Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Price of Citizenship

Should astronomically wealthy private equity fund managers be required to pay a 35% income tax on their investment earnings, instead on the current 15% capital gains tax? And if so, should we revoke their citizenship if they flee to offshore tax havens in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands?

The Price of Citizenship

When the super-rich use offshore tax havens to avoid paying what they owe in taxes, the consequence ought to be the loss of their U.S. citizenship.

Robert B. Reich | May 24, 2007 | web only
Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

After suggesting a couple of weeks ago that the stratospheric earnings of equity-fund managers ought to be considered income rather than capital gains and therefore taxed at 35 percent rather than 15 percent, I was deluged with emails telling me the plan wouldn't work. It would just drive fund managers into offshore tax havens. No less than Jon Corzine, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs and now governor of New Jersey, admitted recently in a television interview that many fund managers would take their money out of the country before they'd pay the 35 percent rate.
Corzine and my other critics may have a point. Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation recently estimated that America's super-rich already sock away more than $100 billion a year in offshore tax havens. So any attempt to get them to pay what they owe is doomed, right?

Maybe. But I've been thinking a lot about the immigration bill now pending before Congress -- especially the conditions undocumented workers will have to meet if they want to become American citizens. One of them is to pay all the taxes they owe.

The new immigration bill may not make it through Congress, but that provision about paying taxes that are owed in order to be a citizen serves as a reminder that paying taxes is one of the major obligations of citizenship. After all, if we didn't pay the taxes we owe, we wouldn't have public schools, police and fire protection, national defense, homeland security, roads and bridges, Medicare and Social Security, and other things we need.

So when the super-rich use offshore tax havens to avoid paying what they owe in taxes, they're reneging on their duties as citizens. It seems only fair to me that the consequence of that kind of tax avoidance ought to be loss of citizenship. If it's more important to someone to avoid paying what they owe in taxes than to continue being an American, then let them keep their money. They can become a citizen of the Cayman Islands or Bermuda or wherever else they store their wealth, and come here on a visitor's visa -- if they can get one.

This column is adapted from Professor Reich's weekly commentary on American Public Radio's Marketplace.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Ever short on inspiration? Well, these writer's block "kicks in the pants" have been around a long time but I still love them. Most of them were borrowed from All About Me by Philipp Keel (yeah, that's how you spell his name).

1. For your last dinner, you would love to invite these five people.
2. Someone's diary you would love to read.
3. What is your first memory?

Here's my answers:

For your last dinner, you would love to invite these five people.

Okay, let's say that Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi were all there. And let's say it's actually ten people. (I know, I know but it's not that many people in the span of human history.) After them, I think I would like to invite:

Oscar Wilde Because he would make me laugh and make me think. Here's some quotations:

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

"Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live."

"When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."
Lady Windermere's Fan, 1892, Act III

"If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you."

Pocahontas Because she discovered a culture and traveled the world. Did you know that Virginia had a "Pocahontas exception" during Jim Crow to exempt all the first families who claimed to descend from Pocahontas?

Jane Austen Because she was an astute judge of character and I'd love to listen to her and Oscar go at it.

David Sedaris - Okay, if you have not read or heard David Sedaris' essays, go find them now! You can listen to him reading his essays on YouTube or pick up the books at the library. He is hilarious!!! He is soooo talented.

Charlotte Bronte- I'd probably have to pull her into a corner to get her to talk but she wrote my favorite book so she has to be there.

Sojourner Truth Because she got to the heart of the matter and had enough integrity and concern for her fellows to stand up and say, "This is wrong." Maybe I should seat her next to George Bush II, eh? Speaking of which, try reading the Declaration of Independence and just inserting "George W. Bush" instead of King George III. Most of the accusations fit pretty well, don't you think? Also, it has one of my favorite sentences of all time, "Let these Facts be submitted to a candid World."

"Indictment" of the United States Declaration of Independence

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let the Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.


