The rich are different from you and me. They have Swiss bank accounts.
Well, at least Mitt Romney does.
That was one of the big revelations when Romney released his tax records in January -- a revelation that Vanity Fair recently looked into, along with the rest of his finances. Of course, it's no secret that Mr. Romney is a man of means. But what is still secret is just how Romney has invested those means.
Maybe not so much secret as secretive. Romney has released his return for 2010 and an estimate for 2011. So we have a broad outline of what his personal finances look like. And they look something like an Epcot of financial investments: There is a blind trust with offshore accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands -- not to mention an almost comically large IRA account. None of this is illegal. But it has raised questions about Romney's Caribbean tax havens and his Swiss bank account. The former makes sense. The latter not as much.
Question #1: Remind me: Why does Romney have money in the Caribbean?
Let's take a quick detour. Imagine that a tax-exempt entity -- like a university endowment -- buys or otherwise acquires a business. Maybe a macaroni company. That company would have a nice little competitive edge. It wouldn't have to pay taxes. That's exactly what happened when some wealthy alums donated the Mueller Macaroni Company to the New York University Law School in 1948. This loophole prompted Congress to close it 1950. Only a tax-exempt entity's "related" businesses would in fact be tax exempt. Everything else would be taxed as "unrelated business income".
What does this have to do with Mitt Romney? Well, university endowments and public pensions are some of the biggest investors in private equity funds like Romney's Bain Capital. Those investors don't want to be hit with the unrelated business tax -- so Bain Capital sets up shop in the Caymans where it can avoid the unrelated business income tax. You might still be wondering: What does this have to do with Mitt Romney -- at least now? He left Bain Capital in 1999 (or 2001). He did, but he didn't. He still gets a share of Bain Capital's profits every year as part of his retirement package. And Bain still has corporate blockers in the Caymans. That's why Romney has investment income from the Caymans.
Question #2: Why does Romney have a Swiss bank account? And what's so great about a Swiss bank account versus any other tax haven?
Swiss banks are the gold standard of tax havens because of their secrecy and stability. Actually, that sentence should be in the past tense. Swiss banks are not nearly as secret as they used to be. Time was, the Swiss government jealously guarded its banks' reputation for never revealing client information. It was a crime to do so. High-net individuals the world over flocked to the Alps to hide money from tax collectors back home. But that started to change in 2008. A former UBS banker came forward with tales of how he helped wealthy American clients evade taxes -- including such charming details as smuggling diamonds in tubes of toothpaste. The IRS launched an investigation, and came up with a list of 52,000 names it wanted from the Swiss banking giant. A settlement followed, and then a new U.S. law. Now foreign banks have to cooperate with the IRS or face fairly tough penalties. Auf Wiedersehen, Swiss banking secrecy über alles.
But Swiss banks still have plenty going for them. They can thank the Swiss franc for that. It's a safe-haven currency -- and that makes their banks safe havens too. The Swiss are famous for their fiscal prudence and low inflation, which makes their currency particularly strong. That's even more true now thanks to the euro crisis. Demand for Swiss francs is so great that the Swiss National Bank had to cap the value of their currency last year. It was getting so expensive that it threatened to push the Swiss economy into deflation.
The Romney camp has hinted that he only had a Swiss bank account because he wanted Swiss francs. In other words, he was hedging against the dollar declining in value. That's fair, even if it's a bit odd for someone with $250 million. But you don't need a Swiss bank account to get Swiss francs. You can just buy Swiss francs.
Another possibility is that Romney had the Swiss bank account to make it easier to wire money from one European investment to another. We can't say without seeing more tax returns. All we do know is his lawyer closed this Swiss bank account in 2010.
That's the final point. Mitt Romney's long-time lawyer, R. Bradford Malt, has managed Romney's personal finances since Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. That's when Romney set up a blind trust, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest. Still, there are questions about just how blind the trust has been. And, besides, Romney is ultimately responsible for his own money.
Question #3: Is it fair for the Obama campaign to go after the Swiss bank account?
When most people hear the words "Swiss bank account" they think "tax evasion". That's not always fair. There are plenty of good reasons an American might have a Swiss bank account. Maybe they live abroad. Or work for a Swiss company. But those are good reasons that don't apply to Mitt Romney. He didn't live abroad. And he didn't work for a Swiss company.
That doesn't mean Mitt Romney was up to no good. There's no evidence of that. It's entirely possible that Romney really was just hedging against the dollar. That's the legitimate reason a very wealthy person would want a Swiss bank account. The not-so-legitimate reason is the secrecy -- to hide money from the IRS. It's unfair for the Obama campaign to insinuate Romney was doing the latter. But it'd be a lot more unfair if Romney was more transparent. We just don't know enough to say anything definitively. We don't know how long the account existed. We don't know whether Romney's lawyer or Romney himself set it up.
What we do know is that this kind of stuff doesn't seem weird to Romney. It's what the über-wealthy do. But it is weird to most everyone else. It's not what the 99 percent do. Actually, we know one more thing. Romney can end this controversy whenever he wants. He just has to release more tax records. He's running for office for Pete's sake. He should say something.
In other words, Romney should take a page from the Swiss. Even they're less secretive nowadays.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Humbled by his struggling presidential campaign, can the once-mighty New Jersey governor vault back into contention after Saturday’s debate?
SALEM, New Hampshire—Chris Christie was accustomed to being a big man: a man of stature, a man of power, a man who demands and gets his way.
But recently, the big man (this is a description of his personality, not his size) was seeming awfully small.
On Friday evening here, the governor of New Jersey was desperately trying to talk some sense into the people of New Hampshire, a couple hundred of whom had come out to see him on a snowy night. The night before, Christie’s rival Marco Rubio had played the same venue, filling a larger room of the elementary school beyond its capacity. Christie was begging the crowd not to pile on the bandwagon of the apparent winner, but instead, to show some courage.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
Tracking them down is a globe-trotting adventure that rivals any jungle expedition.
In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.
“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”
It takes a while to spot it and I have to crane my head to do so, but yes, there it is—a large crocodile, in the back, mouth agape, next to the hippo. It’s mostly hidden from view, and until recently, it was hidden from science, too.