Bogus trend story of the week: The Times on Americans renouncing their citizenship.

Media criticism.
April 30 2010 6:35 PM

Bogus Trend Story of the Week

The New York Times on Americans renouncing their citizenship.

A U.S. passport.
Are more Americans turning in their passports?

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.

Advertisement

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."

A deeper investigation of the article's bogusity would ask if there is a demographic component to the "trend." Maybe a bunch of baby boomers are checking out of the United States to retire to a nation where the cost of living is lower. If so, not such a big deal, right? Especially if a lot of the boomers are merely permanent residents. Also tickling my bogusity cilia is the Times' assertionthat "[w]aiting periods to meet with consular officers to formalize renunciations have grown." Is this significant? And if so, of what? Perhaps one reason lines are forming is because embassy officials are giving cases more scrutiny to prevent people from severing their U.S. connection so they can skip out on taxes owed.

Press Box readers weren't fooled for a moment by the Times piece, with several quickly nominating it for a bogus trend award. Not seeing through the piece was Slate itself, which recycled a perfectly fine 2004 piece about renouncing citizenship, which it pegged to the Times article. In introducing the old piece to new readers, Slate stated, "More and more Americans are giving up their citizenship, a recent New York Times article noted."

Addendum, May 1: After reading my piece, Paul Woolverton Jr. alerted me to an April 20 story in Time magazine that is just as credulous as the New York Times account. But not everybody in the press is that stupid. See this informed April 5 Dow Jones Newswires article on the topic, which reports that:

A minority of the recent expatriates are U.S. natives who have started a new life overseas. Most are people with family ties outside the U.S.: foreign professionals who acquired a green card while working in the U.S., or people who have received higher education in the U.S.

As for the fourth-quarter surge of renunciations, Dow Jones reports:

The IRS says some of the swelling of numbers of expatriations towards the end of 2009 occurred because the agency made a push to notify people that had already surrendered their passport, but had not completed the process by submitting the IRS form. Until that form is received by the IRS, these people are still subject to U.S. tax. "There is some catch-up going on," said IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland.

******

Before it will let you check out, the federal government will want this from you. To resign from the Press Box audience, please send a notarized statement documenting your dissatisfaction to slate.pressbox@gmail.com or direct your most succinct tweet at my Twitter handle. Thanks to Slate intern Graham Vyse for his help. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate  runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word renunciants in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.