The IRS won’t stop me from voting for Hillary

The IRS won’t stop me from voting for Hillary

After watching the Republican and Democratic party conventions this week, I’m glad that I haven’t given up my right to vote in U.S. federal elections. This election is too important for the whole world.

But, in the last six years, many American citizens living abroad gave up their right to vote in order to avoid filing U.S. tax returns. That’s unfortunate because every vote counts, especially in close races.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA). It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens living abroad to file yearly reports on their non-U.S. financial accounts. The intent was to impede tax cheats and money launderers, and apprehend them.

Law abiding, ordinary middle-income Americans living abroad were never the target of FACTA. It was aimed at wealthy people who hide untaxed earnings in offshore accounts. But it caused considerable inconvenience for every citizen living outside the country, and for some an extra expense.

For that reason, many Americans living in Canada gave up their U.S. citizenship. And with it, their right to vote.

I moved to Canada in 1973 and continue to maintain my dual citizenship. It’s not fun, or easy, to file a U.S. tax return every year. It’s easier to hire a professional accountant to do the work, but not everyone living abroad can afford to do that.

The alternative — revoking my U.S. citizenship and my right to vote — has never appealed to me. A democracy depends on citizen engagement. Of all the avenues open to individuals in a free society to influence the direction of their government, voting is the most important.

Congress has often rectified the unintended consequences of legislation to unburden innocent victims. I hope it will create such a safe harbor from FACTA reporting.

But I’m not holding my breath. Three years ago, the current U.S. Supreme Court ripped a key provision from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had banned voter suppression tactics used against the poor and mostly African-Americans in the South. That has recently encouraged conservative states to pass new laws that discourage people from voting.

Because most U.S. citizens living abroad lean Democratic, a Republican-controlled Congress may keep FACTA in place.

In the meantime, I’m not sitting out the 2016 U.S. federal elections. I’m registered to vote in Pierce County, Washington, and can’t wait to mark my ballot for Hillary Clinton and my friend U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.

The stakes are too high this time. Not only is there a clear choice between Hillary and Drumpf on the issues, and on mental stability, but the next president will also shape the U.S. Supreme Court for future generations.

Either Hillary or Drumpf will nominate at least one and probably two new justices, and so determine the future of money and politics (whether Citizens United stands), the reach of the Voting Rights Act, civil rights (LGBTQ issues), women’s reproductive freedom, religious liberty (Hobby Lobby, etc.), defining the Second Amendment in relation to gun violence, and other important issues.

After listening to speeches at both conventions, I’m more convinced than ever that retaining my right to vote was the correct choice.

George Le Masurier, a Comox Valley resident, has lived in Canada since 1973. He is a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada and has faithfully filed his U.S. tax returns.

Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

Our hope for U.S. politics: Make America Think Again

The message of the Republican convention, repeated in a thousand ways over four days, was simple: be afraid; be very afraid.

Here’s the executive summary of four days of fulmination: Our country is falling apart. The Black Lives Matter movement is destroying the social order, leading to the killing of police. Obama has made us more racially divided than ever. The Middle East is worse than it has ever been. Our allies are freeloaders bilking us out of free defense, and nations all over the world are ripping us off in international trade.

Our good jobs have been moved to other countries. Islamic extremists and illegal immigrants are pouring across our borders, bringing drugs, and coming to kill us all. ISIS or their ilk may soon detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city. Our military is depleted and our weapons are obsolete. The IRS is beating down the doors of innocent taxpayers. We are mired in debt. Our public schools are run by union bosses, and our universities are indoctrinating people to become Democrats or worse.

And yet . . . the United States of America is the greatest country God ever created. And if we elect Donald J. Drumpf, we will start winning again. “We’re gonna win so big, believe me, we’re gonna win so big.” And it’s going to happen fast. Law and order will be restored. America will be safe again, America will work again, America will be first again, America will be one again. We will have safety, prosperity, peace, jobs and pay raises for all.

