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.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Across the world, ideas of the paranormal persist.
In June, Sheila Sillery-Walsh, a British tourist visiting the historic island-prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco, claimed that she captured an image of a ghost in a picture she snapped on her iPhone. In the frame of what was otherwise supposed to be a picture of an empty prison cell was a blurry black and white image of a woman. The story, which was printed in the British tabloid theDaily Mail, featured on the Bay Area's local KRON4 TV station and mocked by SFist, isn't the first time the Daily Mail has claimed that strange images have come up on smart devices.
Normally, a paranormal story wouldn’t catch my attention, but a few months before the story came out, a Spanish friend of mine named Laura showed me a weird image she found on her phone while I was traveling in Madrid. The photo, taken on her iPhone while on a trip to Ethiopia, shows a boy looking down at leaves he is holding in his hands. Seemingly superimposed onto the boy is another image of the boy, hands in a different position and eyes looking straight at the camera.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.