Let’s You and Him Fight

It’s late in the day and I’m tired.  Normally, at this hour I have two goals: dinner and sleep.  I will be thrilled if the cortisone allows me to sleep a solid five hours.

But all day long I’ve been thinking about something that was brought to my attention:  an interesting graphic that is circulating on social media.   It has the logos of the main Americans’ abroad organizations (ACA, AARO, FAWCO, Dems Abroad) and two text boxes.

Reading from the top the first text box calls these organizations “silent” and “disconnected,” and says this is “unacceptable.”

The author tells us more in a second text box further down and to the left.  It  cites “continued attacks on Americans abroad” and claims that Elizabeth Warren wants to “strengthen FATCA in her ‘Medicare for all’ proposal…”   And where, the author asks, are the voice(s) of the main American migrant/expat organizations in all this?

My initial reaction was a giggle.  Not a great example of effective political communication.  I actually know what all those actors and acronyms mean and I still had to puzzle out what the author was getting at.  For a moment there I wondered if the Russians had written it.

Yes, my skepticism about stuff on social media is at an all time high because manipulative monkeys with keyboards abound.  And that is where it finally clicked for me – why it was on my mind.  The graphic and text made me feel like a not very nice someone was trying to play games with my head.  A someone trying to get me angry and then clumsily trying to direct my fire against their targets to his/her own ends.  A version of “Let’s you and Him Fight” (but without the romance.)

Now that I have that off my mind, I am shaking the whole thing off and moving on.  This past year has reminded me that life is short.  I will, health willing and at my convenience, check out the Warren allegation and I will make up my own mind as to whether or not this is something I should be concerned about.  And while I will happily read any statement put out by any advocacy organization, I don’t need them to tell me how to think or who to be pissed at.  In all the years I’ve been associated with them, they have never tried to do that with me.  Strong point in their favor.

Back to the evening’s regular programming.  Tacos for dinner and I made the shells myself.

EU Study on FATCA

I completely missed this one when it came out but, thankfully, someone clued me in. (Thank you, Rebecca!)  But I was very pleased to see that the topic is still alive at the EU and that they are taking a serious look at how this legislation is working for the EU and its citizens.

In May of this year, the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Right and Constitutional Affairs released a study about the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and its impact on people in the EU (and elsewhere).  You can find the full study here.

You can also watch this 17-minute presentation of the study by Carlo Garbarino, Professor of Tax Law, Bocconi University, Milan.

The American Diaspora: Outreach and Organization

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.

Your thoughts?




The Sommers Hypothesis

Otsuba Park, Osaka, Japan, June 2017

As I was doing my fieldwork in Japan I came across something that is referred to as the Sommers Hypothesis.  Scott Sommers is a Canadian who has lived in Taiwan since 1996 and before that he lived and worked in Japan and South Korea.  His website says that he is working on his PhD in Educational Psychology at Ming Chuan University in Taipei where he also teaches English.

I read the old posts on his blog from time to time and I enjoy them. He has eclectic interests, writes well, and he’s a thoughtful man with a lot of experience living in Asia.

In his blog archives I found several posts by Sommers where he looks at the EFL industry in Asia through the lens of my passion, international migration.

Foreign English Teachers as Economic Migrants

The Economic Migration of English Teachers in Asia

The Issue of Social Class Among Foreign English Teachers

Sommers begins his inquiry with a puzzle.  Why is it that so many Anglophones from developed countries came to Asia in the 1980s and continue to come in large numbers today?  Some of this flow is Global North-North migration (Canada to Japan, for example) and some of it is Global North-South (UK to Thailand).    You have only to look at the Japanese immigration statistics for this population to see that this phenomenon is real.

