August 04, 2017

Expatriation: not what it used to be

After the American Century

A century ago being an expatriate had a certain cachet. Some major American writers once lived primarily in Britain, notably Henry James and T. S. Elliot. In the 1920s a raft of famous authors resided in Paris, as chronicled in Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return. Central works of American literature were written while the authors were living in Europe, and they often take place there as well, notably Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises or F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. A sojourn in Europe was once thought essential for every sculptor, painter, musician, and writer. The American artist abroad then lived well due to a strong dollar. In that era, the terms commonly used for such people included "emigrant," "émigré," "expatriate," and "exile." These did not usually have a negative connotation.

Today, the image of the foreigner who lives abroad is somewhat different. Many terms referring to them do not have positive connotations, including "illegal immigrant," "refugee," "alien," "deportee," "evacuee," "migrant," "foreign national," "itinerant," "displaced person," and "gypsy." The term "expatriate" is not much used, and I do not recall being called that by anyone, at least not recently. These days, the dollar is strong but not as strong as in 1920. 

Stokholm, June, 2013

For many reasons it is getting more difficult to be an American expatriate (the older term) or foreign national. This is an unintended product of many factors, including greater mobility, the tightening of security in the face of terrorism, and the digitization of information. The long lines at airports are one obvious example, where on arrival the non-citizen must wait in the slower queue. 

Banking offers a second example. The Economist writes that "Worried about being hit by massive fines for unwittingly aiding money-laundering, sanctions-evasion or financing terrorism, banks have over the past few years dropped customers in countries or sectors deemed high-risk." Even in countries where risks are low, it is now far more difficult to open a banking account. I know this from personal experience. When abroad for more than a few months, it used to be routine to open a local bank account. This has become more difficult, and one is forced to use ATMs and the bank in one's home country, with all the currency exchange charges that come with it. Yet a foreign account cannot deal with every contingency, as local services often are based on having a local bank and credit card. Digital payment systems, for example in the London tube system, do not always work with foreign accounts.

Pensions are a third example. Work in several counties during your lifetime, and each will give only a partial pension on retirement. Nor is there much logic to how much one receives. A nation where one worked only two years may pay half as much as another country where one worked more than 25 years. Saving privately can compensate for this problem, but saving for a pension in one country may not be accepted as a tax deduction in another. These matters vary from one nation to another, and generalization is impossible beyond the fact that sorting it out takes time. A lot of time.

A fourth example is taxation. A decade ago I was temporarily in Britain for a semester, and agreed to give a lecture in Norway. I made the mistake of accepting a modest honorarium for this work. As a result, the honorarium was taxed in Norway, in Denmark (my permanent residence), in the UK (my temporary residence), and in the US (my citizenship). Taken together, these taxes amounted to more than 100% of the honorarium. Perhaps there was a way to avoid paying so much. If so, the rules are hard to make out, and the time demanded to find and fill out various forms made it impractical to contest it.  Since then, I have been far less interested in being paid for lecturing abroad, unless it is in Denmark or the US, which limits the taxes to "just" two countries. Double taxation demands time and produces anxiety.

The difficulties of being an American expatriate have measurable consequences. An increasing number of long-term residents abroad are renouncing their US citizenship. I am not considering this option, but I know people who have turned in their passports. Fortune magazine noted that more people are giving up American citizenship, with a 26% increase in 2016 alone. That was before Donald Trump became president.

Both political parties have long ignored the plight of expatriates, and it was the Democrats who in 2010 passed tax laws for Americans abroad that are more draconian and punitive. As at the airports, the targets of this legislation were smugglers and terrorists, and the intentions were laudable.  The absolute numbers renouncing citizenship are still small, but the trend is troubling. The increase in the last decade has been more than 100%.

We are continually told that the world is becoming more international. Were Hemingway to return, he might disagree. At times seems to be more nationalistic and xenophobic.

June 02, 2017

Why the US Should Have Signed the Paris Climate Accords

After the American Century 

I have been studying the history of energy, especially electricity, for three decades.* In fact, I spent much of this spring studying the history of alternative energies and comparing their adoption to the history of previous energy transitions. I can say with certainty that Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords will look idiotic to future historians, for at least six reasons.

(1) because global warming is very real and getting worse.

(2) because many places that voted for Trump will suffer terrible flooding as the oceans continue to rise, more hurricanes as the oceans continue to warm up and more tornados, caused by the collision of cold continental air masses with much hotter air coming off the Gulf og Mexico.

