September 29, 2013


I was a sociology undergrad and — as clearly evidenced by my ongoing comic strip about Karl Marx — I'm still kind of a sociology nerd. I love seeing the social phenomena I studied all those years ago continue to play out in real life. And now (as then) one of the phenomena that always tickles me the most is unintended consequences. You know, you pass a law intended to do one good thing, which it usually does to a greater or lesser extent, but at the same time it ends up causing all these other problems that nobody ever predicted.

Well, today observer has become the observee.

Regular readers will know I hate the American healthcare system and am super-pro-Obamacare, as well as super-pro government-run healthcare, free healthcare, death panels, etc. So I'm glad Obamacare is finally chugging to life this week. But today I was thinking about its core component, the "Individual Shared Responsibility Provision," or "the mandate," or the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance or face a fine — and I realised: oh fuck.

Not because I don't have health insurance or wouldn't pay for it if I didn't — but because eventually I plan to move back to the U.K. (partly for the free healthcare, ahem). And according to the IRS, U.S. citizens living abroad are still subject to the mandate — meaning they're still subject to a fine if they don't have coverage that qualifies under the Affordable Care Act. And in July, HHS went on the record saying that
foreign health coverage is not designated as minimum essential coverage in this final rule.
In other words: if you're a U.S. citizen living in another country and fully covered in another country (free healthcare, ahem), you are still, in theory, subject to a penalty for not having coverage.

Now, you might be thinking: WTF? Why would you be subject to the penalty if you're no longer taking part in the incredibly ballsed-up American healthcare system that the mandate is designed to kind-of repair? Well, actually, you are and you aren't. Here's the official guidance from the IRS:
12. Are US citizens living abroad subject to the individual shared responsibility provision?

Yes. However, U.S. citizens who live abroad for a calendar year (or at least 330 days within a 12 month period) are treated as having minimum essential coverage for the year (or period). These are individuals who qualify for an exclusion from income under section 911 of the Code.
Basically, under an existing rule, U.S. citizens living abroad are generally allowed to not pay U.S. tax on their foreign income as long as they meet certain requirements. Those requirements have gotten a lot stricter in recent years, but the gist is, once you've spent a full year (or almost a full year) living abroad, the IRS no longer considers you resident in the U.S. and you may go tax-exempt bananas. And if you qualify as non-resident for these purposes, the IRS will also treat you as having satisfied the mandate, so you won't have to pay the penalty after all.


The very technical rule about who's not a resident specifies that, among other things, you either have to have spent an entire tax year outside the U.S., or you have to have spent 330 days in a consecutive 12-month period outside the U.S. So unless you move to another country at the very beginning of the tax year, you're probably not going to qualify the first time you file as an expatriate. This kind of amounts to a bullshit exit tax on its own, but there are — legitimate — ways to offset most or all of your actual U.S. tax liability if you're already paying income tax in another country, so generally it works out okay.

However, as far as I can tell, there is no way to offset the ACA's penalty for failing to maintain minimum essential coverage. Ipso facto, now when you leave the U.S. you may have to pay a fine the first time you file taxes — ostensibly for not having healthcare but practically because you decided to live in another country. It's not a trivial fine, either; once Obamacare kicks in completely in 2016, it will be the larger of $695 or 2.5% of your family income.

To be fair, the penalty is pro-rated to account for any months in which you did have recognized coverage for at least one day, and you're also not liable if you didn't have health insurance for less than three months out of the year. So I guess if you leave the U.S. after September (and were covered while in the U.S.) you're also safe. But at the very least having to consider this kind of thing adds an extra layer of hassle to what is already a pretty hassle-heavy life decision. And what if you get offered a job elsewhere that starts in February? Good thing there are no good reasons to want to live in another country (free healthcare, ahem).

I should emphasise that I could very well be interpreting this entirely wrong — and even if I'm not, I'm not a tax attorney and you shouldn't be taking tax advice from me regardless. I would also note that the law has a pretty vague get-out-of-jail-free clause that says HHS can ultimately decide what constitutes coverage — so perhaps eventually they'll change their minds and come up with some system for counting foreign healthcare (whether private or state-run) towards your fulfillment of the mandate.

Until then, however, the sociology nerd inside me will continue to geek out, and the aspiring expat in me will continue to fume.

