Thursday, May 23, 2013

Makes Me Wanna Holla - Exit Strategies

Problem Exit Strategy I

Imagine a tourist attraction on the border between two countries. Each country builds up a little city on it's side, which becomes a popular border crossing. If the two countries enjoy positive relations, a joined commercial/economic infrastructure, and shared values and culture, you'd expect that passing between them would be a simple thing. But try passing from Niagara Falls, New York, USA into Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, and you're in for some frustration.

It's not the actual crossing that's the issue. It's finding your way to it. Because the road signs that should direct you to the Rainbow Bridge border crossing, confuse and mislead you instead. You begin to see these apparently helpful signs, for both Bridge and Falls, miles before you reach them. But once you near the small hub of hotels and restaurants that surround them, the signs are harder to spot. After driving a few blocks without spotting one, you begin to think you've missed a turn. Eventually, it becomes clear that you're getting farther from the hub, so you turn back toward it, looking for the trail you somehow lost. You eventually see another sign, but it directs you down a side street, which brings you to an intersection where you're left to decide whether to go left or right. At one point - once you've picked up the markers again - a single sign points you in two directions at once.

When Ponczka and I negotiated this maze last weekend, we finally arrived at the bridge by abandoning the direction the most recent sign (at least a couple of blocks back) had directed us, and turning in the direction that seemed likely.

I was so frustrated by the time I pulled up at the toll booth, that I couldn't help venting to the attendant. I began with, "I know it's not your responsibility, but the signs...." And I got no further, because he finished my sentence for me.

"Yes, they're TERRIBLE," he said. "You can thank the State of New York for that. They don't want you to find your way. It's intentional. They want you to stay on this side. Problem is, there's nothing to do on this side. There's lots to do on the Canadian side. But they want to keep you here, to spend your money here."

How crazy is that. Aren't Canadians eager enough to come to the US to spend their money without such manipulation? But then it occurred to me: the aim is much more likely to keep the Americans in.

Problem Exit Strategy II

I was at a tax information seminar a couple of nights ago, arranged to advise Americans living in Canada about how to stay in compliance with US tax law. You see, Americans are required to file a yearly tax return forever, no matter where they live or work, whatever their source of income (unless that's less than about $10,000. a year.), even if they've been abroad for virtually their entire lives, or have never lived in the US at all. Because there is a tax treaty between the US and Canada, very few Americans in Canada will ever actually have to pay the IRS anything, so long as they pay the taxes owing in Canada. But that doesn't relieve Americans of the legal duty to file, or of the potentially huge penalties for not doing so.

There are separate documents for just about every financial asset, investment or benefit, and quite a lot of complexity, especially in those areas where US and Canadian tax laws differ, so compliance is a real bother and a headache, one that many of us have simply ignored, knowing we'd never actually have to pay anything anyway. But, as we were told, the Treasury department has become more vigilant about tax dodgers since 9/11, and it reacts aggressively to any sign of "withholding" financial information. And, we were warned, a new legal instrument is being pushed which will require all financial institutions worldwide to submit info on all US clients to the IRS, or risk crippling sanctions. We were strongly advised to become compliant by taking one of the three courses available, the simplest of which involved filing for at least the last three years.

One woman, in frustration, stood and exclaimed that this was all very controlling, and a bother, and violated privacy rights, and declared that she'd just as soon simply renounce her US citizenship and be done with it. This generated a smattering of applause and a small surge of rebellious energy in the crowd. But it was quickly checked by the financial advisors response. Many of us first thought that he was joking. There was actually laughter in the room. But alas, it turned out to be all too true, and we were given a couple of horror stories to support the point. I paraphrase:

"In order to renounce your citizenship, you have to file a return for each of the last ten years, submit multiple forms detailing all financial holdings. And you will then be assessed an Exit Tax, which the IRS will pursue aggressively, and which could amount to a sizeable chunk of any estate!"

Many countries are quite jealous of its citizenship. It can be lost by simply accepting citizenship in another country. I've much appreciated the fact that taking on Canadian citizenship didn't put my  American citizenship at risk. If it had, I'd never have applied for it. But I never suspected that giving it up was quite so difficult that one had to buy their way out.

Problem Exit Strategy III

Getting out of anything is not always as easy as one would think. But the saddest exit strategy of all those I encountered this week is the following, told to us by a neighbor of Cloud, our Finger Lakes retreat, when we were there on the weekend.

Ponczka, who, since we bought Cloud, has become an informal real estate agent among our friends for Finger Lakes properties, noticed that the neighbor's plot of land has just been put up for sale. We stopped by and asked Gary what was going on.

"Dad's got stage 4 cancer," he told us. Dad, or Mr. B, bought the property 50/50 with his son Gary about 25 years ago, and the two have been coming down regularly ever since.

"Dad's on social security, and the doctors have his doing chemo five days a week. Well, under his insurance plan, he's got to fork over $40. every day he goes in for the treatment. That's $200. a week, over $800. in a month. He just can't afford it. So he's got to sell the place to get some cash.

"He doesn't want to sell it. He loves this place. I been trying to get somebody to buy up his half, to co-own it with me. That way, Dad could keep coming here for the time he's got left. And I could keep coming here. I don't want to give up this place either. I LOVE it here. But I can't find anybody to do it with me, so I got to sell.

"Mom, she ain't never liked the place, much. And she's scared and stressed anyhow, cause it looks like, once Dad dies, she's gonna have to sell the house too, so that she has enough to keep going.... It's just a bad situation."

A bad situation indeed, when a man can't even marshall his energies toward facing his own mortality, for worry about the devastated financial circumstances he will leave behind for wife and son.

There are threads linking these three tales of failed, absurd or tragic exit strategies. They all have to do with an institutional side of America. They all have to do with a kind of control, with an intentional limiting of options, with the imposing of restraints. And finally, don't they all reflect a kind of meanness? There's a kind of "GOT-ya" mentality reflected in all three of these situations that doesn't seem fitting for the place we lovingly refer to in song as "the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave." Obviously, there are practical "reasons" for these types of control measures, but don't they suggest a real cynicism and even de-valuing of people?

They bring to mind what I consider one of the ugliest forms of problem exits in our societies - Canadian and American - these days. Have you experienced someone being let go from your workplace anytime recently? There's little more of the communal goodbye, well-wishing, the harmless though heartfelt venting that I recall from when I was fired for the first time, from a restaurant job, for mouthing off to the manager in my twenties (yeah, I deserved it!). Then, I was allowed to say my goodbyes, collect my belongings, and was even welcome to come by at the end of shifts to go drinking with friends.

When a dear colleague was let go from my current place of employment a year or so ago, it was almost as though all record of her had been expunged and she'd ceased to exist as a person. She was escorted to her desk when the office was empty, to collect her belongings, nothing was ever said about what had caused the firing, and her name was hardly mentioned above a whisper from that time forward.

So sad, isn't it, the way our lives, our presence, our membership in our biological and social families are valued, accounted for, measured and managed; the room to be our difficult, disagreeable selves all squeezed out; risks contained, profit maximized, the possibility of disruption kept to a minimum...at all cost.

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