Japan Statistics (see 2-14 Foreigners by Nationality and Age (Five-Year Groups) (1950–2005)(Excel:88KB)) show that in 1965 there were 12,685 US,  1,940 UK, and 1,460 Canadians in Japan.  In 1980 there were 18,590 US citizens.   In my MA dissertation Anglophone Migrants in Japan Mobility, Integration and the Secondary Labor Market  I took note of this in the larger context of increasing immigration to Japan:
  • “But with the rise of the Japanese economy, foreign labor was welcomed in the 1970s and 1980s (Douglass and Roberts 2003, pp.6–7). By 2008 the foreign population had grown from less than 1 million to over 2 million (Chung 2010, p.3). Most of the migration was from other Asian countries like China but the number of Americans, British and other English speakers grew too. In 1985 there were 25,170 US citizens in Japan (Statistics Bureau n.d.). In 2010 those numbers had risen to 50,667 Americans and 16,044 British (Statistics Bureau 2016a).”
So Sommers was absolutely on to something interesting.  And he was right to focus on the sector he knows the most about, the EFL industry, because I would argue that this was the “pull” that brought these Anglophones to Asia.  All of them?  No.  A majority of them?  I would say Yes.  My study seems to confirm it and there is research to support it (See D. Hawley Nagatomo’s work, for example, or a close at the visa categories they used when entering Japan).
Sommers argues that any explanation of this migration must take into account “[t]he large and seemingly endless number of Anglo-Americans who are leaving their homes; its origin in the 1980s and “[t]he fact that they move almost entirely to those places in Asia where English teaching jobs are available without special training, the income is reasonably high and the standard of living is comparable with their mother country.”
He is using a push/pull model where the “pull” is:  a good economy, jobs, decent wages, and a high standard of living with a minimum of professional credentials required. He is correct that EFL jobs can be had in Asian countries with only a BA in any subject.   On the ECC website two of the requirements are: 1. “Bachelor’s degree in any discipline from a recognized institution” and 2. that the applicant be a “Native speaker of English (grade 1 through completion of high school conducted with English as the main language of instruction).”  Compare that to teaching in a public school, say, in a province of Canada which requires a degree and certification.  Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the public schools in the US has a similar certification process (depends on the state). 
That’s the pull, but what was the “push”?  Why did they leave the US, UK, Canada, Australia?  It’s all the more puzzling when one considers that these were mostly young, college-educated individuals. If you look at the country statistics they don’t appear to be the least privileged members of their societies.  In 2015 only 33% of Americans had a college degree. So what’s up?
Some people are satisfied with a very short answer:  it’s all about the adventure  This is a “lifestyle” choice  (and let’s stop the conversation right there.)  But Sommers isn’t satisfied with that explanation and neither am I.  For one thing, “adventure” is a very broad term and means wildly different things to different people.  For another it’s a self-reported state of mind, not (as Sommers points out) something tangible that you can measure.  If someone says to me “I’m moving to France to have an adventure” then I need to follow up with “What does that mean to you?” And when she returns (if she does) what are the indicators that say “Adventure achieved.” (Or not, as the case may be.)  
At some point I suggest that you have to dig deeper and go beyond what people say and look at who they are, what they did at home, how they were able to move abroad, and what they do in the host country.  I personally believe that “adventure” is indeed one of the motivations, but is it the only one? Highly unlikely.  Migration is almost always multi-causal and there is no reason to think that Anglophones from developed countries are any different.  
And here is where Sommers raises hackles because he suggests that these anglophones are not just migrants, they are economic migrants.  In general, Americans, Canadians, Brits do not like that term and don’t want it applied to them.  To them, it implies low status and puts them on the same level as the unloved and unwanted immigrants in their own countries.  I fully understand their position even though I disagree with it.   
In what sense, then, are they economic migrants according to Sommers?  It has to do with their relative position in the home country job market, the capital they left home with, and the positions open to them in the host country.  He speculates that :  “Anglo-american groups are represented in East Asia as English teachers in proportion to their disadvantage in their domestic labour markets.”  
And what is this disadvantage he says they have? Their degrees.
