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.
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
For those who didn't go to prestigious schools, don't come from money, and aren't interested in sports and booze—it's near impossible to gain access to the best paying jobs.
As income inequality in the U.S. strikes historic highs, many people are starting to feel that the American dream is either dead or out of reach. Only 64 percent of Americans still believe that it’s possible to go from rags to riches, and, in another poll, 63 percent said they did not believe their children would be better off than they were. These days, the idea that anyone who works hard can become wealthy is at best a tough sell.
What it’s like to watch a komodo dragon get dissected
Try to imagine how hard it would be to skin a Komodo dragon.
It is harder than that.
The problem is that the giant lizard’s hide is not just tough and leathery, but also reinforced. Many of the scales contain a small nugget of bone, called an osteoderm, which together form a kind of pointillist body armor. Sawing through these is tough on both arms and blades.
I’m at the Royal Veterinary College, about 20 kilometers outside of central London, watching four biologists put their shoulders into the task. A Komodo dragon, which recently died in London Zoo for unexplained reasons, lies on a steel gurney in front of them. Their task, over the next three days, is to dissect it and measure all of its muscles. So, first, the skin must come off.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The danger of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer without a suicide switch
Imagine a supercomputer so advanced that it could hold the contents of a human brain. The Google engineer Ray Kurzweil famously believes that this will be possible by 2045. Organized technologists are seeking to transfer human personalities to non-biological carriers, “extending life, including to the point of immortality.” My gut says that they’ll never get there. But say I’m wrong. Were it possible, would you upload the contents of your brain to a computer before death, extending your conscious moments on this earth indefinitely? Or would you die as your ancestors did, passing into nothingness or an unknown beyond human comprehension?
The promise of a radically extended lifespan, or even immortality, would tempt many. But it seems to me that they’d be risking something very much like hell on earth.
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.
Along with the Nancy Drew series, almost all of the thrillers in the popular teenage franchise were produced by ghostwriters, thanks to a business model that proved to be prescient.
In the opening pages of a recent installment of the children’s book series The Hardy Boys, black smoke drifts though the ruined suburb of Bayport. The town's residents, dressed in tatters and smeared with ash, stumble past the local pharmacy and diner. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk. “Unreal,” says the mystery-solving teenager Joe Hardy—and he's right. Joe and his brother Frank are on a film set, and the people staggering through the scene are actors dressed as zombies. But as is always the case with Hardy Boysbooks, something still isn’t quite right: This time, malfunctioning sets nearly kill several actors, and the brothers find themselves in the middle of yet another mystery.
A song from 2011 is causing controversy now, proving how slowly the genre’s attitudes about women are evolving.
The rapper Action Bronson, whose major-label debut came out recently, is mostly known for his love of food, his large frame, and the fact that he sounds so much like Ghostface Killah that even Ghostface Killah gets confused sometimes. He will likely now be known by more people for one particular lyric of his, due to a headline-making petition asking Toronto’s NXNE music festival to kick the artist off the bill because, in its words, he “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women.”
The lyrics in question come from the 2011 song, “Consensual Rape,” which has a verse that mentions giving a girl MDMA and then having very rough sex with her. The petition also calls out a 2011 music video that portrays Bronson happily disposing of a woman’s corpse.