(3) because solar and wind energy are now cheaper than coal or oil, as established by the marketplace.

(4) because we are in the later stages of an energy transition that is well underway, especially in countries like Portugal and Chile, where fossil fuel lobbies are weaker than in the US,

(5) because due to this decision the centers of alternative energy research and manufacturing will be less American than they might have been, with China, Germany, and other nations taking the lead;

(6) because this decision drives another wedge between the US and its European allies, weakening American leadership and credibility.

It is as if Woodrow Wilson had tried to stop adoption of the automobile in order to save the harness makers, horse breeders, and stables.

Pulling out of the climate accords cannot be done all at once, however, and this issue should be at the center of the elections in 2018 and again in 2020.

Trump is spitting into the wind of change, and the spit is already smeared all over his face.

* My books on energy history include Electrifying America (1990), Consuming Power (1998), When the Lights Went Out (2010), and American Illuminations (2018, forthcoming) - all published by MIT Press.

March 17, 2017

Trump Seeks to Revive Calvin Coolidge's America

The First Trump Budget Reveals Republican Values: 
A Return to Calvin Coolidge's America

After the American Century

Calvin Coolidge

Deeds often reveal far more than words. Trump talks and tweets endlessly, and most of it is rant and distraction. Ignore it. But the Budget is something else. The Republicans would rather have you think about silly distracting statements that pop out of the Administration several times a day. Ignore it. The bottom line is what matters, and this budget shows exactly what Republicans value.

They value weapons, private schools, military hardware, the FBI, expelling illegal immigrants, and building a wall-fence along the Mexican border.

Republicans do not value diplomacy by the State Department, health care, clean air and water, scientific research, the arts, the humanities, museums, disease control, nursing education, public radio, or food for the poor.

The Republicans propose to eliminate entirely the following agencies, endowments, and services:

African Development Foundation
Appalachian Regional Commission
Chemical Safety Board
Corporation for National and Community Service 
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Delta Regional Authority
Denali Commission
Institute of Museum and Library Services 
Inter-American Foundation
U.S. Trade and Development Agency
Legal Services Corporation
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Humanities
Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation
Northern Border Regional Commission
Overseas Private Investment Corporation
U.S. Institute of Peace
U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

This is only a partial list of the proposed cuts. As I wrote earlier on this blog, it seems that the Republican program is to return the nation to its condition in about 1925. Most of the programs and agencies listed immediately above did not exist then.  However, there is one huge difference: President Calvin Coolidge talked very little.

February 09, 2017

The Huckster President: Trump's flagrant conflicts of interest

After the American Century

Donald Trump likes to be a moving target, constantly drawing attention away from what he did yesterday with something entirely different today. The media seem endlessly willing to shift their attention, and as a result many of the questions or problems that Mr. Trump raises are never dealt with thoroughly. What is necessary, in this situation, is that journalists and citizens keep their attention on major problems, rather than hop from one topic to another.

So what is an example of a major problem?  Mr. Trump has not properly separated his businesses (and those of his family) from the office of president. There was some attention to this matter before he assumed office, but the matter has not been properly dealt with. This is not a trivial issue. At the moment Mr. Trump is in constant danger of violating one or another laws because he has not separated himself (and his financial interests) from his duties as president. In Washington itself he has leased a building from the Federal government and remodeled it into a hotel. This was legal for him to do as a private citizen, but it is not legal for an elected official to lease a Federal building. At present, foreign governments (notably through their embassies) hold receptions and make payments to Mr. Trump for the use space in this hotel. It is illegal for him to receive payments from foreign governments, yet he is doing so. The Constitution is quite clear about this: the president may not “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” This question alone ought to be raised every day by the media until it is dealt with.  The Atlantic, to its credit, is pushing on this issue, and notes that the "president himself is now making money off of routine governmental functions."

Yesterday, Mr Trump attacked a major department store chain because they have decided not to sell (anymore) the clothing line produced by his daughter, Ivanka.  Mr. Trump does not understand that it is improper for him to say anything about this, and it is even worse that he proclaims that Nordstrom's decision was "political."  The point is that his businesses and those of his daughter cannot be conducted with their active involvement so long as he is president. For him to attack a company because they do not want to sell her product is a violation of his role and his responsibility as president. He stands forth not as a statesman but a money-grubbing huckster.  