September 28, 2013

For Fox Sake

I know it's basically a professional sport among liberals and/or thinking people these days to question Fox News's bona fides as a news organization because of its clear ideological slant. But guys: I actually went to the Fox News website today to see how they were spinning the whole government shutdown thing, and I have to tell you, there's really no reason to make this a discussion about politics; we can question Fox News's bona fides as a news organization based on their complete inability to compose or copyedit a simple paragraph. To wit:
House Republicans meet to plot next move, as shutdown deadline nears 
...The major issue remains whether the divided Republican House will pass simple legislation approve[d] Friday night by the Democrat-led Senate that funds the entire federal government through Nov. 15.[,] O [o]r will [whether] members [will instead] send another temporary spending bill to the upper chamber with no ObamaCare funding, which would most likely result in a stalemate and partial shutdown Monday night. 
The House sent its first temporary funding bill, without ObamaCare money, to the Senate earlier this month. But Senate Democrat[s] re-inserted funding for the health care law, despite efforts by Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz --— [N.B. two hyphens instead of an em-dash] a conservative, Tea Party-backed lawmaker — [N.B. en-dash instead of an em-dash] to block that effort.
I mean, good grief. Does Fox News hand over its website to a high school newspaper on Saturdays? Or is it like this all the time? If it's not clear from the above, actually copyedited quote, I just want to draw your attention to this ACTUAL SENTENCE published on a purportedly journalistic website:
Or will members send another temporary spending bill to the upper chamber with no ObamaCare funding, which would most likely result in a stalemate and partial shutdown Monday night.

Incidentally, as I was writing this rant the Republicans announced their "compromise," so I can't actually link to the offending page. However, I did screenshot it so you know I'm not making anything up:

Seriously, guys. Seriously.

September 27, 2013

September 20, 2013

September 19, 2013

That's Pretty Rich

James Surowiecki has an article in this week's New Yorker about how basically New York City will always have disgusting levels of inequality because... well, just because.

Now, I will fully admit that this kind of BS economic just-so story is a bugbear of mine, but regardless this particular version is totally infuriating — especially coming from someone who usually brings a certain level of finesse to economic analysis. Here's the worst part from his current article:
Decrying inequality on the campaign trail is one thing. Actually doing something about it is infinitely harder.

In part, this is because New York’s economy is absurdly dependent on its main driver of inequality — the finance industry. Finance accounts for roughly forty per cent of all the wages paid in Manhattan, and almost a quarter of the city’s G.D.P. (That’s not even to mention the myriad businesses — high-priced law firms, say — that service the financial hub.) Wall Street’s importance limits what a mayor can do to reduce inequality from the top down. The same is true of the city budget’s dependence on the wealthy — the top one per cent of earners pay forty-three per cent of the city’s income tax. In other words, the rich we will always have with us.
I am so freakin' tired of hearing this ridiculous "logic." Heavens no! We can't raise taxes on the rich! Then they'll just LEAVE and we'll all be lost. LOST! We can't imagine what we'd ever do without them! Just when did we become Wall Street's clingy codependent partner, anyway? (Wait, never mind.)

Here's the thing: if we called the bluff and raised taxes on the rich, or the banking industry, or whatever, you know what would happen? NOTHING. Because where are they going to go? The finance industry isn't in New York just because New York provides a cushy environment in which to do business; the finance industry is in New York because there's no other city in the country that can cater quite so well to stupid rich whims. If you want a car to pick you up at 3 a.m. and drive you to an artisanal sausage cafe on the Upper West Side where you'll be treated like royalty precisely because you have no concern for the sleeping schedule of less fortunate people, well, you can do that pretty easily in New York — but it ain't gonna fly in Cincinnati. Put another way, bankers like being rich so they can spend their money on stupid, unnecessary shit—and they don't have quite so wide a variety of stupid shit to spend money on anywhere else in the country. (Well, maybe San Francisco. But more on that in a second.)

Now, of course, the shrill Surowieckis among us will protest that if we really stop kowtowing to the rich in New York, the banking industry can always move, setting up a horrific, exploitative infrastructure somewhere else. And it's true that there are horrific, exploitative infrastructures already blossoming in other cities, San Francisco and L.A. among them. No doubt there are also people out there making similar doomsday predictions about how tech will leave San Francisco if we stop cutting them a break, and Hollywood will leave L.A., and blah blah blah.

