Modern-Day American Outlaws
Bloomberg reports that, in the wake of Bradley Birkenfeld’s UBS whistle-blowing four years ago, record numbers of Americans aretaking a dramatic step:
“At least 1,788 Americans officially threw away their U.S. citizenship in 2011, exceeding the totals from 2007, 2008, and 2009 combined. The Internal Revenue Service has been keeping a tally of U.S. citizens driven to renouncing that title since only 1998, but last year’s number has officially raised the bar when it comes to calling America quits.
“Out of the 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is the only nation that taxes its citizens no matter where they reside on Earth. As long as a person maintains citizen status, they are expected to send the United States government pennies on every dollar earned no matter where they live…”
As the U.S. government works ever-more-aggressively to find ways to fund the deficit and as their worldwide bullying continues to create a backlash for us Americans trying to diversify offshore, more and more of us Americans who understand the importance of diversifying offshore are considering the idea of saying thanks, but, no, thanks, Uncle Sam. Here’s your passport back.
Meantime, one other American I know personally has lost his U.S. passport, at least temporarily, involuntarily. More on this in a minute.
I’ve been sponsoring and hosting conferences on living, retiring, and investing overseas for more than a quarter-century. Hundreds of such events. Never, untillast week’s Retire Overseas Conference in Scottsdale, had an attendee at one of them asked me directly about my plans related to my own U.S. citizenship. Last week, a half-dozen attendees took me aside, individually, at different times, to ask, tentatively, nervously, if Lief and I have plans to give up our U.S. passports.
The idea is on peoples’ minds more right now than ever before in all the time I’ve been covering this live and invest overseas beat. And, the truth is, it’s been on Lief and my mind, too. For the past year-and-a-half or so, we’ve been considering the idea ourselves. Big step. Complicated. Emotionally charged.
Do we want to stop being Americans? The reasons for this can seem compelling. There can be financial motivations, to do with taxation, but this isn’t the driving agenda for us. We already live full-time outside the United States. We’ve already organized our lives and our businesses so that we’re diversified across borders, currencies, and tax regimes. Perhaps there could be some additional financial or tax benefits for us if we were to relinquish U.S. citizenship, but there could, in fact, as well, in our case, be downsides. We might, strictly financially speaking, be better off with the status-quo.
But there are other reasons to consider no longer being Americans. The more complicated reasons. To do with our ideas of what being an American is all about.
We’ve been traveling this extended post-conference weekend throughout Arizona. Over the past five days, we’ve been from Scottsdale to Phoenix to Flagstaff to Sedona and, now, to Tempe. Lief was born in Sedona and raised in Phoenix. He’s a Westerner, through and through. Speaks and shoots straight and takes no guff off nobody. Back on his own turf with him, watching him show his family around these parts for the first time, I’m understanding Lief’s approach to life better than I have all these 14 years we’ve been together. Lief likes open spaces and free reign. He likes to move around, to come and go, without encumbrance or interference. He doesn’t like to explain himself. He doesn’t like to answer questions. And he doesn’t like to be beholden’ to no one. He’s happy to take responsibility for the consequences of whatever he does or says. Just stay out of his way while he’s movin’ and talkin’. He won’t bother you if you don’t bother him…and pity the fella’ who bothers him too much.
Lief’s reaction to things like immigration interrogations and all-body security scanners is extreme. The kids and I have stood off to the side in more than one airport terminal these past few years while Lief has lodged his complaints, boldly, loudly. Kaitlin, Jackson, and I have felt awkward, nervous, even embarrassed as he has insisted on telling the Homeland Security agents what he thinks of their brand of homeland hospitality. But, traveling out West this week, remembering where Lief has come from, what forged him, I’m beginning to wonder if, perhaps, I shouldn’t be more embarrassed by my own behavior when it comes to things like airport security pat downs. I put my head down and allow myself to be led through, from laptop X-rays to luggage searches tobody scanners, silently, meekly. It’s not that I buy the propaganda that it’s “for my own good” (or for anyone’s good, for that matter, other than the folks manufacturing and selling the scanner equipment). It’s that I don’t want to expend the time or energy required to fight it all. Lief, a cowboy at heart, has never been afraid of a fight.
Now the U.S. government is pushing new buttons. Now, in addition to the invasions of privacy by immigration and security, we Americans face gross and fast-expanding invasions of privacy by the IRS, in the form of expanded and additional required filings and disclosures. Some think the new IRS Form 8938 (required with your 2011 tax return if you haven’t filed it yet and with every American’s 2012 tax return), for example, is the first step toward a U.S. wealth tax. I find that possibility easy enough to accept. Even if the form isn’t a precursor to a wealth tax, it is certainly, again, a gross invasion of privacy. The modern-day U.S. government keeps its citizens on a tight leash, and this new form cinches us all up another notch.
But it hasn’t always been this way…not, especially, out here in Arizona, for example. Out here in the American West, back in the day, an American was free to make his own way. To make his fortune, to raise his family, to mind his business, and to make his own mistakes. When a cowboy fell off his horse, he didn’t pick himself up, brush himself off, and look around for someone to sue. He got back on his horse.
These theoretical ideas have been floating around in my head these past several days as we’ve been touring Lief’s old stomping-grounds with him. Then, yesterday, in Florence, Arizona, they moved from theory to reality. Yesterday, in dusty Florence, where the tumbleweeds still tumble, we came face-to-face with just how gross the U.S. IRS can be.
Banker friend Peter Zipper, in his offshore banking presentations to attendees at our conferences, including the one last week in Scottsdale, cautions Americans to take IRS filing and disclosure requirements seriously. “Lest you wind up in an orange jumpsuit,” Peter likes to joke.
If crossing the border is a crime, boy, howdy, Lief must be Billy the Kid.
And I wonder what it all makes me…