This is one of a series of posts about American values inspired by my renunciation of American citizenship.
I wrote last week about a book I’ve used for teaching, American Ways, and the six values it emphasizes. Last week I discussed individual freedom and self-reliance. This week I’d like to address two more: equality of opportunity and competition.
The word “equality” is often bandied about in the US, but what is really meant is equality of opportunity or equal treatment. In other words, no one really believes that everyone is equal, only that they have (or should have) equal chances.
The Founding Fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, used those famous words about equality:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
A decade later, in writing the Constitution, they specified that
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
In other words, while the writers of the Constitution were all from the wealthy classes of the new United States, they opposed any legislated class system. In both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they ignored women, Blacks and Native Americans, but they expressed the basic idea of equality right from the beginning.
This belief, in my view, grew particularly strongly over time because of America’s immigrant history. One of the things that drew so many people from “the old country” to the US in the 19th century was the idea that everyone had an equal chance there. Remember that they were leaving places with entrenched class systems where it was difficult, if not impossible, to move out of the class you were born into.
Today, equality of opportunity is a value that sits in a very strange grey area in the US. I think it’s safe to say that, except for the tiny openly-racist, neo-Nazi fringe groups, all Americans believe in equal opportunity.
The problem, of course, is how you define “equal.” Should those who have been disadvantaged in the past—or, rather, their ancestors were—be given preferential treatment to compensate for the disadvantages? Those who think so would support affirmative action and other efforts to level the playing field between privileged whites and historically underprivileged people of color.
Or should the past be ignored based on the idea that each individual today has an equal opportunity to show what he or she can do?
However you define equality of opportunity—with or without compensation for past inequality—Americans have a strong belief in the idea that a person’s success depends on what he or she, as an individual, makes of that opportunity: he or she must compete, in other words. If everyone has equality of opportunity, that doesn’t mean they all take advantage of that opportunity. We expect them to make the effort: to compete to get ahead.
This belief in competition as a force for good is clear in all aspects of society. In the economy, Americans value a free market with little or no government interference, believing that in this way the best, most efficient, most innovative businesses will succeed. Schools are seen as training grounds for economic competition, so students at all levels compete for academic honors, in sports, and for admissions to the best colleges, to name just a few.
Equality and the Overseas American
Looking at these two values in terms of how they apply to overseas Americans like me brings me back to the idea of equality. I do not have equality with homeland Americans in terms of representation. The representatives in Congress represent homeland Americans, not me.
I am certainly not treated equally by the IRS. The forms are more complicated, more invasive of my privacy and the threatened fines are far higher. I’m likely to be double-taxed, while a homeland American is not. I’m assumed to be a criminal, hiding money overseas, just by the mere fact that I live overseas.
A little-known provision in the new FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) allows the State Department to revoke a citizen’s passport if the IRS says that person owes US taxes and fines over $50,000. When I first heard that, I dismissed it, because I’ll never make enough to owe anything close to that. However, the threatened fine, for example, for leaving one of my accounts off my FBAR form, even if it’s by mistake, is $10,000 per account per year. One mistake could run my debt past $50,000 easily.
Many—I’d venture to say most—overseas Americans don’t file US tax returns. Either they didn’t know until recently that they were required to, or they didn’t see the point if they didn’t owe any taxes. If the IRS comes after them, their total fines will be astronomical. Given the IRS’s poor record of reaching overseas Americans, they could owe much more than $50,000 already and not even know about it until their passport renewal is denied. What then?
Having a passport taken away, for most homeland Americans, would be unimportant. Only a very small percentage of Americans travel overseas: less than 5 percent, according to one HuffPost writer. In any case, middle-class homeland Americans are less likely than overseas Americans to run up such high debt to the IRS because of the inequality of the laws (those $10,000 penalties again, which only apply to overseas Americans).
For Americans abroad, this would be a far harsher and more far-reaching punishment. Without their passport, if they’re not dual nationals like me, they would essentially become prisoners where they live, unable to travel, even to visit family in the US. Even if they do have another passport, they could not visit the US because of an American law requiring that its citizens use their US passports to enter the country. And that doesn’t even address the inequality of IRS fines that could run higher than the total of all their assets!
Competition and the Overseas American
Americans wholeheartedly believe in the value of competition in the business world, and certainly American businessmen and women compete well both at home and overseas. For many overseas Americans, that value is what led them overseas in the first place: to take jobs in foreign countries that offer higher pay or more opportunity for advancement.
Now that FATCA has gone into effect, however, they’re losing their competitive edge.
- Do they want those jobs? They may no longer want to take those high-level jobs in companies headquartered overseas if they have any understanding of FATCA. The likelihood for them is far higher than for someone like me (a teacher with modest earnings) that they’ll exceed the income cut-offs. They’d end up being to some extent doubly taxed, paying where they live and in the US as well. And they’d have far fewer opportunities to invest their income either in the US or overseas because of many foreign banks’ new-found aversion to working with Americans due to the cost of compliance with FATCA.
- Can they get those jobs anymore? They may no longer be in the running to get those high-level jobs in foreign companies anyway. Since the FBAR form requires Americans to report every account that they have signing authority for that ever tops $10,000 in a year, companies don’t want Americans in top positions. It would mean handing their company’s financial information over to the US government. Not likely they’ll agree to that!
Looking at competition not as an individual but as a country, America should want its citizens to work in foreign companies. It would mean more likelihood of those companies being willing to do deals with American companies. It would give America increased economic power in the rest of the world. That’s something the US should be encouraging!
So while we overseas Americans may still feel in our hearts that equality of opportunity is important, and that competition is necessary and good to bring out the best results in people, in the real world neither one seems to apply. Or at least not in the real overseas world, and at least not to us.
We no longer get equal treatment, and we can no longer compete.