Thich Nhat Hanh He wrote an excellent book called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames that is so full of compassion and devoid of judgment. He also has a great book called Living Buddha, Living Christ that explores the themes of grace and compassion in both faiths. I used to have more of his books but I loaned to this guy who later smashed in my windshield when I reported him for sexual harassment. I guess he needs them more than me.

More Thoughts from Thich Nhat Hanh:

"If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work."

"People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar."

"My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand."

Malika Oufkir She was a Moroccan princess who was "adopted" (stolen) from her parents by the sultan, who then threw her and her family into a desert prison when her father attempted a coup. And this was in the '60s. They were imprisoned for twenty years, during which she kept the family's spirit alive by weaving these fantastic tales about a family of Russian aristocracy, until she and her sibs succeeded in digging out of the prison with a spoon. I am so not kidding. Check it out in Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail.

My uncle John Because he seems to have touched a lot of lives. I wrote an e-mail to his class rep at his high school to ask if anyone had any recollections. Here's what his good friend Tom Woodward had to say:

Megan Drury:
I recently received your email from my and John's friend Jimi Akin. John and I were close friends, both at Sandy Spring and Reed. I cannot remember when we first met, but it was definitely during our first year at Sandy Spring in 10th grade. We shared many classes; we shared many inter-mural activities: ”nerdley bowl" and flag football; we played soccer together under the tutelage of Ari Preuss; we were frequent visitors at each others home and at Jimi Akin's house; we spent one intersession trip at Cape Hatteress (to watch how waves break on the beach or something equally profound); we registered for the draft together; I would go down to Scientists Cliffs with John and parents (Robert and Kay, am I right?); and we worked together on the same construction crew our last summer in high school (along with Michael Dettart and Billy Amend). And there was also our trip to the four day blue grass festival in the hills of North Carolina.

The beginning of college we went our own ways. John, Jimi Akin and I borrowed my parents' VW bus and drove from Washington DC north to Canada, west to the Pacific, and south to Portland, Oregon where I would attend Reed College. John and Jimi flew back to Washington together, John to start Bard College in the fall of 1971. During the summer of '72 we traveled to Europe together, flying to Germany and hitchhiking through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium on nothing but a wing and a prayer. At the end of the trip we met John's parents for four or five days in southern Germany. That fall John transferred to Reed College. We were house mates, house guests¦ best of friends. He lived with a wonderful woman during that whole time¦Kareen Malone. We would share philosophical arguments, dinner, swimming, trips to the river, and camping trips to the Cascade Mountain lakes.

But Reed College was a very intense environment, and I am afraid that intensity did not suit John well. John completed all the class requirements, but the requirement of a final written project "thesis" somehow became a major obstacle that would slowly and insidiously eat away at John's self-confidence. In his mind he saw himself as a failure, despite my and all of his friends efforts to convince him otherwise. I was with John on his last day and I will forever remember the horror of the following day and the loss that I still feel today.

John was a very fun-loving, intelligent, strikingly handsome and brave young man.

Brave: I remember John volunteering to be a marshal at one of the huge anti-war rallies in downtown Washington D.C.

Fun-loving: especially as a star in one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas directed by Barry Morley at Sandy Spring's "Yeoman of the Guard" or perhaps "Iolathe."

Handsome: Let's just say that he was well-noticed.

And intelligent: endlessly debating right and wrong; good and evil; despair and hope.

I have certainly not forgotten John, or the times that we shared. However, I deeply wish that he could have stayed with us and shared in all these experiences that make
up our lives.

I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse into the life and adventures of John. I am certainly willing to talk more about John if you so desire, to hold onto and relive these memories. As Jimi said in her note to me: "it's good to know someone is going to collect John into one place again."

I am also curious about your relation to John; from my memory John had a brother, just slightly older, who lived in Washington DC as well as a sister who lived in Seattle (we actually stayed in her house near Green Lake when we traveled from DC to Portland in 1971). Just thinking that maybe you lived out here on the Pacific side of the country.

Please remember: John was a beautiful person, and his absence is all of
our loss.