As Robert Casey, the Senator from Pennsylvania put it, with regard to his attack on Nordstrom, "it is unethical and inappropriate for the president to lash out at a private company for refusing to enrich his family."  It is unacceptable that Congress and the Courts do not pressure the president to create a real blind trust so that the public can feel confident he is acting in the national interest, rather than in his own financial interest.

Nor is this all. Mr. Trump's wife has begun a lawsuit against a New York newspaper, claiming that her "brand" was harmed by a story they ran about her, and that she will lose over $100 million because of the story. She clearly sees her role as First Lady in a commercial light, as an opportunity to make money based on the fame and attention that comes with the position. This is fundamentally and absolutely unacceptable.

There are other examples. Mr. Trump has pushed for the completion of that Dakota pipeline through Native American lands, yet before the election he had investments that were directly linked to that very pipeline.  I may have missed something, but I cannot find a story making clear that he has divested himself of financial interests in that pipeline.

Likewise, Mr. Trump has received a large loan froDeutsche Bank, a German bank, in one of his projects. That bank is currently negotiating a settlement with the US Justice Department, because it sold some low quality mortgage bonds to unsuspecting customers.  Trump is in a position to influence these negotiations. He needs to separate himself from any such possibility.

All previous presidents have put their businesses and assets in a blind trust. Mr. Trump has not. His businesses continue to be run by his children and close associates. This is a joke. Who can possibly believe that there is anything "blind" about this procedure?  Ideally, the president should not even know what his investments are, so that his decisions as president cannot be made for personal benefit.

Indeed, we do not even know what Mr. Trump's financial interests are, because he has refused to disclose that information. His taxes remain secret. No other president has done that, either.

In short, it is time for Congress, the Courts, the Media, and public opinion, to demand that Mr. Trump disclose his financial interests, put his businesses in a blind trust (i.e. not run by his children), and begin to create the appearance, at least, of an ethical presidency.  The people have a right to demand that as a bare minimum from any president.

What do we call it, when an elected official mixes their personal property with public property (the Trump hotel), accepts payments from foreign governments, and encourages his family to profit from the power and fame of his office? My friends, it is called corruption. Corruption of the office, corruption of the family, and corruption of the government. We expect this of tinpot dictators, but not of democratically elected officials. We have a president who is wide open to corruption, with no safeguards, and rather than chase after every new story he sets going, it is time to focus a laser beam of attention on his flagrant conflicts of interest and his misuse of the office of president.  He appears to be only a step or two away from impeachable offenses.  Already, one bipartisan lawsuit has been started against him. There will surely be more.

January 28, 2017

A Trump Vision? Back to 1925?

After the American Century

If one looks at Mr. Trump's pronouncements and puts them together, the overall goal seems to be a return to the America of 1925, with only a few pieces of the New Deal remaining domestically. In foreign affairs, the US would not rely much on NATO or other alliances, but rather would make bilateral arrangements with other nations when it seemed of benefit.

In the United States of 1925, abortion was illegal, race relations were hierarchical (with whites dominant, of course), and the welfare state was quite modest. The Federal government had an adversarial relationship to most cities, because Prohibition was laxly enforced there, and the strongest supporters of the Republican presidents of that era came from rural and small town America. Trump has already developed an adversarial role with many cities, over illegal immigration.

During the 1920s immigration was severely restricted, and with a strong preference given to northern Europeans, and very small quotas to non-whites. Immigration was easier from Mexico and Canada then, but Trump is intent on closing these loopholes, and putting the US behind an exclusionary wall.
In the 1920s there were also large tariffs on imports, and Americans produced most of what they consumed.

It would seem that the Trump Administration wants the United States to return to this era, perhaps without the jazz music of the "Roaring Twenties," but with the soaring stock market. Last week, for the first time, ever, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose about 20,000.

The rest of the world has changed just  a bit since 1925, however, and it might be hard to re-create that era.

January 20, 2017

America First? Trumps's slogan has a sorry history.

After the American Century

In his inaugural speech, Donald Trump made a point of saying that his administration would put America first.  This is in striking contrast to many previous presidents. John Kennedy said the US would "bear any burden, pay any price" to defend freedom and democracy in the world. Trump said:

"From this moment on, it's going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."

