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.
The MIT economist Peter Temin argues that economic inequality results in two distinct classes. And only one of them has any power.
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
A CFPB investigation concluded that Transunion and Equifax deceived Americans about the reports they provided and the fees they charged.
In personal finance, practically everything can turn on one’s credit score. It’s both an indicator of one’s financial past, and the key to accessing necessities—without insane costs—in the future. But on Tuesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that two of the three major credit-reporting agencies responsible for doling out those scores—Equifax and Transunion—have been deceiving and taking advantage of Americans. The Bureau ordered the agencies to pay more than $23 million in fines and restitution.
In their investigation, the Bureau found that the two agencies had been misrepresenting the scores provided to consumers, telling them that the score reports they received were the same reports that lenders and businesses received, when, in fact, they were not. The investigation also found problems with the way the agencies advertised their products, using promotions that suggested that their credit reports were either free or cost only $1. According to the CFPB the agencies did not properly disclose that after a trial of seven to 30 days, individuals would be enrolled in a full-price subscription, which could total $16 or more per month. The Bureau also found Equifax to be in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which states that the agencies must provide one free report every 12 months made available at a central site. Before viewing their free report, consumers were forced to view advertisements for Equifax, which is prohibited by law.
In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, a generally empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the established formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky outfits, and attempting, overall, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
The party appears to be struggling to convince the public it represents a better alternative to President Trump and the GOP.
If Democrats want to regain the power they’ve lost at the state and federal level in recent years, they will have to convince more voters they can offer solutions to their problems.
That may be especially difficult, however, if voters think the party and its representatives in government don’t understand or care about them. And according to a recently released poll, many voters may, in fact, feel that way. The Washington Post-ABC News survey, released this week, found that a majority of the public thinks the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of average Americans in the United States. More Americans think Democrats are out of touch than believe the same of the Republican Party or President Trump.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It would have been a breakthrough for Macedonia—a government finally in place after two years of political crisis—if it hadn’t turned bloody.
On Thursday, Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM)announced that Talat Xhaferi had been elected speaker of parliament, paving the way for a coalition between his party and parties representing ethnic Albanians, who comprise between one-quarter and one-third of Macedonia’s population, to form a government. (No one knows the exact proportion because there has been no census since 2002, as the parties cannot agree to hold one.)For the last 15 years, ethnic-Albanian parties have been represented in every government, but the conservative-nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) has tried to portray Zaev’s coalition as a vehicle for a coup and eventual takeover of Macedonia by ethnic Albanians, who have higher birth rates than ethnic Macedonians.*
From joy and attachment to anxiety and protectiveness, mothering behavior begins with biochemical reactions.
The artist Sarah Walker once told me that becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live. I always liked Walker's description because it’s more precise than the shorthand most people use for life with a newborn: Everything changes.
Because a lot of things do change, of course, but for new mothers, some of the starkest differences are also the most intimate ones—the emotional changes. Which, it turns out, are also largely neurological.
Even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy tinkers with the very structure of her brain, several neurologists told me. After centuries of observing behavioral changes in new mothers, scientists are only recently beginning to definitively link the way a woman acts with what's happening in her prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes, and elsewhere. Gray matter becomes more concentrated. Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
A new documentary explores how early experiences drive development.
The idea that new babies are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge of the world around them doesn’t sound unreasonable. With their unfocused eyes and wrinkly skin, tiny humans sometimes look more like amoebas than complex beings.
Yet scientists have built a body of evidence, particularly over the last three decades, that suggests this is patently untrue. “When kids are born, they’re already little scientists exploring the world,” said the filmmaker Estela Renner via a video conference from Brazil before a recent screening of her new documentary The Beginning of Life (streaming on Netflix) at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
That’s something Renner, a Brazilian mother of three, discovered as she spoke with early-childhood experts and parents in nine countries around the world about the impact a child’s environment in the first few years of life has on not only her physical development, but her cognitive, social, and emotional development, too. “I didn’t know that kids were not blank slates,” she said. “It changed the way I look at babies.” If more people recognized that fact, the way communities and policymakers think about and invest in the early years of life might be different.