Thomas Woodward

Well, I think I'll tackle the other questions later.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Immigration Agency Mired in Inefficiency

No, really?!

Here's a great if depressing article from the Washington Post about what's (not) happening at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, where T-Bone's application for a green card has been sitting for two years.

At least we know we're not alone.

I love the part about how green cards only benefit the people who receive them - screw the Americans they're married to. This is why I don't want to hire a lawyer. I refuse to support this mindset that says, "We're going to bleed as much as we can from good hardworking people who are entitled to our services BECAUSE WE CAN. We could perform the duties that are entrusted to us by the American people in a timely, cost-efficient manner but we like charging poor people fees and then watching them sweat while we throw their paperwork around for three or four years."

Sorry, I get a little hot under the collar about it sometimes. Funny, I feel like I should inject a statement like, "It's only that we love this country so much!" so that if any USCIS official reads this, they won't label me an undesireable and bury us even further. But it should go without saying that I am simply and justifiably frustrated with the situation because I believe in the promise of America. I just hope that promise doesn't stop at my front door. Anyway . . .


Immigration Agency Mired In Inefficiency

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007; Page A01

Last June, U.S. immigration officials were presented a plan that supporters said could help slash waiting times for green cards from nearly three years to three months and save 1 million applicants more than a third of the 45 hours they could expect to spend in government lines.

It would also save about $350 million.

Leaders of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected key changes because ending huge immigration backlogs nationwide would rob the agency of application and renewal fees that cover 20 percent of its $1.8 billion budget, according to the plan's author, agency ombudsman Prakash Khatri.

Current and former immigration officials dispute that, saying Khatri's plan, based on a successful pilot program in Dallas, would be unmanageable if expanded nationwide. Still, they acknowledge financial problems and say that modernization efforts have been delayed since 1999 by money shortages, inertia, increased security demands after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the disruptive launch of the Homeland Security Department.

As the nation debates whether, and how, to legalize as many as 12 million illegal immigrants living here, the agency that would spearhead the effort is confronting its reputation as a broken bureaucracy whose inefficiency encourages more illegal immigration and paradoxical disincentives to change.

Under the Senate's proposed immigration legislation, Citizenship and Immigration Services would vet applications and perform security checks for those illegal immigrants -- a surge that would be almost triple the agency's annual caseload of 5 million applications.

Each application could generate fines and fees of $1,000 to $5,000, a windfall of $10 billion to $15 billion over eight years, Homeland Security officials said. The money would dwarf revenue from a previously announced agency plan to increase fees on immigration and employment applications by 50 percent as early as next week, to raise $1 billion a year.

Former U.S. officials, watchdog groups and immigrant advocates warn that Citizenship and Immigration is ill-positioned to make the best use of the money. Instead, they say, Congress must change how it funds the 16,000-worker agency and provide tough oversight if the agency is to move past its legacy of shoddy service, years-long delays and susceptibility to fraud. Liberals and conservatives say relying on user fees to upgrade the agency is a recipe for disaster.

"If the USCIS fails once again to meet the challenge, the laws of supply and demand will overtake U.S. immigration laws," driving workers and employers to bypass the law, said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Given the nation's history of weak enforcement at the border and against companies that hire illegal workers, Citizenship and Immigration's record as gatekeeper for legal immigrants often goes overlooked. Each year the agency, once known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, awards 1 million green cards, 700,000 naturalizations and 1 million temporary work permits.

Delays have plagued its efforts, however. After peaking at more than 5 million applications in 2003, the agency's backlog stood at 1.1 million last summer after a five-year, $500 million reduction effort. That includes 140,000 cases not awaiting action by another agency.

Citizenship and Immigration's troubles stem from the nation's 1986 amnesty. Acting on the principle that citizenship is a benefit that immigrants, not taxpayers, should pay for, Congress required immigrants to cover the cost of citizenship examinations, then about a tenth of INS's budget.

But what started as a reform became an addiction. Hooked on fees, Congress allowed the growth of a Turkish bazaar of levies, through which immigrants now pay for 90 percent of the agency's budget. They subsidize even non-paying applicants such as refugees, asylum seekers and U.S. military members.

