Category Archives: usa

FATCA madness

More than a year ago, the IRS announced that they had 77’000 banks cooperating with them for FATCA.  Robert Wood wrote on that and a bunch of other scary IRS facts for citizens abroad.  (Really, $10’000 for a non-willful FBAR mistake?)

Today, July 18, 2015, the searchable list of Foreign Financial Institutions numbers 168’239 funds or institutions.  The UK alone boasts 23’568 – the first hit being “Mrs E M Brown Grandchildren’s Settlement.”  Other notable entries there: “17th Earl of Pembroke W/T -Lady Pembroke” and “Lord Clinton’s Marriage Settlement – Lady Clinton’s Fund.”  It appears that every fund that wants US investments in its portfolio needs to register with the IRS – and you know that means forms.  Reams of forms, to the tune of several tens of thousand a year, and even more potential data from the institutions that register.  And these forms probably can’t be e-filed, so a few of the roughly 95’000 IRS employees probably get to type those forms into a database and file them in a drawer somewhere.  Assuming 40’000 filings a year, with 9 pages per form printed out single-sided, that’s about five kitchen stoves worth of paper volume just for the registrations.  Of course, these registrations are chump change compared to the number of filings each year.  How do they keep track of all the information they’re gathering? 

What bugs me most about the list of Swiss institutions is that the pension fund I formerly used to use, one that converts part of the savings into a fund, is of course registered here, because they also trade with US shares.  But they’ve bumped me out, because I’m a US citizen and not worth their having to actually keep tabs on me.  (I’m still uncertain whether these tax-deferred voluntary pension schemes are even a good idea at all, just because the US probably doesn’t view them as eligible for any sort of tax deferment.)

So with all these hassles, I’m curious to see if I can even open a bank account in Ellie’s name before getting her registered with Social Security, because Postfinance (and pretty much every other Swiss bank) requires US citizens to fill out a W-9 form that allows them to share information with the IRS when requested.  And of course that form requires a Social Security Number…

At any rate, there will be two more accounts on our FBAR next year.  And for Janet’s sake, I hope that the IRS finally implement a copy-paste function within the PDF document for filing the FBAR, so she doesn’t have to re-type the Postfinance address a dozen times.

Hacking the meritocracy

Put on your cynic hat for a moment, and answer the following questions.

What do you do when you’re on top of a society that believes in meritocracy, but you want your kids to stay on top?

What if your society believes its schools help create a meritocracy, because kids get the grades they deserve and, as a consequence, the university acceptances and jobs and scholarships they deserve?

According to an article on Yahoo! finance, the answer is clear: maintain the gap between you and the masses by spending more money on your child’s education – by moving to a good district, or paying for private schools or tutoring.  The article claims this simple circumvention of the alleged “meritocracy generator” is widening the wealth gap, because rich kids go to better schools, get better jobs, and get richer.

In other words, public schools generate meritocracy (if they even do that) only for those who can’t afford to opt out.  And pouring more money into the educational system won’t help, because the rich can always outspend us.  So, obviously, the solution has to be to make public school mandatory for everyone, and ban both private schools and private tutors, and set up rules so that rich kids cannot parlay their parent’s leverage into any advantage.  But of course, that’s discrimination, because if inherited wealth cannot confer any advantage, then why should inherited smarts or inherited athletic ability or inherited good looks parlay any advantage?  This approach leads us straight down the Harrison Bergeron path.

If, then, we can’t forbid the rich to outspend us in education, how can we work at closing that education gap their wealth seems to be creating?  As mentioned, the public school system can’t be the answer to that, because it can’t compete with its better-financed private lookalikes.  What’s left, in my opinion, is to spend money smarter, and homeschooling – where achievement appears to be independent of income and spending – seems to be one way to do it.

Can you think of other approaches?


