It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I call the American Diaspora Tax War. Yes, I took some time off to think and observe and to get some distance from a cause that I feel very strongly about. As a recovering alcoholic, I have to be very careful about things like “justified anger,” resentment, and frustration. When the world isn’t going my way, is the answer to become angrier and more outraged? Or is it to calm down, think, and try to determine the best way to move forward?
What was particularly helpful was spending time in countries other than my adopted country, France. Over the past few years when an occasion presented itself I asked my fellow Americans about what they thought about it all. Their answers gave me new insights and a greater appreciation for the difficulties we face in organizing around the issue of citizenship-based taxation and FATCA.
Today, I thought I’d share with you some of my observations. They are in no particular order and you may not agree with all or any of them. Feel free to make this a conversation in the comments section. Here goes:
The Triangle: It’s useful to think of the relationship triangle that diasporas/migrant communities are in when they seek to act politically and transnationally. There are three sides: the home country government, the homeland citizens and media, and organizations that could be allies or enemies; the host country governments, local citizens and media; and finally the migrant/expatriate communities themselves which could be organized in various ways, both locally (in the host country) and transnationally (with the home country or with other migrant communities in other countries.)
For Americans abroad fighting CBT/FATCA keeping this triangle in mind is vitally important. On the one hand we have possibilities that are not available to our fellow citizens in the home and the host countries; there are two places we can act and not just one. On the other hand we are, I think it’s fair to say, the weakest side. In neither the home or the host country are Americans abroad any more than a small minority. Our issues are generally not very high on anyone’s political agenda.
So a first step for all of us is to acknowledge the complexity of the triangle relationship and our relative lack of power within it. Does this mean we should just throw up our hands and give up? I don’t think so. I just think we need to be a lot savvier about where we sit, and a lot more knowledgable about the local and home country political arenas.
Not to mention that, in my opinion, we still have not reached a level of organization and solidarity that would allow us to be taken seriously. There is work to be done on our side of the triangle – to make it stronger and more credible: international organization and outreach.
Spreading the word: Want to know how many Americans I encountered in my travels who were not aware of FATCA or had only a hazy notion of the implications of citizenship-based taxation? A lot. Most even. For those of you who are living and breathing the nightmare this may come as a surprise to you. And I only met one person in Japan who was aware of the Japan/US FATCA agreement. For those of you who belong to an American Abroad organization, you might be even more surprised how many people have never heard of AARO or ACA. None of this is on their radar. Our task is to get it there and we have not done a good enough job of finding them so we can make our argument and earn their support.
American communities have very different circumstance depending on the host country. In some places there are so few Americans and they are so scattered about the country that finding them (presuming they wish to be found) is hard. But it’s not impossible. They can be located, for example, in trade or professional organizations or in migrant groups that call themselves “international XXXX.” One way to go about making contact is “snowballing.” Find a few Americans locally with a lot of time in the country and good networks. Get their support and ask them to go out and convince others and so on and so forth.
This is important because even though we may share a nationality local people are almost always more credible than outsiders. The Americans I met in Japan were very pleasant people but I was an American abroad from France and how could I possibly understand the American in Japan perspective?
Organization: We have a cause but we don’t, in my opinion, have a satisfactory organization. What we have is a lot of committed people doing what they can individually or through different organizations like AARO, ACA, RO, DA, Brock and many others. Why is this not enough?
Not enough people for one thing. We just can’t get huge numbers of people to sign petitions, write letters and so on. When the word goes out to support some initiative, it goes out to a relatively small number of people in the know (or on the mailing or FB list) and doesn’t spread beyond that.
Some Americans abroad are fearful and don’t want to hand over their names and contact information to any organization lest the US government get that information for their own purposes. Others are put off by the location, perspective or affiliations of some groups: they don’t like the commentary at Brock; they wouldn’t join any organization with Republican or Democrat in the name; they look and see that one organization is based in France and the other in the US and they live in India. Membership dues are also an issue for many.
And finally all these organizations don’t necessarily agree with each other on how to go about fighting CBT/FATCA. The different proposals can be very confusing and to someone who is already leery about joining any movement, the arguing itself is a reason for some to pass on the whole business.
Something I became aware of in my travel is that quite a few people are DIYing their own personal strategies for dealing with FATCA/CBT which may be imperfect but still makes them feel that they aren’t compelled to join anything or participate in anything. Those folks are a tough sell and all of the above things tip them to the side of hunkering down and staying out of sight.
I think the time has come for us to think about alliances and federation. I think we need an organization devoted to the fight against FATCA/CBT which has no dues, no political affiliations, and is organized at the country level or below. All Americans abroad would have the option of joining anonymously. This organization would not take a stand on any particular FATCA/CBT proposal but could include the work of all organizations working on the issue and their efforts at outreach. A single website would gather together all the links to different initiatives, news reports and perspectives. It could include country reports by local American communities so that we can all better understand what is going on outside our own little corner of the world. Hopefully, this would encourage different organizers in different countries to form their own alliances. Ideally, it would promote the broadest circulation of ideas.
And above all, no forums. Look, there are plenty of places out there where we can write to our heart’s content about how we feel about all of this. The focus here would be different: outreach, alliance, information exchange. Think of it as a simple federation where we are united by the fight against FATCA/CBT and the devilish details and disagreements can be taken to email.
The ultimate goal of this umbrella organization would be to strengthen our side of the triangle, no more no less. I think that’s something worth doing. I can’t see how we will achieve anything without it.