of the straight hair and the second helps those bonds reform in the new curly shape. Hair architecture, if you will.

It won't stay as tightly curled as you see it above, which is fine too. At least there's some wave to it now. (Full front view in a few days.) And it does not look in any way "corporate," as I did until 3-4 years ago.
About 8-9 years ago - the hand and leg belong to my grandson

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dueling DNA

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's version is at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/04/dna.html.

I've been told, over the years, that my family heritage can be traced to U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, to British royalty, and includes American Indian genes. My brother once did an extensive genealogy study, contacting every known living relative and searching their memories and family archives to assemble our gene tree.

Today there are more sophisticated scientific tools for discovering who you are connected to ... and not just as Facebook friends.

On a bit of a lark, but with some genuine curiosity mixed in, Donna-Lane and I decided to try one of the new DNA analysis services. We ordered the kits online, had them delivered to Switzerland, did the swab the inside of your mouth thing, and shipped our saliva to Houston while we were visiting relatives in the States in March.

The results came through online this week.

No mention of American Indian, but according to Family Tree DNA I may have ancestors from Northern India or thereabouts in Central Asia. Less than 2% though.

The British royalty connection is a much stronger possibility -- 94% of my ancestry is European and fully 88% is tagged as British Isles. Hey, Queen Elisabeth II and I share a birthday. Why not a few chromosomes? (How about a little of the family treasury as well?)

There's a little of Southern Europe in me (6%, they say), around Italy and Greece; explains my passion for pizza and spiedies. And some Eastern Europe, probably Polish or Ukrainian, which was half the town where I grew up. Also a little Finnish and Ashkenazi Jewish.


In the "ancient origins" map, my ancestors were 45% farmer, 42% hunter-gatherer, and 12% Metal Age Invader (my favourite) from 3000 to 1000 BC - "people of the Black Sea region known as the Yamnaya ... changed culture and life on the European continent in a multitude of ways ... domesticated horses, wheeled vehicles, and metal tools."

The analysis also provides a list of personal "matches" - people in their database with whom you share chromosome markers called "centimorgans." Currently I have 1743 matches of varying tenuousness, mostly 2nd, 3rd, 4th and remote cousins. Many have email addresses if I want to contact them, presumably to share gossip about cousin Harriet or Uncle Lester.

The names range from Aasness to Zylla. There are 75 with Adams somewhere in their ancestral surnames, 44 with Bennett (my mother's maiden name). The most common, predictably, are Smith, Jones and Davis.

I also checked Donna-Lane's family surnames, Boudreau (5) and Sargent (12), just to make sure we aren't cousins and therefore should probably not have children together.

The results seem generic enough that they could just be marketing hokum, like horoscopes and fortune cookies. But there's a lot of detail to suggest the connections might be genuine.

I don't plan to reach out to any of my newfound relatives. Though at some point when I have the time I'll probably use my brother's research to fill in the online family tree; that may trigger more matches, either for me or for others in the database.

I know personally nearly all of my immediate family connections and, for the most part, they're pretty wonderful people. If the circle should expand, all the better.

So Cousin Lizzie, when are you planning to have us for dinner at Windsor Castle?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Admiration

I have never had a desire to operate a retail business. The type of enterprise in which you spend money upfront for merchandise at wholesale and then hope people wander by your store and decide to purchase an item or two.

However, I have great admiration for those who choose to do so. Maybe it's a family business they fell into. Maybe they had an idea at one time that they could offer something lots of people would want. Maybe they were just looking for a way to scratch out a living.

The merchants in Argèles sur Mer, at least many of them, work quite hard. They are up early getting ready, especially the boulangeries, charcuteries and fruitiers. The green grocer, for example, has to pull long tables to the sidewalk area, a row for veggies and another for fruits ... then pull them all inside around noon when the village basically shuts down for about three hours ... then go through the whole process again in the late afternoon or evening. In between, they're probably taking inventory, managing the financials, and squeezing in lunch. The woman selling clothes and accessories hangs headless and legless mannequins from hooks on the storefront, rolls out racks of blouses and slacks and skirts and inexpensive jewelry ... repeat, repeat, repeat. The temporary vendors who come in twice a week for the marchés unpack and pack everything into carefully planned vans and towed trailers.

I don't suppose any of these folks makes a great deal of money. If that was their goal, they probably would have left the village for larger, more lucrative environs long ago. The aerospace community around Toulouse. The sparkle of Paris.

Most, not all, are quite friendly. A genuine friendly, not the faux marketing friendly you often find in malls and "high street" shoppes. They learn your name ... and pronounce it in ways you never imagined possible. They remember you like honey with your tea. If you happen to select a bad apple or avocado, they refuse to sell it to you. If the total of your bill is a few pennies over a euro, they'll ignore the centimes. (We often do the same in the other direction, ie keep the change.)

My grandfather operated a small neighborhood grocery store and meat market, about the size of a two-care garage, a block from the house where I grew up. He had one of those wood-carving plaques you get in a tourist trap, probably from a trip to the Adirondack Mountains -- the plaque had a naked fellow wearing a barrel, and read, "The world owes you a living ... but you have to work hard to collect it."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dream Dump

I had one of my more vivid dreams last night, probably more toward morning, so I was able to remember some detail, which is not often the case. Usually I am aware I dreamed something during a night but cannot recall anything specific, even the topic.

