Dear Mr. President,
Thank you for your sincere and uplifting State of the Union Address. Your skills in speechmaking are truly impressive.
Your speech was addressed to your fellow Americans. I would like to respond to some of your remarks from my point of view: that of an overseas American who has felt the heartbreak of having to renounce my American citizenship.
A Changing World
One of the things you emphasized in the first part of your speech was the changing world we live in:
We live in a time of extraordinary change—change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world.
Undoubtedly, this is true, and the pace of that change keeps increasing. What you didn’t mention next to “the way we work” was “where we work.” In other words, in this fast-changing world, more and more Americans are working overseas. Estimates vary, but the number of Americans living in other countries is probably somewhere between 7 and 9 million.
You posed a series of questions in the State of the Union Address, one of which struck me as relevant to overseas Americans:
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
Seven to nine million Americans is a lot of people, and they—we—are representing America every day in a way that your diplomats and politicians cannot. We live among local people all over the world, and the many people we work with, study with, compete with, trade with, and so on, may very well be basing their assessment of Americans on these personal interactions. You should not discount the effects of these countless overseas contacts.
You touched on this potential when you said the following, proposing that, instead of taking over and rebuilding every country that is in crisis, we should take a “smarter approach”:
… on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.
We—the 7-9 million ordinary Americans already living overseas—could help with that mobilization.
Spirit of Discovery
We overseas Americans represent the good things about America that you wish the rest of the world to understand. In the State of the Union Address, you mentioned the “spirit of discovery.”
America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley, racing to shape a better world. That’s who we are.
Yes, I agree, that’s who we are. And you mention immigrants, but not emigrants: those who have left the US. Please don’t assume that Americans who leave the country are abandoning being American or rejecting what is good about the American spirit.
Americans leave the US for work—a job in an American or foreign-owned company—or for adventure—the spirit of discovery that you praise—or for love: like me, many met and fell in love with a foreigner and settled in their partner’s country.
In your speech, you praised “daily acts of citizenship” carried out by Americans. Back in the 1980’s, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching in Malawi. Doesn’t that count as a praiseworthy act of citizenship? Or does it lose its value now that I’ve moved overseas? I know another overseas American who fought in the US military. Doesn’t that count? Yet he has also had to renounce his citizenship.
US Treatment of Overseas Americans
Despite the fact that we overseas Americans are a ready pool of representatives of America who can further American goals overseas, and despite our “daily acts of citizenship,” we are treated as if we are criminals and traitors to our country.
In your speech, Mr. President, you briefly mentioned the target of the FATCA law:
It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.
Your audience applauded this line. Are you, or any of your congressional audience for the State of the Union Address, aware of the unintended consequences that have resulted from FATCA? Did any of you actually read it? Or did you all just buy into the rhetoric that it would catch “fat cats” who were hiding money overseas?
FATCA was intended to stop Americans living in the US from hiding their money in overseas bank accounts in order to avoid paying taxes on it.
However, the unintended consequences are far-reaching. All overseas Americans have money in “foreign” accounts—that should be obvious given that people bank where they live—but that does not make us criminals. Many—and I’d venture to say most—of us do not actually owe taxes in the US. We don’t, however, avoid paying taxes: in many countries, including the Netherlands, where I live, we have to pay much higher taxes than if we lived in America. We don’t mind, since we receive services where we live, not in the US.
Nevertheless, we have to file lengthy, ridiculously complicated forms to prove our innocence, often leading us to take on the cost of paying accountants to ensure accuracy. We also, in order to prove we are not criminals, have to report information that homeland Americans are not required to reveal. That’s the part that is most offensive to me: that invasion of privacy based on an assumption of wrongdoing.
If we do not comply with FATCA and the complicated reporting requirements, we are threatened with far higher penalties than homeland Americans would get for the same level of offense.
So, Mr. President, instead of listening to us and fixing what is wrong with the FATCA system, you, along with the whole of the Congress and Senate, ignore the vast majority of overseas Americans and continue spouting the rhetoric of criminals hiding money in offshore accounts.
Instead of using us as unofficial ambassadors to further American aims overseas, you’re pushing us further away: to the extent that many are renouncing citizenship.
Instead of encouraging our leadership in foreign-owned companies, you’re taking away our competitive edge because foreign companies don’t want to deal with Americans and the complications FATCA brings.
Instead of rewarding that “spirit of discovery” that you praise, you’re treating us as suspected criminals.
Do you really think this is wise?
This post is the sixth in a series on American values that I’ve written since my renunciation day. Here are the others: