American Views Abroad

Thursday, September 27, 2007
Disheartening news on voting from overseas: Most Overseas Ballots Not Cast or Counted at

'A new federal survey has found that a scant one-third of the nearly one million absentee ballots requested for the US general election last year by overseas American civilians or active-duty service members were actually cast or counted, a result that one overseas voting advocate said felt like 'a dagger in the heart.' ....Laws vary from state to state and are applied unequally in local election offices. .....Just as state laws differ, so does handling of absentee ballots. Indiana and North Carolina reported that more than 40 percent of requested ballots were subsequently rejected; other states reported rejection rates of less than 3 percent.'

The article quotes Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat of the Overseas Vote Foundation: The single biggest motivator for a vote is that people think their vote will count. That's why this report is such a blow.'

Friday, September 21, 2007
It takes time before things begin bubbling up to the surface. There is an eerie disconnect between having your ear on the ground, listening to people's experience and trying to find reports in the media. A year ago a US friend living here had to travel to the US for her daughter's wedding in Utah with her German husband. There wasn't all that much time to catch their connecting flight at JFK airport. Her husband has often been to the US, in fact they got married over there. Yet, for no reason at all when presenting his passport, suddenly without any explanation he was taken away and put into a 'holding pen'. Understandably she was very upset not only at the delay and perhaps not catching a late connecting flight for an early wedding the next day, but he has heart problems and suffers from anxiety. She found trying to ask questions, or explaining why it was important not to miss the flight was comparable to hitting a stone wall. Just in the knick of time he was released. The reason given was the finger printing machine at that counter was not functioning. These days one is probably elated to get an explanation for actions that in previous times would have been a source of outrage. Whatever happened to politeness, for example, simply stating our machine is out-of-order, please go to the next line? More to the point, whatever happened to putting out a welcoming mat? Is everyone these days subject to suspect?

There was an interesting, very complimentary article about Boston in a Berlin Sunday paper a few weeks ago. What stood out was in the column How to Get There. Right on top was the caution: cross your fingers and hope to get an immigration officer who is in a good mood upon entry. A German couple, both with Green Cards and who live permanently in Pennsylvania never travel back via JFK, but prefer Chicago because of how they are treated upon entry. If fact, they have drawn up a list of preferred airports.

The dollar has now hit 1.40 to the euro which should mean flights over to the US are now crammed with European tourists. Once upon a time it was everyone's dream here to travel over there. Yet a flight to and from Newark was only about half filled in May and June. Ditto for a flight to and from NYC in June. Comments sometimes heard run along the line of: be there, done that. Wait for better times.

Yesterday's IHT ran Welcome to America: Hope you're not in a rush at '...if foreigners had not visited the United States since Sept.11, 2001, or had never visited, the stories they're reading or hearing about the poor entry experience are discouraging them from visiting....'

Monday, September 17, 2007
It's rather strange and peculiar how reputations stick like glue. American friends came to visit us in Hamburg this summer, finally after so many years of showing no interest in this city. They were very surprised at how lovely it is. One wrote afterwards that he had expected Hamburg to be grimy and grey. It is anything but that. John Powers in yesterday's Boston Globe sings its praises in Ignored by Most Americans, Hamburg Offers Great Culture and Beauty at

Sunday, September 16, 2007
The United States is one of the few countries that taxes its citizens irregardless of where they live and work. There is an exemption for foreign EARNED income. It's the word 'earned' one should not overlook here. The moment you are no longer 'earning' money, all income is taxed. For example, your pension or unemployment benefits will be considered taxable, irregardless of whatever might be in tax treaties between countries. The IRS has its own way of looking at things and they have little to no conception of what it means to be living abroad in, for example, high tax rate countries of the EU or for that matter, why any American would want to live outside the US. Should an American citizen decide to renounce his or her citizenship, it is usually taken for granted this move is being done to avoid taxation and thus they claim the right to demand taxes for up to ten years after this move. Ditto for anyone with a green card. Green card holders are supposed to pay US taxes whether or not they are residing in the US. As for the Alternative Minimum Tax, US citizens living abroad who are solidly middle class and not super rich by any means have been acquainted with this absurdity well before most US citizens residing at home knew it existed.

As usual the history behind all this shows just how short-sighted and ignorant of the world policy makers in Washington can be. Some time in the late fifties or early sixties, a few members of Congress became rather outraged that a few hardy US citizens roughing it out in the oil fields in the Middle East were not paying any income tax on their-- for that time -- rather high earnings. Never mind that those oil producing countries don't have any income tax, unlike the countries of Europe. Just throw all US citizens residing abroad for whatever reason into one boat. Become outraged that a few citizens are not paying taxes on income not at all earned in the US, but in jobs most likely beneficial to the US economy. Viola, taxation of US citizens abroad takes on a life of its own. Nor is there any attempt to correct past errors. Just the opposite. Now with budget deficits so high about once a year there are new attempts to raise our taxes.