Except the same people who make these arguments frequently turn around and tell us that a large part of what makes these industries so efficient and innovative is their geographic concentration. Surowiecki's among them:
Marshall’s basic point about why companies in the same industry congregate still holds: industrial districts enjoy the same economies of scale that only giant companies normally get. Specialized suppliers arrive. Skilled workers know where to come to ply their trade. And everyone involved benefits from the spillovers of specialized knowledge.
Or here it is in a slightly different form:
The fundamental point is that much of the value that gets created in a company comes from the ways in which workers teach and learn from each other... Face time is still the easiest way to build connections.
So on the one hand we're being told that big industries like finance and tech and film would be crazy to move, because it's precisely their concentration in one place — and the specialized networks that have built up in that place over decades — that make them so successful. On the other hand, we have the same people telling us that raising taxes will instantly frighten the rich away like startled cats. Obviously they can't both be true — and like I said, my money is on the former.

Because here's the last thing: regardless of any fancy economic theories you might believe or not believe, I'll wager that a nontrivial proportion of the rich finance types in New York are here because they saw Wall Street once and want to be like Gordon Gecko. They want to be in New York. The city has a cachet (for better or for worse) that won't go away, even if Goldman Sachs and Bank of America and Wells Fargo and Citibank do all suddenly decide to close up shop and move to the Midwest. Which they won't, because they want to be in New York for those same, silly, intangible reasons. What kind of a global bank doesn't have an office in the Big Apple, right?

So let's cut this crap. We CAN fight equality from the top down — it's real easy. And hey, if we raise taxes on the rich and they all end up leaving, you know what we'll be left with? Exactly what we wanted: less income inequality, because all those high earners will be gone. And in the meantime, we'll have used the millions of extra dollars we taxed them for, while they were still around, to make prudent plans for a future where 40% of income tax doesn't come from the megarich.

And, best of all — without all the stupid luxuries that New York bankers demand driving up the cost of living for everyone — we'll be left with a wage that goes a lot further. Sounds pretty awful, right?

September 17, 2013

Itemized Billing

I was dismayed to realise, last week, that it has been just about two months since I actually *wrote* anything on this blog. (It was this post about my battle with the cable company. SPOILER ALERT: after several more increasingly delirious phone calls to retention, we now have an antenna.)

I don't intend to bore you with excuses or self-reflection on why I haven't been writing here a lot lately, because god knows I've done that before and, you know, there's a war in Syria and stuff. Nobody cares about the ins and outs of my weekly time management dilemmas.

Still, here's a list of things you can read now/look forward to later so that you don't feel like I've been totally dropping the writerly ball the last two months*:

(*N.B. writers always drop the ball. Or, we would, if anyone ever passed to us.)

ITEM: my Twitter. Yeah, yeah, I know, it's not exactly voluminous, and it's a total echo chamber, and Franzen says we're all leaking spinal fluid with each character. (Though, hello, has he read his novels? They ALL have like 140 characters.) And I do get wistful sometimes that I can't work a few of my one-liners there into longer, more coherent rants like the pundigrions of old. But in the meantime, that's where you can find the sophomoric jokes I always used to make here, so.

ITEM: my novel. Now, I know what you're thinking. ANDREW, you're thinking. DO YOU THINK I HAVE SOME KIND OF MENTAL BRAIN DAMAGE, ANDREW? YOUR NOVEL BOOK WAS ACCEPTED TO BE PUBLICATED OVER A YEAR AGO. CLEARLY YOU HAVE NOT BEEN WORKING ON IT IN THE LAST TWO MONTHS. Well, no, I haven't been. Not exactly. But many of my waking moments have been devoted to marketing and publicity stuff for the novel, including two brand-new shorter essays that should be getting published sometime in the next few months for purposes of raising my online visibility etc. etc. So watch this space.

ITEM: also, actually, really my novel, because I sold the U.K. rights and my publisher there wants more revisions.

ITEM: my second book, which is nowhere near publication or even contract negotiations or even representation, but is — FRABJOUS DAY! — a complete first draft as of two weeks ago.

ITEM: the Ploughshares blog, which if you ask me is getting better every week. (e.g. this cartoon, which had me LOLing all over the place.)

I have also, I admit, been watching football. But nobody's a saint, right? Except, you know, the New Orleans Saints.

It's good to be back.

September 13, 2013

September 06, 2013

Conversations With Greatness CDXLV

...Two dick jokes in a row. Sorry. I'll do better next week.