Oh, and energy independence – we’ll have that, too. Harold Hamm, the nation’s fracker in chief, noted that “our most strategic weapon is crude oil,” but that Obama has been “crucifying the oil and gas industries.” Drumpf, on the other hand, will support unbridled fracking, and, perhaps even better, “Drumpf digs coal.”

As a special bonus for electing Drumpf, we will also have a first family of successful, hardworking entrepreneurs, and a first lady who is the ultimate exemplar of beauty, elegance and grace.

The alternative – electing Hillary Clinton – is doom. She is singlehandedly responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the Middle East since 2009. She is the avatar of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.” She is responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, for the kidnapping of 200 girls by Boko Haram, and for the “stupid wars” we are engaged in. She is more concerned with the rights of illegal immigrants and criminals than the rights of our citizens. In fact, she is a criminal who should be locked up.

Whew.

Most news commentators described the Republican convention as “low energy” until the last day. They focused on the many empty seats in the arena, Ted Cruz’s refusal to be a “servile puppy dog,” and the flap about Melania plagiarizing Michelle Obama.

But to actually spend four days listening to the speeches and watching the crowd’s response was to witness a high fever of fanaticism. When the crowd, inflamed to hating Hillary, waved their signs and chanted “Lock her up!” at every opportunity, it transformed from crowd to mob.

When Drumpf insisted that “America First” would be our “brand new slogan,” he was rejecting not only that slogan’s history of anti-Semitism and sympathy for Nazi Germany; he was rejecting history itself. When he called for “Americanism, not globalism,” he rejected reality itself. And when he insisted that “other nations must treat us with the respect we deserve,” he had already laid out a version of America that would not deserve the world’s respect.

When Drumpf insisted that our allies have to pay us to protect them, he was proposing to replace a system of alliances based on shared values with a protection racket. When Drumpf refused to commit to coming to the aid of NATO allies and threatened to pull out of treaties and trade deals, he was promoting a breathtakingly dangerous level of American unpredictability.

And when Drumpf entered the arena and paused in profile in a dramatic pastel mist, he embodied a narcissistic form of nationalism that was apparently a balm to the bruised egos of his followers, many of whom seem to feel left behind by automation, technology, diversity, and a global economy.

The deep well of alienation and fear that Drumpf has tapped reveals to all of us just how dangerous this country’s growing economic inequality is, and how easily our halting progress towards full racial and gender equality can be derailed.

But fear is not a foundation for an agenda for our future. Facts are. The truth of our 21st century world – its complexity, its challenges (like climate change, for instance), and its possibilities for progress were not discussed in the Quicken Loans Arena.

So here’s our hope for the Democratic convention: Make America think again.

Jill Severn wrote this originally for The Olympian, the daily newspaper in the Washington state capital.

Hit ‘Resend’: Hungary’s Post-Brexit Battle

Hit ‘Resend’: Hungary’s Post-Brexit Battle

A variant of the Eurosceptic populism behind Britain’s hasty exit from the European Union last month has featured in Hungarian politics for years. The weeks ahead promise more of the same—but don’t expect a Huxit anytime soon.

BY MICHAEL COLELLO

Darren sat hunched over his glass. He didn’t look well.

Three days had passed since the Brexit vote, in which a majority of British voters opted to decamp from an already smarting European Union. Darren couldn’t come to grips.

“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I’m ashamed to be English. I’ve never felt that before.”

A 30-something grad student living in London with his Hungarian wife, the usually apolitical Darren had not only voted Remain, but in a burst of panicked activism, actually distributed fliers in the campaign’s final days.

But while he and a majority of Londoners voted to stay, the rest of England (and much of Wales) mandated the seemingly unthinkable. Thus the UK would wash its hands of Europe and watch it burn from across the Channel. Or so went the narrative.

Now, huddled around our table in Budapest on an otherwise sublime June evening, we, like everyone else, were left to ride out the shockwaves and wonder what next?

