Movies

No, Jonathan Chait, I Never Hinted That Having a Swiss Bank Account Amounts to 'heroic rebellion'

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Swiss heroism

Jonathan Chait has a long piece in New York magazine about liberalism in Hollywood. In it, he quotes me on a very tangential side-issue, yet still manages to misrepresent my stated views seriously enough to point out. The relevant section:

This year, some of Obama's movie-star luster has worn off, yet the cultural landscape is the same, essentially congenial place. Here is one small but newly relevant example. The website tvtropes.org collects the basic rules of various pop-culture genres—for instance, a character in a horror film who announces that he will "be right back" is about to suffer a grisly fate. One entry notes that "merely possessing a Swiss bank account is proof positive that a person is up to no good" and that "in more recent stories, an account in an offshore tax haven, such as the Cayman Islands, may be substituted."

In many quarters of the right, though, secretive finances and tax-dodging represent heroic rebellion against tyrannical government. (Reason editor Matt Welch recently defended Swiss bank accounts as a sanctuary for "panicked retirees trying to cope with new tax rules imposed capriciously by a revenue-hungry Congress and president in 2010.") The automatic imputation of sinister motives to secretive tax avoidance by wealthy businesspeople is exactly the sort of thing the Screen Guide for Americans warned against. Now, of course, the Republican Party has nominated a presidential candidate possessing both a Swiss bank account and money in a Cayman Islands tax haven, and television and film have so deeply ingrained the popular distrust of these things that Democrats need only chant the phrases in order to make him bleed.

Jonathan Chait

Chait's parenthetical links me to the notion that "secretive finances and tax-dodging represent heroic rebellion against tyrannical government," which is a sentiment utterly absent from the piece of mine he quotes from. That column was about how anti-"Swiss bank account" populism is hurting Americans (and others) right now, particularly those who live and work abroad. I italicize because Chait's usage of the word "sanctuary" before the quote attributed to me makes it seem like I was talking about Grandma and Grandpa squirrelling their money abroad to avoid domestic tax rules. In context, my quote was instead about expatriate Americans who happened to be retired and are totally panicking right now because of the new U.S. tax laws aimed at foreign financial institutions. The longer quote:

Do you know who else once had a Swiss bank account? I mean, besides Hitler? Various U.S. military veterans, dual-national citizens who haven't lived or worked in America for decades, and panicked retirees who are trying to cope with new tax rules imposed capriciously by a revenue-hungry Congress and president in 2010. Thousands of such Americans are getting bounced out of their existing Swiss accounts and denied new ones, even if they live and work in Geneva for one of the city's many international non-governmental organizations.

You can read dozens of their testimonies in this April 2012 letter [PDF] to the Internal Revenue Service from American Citizens Abroad, including this story from an American retiree who has lived in Geneva (where he worked at the U.S. secretariat for the United Nations' International Labor Office) for all but four years since 1973[.]

Note: There is effectively no more "secretive finances and tax-dodging" associated with what few American-held Swiss bank accounts are left (including mine!), so I'm really not sure what that purported "heroic rebellion" is supposed to even refer to.

Chait has made a habit out of misrepresenting my and Reason's views. It's kind of odd.