Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hair salons and indentured servitude in America

Flag of the Republic of Ireland, my homeland (Wiki commons)

I just recently returned to a hair salon I had abandoned about 14 months ago. Before that, I loved the place. For several years, I had actually planned my trips from the States to the UK so that my hair wouldn’t get too awful before the next visit to that salon.

But, after living here for a year and a half, my intense admiration waned for a bit and I thought I’d try out another salon. Just to compare. Just to be sure.

The first new one I tried had some advantages. It was lovely, I mean really gorgeous. A sort of modern traditionalist d├ęcor, all cream and grey and polished aluminium chandeliers in a Listed Building. One didn’t lean back over a sink for washing. Rather, one reclined on a sort of sofa-like thing and the stylist held one’s head in her hands while washing. Very posh, decadent even. No dripping, no crinked neck. The stylist was a lovely young woman with lots to talk about. But the haircut was horrible.

I next tried a very popular, incredibly unattractive but somewhat lower priced salon. Great cut. Truly great. But the neck crinking over the sink was horrific, carried out at the hands of apprentices. And the stylist had nothing to talk about. Nothing. Not one thing. Very boring 45 minutes, especially when one expects the usual buzz and chatter of a salon, and that small guilty pleasure is denied. But the cutdid I mention?was great.

Still, at length, and on a day I needed to be well-served because the haircut preceded a very important trip to London (the reason for which will be apparent further down), she decided her phone calls to set up a wedding gig were more important than properly drying my hair. When I left the salon to do errands before going home, I was miserably uncomfortable. It’s not like January weather in Devon is balmy. So,  40 shivering minutes later I returned and demanded that she dry my hair properly.

Valued customers

For my most recent cut, six weeks after the wet-head routine, I went back to my first salon, to the stylist I had crossed oceans to visit. Whose name, as it happens, is Laura.  I cringed about it. I felt like…well, like an ingrate. Finally, I just thanked her for taking me back.

She looked at me like I was a lunatic, as did the salon owner who cuts in the next chair. “Of course we accept you back. In fact, I expect people to shop around once in a while, and return here if we give what they truly want,” the owner said. When I told them about the wet hair day, my stylist said, “That’s not my idea of customer care. Would you like another latte?”

Some are welcome, as long as they obey

Thinking about the ramifications of renouncing one's American citizenship this morning, that incident came to mind. And then I recalled a business I once profiled. It is a big business. International. It fills a large employment bill in a small town in the upper South, USA. They pay well and offer great benefits, including paying total tuition for an employee’s wife or children who wants to earn a college degree. Problem: Employees can never leave.

OK. They can leave. They just can never come back. They are not, in short, free to test the waters or their skills in another environment, to see if there could be something more fulfilling for their heart, mind or soul; there isn’t much in town more fulfilling for the bank account, especially in non-skilled and semi-skilled work. But still, to some, there are things more important than dollars.

It’s not slavery, exactly. But it is some form of illicit ownership. Sure, it’s a personal choice to leave and seek. But it is a lifetime decision, not just a decision about a job. No Prodigal Son scenarios allowed. This bespeaks a fundamentalism that, in industrial terms, is more exacting even than a story in the Old Testament. There is no gentleness, no acceptance, no forgiveness, no understanding of the human need to seek. There is nothing but hardness, a rather cynical trade of exceptional money for excessive and unconscionably exacted loyalty. It’s the capitalist way.

Which brings me, inexorably, to the subject of renouncing US citizenship.

For most nations in the world (the political horror known as Eritrea excepted), a citizen who goes abroad to work pays taxes in the nation he or she lives and works in. An American citizen who tries that, or even a green card holder who has spent 12 consecutive years working in the US and is thereby claimed by the US as a US person*, is SOL. Taxes must be paid to the US and the new nation, above a specific (and always changing) dollar amount of income. And regardless of income, an IRS form must be filed, an FBAR must be filed, and starting in 2013, yet another compliance form is demanded. 

