Bogus Trend Story of the Week
The New York Times on Americans renouncing their citizenship.
By definition, the bogus trend story of the week is a lazy piece of work. But this week's winner—"More American Expatriates Give Up Citizenship,"New York Times, April 25—is lazy about its laziness.
Before we set fire to this article and throw it out the window, let's commend it for not misrepresenting itself. It states that "more" Americans are giving up citizenship in the headline, and that appears to be substantiated in the piece, which reports that 743 expatriates surrendered their "U.S. citizenship or permanent residency status" in 2009. The figure in 2008 was 235. More is more.
Now, let's go to the laziness. The piece neither quotes nor names any American expatriate who surrendered citizenship in 2009. The article's chattiest talking head is an unnamed source who gave up her citizenship years ago. Here's the passage:
One Swiss-based business executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive family issues, said she weighed the decision for 10 years. She had lived abroad for years but had pleasant memories of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Yet the notion of double taxation—and of future tax obligations for her children, who will receive few U.S. services—finally pushed her to renounce, she said.
"I loved my time in the Marines, and the U.S. is still a great country," she said. "But having lived here 20 years and having to pay and file while seeing other countries' nationals not having to do that, I just think it's grossly unfair."
"It's taxation without representation," she added.
Never mind the oddness of giving a source anonymity because of "sensitive family issues"—whatever those are—because there's something odder about the use of this source by the Times. She appears, equally anonymously, in a 2006 story in the International Herald Tribune, the Times' Paris-based sister paper. The lede of the IHT article, "Americans Abroad Are Giving Up Citizenship for Lower Taxes," reads:
She is a former U.S. Marine, a native Californian and, now, a former American who prefers to remain discreet about abandoning her citizenship. After 10 years of warily considering options, she turned in her U.S. passport last month without ceremony, becoming an alien in the view of her homeland.
"It's a really hard thing to do," said the woman, a 16-year resident of Geneva who had tired of the cost and time of filing yearly U.S. tax returns on top of her Swiss taxes. "I just kept putting this off. But it's my kids and the estate tax. I don't care if I die with only one Swiss franc to my name, but the U.S. shouldn't get money I earned here when I die."
I didn't discover the overlap. That honor goes to Press Box reader Jeff Quest, who asks via e-mail, "How common can this [trend] be if they can only find one anecdotal source?" My guess would be that the advocacy group American Citizens Abroad, cited in both the IHT and Times pieces maintains a casting book of sources for reporters and connected both papers to the Marine when they called. But that's just a guess.
The sin of laziness committed by the Times article is compounded by its complete lack of rigor. If the story's premise is that renunciation of citizenship is up, it would behoove a reporter to look at more than two years to establish a trend, right? The IHT article put the running total of 2006 departures at 509, which means that the number of people giving up the right to live in the United States went down (just 235 in 2008) before rising in 2009 to 743. Hence, no discernable trend!
Indeed, the annual number seems to oscillate. An October 2004 Harper's piece put the 2002 tally at 403. In 1995, the ABC News program Primetime Live reported that "some 800 Americans give up their citizenship each year." The IHT article states that upward of 2,000 Americans were quitting the country in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. A more accurate headline for the Times piece would be "Those Abandoned U.S. Citizenship Numbers Sure Do Bounce Around, Don't They?"
If you read the Times article closely, you see that it isn't strictly about people giving up their U.S. citizenship. As the piece reports, the figures also include the surrender of permanent residency status, which isn't quite as dramatic as relinquishing one's U.S. citizenship. As Harper's noted of the renunciation class of 2002, "many (if not most) were merely longtime resident aliens returning home."