  • “Since the late 1980’s, I estimate that close to a million Anglo-americans have taught English in East Asia; Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Over a number of posts, I have developed the idea this is a direct result of the decline in workplace value of the BA (Bachelor of Arts). Graduates who are not able or willing to gain further merit through graduate studies or professional education have been marginalized. Without this merit, liberal arts graduates have been forced into underemployment in the ‘dead-end’ jobs of their mother country or to move to the margins of the industrial world where their language and cultural skills have been commoditized and are thus sellable.”
In other words, when young people are unable to get jobs at home that are commensurate with their university-level education (and paid well enough to cover the cost of that education), they look to opportunities abroad that leverage their degrees and native-speaker English skills.  EFL companies in Asia actively recruit young, college-educated people from those “core” Anglophone countries.  
Very interesting hypothesis.  He points to studies in the 1990s that suggest that there has been a decline in the value of the BA in those countries.  I did a quick but not extensive search for more recent data and, frankly, I found a lot of studies but no firm conclusions other than general agreement that having a tertiary education is better than not having one.  There is a good 2016 article in The Atlantic about a study that would seem to support Sommers’ point.  My own study suggests that, yes, it’s mostly (not always) young people with liberal arts degrees that come to Japan to work in EFL.  It was definitely the top employer by far. 
Still that’s just one study and it’s not proof of “push.” Most college graduates in the US and other countries stay home, even those with liberal arts degrees.  What is the difference between those who stay and those who leave?  And I don’t think that this can simply be a difference between the “adventuresome” and those who do not want to take the risk.
Another way to look at it is through the lens of socioeconomic status (and a degree is often used a proxy for that but I’m starting to think that this is deceptive).   In addition to degrees we might want to take a closer look at other indicators like how they were able to finance going abroad.  I came across a very few cases in my study where the adventure was almost entirely financed by the family back in the home country or personal savings. They didn’t need to work and could devote 100% of their time to making connections and studying the language and culture until they were ready to find a job, open a business, or go to a Japanese university.  I can’t help compare their experience to that of those who came to work “on the economy” in local jobs where they were hired for their English skills.  Almost all had a least a BA, so the real difference could be one of resources.  In a couple of cases connections were important – they already had a family member living in Japan and they lived with them until they found their feet.
Why am I so interested in this?  Am I simply being a “spoiler of fun” and all around buzzkiller?  I would defend my interest (if I must) and Sommer’s hypothesis for two reasons:  1. It’s my passion and I really want to dig into migration puzzles like this one.  Sommers asks good questions and right now my answer to them is “I’m not sure but I’ll take that hypothesis and run with it.”  Even if it takes me into uncomfortable territory.  And that alone is good enough for me.  
But then there is the second reason which concerns all of us.  One of our (Americans abroad) arguments against the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and for Residence-based Taxation (RBT) is that we are better characterized as working people with average incomes and assets, and not professional class or above, champagne-swilling, sushi-eating elite “expats.”  We even write books that homelanders read about how how our experiences have greatly enriched us personally and professionally. And then we turn around and ask them to support us in our efforts to only be taxed in our host countries. It’s not just the mixed message here, it’s the fact that we have precious little proof that we are what we say we are. We know what we personally experience, we listen to our friends, but we know precious little about other Americans around the world or even in the next city.  And I think this matters a lot to how credible we are in this fight.
Sommers gives us one place we could start and he is to be commended for that.  But we need more data, more studies to support or refute what he has to say.  I would say that we need more studies about migrants from developed countries period.  A lot of government policies about immigration in the countries I have cited in this post are based on perceptions.  It’s no different with emigration. We can kick back and listen to some politician or government bureaucrat tell us who we are (and grumble because we don’t like it) or we can know ourselves and tell them with data to back it up.

And if it happens that the data show that some of us are, indeed, economic migrants?  So what?

It takes a lot of courage to pack up and leave and it takes a lot of hard word to build a life in another country with few resources.  We can be proud of ourselves for going where the work was, and there is nothing about that that says “failure” to me.

That’s my unvarnished take on it, mes amis.  But I’m very interested in hearing what you think.  So fire away.