FBAR: Fubar by any other name

The FBAR is particularly nasty. There is no way for people of average means to even know about it, since the only reference to it is on the IRS form filled out only by those who earn MORE THAN $15,000 A YEAR IN INTEREST. I know of not one single person who has bank accounts earning interest in that range. Obviously, such a thing wouldn’t apply to me.

But if the FBAR isn’t filed, the Treasury Department can charge $10,000 per incident per year. It must be filed any time an American citizen or long-term green card holder is a signatory to any account (bank or investment or business ownership) that is worth more than $10,000 in a calendar year. Even for one day. So, if Joe Schmoe of Kokomo inherited $20,000 from a Scottish uncle and decided to just leave it in Scotland in a bank account for, oh, ten years until retirement and the possibility to travel, guess what? The Treasury, in cahoots with the IRS, could assess Joe a fine of a minimum of $100,000 on his inheritance. If Joe’s wife, also an American or green card holder, also had ownership of the accountand married couples might certainly arrange that, wouldn’t you think?then she would  be liable for an additional $100,000 in fines.

Bad hair salons, strong-arm companies and the Yewnited States

But what has this to do with hairdressing? Everything. Because for the past several years, increasing numbers of Americans have been not only expatriating in protest over political matters if they could; they have been renouncing their US citizenship. Tearing up their passport and proclaiming they are finished with the double-taxation and virtual indentured servitude to the US banking industry in cahoots with the IRS and Treasury. And they are not welcomed back.

American expats who renounce their citizenship, as increasingly they must in order to conduct the simple business of living abroad, are treated like employees of that upper South industrial company, not like the valued customer of a hair salon. Almost any other citizen of the world can leave his or her home nation, move elsewhere for any length of time and pay taxes in the new nation, and return home to be welcomed with open arms. And they will NOT have the onerous reporting requirements and threats of fines to contend with in the meantime. No other nation on earth (except the aforementioned execrable Eritrea) thinks it owns its citizensbody, mind and souland demands obeisance from them even when they’ve chosen to make a home elsewhere for a while, or forever.

Threatening foreign banks to aid in rounding up US expats

Living abroad as an American is becoming more difficult by the minute. A new slew of reporting requirements for individuals was crafted in 2010; a huge number of requirements for foreign banks granting so much as a checking account to US citizens living there have made it all but impossible for US citizens to get simple banking services in much of the world. Why would ANY foreign bank want to pony up its records because the IRS wants them? They fear refusing because of possible reprisals against their nation’s international businesses, and they fear opening up the internal workings of their systems to US scrutiny. It’s a case of “Who died and left the US boss?”

Answer: No one. But the United States Congress doesn’t know that.

Stupid is as stupid does

Of all this, including the financial requirements of expats and the financial institutions abroad, Jackie Guignon, director of American Citizens Abroad, explains:

What the US is doing is pushing away a lot of people who are very honest, and work or live overseas for a multiple of reasons; they are cutting the branch on which they are sitting.

If you don’t have that international network of people who are loyal to your country and move back and forth freely you are at a major disadvantage. The diaspora is fundamental to developing international business.
Apparently, Uncle Sam thinks international business can be developed by browbeating foreign financial institutions and punishing expats who sometimes end up not being just expats, but renunciants, in order to cope with the US government-induced impossibilities of living abroad.

Uncle Sam, global bully boy

Uncle Sam was always a global bully boy. But lately, he has become mean as well as aggressive.

Lots more people than ever before are opting to sever their ties completely with the United States. They can do this if they have a second citizenship, and many people either married to foreign nationals or having worked in a foreign nation for years can do it fairly easily, as well as those who are descended from foreign nationals. While you must be a son or daughter in most cases, Ireland, and in a more limited way Greece and Italy, grant citizenship to second generation members. If you’re Jewish, and you want Israeli citizenship, as I understand it, you’re home free. 