Hampton vs. Homewood

We’re finalizing our vacation planning and, after the folks we’re meeting settled on a hotel (Hampton Inn), decided to book a room in the same establishment, through the same website.  I’d forgotten to book yesterday evening, so I booked this morning. was first in German, which confused me because of the room designations, so I switched to the English version, searched for the hotel again, and completed the booking.

And then, as I looked at the confirmation page, with the bright yellow letters stating that I’d booked an unrefundable fare, I realized I’d booked us into the Homewood Suites in the same town.  So – at about 6:50 our time, 12:50 a.m. on the East Coast – I called  On my first try, I didn’t get the automated stuff (it called the confirmation number “itinerary number”), so I tried again and pushed the number for changing my reservation.  I waited out the automated lady until I was told I’d have to expect a wait of 2 minutes.

2 minutes, for once, were a gross overestimation.  I’d say 15 seconds, and Joy was on the line.  I explained the situation.  She put me on hold, called the Homewood night manager, who waived the penalty, and rebooked us for the Hampton Inn.  16 minutes after my original ill-advised booking, we were set for the hotel we wanted.

Needless to say, I’m impressed and grateful that Joy and the night manager chose to make me happy.  Thumbs up to both Homewood Suites and for their flexibility!  I’m already well ahead of Janet in the “oopsie” budget category…

Brendan Eich and Westboro Baptist

A while back I was impressed by a few people supporting gay rights.  When Westboro Baptist decided to picket a concert shortly after their leader’s death, some people staged a counter-protest with a sign saying “Sorry for your loss.”  I’m not sure the Westboro folks noticed the burning coals on their heads (thick skulls, perhaps), but lots of people like me took notice.

And I thought, “Class act, folks.  What a great way to support your cause.”  They took the high road, and I think I’m not the only one to be impressed.  Much better than suing bakers and florists for not providing wedding services, that’s for sure.

Then Mozilla urges its CEO to step down because he didn’t (doesn’t isn’t proven, though likely) agree with gay marriage and gave money to support that opinion politically.  Thud – we’re back at ground level.

I get that OkCupid pushed the campaign to unseat Mr. Eich: it makes perfect marketing sense.  Somebody in their PR department realized that OkCupid could look both daring and righteous at very little risk and very little cost, and impress a valuable constituency in the process.  Well played, Cupid – what’s one person’s job when the payoff is viral publicity?

I don’t get that individuals within Mozilla pushed for it.  Did he ever act out of line with company policy?  Would he have made a capable CEO?  It seems the answers are “no” and “yes” – which makes me think a wise employee would have wanted Eich in that position, whether he agreed with him or not.

What I get, but deplore most of all, is that all reactions to this situation are either drenched in sarcasm or smugness.  “Let’s go purge all the others that supported Prop. 8!”  “Nobody can be a good CEO and hold Eich’s opinion on gay marriage.”  “Conservatives are so hypocritical.”  “Liberals are so hypocritical.”

Nobody seems to address the question that gives me pause: who benefits from this (aside from OkCupid, of course)?  Will I get a better browser, now that Eich has stepped down?  Will homosexual employees do better at Mozilla, now that Eich has stepped down?  Have gay rights advanced, now that Eich has stepped down?  Has the public perception of homosexuals and their supporters improved, now that Eich has stepped down?  Has understanding of the other side been furthered, now that Eich has stepped down?

I see nobody gaining appreciably from the situation.  My impression is that Mozilla lost an eminently qualified man, and the gay community lost a chance to be magnanimous.  How unfortunate.


How Content Is Your State

Here come poll results poured into a simple graphic representation, but you can read all kinds of conclusions into it, such as “States with more electoral votes per capita are happier,” or “Upstream is better than downstream.”  The original report is by Gallup and Healthways and contains all the data, but I thought the colors could be happier.

2013 US Well-Being

7 Quick Takes: Rights, Liberties, and Exploitation

— 1 —

Back in 2010, a German family was granted political asylum in Tennessee, because they had been homeschooling their children in a country that prosecutes, fines, and removes children from homeschooling parents. This immigration judge sent a strong message to the world: America is still a country where Liberty is writ large.