As workloads grew, fees, last revised in 1998, did not keep up. Without money to invest in technology and management improvements, the agency continued to rely on a paper-based filing system from the pre-computer age. That carried $100 million a year in costs for archiving, retrieval, storage and shipping, as well as lost paperwork and delays. The 2001 attacks prompted costly new mandates for background checks, security upgrades at more than 100 offices and subsidies to strapped enforcement operations and the new Homeland Security Department.

By 2004, Citizenship and Immigration was "looking at maybe $500 million or more in the hole," said William Yates, then head of domestic operations.

As backlogs and deficits grew, the agency ratcheted up charges to cover its budget. The longer applicants waited, the more they paid.

"We were really operating a Ponzi scheme," said Yates, who retired last year after 31 years at the agency. "The money that current applicants were paying, we were using to adjudicate older cases.

For example, Citizenship and Immigration set up a Chicago office strictly to accept signed applications and checks, even though most applications are not approved. Officials said they created the system because the Treasury Department offered to set it up at no cost, and the agency doesn't like to process applications before being paid to do so.

In 2005, it raised $230 million by charging green-card applicants for about 1 million temporary work and travel permits they needed while waiting for their cases to be processed. About 325,000 interim permits went to people whose applications were later denied, creating a security risk, Khatri said.

The agency raised another $139 million by charging a separate "premium processing" fee of $1,000 -- three times the normal fee -- that is now used by a majority of applicants to speed up the process.

"If you're a good-government agency, why are you trying to cheat or fool the public into thinking they have to go into first class?" Khatri asked.

Yates said he proposed the premium charge in 1999 to pay for modernization efforts, but the money was tapped after the 2001 attacks for operations.

Under a proposal issued Jan. 31 and to be made final as early as this week, Citizenship and Immigration seeks to boost fees by more than 50 percent on average and to dedicate $139 million in premium fees to modernization. The cost of applying for legal permanent residency, for example, would nearly triple, from $325 to $905.

The plan has drawn 39,000 comments, including criticism from a wide range of interests. Critics say it proposes punishingly big fee increases on immigrants and their employers but promises just a 20 percent improvement in services.

Khatri's proposal to slash green-card waiting times was to assign staffers to weed out ineligible applicants and to ensure that others' forms are complete at the time of filing, cutting down caseloads and processing delays. However, officials determined that while "up-front" processing improved customer service at small offices, it would cost more and worsen service in busy offices because managers cannot anticipate how many people will show up, nor predict political or other circumstances that drive surges in applications.

Agency spokesman Chris Bentley declined to comment specifically on proposals pending before Congress and cited Yates as an authority on Khatri's past reports.

Business transformation is "not something that can be done overnight," he added. "We're building an immigration system to last 30 years."

The Senate proposal would allow Congress to appropriate money in advance to Citizenship and Immigration. The funds would be repaid by legalization fines and fees, and would not be counted toward the federal deficit.

Yates said the clock is ticking. "If they do not start to modernize, they're going to be at a really severe disadvantage when the impact of this comes in," he said. "It means they should have already started."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dinner and a Movie

So I'm sitting at my desk today and the phone rings. I pick up the phone, say the name of the clinic where I work. "This is Megan," I say.

"Hi Megan! This is so-and-so from WASH FM Workforce! You just won dinner and a movie!"

"WOOOO-HOOO! I'm going to dinner! And a movie!" I was totally psyched! So they're going to send me tickets to see Shrek 3 and dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe! I was cheering and clapping so much that the lady laughed and said, "You're the most excited winner we've had in a long time!" Hee-hee. Life is good.

