Category Archives: taxes

The big Universities vote

Ahhh England. Always willing to get all up in arms over something that would never had occurred to me. Apparently for many years, university tuition was “free” for students. Of course, it was never actually free, as there is a real cost associated with education. But the funds to support universities were all central, meaning that each and every tax-payer contributed to the higher education of each student. Some number of years ago “fees” were introduced, at the meagre sum of about £3k per year. So £9-12k for a 3-4 year degree, and a generous system of student loans that means that you only paid money back once you had a certain income.

Today is the big vote in parliament about increasing the level of these fees for university tuition, to a maximum value of £9k per year. Still a bargain in the context of an American university: that’s £27-36 for a 3-4 year degree, or $42-57k for an entire degree, including at places like Oxford or Cambridge, compared with $50k PER YEAR to attend a comparable US institution, such as Harvard. Even “public” (state) universities in America cost a fortune: at the very non-Harvard state University I attended, this year the numbers are:

In-State Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $11,722

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $19,542

Non-Michigan Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $29,622

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $37,442

So again, for an out of state student, a year is almost as much as a complete UK degree.

My biggest beef with the coverage of all of this, and believe me, it’s been a near-constant drone in the background for the last few weeks, is the prevailing idea that “it used to be free and now it’s not.” It was never free. This is just a shift in the burden of who pays, from a distributed model (everyone pays for the few students attending university) to a direct model (those who attend university pay for it). I don’t understand what’s not fair about this. The benefit is direct: yesterday I saw numbers showing a £400k+ lifetime additional income for those with a university degree compared to for those without one: is that not worth paying a few paltry tens of thousands for? Especially when none is demanded up-front and the overall payments don’t start until you have a significant income? Sounds fair to me. But then again, I’m always confused when the welfare state model is supported over the personal responsibility model, because after all–I am American. This is what I’m used to.

Oh I know, I’m risking significant ire for having this opinion. The BBC even seems keen to dump their neutrality and never uses the words “universities fees rise” without the word “controversial” in the same sentence. Maybe it is controversial to some, certainly we’ve seen students protesting and even mini-riots in the last few weeks. But on this one I’m with the much-beleaguered coalition government: someone has to pay for higher education, and I’ve not yet seen a good argument as to why it should not be the people who benefit directly from it. (Now ducking for inevitable flames…)


Dear So-and-So, About to be a weary traveller edition

Dear person who was pounding on my door this morning and kept trying to enter my flat with the master key even though the chain lock was clearly engaged,

Seriously. You did that to deliver a cardboard recycling bin. You so could have left the $%£*^& thing outside the door.

Needing my beauty sleep, NFAH

Dear UK tax authorities,

This thing where you randomly assigned the start of the year to start some time mid-April is remarkably inconvenient for expats from sensible countries where the year starts on 1 Jan. And of course, I should not expect that there is anything so modern as an online system for me to sort through my pay stubs for the past year, it’s paper and my calculator all the way.

Tax time is the most annoying and time-consuming time of year, NFAH

Dear Car Service,

I promise I will not sleep through my alarm tomorrow, and thus not waste your driver’s time and efforts like I did on the aborted first attempt at the Germany trip two weeks ago. And fortunately for me you’re picking me up tomorrow at 10:30, not 6 am!

Gettting giddy to get to America, even though it’s work all the way and followed by the China adventure with no time to deal with jet lag, NFAH

Bits and bobs revisited

I’ve done this before when I had a bunch of random US-UK tabs open in my browser window. In the spirit of the game, I will leave them in the random order they’re in, and not edit the order to group things on common topics, hopefully creating an interesting non-pattern.

There we have it, bits and bobs for a crazy Thursday. I took my team to the pub tonight to introduce a few new recruits, and it turns out that if you count passports, birthplaces, long-time residence locations and birthplaces of parents, we are a mini-United Nations with all 6 inhabited continents represented, most more than once, and a remarkably complicated set of allegiances. This I love about my line of work. Although it just reinforces my relatively new prejudice that I get along best with people who have also been expats or closely allied with expats…

The American, the FOI Act and MPs’ Expenses

For the last eight days in Britain, it has been as though news has completely ceased to exist with one exception: the slowly trickling out details of the expenses claims that House of Commons MPs have made in recent years. Almost no high-ranking official in any party has been spared (although admittedly Labour has taken it hardest) and the claims have been eye-rolling at best, jaw-dropping at worst. It was not, however, until today that I caught wind of the mechanism by which the information had been obtained, or at least part of the story. Some of the details are in today’s Guardian, in a commentary piece written by Heather Brooke, a campaigner for transparency. Look at most stories mentioning her name this week and you will see “London-based journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner… ” and not see “born and raised in America” as part of her bio. And really, you have to dig pretty deep to find information about her at all, an ironic twist in this story.