That means, considering the ethnicity of the US, that a lot of US expats are eligible for the second citizenship that would allow them to renounce their US citizenship should they ever fully understand that a person held to the bosom of a nation against his or her will--as the US does to all its expats--is not truly free. In short, once they've stopped drinking the Kool-Aid of American freedom, which is lip service to a fact long since destroyed by Republican politicians and capitalist juggernauts.

Turning a right into a de facto privilege

Renouncing US citizenship is a right; if it were not, then the entire nation would be not only de facto slaves, but actual slaves. However, it does cost $450 to renounce, which makes it equate nicely with indentured servants having to buy their way out of their indenture. And one must show up in person to renounce in front of an embassy officer and a Stars and Stripes, the latter just for dramatic effect, I understand.

Once a US citizen has renounced, there is no going back. Not only will that former US citizen not be welcomed with open arms should he or she decide, after checking things out, that the US is where they want to be after all. Renunciants are shifted into the lumpen mass of global proles seeking a better life in the great North American monolith and must wait their turn, if ever, to live there. And then the ex expat would have to apply for citizenship as if her or she had lived forever in Romania and knew squat about the US of A.

Renunciants must even obtain visas to visit, although if they are now citizens of visa waiver countries, they can avoid that. But even so, their names will be run―in a new program for a new charge of $14 per head per visathrough a global criminal data base, lest a former American with a jaywalking citation in Singapore contaminate the dubious ethics of a nation that stood still for Bush and Cheney, the BP/Halliburton killing of the Gulf of Mexico, Monsanto’s mere existence, Limbaugh on the airwaves and myriad other abominations far more egregious than a parking ticket in Cartagena.

When they have  received the all-clear from the great snooper computer in the sky, and they attempt to enter the sovereign territory of the United States, they will need both their new passport and the Certificate of Loss of Nationality (CLN), the document that results from renunciation. Why? Because otherwise the brain trust at immigration will turn them back. The expatriated/renounced traveller will come up on the database as a US citizen, and US citizens MUST travel into the US on a US passport.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was simply travelling through the US with his family on the way to a holiday elsewhere a few years back when he was turned back. Literally. He had to fly home and apply for a US passport. (I wonder if they rushed it? No matter. Holiday ruined, absurdity ascendant.) It turns out Johnson’s mother had been in New York when he was born so he was, automatically and technically, a US citizen. Johnson had never given it a second thought. He was British. His parents were British. He was brought back to the UK immediately. He knew he was British, just like all the other British kids he grew up with. But the American immigration officer insisted that Johnson’s a Yank and wouldn’t let him even pass through the US on the way to his destination elsewhere. Perhaps the immigration officer had forgotten the US tossed the Brits unceremoniously out about 250 years ago; why would that same nation want to lay claim to one now? If I had been caught in that net, I'd have screamed exactly that loud and long...as I was about to be deported anyway.

I don’t think, actually, that Johnson renounced. Or at least, an Embassy official I had a conversation with didn’t think he had.

But I have. 

I did not want to die an indentured servant to anyone. I have citizenship, with thanks to my blessed grandmother, in the Republic of Ireland. With Ireland's EU membership, that allows me to live freely in Ireland or any of the European Union member states. As my 65th birthday is now approaching, it seemed high time to get it done, to leave the nation where fate decreed I would be born, and adopt the nation(s)** that choice demands for the feeding of my soul. No one lives forever, not even former Yanks who feltwhen the postie knocked and delivered that CLN yesterday a scant eight weeks after my visit to the little bit of US territory on Grosvenor Square in Londonthat the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I wonder why I should feel this way, this enormous sense of relief?” I asked my husband.

“I think that’s a question that would more properly be posed to the United States government,” he replied.

___

 * It is permissible to say "What the F?" at this point. I did, as did my husband, a formerly green-carded US person.

** My soul has always longed for Ireland, and for France. I live in the UK now, but I'm less than an hour by plane from Dublin flying from a local airport, and an hour by ferry from Calais from a port not too far up the road. A strategic position, I think. Plus southwestern England is a very Celtic place.