This is a post that I wrote a few months ago for the Flophouse but never published. I guess I was feeling pretty desperate at the time and figured no one was listening so I put it aside. Given some of the comments I’ve read recently at U.S. and Canadian media websites, I decided to go ahead and post it at Isaac Brock. I know the folks here already know all this but the folks at home are still confused about who we are and just what the heck we are doing “over there.”. This is my experience based on living in both France and Japan.
If people in the U.S. have a rather negative view of illegal aliens, they seem to have an equally unflattering view of Americans abroad. To be quite blunt we are commonly characterized as rich tax cheats. Here are a few choice quotations from our elected representatives:
“If you’ve gotten your riches from America, you should pay your fair share of taxes. These expatriates are really like economic Benedict Arnolds.”
– Leslie Samuels, Assistant Secretary for tax policy, U.S. Department of the Treasury
“I hope that one day we will just publish the names of people that America has given so much to and that they care so little about that citizenship that they would flee in order to avoid taxes.”
– Rep. Charles Rangel (Dem., NY)
Ouch! As someone who makes considerably less money than the people cited above, who did pay American taxes in 2010 on top of her rather heavy French taxes, and who considers herself to be a very loyal American, that sort of rhetoric really hurts. The idea that I would “flee” the U.S. so I could have the privilege of paying higher taxes in France? That is just unbelievably funny.
If I may make a modest suggestion? Perhaps the people in Washington, D.C. should get out of their comfortable chairs and their plush offices and come out and talk to some of us and see for themselves how we live and what we are doing abroad. I think they would find it enlightening because what they would see in most cases are Americans working regular jobs and raising families just like Americans back home.
Hard data is nearly impossible to come by but, in my experience in Japan and France, Americans abroad tend to be concentrated in certain sectors like:
Arts and Entertainment – Musicians, for example, who are sharing American culture with the French by playing American music (blues, rock, jazz) in large and small towns all around France.
Education – This may be the largest group of Americans working in foreign countries. American are heavily concentrated in education: English as a Second Language programs, for example, or in English-speaking private and public schools and universities.
Retirees – These are Americans on fixed incomes who are trying to stretch their pensions by living abroad. In some cases they are former American military personnel who are married to locals and have decided to settle in the spouse’s country.
Subsidiaries of American Companies – These folks are sent by their American companies to work with subsidiaries in order to maintain a home office presence abroad. Their numbers are actually diminishing – the tax laws in the U.S. means that these folks risk double taxation and companies are finding it very expensive to send these people abroad. My personal experience has been that local people are very happy about this because it means more jobs for them as the Americans get sent home for cost reasons. And, frankly, as much as they may like Americans personally, the locals find it more comfortable doing business with less oversight from the parent company in the U.S.
And let’s not forget the American spouses of foreign nationals. When I first arrived in France in 1989 most Americans I met were women and most were full-time wives and mothers. That has dramatically changed in the last few years. American women are marrying French but they are not willing to give up their careers when they come to France. De-skilled and struggling to learn the language and integrate into the culture, many of them pick up work as translators, secretaries, English tutors and other low-paying jobs until they can speak French well enough to pursue work commensurate with their education and their ambitions. I’m also meeting more American men who have chosen to join their French wives in France as opposed to living in the U.S.
Last time I looked people in education or the arts are not extravagantly paid unless they happen to be stars and I can assure you that most of us are not that by any stretch of the imagination. As for the retirees, whether they are collecting Social Security or a military pension, they are on fixed incomes and are hardly “economic Benedict Arnolds.”
The Americans I know here in France are mostly middle or lower income and live in apartments or studios that even low-income Americans back home would consider modest. I even know one woman who taught English in France for many years and is now on disability following some serious medical problems – her income is a couple hundred euros a month and she lives in subsidized housing.
I’d like to invite our elected representatives or anyone running for public office on the state or federal level in the U.S. to come and talk to us. Remember there are over 6 million Americans abroad, many of us do vote and the large American expatriate communities are in some pretty interesting places: Mexico, Germany, Japan, UK, France…
Because, damn it, we are your constituents. And if you are going to make gross generalizations about how rich and disloyal we ostensibly are, I’d like you to have the courage to come here and say so directly to us in person.