— 2 —

Today, the same family stands in danger of being deported back to Germany. Whether the appeal stems from a fear of offending an ally, or a fear of having immigration offices overrun (by legal immigrants), the message is the same: “We’re scared of our Liberty.” (I suspect the family could just stay in Tennessee as illegal immigrants and wait for amnesty, perhaps?)

— 3 —

I don’t think these fears started with 9/11, but 9/11 and the specter of unlikely but terrible events got enough people shaking in their booties to give the government a mandate to act on its fear of Liberty.

— 4 —

As someone with a vested interest to see the right to homeschool protected, I frequently find myself opposed to regulation in the educational field. I know plenty of homeschoolers and trust that Liberty in this area will not lead to dire consequences (or the “parallel societies” that have the Germans wetting their pants). When it comes to gun control, I’m less likely to oppose regulation because I’m used to regulation and because I’m not very familiar with how gun owners tick. I remember reading Deer Hunting with Jesus and being struck with how Joe Bageant, a Liberal himself, denounced the Liberals for their stance on gun control. Folks in Winchester, he said, take great pride in knowing how to safely use a gun. Gun regulation will not make them safer, just more outraged at Democrats. Gun owners who know those in their community must trust other gun owners and therefore oppose regulation as unnecessary; we who don’t own guns and to whom the part of society that does is alien are more likely to be in favor of regulation of those scary gun-owning folks we don’t understand.
In other words, we oppose regulation for the familiar, and favor it for the unfamiliar.

— 5 —

Thus, what we clearly need is understanding, and one would expect that globalization and social media would help bring us closer and facilitate mutual understanding. Instead, it has made it easier to congregate with the like-minded (a sociological phenomenon already observed and made economically relevant in Anderson’s The Long Tail). The upshot, I believe, is that we’re more willing than ever to regulate, ban, and condemn behavior we don’t understand – and less willing to try to understand it.

— 6 —

A recent example of the bizarre flotsam of condemnations in our media is how the most recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (may I call that SISI, pronounced “sissy?”) was widely panned for exploitation – of those people in the photos that got to stay dressed! I’d always thought that accusing the SISI of exploitation was like accusing Marx of being a leftist, but here the SISI’s being accused only of exploiting those people whose (presumably equally willing) participation doesn’t align with how we think they should behave. We expect the model to objectify herself, but object to the old Chinese boatsman being objectified as a backdrop in the same picture. Why the difference? The model gets her handful of silverlings to feed her habit, and the boatsman his smaller handful to feed his family. Does anyone think for a moment that the boatsman, today, is at all bothered by that photoshoot?

— 7 —

But I also see the advantages of the like-minded being more easily able to congregate. I just sold my old 5.25″ copy of Indiana Jones to a guy in Iceland, and interest in my apparently rare French version of Maniac Mansion is coming in from all over Europe. (If you want to, you can join the bidding here.) The Lucasfilm game collectors community may be small, but eBay aggregates them into a community easily reached.

Maniac Mansion (French)

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Where the Swiss place their hopes

swissfuture and have again conducted their end-of-year survey to determine where the Swiss place their hopes and how optimistic they are for 2013.  Simply put, we’re optimistic; we’re more optimistic about Switzerland than about the rest of the world, and at the same time, place our hopes squarely at the feet of…

Barack Obama.  It’s enough to make me pessimistic about Switzerland.

As an average Swiss, my top ten sources of hope are
62% — the many unsung heroes of everyday life
43% — Barack Obama
41% — myself
39% — my spouse or partner
27% — God
23% — my children / grandchildren
23% — Jesus Christ
17% — my parents / grandparents
13% — the Dalai Lama
10% — Alain Berset (the youngest, best-looking, and most recently elected member of the federal council)

Why we place our hopes in someone paid to look out for the interests of a foreign country, or in someone who embodies the identity and culture of a central Asian region, eludes me.  Any ideas?