A teacher once said dreams, or at least certain dreams, constitute a "brain dump."

The dream last night seemed to have at least some connection with real things that have passed through my head recently.

I dreamed I was in San Francisco for a conference. (Why SF? Probably because our friend, R, had posted on FB that she would be up late to watch the SF Giants opening day game (9 hours difference). I remember thinking, just before going to bed, that she might be tired when we meet for coffee this morning.) (Mid-blog update - it was a different R, same name, we were meeting; my confusion.)

For some reason, in my dream, I had signed up for a bus tour which was leaving from the conference. A spouse tour, as it turns out, though I don't think Donna-Lane was involved in the conference.

When I went to register, they told me because I had signed up late I would not be in the same hotel as the others in the group, at least for the first night. (This probably relates to the kerfuffle about the passenger who was dragged off the United / Republic flight - some people on social media commented that passengers who show up late at the airport gate are more likely to be bumped. Though I suspect it's those who pay the lowest ticket fares.)

The nice bus tour people mentioned something else I did not know -- I was the tour group leader. Quite a surprise, as I have never been to the tour's destination, Salt Lake City and other Utah environs, so didn't have a clue how I was supposed to lead. (I cannot think of any reason Utah would pop up in my dream, and I did not mention to the tour people my lack of local knowledge.)

I also learned the bus tour was five days, pretty much the duration of the conference, so exactly how was I going to attend any of the conference? (On whatever the subject was.) (Maybe this was from my reluctance to attend an event in May to which I have been invited but is extremely tight on schedule, so I might have to pass. I have been thinking in terms of five days for this event, including travel.)

I woke up before the tour bus departed, so I'm a bit sorry I didn't get to see Utah. I hear it's beautiful.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Village Life

 
Coming up on four years of living in Europe. It's been lifestyle- and life-changing.

What I like most is the unhurried attitude, the antithesis of the frantic rush of the corporate bubble and consumerist coercion. We are fortunate that we do not have to leap out of bed in the morning and merge into the maddening traffic bound for overpriced coffee driveups and high-rise cubicle farms. Permit me to gloat that, most days, we lounge in bed, reading, until we get hungry for a light breakfast.

When we do finally get dressed, some mornings the biggest challenge is walking about 100 paces down a slight hill to our cheery, samba-dancing green grocer to pick out fresh veggies for lunch, then a few more paces to one of five butchers for the freshest of meat, then a couple of steps to one of four boulangeries for aromatic just-baked bread.

We might stop on the way home at one of three sidewalk cafes, where we're likely to bump into a succession of friends doing the same. It's not uncommon to go out for a "quick" errand and not get back for three hours. The conversations cover everything, and the viewpoints range from radical to reactionary.


Yes, we both work, but mostly on our own schedule. That's a perk of freelance and semi-retirement. Sometimes I'll write deep into the night; that's when I seem to focus best ... the terror of a deadline certainly helps. D-L is more productive in the daylight.

We don't get to the beach nearly often enough. I know; you feel so sorry for us. We actually like it best in the winter when it's fairly deserted except for a dog walker or three. Occasionally early in the morning to watch the sun rise. In the other direction, the Pyrenees rise up to protect our plain, none more majestic than Canigou. Two abandoned watchtowers on the peaks reassure that the Franconistas won't be invading over the border any day soon.

As much as we like the stone buildings that go back a thousand years, the narrow meandering streets, the church bells sounding call to worship, weddings and funerals, the marche vendors hawking produce, sausages and cheap clothes, the summer dances, the non-commercial carnavales, the 25-euro doctor visits, the 5:25 am trash truck beep-beep-beep, and dodging dog doo, what truly makes village life wonderful is the variety of people -- French, of course, British, Irish, Dane, Swede, Moroccan, Spanish, and local Catalan; mostly authentic, non-pretentious, not worried whether their purse is this year's name-brand brag bag, content with a wardrobe that's more functional than fashion.

I don't think I could live in a large city like New York or London or even Paris. Maybe on the fringes ... in a village more like ours. The access to great museums and events might be nice. But I suspect the pace of life even there would lean to hurried and harried.

I doubt I could live in the States again, assuming I could even afford to on Social Security (if it's still there) and a bit of writing revenue. I've gotten used to the shops being closed from Noon to 3:30 or 4:00 and all day Sunday (except for the chain grocery, which is open in the morning). I like that we don't need a car to get to most anyplace we want.

In a way, the village is akin to the place where I grew up. We knew the neighbors. My grandfather had a grocery store down the street. The gathering place for the men and boys was a guy's basement barber shop. We walked to school - elementary, junior high, and high school. We rode our bikes to baseball practice. Anyplace beyond the river was mostly a mystery. That place isn't the same anymore.

Was moving to Europe a coming home for me? Was it a step back in time, both figuratively and literally? Don't know; doesn't much matter.

I'm here to be with the person I love. She's here because she loves this place. It didn't take me long to fall in love with it too. (Just stepping off the train was enough.) And every day we find we love it in new ways.