Everyone here knew someone living and working in the UK (made possible by Hungary joining the EU in 2004). What the vote would mean for their finances, freedom of movement, careers and relationships—and our ability to do likewise—remained to be seen. Regardless, Brexit felt like a very large and important door slamming shut.

While anti-immigration sentiment had factored, the vote couldn’t be dismissed as mere xenophobia. The EU had been having a lousy run, its map dotted with imploded economies and nationalist wildfires, a deluge of Mideast refugees and increasingly frequent terror attacks. And just beyond the wire, war in Ukraine.

If this string of disasters rightly had people spooked, the EU’s tepid handling of them hardly inspired confidence. The UK’s shock departure was pushback, sending a message to Brussels. Or so went the narrative.

Riot police look on in front of an anti-EU sign (‘nem’ is Hunarian for ‘no’) during a far-right demonstration in Budapest, 2012.

Above: Riot police look on in front of an anti-EU sign (‘nem’ is Hunarian for ‘no’) during a far-right demonstration in Budapest, 2012. Top photo: A march in support of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban drew roughly 100,000 to Budapest in early 2012. Orban had drawn criticism from the EU and IMF regarding controversial domestic reforms. Michael Colello photos

Hungarian politics had been sending a similar message for years. Only, unlike grassroots dissent elsewhere, it was driven by the establishment itself. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has routinely clashed with the EU over everything from his promotion of “Illiberal Democracy,” to his party’s dominance of the courts, banks and news media. Yet the real war between Budapest and Brussels has been over their divergent handling of the refugee crisis. Last summer, after nearly a half a million refugees streamed through on their way to Germany, Orban erected a razor wire fence along Hungary’s southern border.

The fence, along with detention camps and a xenophobic PR campaign, was demonized by the EU and the Hungarian left but played well with voters. Orban was standing up to the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ while also defending Hungary and Christian Europe from a Muslim invasion. Or so went the narrative.

(It wasn’t the first time. In 2012 the Prime Minister also skirmished with the EU and IMF whilst negotiating terms of Hungary’s bailout—and consequently drew 100,000 supporters in a torchlight parade through Budapest.)

Now, with the EU Commission preparing to enforce mandatory quotas for resettling refugees throughout member states, including Hungary, Orban is again bracing for a fight, and rallying domestic support, while preparing a referendum on whether to accept or reject the plan.

Orban has blasted the Commission’s ‘forced resettlement’ plan (which would require Hungary accept 1,300 migrants or pay more than a quarter million dollars per individual refused) as a danger to Hungary and Europe, and has rallied leaders of the neighboring ‘Visegrad’ nations (Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland) in opposition.

Orban opposed Brexit, yet hopes the referendum will furnish him a mandate to oppose EU dictates. Recent polls suggest he’ll get it: more than three quarters of Hungarians surveyed oppose the quota plan. More importantly, the government’s stance has pried support away from its main rival, the radical nationalist Jobbik party.

A showdown is nigh, however a replay of Brexit seems unlikely: Hungary is hugely dependent on EU funds, taking in tens of billion Euro annually. The benefits of staying outweigh the drawbacks, refugees or not.

But with Hungary seizing the momentum, the referendum will be consequential, regardless of outcome.

In preparation, the government plastered Budapest with posters urging a ‘no’ vote—on billboards, on busses, in metro tunnels, everywhere.

As Darren and friends and I conclude the evening, one backlit poster shines from the busy tram stop across the street, with a message all too familiar:

“Let’s send Brussels a message so that they understand.”

Michael Colello is an American writer and photographer living in Budapest, Hungary.

Some ideas to improve our downtown

Some ideas to improve our downtown

By Erik Eriksson

It is important for a community to have a healthy Downtown. I think our downtown is doing pretty good and I have some thoughts about how it could be better.

First of all, I think that since Downtown Courtenay is really Downtown Comox Valley, we should start referring to it as such. Then, we would look upon Downtown as being not just 5th Street from Cliffe to Fitzgerald, but rather from Lewis Centre to Fitzgerald and from 4th Street to 11th Street .