The America First Movement was prominent in the early years of World War II. It advocated that the US remain neutral in the conflict, and had many supporters until Pearl Harbor. The slogan "America First" was used at the 2016 Republican Convention, and at the time National Public Radio and other journalists noted the unfortunate history of this slogan.

Nevertheless, Trump repeated this phrase emphatically in his speech. It suggests a return to isolationism and mere self-interest in foreign affairs. There is nothing idealistic in such a phrase. Nor is this the first time he has said it. Back in March, during the Republican primaries, he also said he advocated "American First," and he did so again in what was billed as a major foreign policy address in April, covered by CNN. The phrase has often been associated with a lack of sympathy for or understanding of the plight of Jewish people and other minorities in Hitler's Germany. 

At best, it is unfortunate that Trump persists in using this expression. Republicans have often used coded language to appeal to special interest groups. Reagan did this in his time as president, encouraging religious conservatives through veiled references to the Bible, and now it appears that Trump is doing the same thing. The extreme right wing certainly knows about the "America First" movement.  Trump was slow to distance himself from extreme right wing groups, and he has made a right-wing ideologue, Steve Bannon, his close advisor in the White House. 

The mainstream media seem intent on normalizing Trump. Today they are emphasizing the peaceful change in power, and trying to suggest that the change is just part of the ebb and flow of American democracy. But the slogan "America First" hints at something else, something less savory. It suggests a fundamental reorientation toward self-centered isolationism. This would be consistent with Trump's repeated statement that he thinks NATO is obsolete, his refusal to accept the reality of global warming, and his attacks on free trade. 

It is only day one, but there are many reasons to worry. Keep watch.

January 14, 2017

Political Confusion and Tension, but No Voter Mandate in Sight for either Republicans or Democrats

After the American Century

Today's politicians seem to live in a hall of mirrors, because they are surrounded by like-minded people. Clinton and Trump both appear to have had that problem, though it was manifested in different ways. They each thought they understood the public mood, and each looked in the mirror and thought they were more than they were. Hillary now knows this, but Trump does not, or rather, not yet.

Admittedly, the political scene is complicated, and it is hard to sort the trends out into a meaningful pattern. In the US the country as a whole seems to be moving to the right, yet Hillary Clinton had more than 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. The gun lobby prevents any meaningful control over firearms, but at the same time more than half the public wants some form of gun control. Same sex marriage has become legal, but opposition to it remains strong. Whatever trend one points to, there seems to be a powerful trend in a different direction.

The result appears to be that every citizen holds one or two positions that the government opposes, and all too many people have no understanding or sympathy for those who do not share their position. Compromise or the attitude that one should "live and let live" both seem rare. 

President Obama worked against this atmosphere of division and tension, without much success. Donald Trump seems intent on fostering more division, upsetting the public even more than they already are. He has appointed someone who denies climate change to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  He has appointed a person who wants to abandon public education for the voucher system in charge of education. He has chosen an Exxon oil executive to oversee foreign policy, and he will deal with major oil producing countries where Exxon has interests, including Russia and the Middle East. Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, even as it has become quite clear that Russia has mounted widespread cyber attacks on the US and its allies. 

The only consistency here is that Mr. Trump avoids moderation. His rhetoric and actions repeatedly go to extremes. He sees himself as an enormous figure in that distorting mirror. But the American public is deeply divided by him. I do not recall large rallies being staged against any other president on Inauguration Day. Usually the event is a celebration of the peaceful transition of power, where the new President lays out a broad program and seeks to win the confidence of a broader public than those who elected him.

Such a speech, such an appeal, is especially needed in 2017, after a nasty political campaign that discouraged voter turnout and led to the election of a candidate who did not win a majority of the votes cast. But Trump seems to think he has a mandate. He does not. He received 46.1% of the votes cast, to Hillary's 48.2%. Only 129 million people voted, and the turnout was the lowest in 20 years. To put this in perspective, here were the real results of the election

No one   42%  (i.e. did not vote)
Clinton   30
Trump    28

In other words, Trump came in third, and Clinton only did slightly better. The voters did not much like either candidate. Rather than trade accusations about leaked emails, it is time for both political parties to admit that the public did not like these candidates. There is no mandate for Trump, and if Hillary had won, there would not be one for her, either. Acting as if one has a mandate did not work out well for George Bush, nor is it likely to be a success for Donald Trump. The distorting mirror can only seem real for a while.

January 10, 2017

Can Tillerson still be Secretary of State after Trading with the Enemy?

