How the U.S. Bureaucracy Breaks Down Abroad

There’s a lot you don’t think about when you live in America.  Taxes are what they are.  You can usually even do them yourself.  If you want a passport, you go to the post office and apply.  If you want to donate to a charity you go to their web page and donate.  But if you’re not a U.S. resident, things get a little more tricky.  For one thing, that donation you wanted to make has a form that only lists states without an option for countries.  This happened to me when Bill Cosby called for everyone to donate $8 to the U.S. National Slavery Museum (although I notice that they’ve now fixed this little problem by moving to PayPal).

When a child is born normally you don’t need to do anything, except perhaps sign the Social Security application.  For us it was another matter.  We had to first get an international birth certificate, then get a foreign births registration, and then get a Social Security card and a passport.  All of this was necessary for our taxes and for Joanna to be able to travel to the United States.  As an American she has to enter the U.S. on a U.S. passport.

And of course anyone who has seen the Borne Identity thinks they know what the U.S. Consulate in Zürich looks like.  Well surprise!  It looks nothing like what you see in the movies.  It’s a little hole in the wall with a very SMALL waiting room and no place to change the diaper of a four month old baby, which is how old she was when we did all of this.

But it got even sillier.  We brought the required pictures for her, and the chargé d’affairres informed us that we couldn’t use pictures that were printed my handy dandy little Canon.  Instead we had to go and get professional photos.  And the hits just keep on coming.  The picture of a new born child is not all that identifying.

And of course then there’s me.  With the mad rush for passports thanks to inane policies of the Bush Administration, if I need to get a new passport, which I will soon, it means I will have to park it in Switzerland for whatever period of time it takes for that passport to make it all the way to the States, sit in some pile, and make it all the way back to Switzerland.  Probably some weeks.  This doesn’t seem like a lot, for most people, but Switzerland is a small country, and work sometimes requires me to travel.

You may like to invest your money in mutual funds.  Hopefully that’s protected you from some of the downturn that has occurred lately.  As expatriates, however, we are generally excluded from buying new mutual funds thanks to a lack of clarity as to how they are regulated outside of a state.

Want to use Quicken?  Forget it.  Quicken is not usable for foreign currencies, and so you end up doing kludges like treating foreign bank accounts as mutual funds with each unit priced in dollars.  Did I mention that because we have foreign accounts we have to file yet more paperwork?  Hopefully gnucash will be more usable in the future than it was in the past.

When we actually do come back to the States, we’ll have to deal with yet more paperwork to bring in our cars (if we can at all) and even some of that California wine we brought across.

The thing about paperwork is that perhaps in each instance there is a goal that someone could argue is legitimate.  For instance, in my daughter’s case, the government is trying to protect against kidnapped children.  But a picture really won’t help, and yet it’s required.  And if they want one, they should make it easy for citizens to comply.  The paperwork for bank accounts is meant to address tax evasion through offshore accounts.  In the case where someone lives in the States, that makes sense.  But does it really make sense for those of us who live abroad?

Well, as it turns out, many of us pay taxes to the United States even though we don’t live there.  Yes, my daughter will be cursed with this when she is old enough, just because she is American.  I don’t mind paying some taxes, actually.  America is my home country.  But I expect representation in return, and really all I want is civility out of our civil workers and some intelligence about when and how to apply rules that involve paperwork.

An Update from Switzerland

Us in May

Distance and lack of communication takes its toll on relationships.  For those of you who see us rarely, it is as you know something that always weighs on me.  It’s over 5,800 miles, nine timezones, eleven hours and thousands of dollars by plane away from many friends, and a mere 3,500 miles, six timezones,  and thousands of dollars from most of our family. So here is a bit of an update as to what is new with us, just in case we don’t see you anytime soon.

The most important aspect of our lives is obviously our daughter, and from the picture you can see isn’t a baby any more.  The old lady is talking, walking, running, playing, counting, swimming, and doing many new things every day.  I’d like to take credit but she is doing most of the work. Joanna’s current favorite books include various illustrated adventures of Winnie the Pooh & Friends as well as Curious George.  Marcus Pfister books are also a hit.  This is the extent of my reading, generally.

Switzerland is not without its charms and benefits.  There is a functioning health care and social security system, they have world reknown public transportation systems, and perhaps most importantly a safe and healthy environment for our daughter.  She goes to the Kinderkrippe three times a week for six hours or so.  Apparently she speaks better Schwiezertütsch than both Christine and me put together.  That was the goal.  Not that my german is completely ridiculous these days.

Summer is finally here.  For those of you on the East Coast it clearly came early, but for us it really arrived yesterday, when the rain finally stopped.  Today it is partly cloudy and about 23°C (73°F) and just beautiful.  Our local town of Wetzikon has both an outdoor pool and a local lake that we can swim in, but for fear of repeating last year when it was just plain frigid, we belong to the indoor pool in nearby Uster.  Our daughter loves swimming, so much so that she has woken up from a dream crying “Swimming Nappie!”

I have had a relatively light travel schedule over the last few months but that changed on the 9th of June when I went to Heidelberg, DE for an Anti-Spam conference.  In a few days I will go for just a few days to Hanover NH.  When I take these trips it’s hard on Christine, so I try to keep them short.  This is another reason why many people haven’t seen much of me lately.  While the current plan is to be in California toward the end of September, this too is subject to change.  It’s not for lack of wanting to see friends there, though.

If you make use of Dopplr, I have started to playing around with it to update the schedule, but so far as I can tell it doesn’t do a good job of combining others’ calendars to give you a unified view of where your friends are.  Bummer.

Until next update.


Gasoline PumpAnyone not under a rock can’t help but notice the price of oil having skyrocketed.  $4.00 per gallon prices may seem like a lot, and indeed they are compared to what they were, and so President Bush has decided to wage a war to attempt to get domestic production up.  That means drilling off the shores of Florida and California and in the ANWR National Reserve in Alaska.

It’s a smooth political move.  He figures now that prices are high he can play this card.  However, many economists would disagree that this would do a thing to bring down the cost of oil.  First of all, many believe that speculators are stepping in and buying up oil and storing it, thus driving up demand.  These guys have a lot of money and might well be able to absorb any increased supply.  The proof is what happened when Saudi Arabia announced that it would increase oil production by 200,000 barrels per day.  Prices went up.  The fact is that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been asleep at the wheel.  These people are responsible for keeping speculators in check, and where they fail, we could sink speculators hard by selling lots futures from the Strategic Petrolium Reserve.  That would really stick it to them.

But even if prices had gone down, the increased retrieval of oil doesn’t translate into the increased production of gasoline, as we are driving our refineries to capacity.  Building new refineries in the United States is as popular as drilling, because it is a messy business with serious environmental consequences.  You can trust me on this: I come from New Jersey, home of toxic waste.

Fortunately the President’s efforts (and by extension those of Senator McCain) to spoil our shores and Alaska are transparent.  Unfortunately, our energy dependence problem will not go away any time soon.

In case you’re wondering, yes I am insulated just a bit by the oil increases.  A small fraction of those increases have come from the weakened dollar.  However, the dollar has stablized but oil prices have not.  The way I am more insulated than I was in California is that I now have a commute from upstairs to downstairs instead of a 120 mile round trip commute.  This is better than a Prius, but sometimes lack of colleague contact is a problem.

But our house is heated with oil, and many of the products we use require energy to create.