This causes one’s senses to bring the large green space of Lewis and Simms Parks, the Courtenay River and the entire business district into Downtown.

Second, we should work to create a gathering place on the Courthouse lawn with benches and picnic tables. The beautiful boulevard on that stretch of Cumberland Road would get the appreciation it deserves.

Third, we should replace the monstrous 5th Street Bridge with a complete bridge like the Craigflower Bridge in suburban Victoria.

Downtown Comox Valley isn't just about the cafes and shops along 5th Street.

Downtown Comox Valley isn’t just about the cafes and shops along 5th Street from Cliffe to Fitzgerald

The 5th Street Bridge is unsafe for cyclists, too small for buses and it effectively separates our downtown from the river and the parks on the other side. (And, it is an eyesore.) A new, complete bridge would bring everything together.

Finally, we should brand the Comox Valley as Festival Valley. We celebrate every aspect of the Valley with some kind of Festival, one after the other, virtually throughout the entire year.

Music and culture with MusicFest, The North Island Festival of the Performing Arts, Filberg Festival, Elevate the Arts and CYMC Festival of Summer Sounds, agriculture with Comox Valley Exhibition, aquaculture with the Shellfish Festival, the military with the AirShow, recreation with Snow to Surf and sports tournaments – the list goes on and on.

I suspect the burgeoning craft brewery community might bring on a vibrant OktoberFest.

Then Downtown Comox Valley would be Downtown Festival Valley and along with the other ideas listed above, would move it up a notch or two from pretty good to great.

Erik Eriksson is a Courtenay City Councillor and an enthusiastic Icelandic soccer fan.

In bed with a cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons

In bed with a cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons

Poor Paul Ryan. The nation’s highest ranking Republican and Speaker of the House describes comments by Donald Drumpf about a judge with a Hispanic surname as “a textbook definition of racism,” but can’t quite bring himself to withdraw his endorsement of the candidate. Most of his party colleagues concur, fearing that an open split in their party will cost them seats in the House and Senate this fall.

Thus, the leadership of the Republican party – the party of Lincoln – has sold its soul. By accepting Drumpf as their standard bearer, they’ve lowered their standards right down into the gutter.

This is a sad time for those Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk, and for Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and others who have the integrity and courage to oppose Drumpf. And for those still on the fence, it must be sobering to read the very moderate Tom Friedman, writing in the New York Times, “If a party could declare moral bankruptcy, today’s Republican party would be in Chapter 11.”

Having once climbed into bed with them, Republican leaders now find themselves locked in a smothering embrace.

But Drumpf didn’t suddenly fall out of the sky. His candidacy is, as many have noted, the full flowering of an eight-year- old backlash against the election of our nation’s first black president. Obama’s success drew America’s most virulent strain of racism out of hiding and was a major driver of the Tea Party’s “take back our country” rhetoric.

During those eight years, Republicans slid slowly into acceptance of an ever more extreme cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons. Having once climbed into bed with them, Republican leaders now find themselves locked in a smothering embrace.

Last week, Ryan’s painfully illogical position of disavowing the racism of the racist candidate he supports overshadowed his attempt to gain some media attention for his proposals for a new Republican agenda to address poverty. Republican positions on international trade deals, immigration reform, foreign policy and other issues are also being pushed aside by Drumpf’s insistence on representing only the reality TV audience that attends his rallies.

Tom Friedman proposes starting a New Republican Party from scratch – one that is committed to some basic principles such as “pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies,” and free from dominance by special interests. Today’s Republican party, he believes, is now beyond redemption.

But of course the problem isn’t just that Drumpf is ruining the Republican party; it’s that if elected, he will ruin the country. And ruining our uniquely powerful country will surely wreak ruin on the rest of the world.

The alternative, Hillary Clinton, may present another dilemma. If electing the nation’s first black president caused this incredible backlash of nativist, racist energy, what will electing the nation’s first female president cause? Are Drumpf’s statements and behavior regarding women red flags?