Dollar's Retreat Raises Fear of Collapse at
'But the latest turmoil in mortgage markets has, in a single stroke, shaken faith in the resilience of American finance to a greater degree than even the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000 or the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, analysts said. It has also raised the prospect of a recession in the wider economy.'

Friday, September 14, 2007

Today, for the first time in a modern context, I read the H word. It was this article: US Heads for Recession as Foreign Investors Rush for the Exit from US Dollar Holdings. Germany has its own history of hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic days. And my (German) grandmother had her own stories to tell of those times, e.g. thieves steeling a wheelbarrow filled with money, but leaving the money. She was lucky because she worked for a British-owned insurance company which paid the employees in Pound Sterling.

It would be bad enough to watch from overseas a catastrophe like hyperinflation occurring in one's own country. But a process like this also has repercussions for American citizens living abroad. Foreign income over a certain exemption is taxable. Up to now this has been a problem of the well-to-do. Middle class Americans working overseas earn below the standard exemption and do not have to pay any taxes to the IRS.

To compute the taxable amount of foreign wages, the amount earned must be converted to dollars, and the exemption subtracted. The amount that is left is taxed at the going rate. If the dollar devalues, a person in Germany living on Hartz IV (the German welfare) would be a millionaire in American dollars, and taxed as such, although the actual income was barely enough to scrape by on. I was a millionaire once, in 1988, when I visited former Yugoslavia. I still have a few thousand Yugoslavian Dinars from those days. The currency was in a state of constant devaluation at that time. For my return trip I had reserved a bed on the night train back to Germany, but when I showed up, the bed was taken. I sent the reservation back to friends who received a refund, which was just enough to buy a coke.

The only option an American abroad has to avoid the double taxation is to renounce citizenship. It is hard for me to imagine that stateside politicians will be very concerned about Americans abroad, but that rather this group will be seen as a lucrative source of hard currency. Of course the worse the inflation is, the less real money would be owed. But the situation of taxation of a stable currency converted to a currency in free fall is completely undefined.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The Petraeus Moment - Imperial Autism by Tom Engelhardt:

Given this line-up of forces how could it have been anything but 'words, words,words' in Washington, even while it was death, death, death in Iraq? What those words do, however, is fill all available space, reinforcing a powerful sense that Washington's importance in the scheme of things is the one unquestionable reality on our planet. The rest of the world hardly registers, except in a mode of frustration.

Is there a single once of humility anywhere in Washington? Can we even imagine that, somewhere on Earth, someone doesn't think about us?

....To grasp the Petraeus moment, you really have to re-imagine official Washington as a set of drunks behind the wheels of so many SUVs tearing down a well-populated city avenue -- and all of them are on their cell phones. They hardly notice the bodies bouncing off the fenders. For them, the world is Washington centered; all interests that matter are American ones. Nothing else exists, not really. Think of this as a form of imperial autism and the Petraeus moment as a way in which the White House and official Washington have, for a brief moment, blotted out the world.

Friday, September 07, 2007
Weeks of relentless media probing into what happened thirty years ago in Germany when the Red Army Faction (RAF) was kidnapping and killing crossed roads with present day terrorism when German elite forces managed to foil a major terrorism attack on Wednesday. One interesting fact brought up in an in-depth interview former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gave to Die Zeit was how, in the opinion of him and his wife, the media focuses its complete attention on the famous victims and of course, on the leading members of the RAF who have practically obtained cult status, but no attention at all is paid to all those bodyguards, drivers, policemen who lost their lives, no detail is given about what happened to the wife of the Lufthansa pilot so brutally murdered back then, for example. The first murdered victim of the RAF was a policeman who was killed just around the corner from here, now the site of a sprawling mall. Terrorism can seem so impersonal and far away until it suddenly hits home.

Germany is no stranger to terrorism and evil. In The Stasi on Our Minds in The New York Review of Books, May 31, Timothy Garton Ash discusses how Germany came to taking a very hard look at its own past and how the film The Lives of Others plays a part in all this.

'In the land of Martin Luther and Leopold von Ranke, driven by a distinctly Protestant passion to confront past sins, the forcefully stated wish of a few East German dissidents to expose the crimes of the regime, and the desire of many West Germans (especially those from the class of '68) not to repeat the mistakes made in covering up and forgetting the evils of Nazism after 1949, we saw an unprecedentedly swift, far-reaching, and systematic opening of the more than 110 miles of Stasis files. The second time around, forty years on, Germany was bent on getting its Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, its past-beating, just right. Of course, Russia's KGB, the big brother of East Germany's big brother, did nothing of the kind.'

Germany is not used to being complimented, but Ash concludes with the following:

'The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world's imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?

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