House Hunting

So T-Bone and I have been house hunting. Yesterday I went out with our realtor Faye (she's great!) and looked at ten or so townhomes in Frederick. Some of them were really terrible! One smelled like cat pee, another had this overpowering stench of cinnamon potpourri, so bad you couldn't open your mouth because you could taste the fumes. We went to one that was definitely a bachelor pad, or as Faye said, a several-bachelors pad. It smelled like feet. :-)

No, we're not really gonna choose a house based on smell! :-) But the last one we saw, I totally loved. It's an end unit with a wraparound deck, huge kitchen, light-filled rooms . . . it's da bomb. Here's a similar house - the pictures are not really accurate in terms of conveying a sense of size but just if you want to get an idea. And it only took 35 minutes to get from my job to the house around the time of day that I would be driving from work! Good stuff.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

URGENT-Chocolate lab needs home

Twiggs, a gorgeous chocolate lab, is stuck in a high-kill shelter and needs a new home! Please follow this link to read more about him!

Tails of Hope Family Sanctuary

So I had a totally inspired idea while I was going for a walk today - a shelter for survivors of domestic violence and their pets. A lot of domestic violence survivors stay in abusive relationships because they fear what would happen to their pets if they left. Animal abuse can be a gateway behavior to beating up your women and children and a man will often threated his partner's pet with beatings and torture in order to control the woman.

But . . . when a woman finally gets ready to leave, she can't take her pet with her. Several animal control agencies offer foster care services, where the animal goes to live in someone else's home while the woman rebuilds her life in the shelter, but I think we should take it one step further - a shelter where families can stay intact, women, children AND furry friends.

My eyes are already crossing thinking about the legality of it - on-site nurse AND veterinarian?! But I think it would be totally fulfilling and awesome. And Luap and Nivek, you'll always have a job with me! Luap can finally teach Hip-Hop 101 to help the kids express themselves and Nivek can be our on-site nurse. Rad!

Anyway, so these are the ideas that rattle around in my head when I'm out on my walk.

Here's a good article on domestic abuse and pets.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has great resources for anyone who wants to start a shelter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dinner with Aunt Susan

My Aunt Susan took us out to dinner tonight. She is going to Cameroon in a few days with a Heifer International delegation and she wanted to chat up T-Bone about what life is like and what she should know, since he is from Cameroon. He gave her a ton of names, with notes next to them like "nightlife guy," "Chancellor of Jails" and "good lawyer." I hope she doesn't have to use them!

We gave her some senior vitamins for T-Bone's mom and some money so his mom can buy a new refrigerator (she sells food from a roadside stand but her fridge broke and she can't store ANYTHING - really cuts into her ability to do business). Susan will be in the town where T-Bone grew up, a seaside village called Limbe. T-Bone called his mom and told her to wait in the Botanical Garden until my aunt calls to arrange a time to meet. Can you imagine being so unscheduled that your to-do list consisted of sitting in a garden waiting for the phone to ring?

Susan, on the other hand, has a schedule so tight that she'll be flying from development project to development project with barely enough time to navigate the unpaved roads. So she may have to call and say, "I left some items at the hotel desk for you," but I hope they do have time to meet and snap a couple of photos. I can't wait to see her photos when she gets back!

The Quest for Fido

T-bone and I are looking to buy a house. There are lots of good reasons to buy a house - tax breaks, building equity, the pride of ownership. But I want a house for one reason: house = dog.

I can't believe I'm almost thirty and I've never owned a dog! Other people bring strays home and then dump them with their parents while they join the Peace Corps or they buy boutique Labradoodles and then hike the Appalachian Trail. Some people have big dogs that ride shotgun in their rusted pickups or little rat dogs with custom-printed "DIVA" t-shirts. But me, I gots no dog.

So I'm starting my very own blog all about my dog, even though he/she is not my dog yet. Here's my classified:

SWF ISO open and friendly waggly-tailed furry pal. Must be energetic and must love belly-rubs and sharing kisses. Must like my jokes, old movies, and long walks in the park and will not be offended by bodily odors or loud boo-hooing during aforementioned old movies. Ideal candidate will be young and enjoy bed-snuggles.

So who do you like best?

Tobler the happy-go-lucky chocolate lab

Belvedere the plucky little pug mix

Rhoda the cute and scrappy boston terrier mix