If the popularity of Donald Drumpf shows us anything, it’s that a lot of people are nostalgic for the bygone era of white supremacy and male dominance, and willing to support an authoritarian leader in a vain attempt to return to that past.

It will be a happy day when our country is finally beyond these first-of- a-kind candidates, and beyond the backlashes they provoke. Until that day, our challenge as both Republicans and Democrats is to clearly and unequivocally reject those dark impulses, and keep working to create a civic culture where the quest for full equality and moral progress matters more than transitory partisan advantage.

B.C. should jump start pot regulations

B.C. should jump start pot regulations

British Columbia, a province usually anxious to tax anything within its reach, has curiously kept its hands off of a large source of potential revenue: marijuana.

While Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska inhale multi-millions of dollars of tax revenue by regulating the production, distribution and retail sale of marijuana for medical and recreation use, British Columbia lets this windfall slip away.

British Columbia could help shape the federal legislation expected next year by putting a regulatory system in place now, and jumpstart its revenue stream.

This wouldn’t take as long or be as difficult as it might seem. Our neighbors to the south in Washington state have an excellent model for a system that could be more or less copied and pasted into B.C. law.

Washington state collected $67.5 million in 2015, its first full year of operation. This year, it expects to collect $154.6 million. The state’s Office of Financial Management predicts a whopping $1 billion of new revenue over the next four years.

Imagine if B.C. injected that much new money — taken away, in part, from gangs and outlaw drug dealers — into early childhood education, better access to services for people suffering from mental illness and support for affordable housing projects.

And a windfall revenue isn’t the only benefit of a fully regulated system.

Right now, marijuana growers and sellers are running loose in the province. It’s a wild west environment. Nobody can verify who’s growing the pot sold in stores, who they are selling it to or what’s in it.

From Sidney to Vancouver to Toronto, marijuana retail stores are popping up as fast as the RCMP can raid them. The Liberal government says it’s committed to legalization, but while it dithers over the details of national legislation, the market is spinning out of control.

Instead of rushing into a national marijuana legalization program, the federal government should look the other way while British Columbia develops a regulated market that includes rules pertaining to DUI, banking, public consumption and retail store locations. A smaller provincial experiment can expose weaknesses and oversights and enact quicker corrections.

Those real life test results can lead to a better-written federal law.

For example, let’s not go down the road of simple legalization. Without provincial control over who’s growing and selling marijuana, gangs and Mexican cartels will continue to siphon off money that could be used to improve the quality of life in British Columbia.

Smoking pot outside the old Lorne Hotel, circa 1975

Smoking pot outside the old Lorne Hotel, circa 1975

We must merge the recreational and medical markets. Let’s shake off the nudge-nudge, wink-wink reality of medical marijuana. Yes, it’s been a help for people with certain medical conditions, but it’s also been a false front for people who just want to get high.

In Washington state, it was estimated that 90 percent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes was, in fact, consumed recreationally. Interestingly, the medical market ballooned in 2011 when naturopathic physicians were added to the list of providers who could write pot prescriptions.

A regulated system should include a patient registry to differentiate bona fide medicinal users, who could qualify for tax exemptions, from recreational users.

If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users would have the option of growing their own.

The province will also need to use some of the new tax revenue to fund substance abuse awareness programs, primarily aimed at children. Of course, parents must play an important role in educating their children about marijuana, and that includes keeping any edibles at home securely out of their reach. Colorado experienced a surge of hospital visits by children who accidentally ate pot-laced treats.

Marijuana legalization advocates have successfully argued that smoking marijuana poses no greater threat to society than drinking alcohol, and that prohibition will not work. Both are true. Like alcohol, marijuana is not risk-free, which argues for a government-regulated system of production, distribution and retail sales.

The federal government has recognized the historical transformation of social values during the early years of the 21st century. Whenever communal morals shift so significantly, governments must eventually conform their laws to reflect the public’s will.

British Columbia could and should generate millions of dollars in revenue and lead the nation in clearing up the current tangled mess of conflicting laws and regulations.

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