After the American Century

The Newsletter 538 noted the following about an article that appeared in USA Today.

"Between 2003 and 2005, the oil and gas company Infineum reported $53.2 million in sales to Iran. During that time, Exxon Mobil had a 50 percent stake in Infineum. Also during that time, the U.S. had sanctions on Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. Rex Tillerson, a top Exxon executive at the time of the deal and later its CEO, is now President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the State Department."

So the nominee for Secretary of State broke the US sanction on Iran during George Bush's presidency. (Exxon Mobile also did business with Sudan through the same proxy company, but it was a much smaller transaction.) Iran was then well-known to sponsor terrorist and dissident groups in various parts of the Middle East, hence the sanctions, so there it is not possible for Tillerson to claim he didn't know. 

After this revelation, here are the problems with making Rex Tillerson Secretary of State:

1. He has broken the law in order to make a profit. The claim made in defense is that Infineum is based in Europe, and that no Americans were employed in making these transactions. To avoid violating US law, under this Secretary of State it would seem, it is just fine so long as you do it through a proxy. 
2. He has taken sides in the Middle East, trading with Iran during the time of sanctions.
3. He will not be trusted by an important American ally, Israel, which fears the Iranian atomic program.
4. He will not be trusted by Saudi Arabia, a second important ally, who is constantly in conflict with Iran over a great many issues.
5. He will be regarded with suspicion by a third ally, Turkey.
6. The worst suspicions of US critics, that its foreign policy is concerned not with principles but profits, specfically oil profits, will be confirmed.

That is rather a large amount of baggage to be carrying into confirmation hearings. Can his fellow Republicans stomach all that?

It seems the Republicans cannot stay away from making deals with the Iranians. That was their problem during the Reagan years, too. The original Irangate was also about trading with the enemy.  Is that the credential needed to be Trump's Secretary of State?

January 04, 2017

5 murders annually go unsolved in Denmark, compared to 25 in Minnesota

After the American Century

One interesting way to compare nations is in terms of their rates of criminality and to what degree these crimes are solved. The US and Denmark are a study in contrasts when it comes to the homicide rate. In Denmark, between 2007 and 2015, there was an average of 49 murders each year, and 90% of these were solved. 51% of the killers were either partners or family members. 26% were killed by someone they knew slightly, and 11% by a friend. Only 8% died at the hands of a person unknown.

To put these statistics in perspective, consider an American state of similar size. Denmark has a population of 5.7 million, slightly more than the 5.5. million in Minnesota, which was settled in part by Scandinavians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Minnesota annual murder rate during the same time period was twice as high, just over 100. Looking at 2011, a good year with less than 90 homicides, 66% of the victims knew the murderer, while in just 6 cases the killer was a stranger. These percentages are similar to Denmark. However, in one quarter of the Minnesota cases the relationship of killer and victim remains unknown. Minnesota has twice as many murders as Denmark, and about a quarter of the murderers are not caught.   Put another way, 5 murders annually go unsolved in Denmark, compared to 25 in Minnesota.

What might one conclude from this comparison? Denmark may well have half the number of murders in part because the chance of being caught is significantly higher. But the matter is more complicated than that, because Denmark also has strict gun laws. One cannot carry a pistol, and all rifles must be registered with the authorities. There are far fewer guns ready to hand when a couple or a family gets into a nasty argument. The murder rate in Minnesota might well drop a bit if guns were not so easy to come by, and it probably would rise if Danish families had as many guns.  For in both places most of the murders are committed by close friends or family. 

But this only suggests a possible explanation for the higher murder rate, not for the considerably worse police results. Again, this is a complex matter, but it seems that detectives benefit greatly from information provided by the general public. The more crime there is in a community, the more likely witnesses may feel intimidated and remain silent. Such intimidation surely occurs in both Denmark and Minnesota, but where is it likely to be more common? A place where 25 murderers are not caught every year, or one where only 5 escape detection?

Of course, Minnesota is not representative of the entire United States. According to Federal records, it is among the five states with the lowest homicide rate, along with New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont and Massachusetts. Climate is surely not the explanation for why these five are all in the North, but it is interesting to note that the states with the highest murder rate are in the South. Louisiana and Mississippi have ten murders for every one in Minnesota. Indeed, all by itself Louisiana had more than 500 murders in 2014, more than the combined total for the states with the fewest homicides.

Statistics from