I was only made aware of her because of an interview I saw with an Associated Press (AP) chief, who was being asked about the reaction to the MP expenses scandal in countries outside Britain, and he noted that the story was big in America because of her roots there. And also that no one in America could believe that (a) this information had been secret in the first place (held close to the Commons on the usual political grounds of “Security” and “Privacy”) and (b) it had taken so long and such extensive efforts for the details to come to light. It was only the case by Brooke, an independent journalist, fighting it all the way to the high court that started to unlock the doors to bogus claims of residency in illogical second homes, husband and wife MPs claiming different residences, evidence of “flipping” properties to avoid capital gains taxes… the list goes on and the details are not so important here. What IS important is transparency, of rules that make sense (more on that in a mo’) and of government officials who do not think that they are above the law.

The AP chief did note that while this had been an interesting story in America, and on front pages of newspapers with international interests on more than one occasion, the reaction in Britain has been (as usual for the British press) completely disproportionate. I have to agree. Seeing interview after interview with Joe-on-the-street types who want to banish all MPs gets old after a while, as does the occasional call for the Queen to disband parliament and take over. Hopefully not in my time here. What has been quite amusing, however, are the non-apologies, along the lines of “I am very sorry that the people in my constituency have been let down by my making perfectly legal expense claims that were approved fully by the fees committee. I see now that I should not have claimed for x.” The classic non-apology; I don’t apologise for what I did, but I do feel badly that you are upset by my actions (please vote for me again). The AP chief also noted that the way the information has been trickling out this week has been a masterful marketing plan on the part of the newspaper(s) (?) doing the leaking, and I have to agree. There’s another big name in the headlines every day, and heads are starting to roll.

Now I admit, I have one additional point on this subject. And yes, it is a matter of personal preference, but I don’t bother to go through the effort of claiming back every single allowable reimburse-able expense that I incur. There’s a tradeoff there for time (and paperwork) versus money that would definitely have led me to not claim some of the items that could have been claimed. (There’s a nice picture-slideshow thing here that shows some of the more silly items.) I like it when there is a sensible per diem benefit for eating in foreign locations, because if I have to turn in the receipts, I’ll probably never get around to it. I’d have to eat at home too, and the burden of paperwork definitely does not become worth my while for a bagel and coffee at Bruegger’s when in the states for a conference. But maybe that’s just me. Sensible rules help, and I’m actually with Gordon Brown (for once!) in suggesting a flat allowance for MPs and not all of this mortgage and second home funny-business.

Now that brings to the forefront a significant difference between me and the MPs, they have staff members who are the ones actually filling out the paperwork. Yes, at the end of the day it is the MPs who have to sign off on the claims (the wording of which has been floating around today) but there is an additional large group of people who have participated in this little bit of creative accounting, and about whom I have heard nothing. Do you really think Clare Short is preparing her own forms for submission to the rules office? Do you think Hazel Blears is the one sending emails to the fees committees to see whether a line item on some claim fits within the letter of the law? Sure, they sign off and thus have something akin to fiduciary responsibility. BUT where are the rest of the parties who participated in this little charade?

Death and Taxes

As one certain B. Franklin said, “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Today was tax day for many of us Americans including those of us who are expats and subject to the rules of foreign living. Slate covered this issue as though we expats were all living a cushy life abroad; after paying British tax all year, the fact that I manage a zero balance in the US is only due to the fact that I am a scientist (and thus not a banker earning real money) and so my US tax return falls under the level of the not-quite-poverty-stricken. Of course, it took 30 pages (prepared at a cost in pounds that I don’t want to admit, due to my lack of understanding of legal- and tax-speak) to demonstrate my lack of taxable US income this year, as opposed to 23 last year, and I’m mystified by this in light of the fact that the fall in the pound against the dollar means that I’m earning about 1/2 of what my compatriots in the US are earning for my same job (when the pound was worth something my salary was not embarrassing in dollars). What can I say, it’s the hard-knock life for us American expats in the UK. Perhaps I’m lucky to still be under the US tax limit and not starving to death in England.

International taxes

I’ve been in one of my busy modes for the last few days, not taking time out to blog or play Wordtwist or even knowing what the headlines of the news are or what the weather will be. Now I’m tired after putting in some serious hours of working over the weekend, and with a lecture to give at noon tomorrow that’s not fully prepared yet. But at least this week I don’t have to travel. I’m really needing the “stay in one place” thing as it’s that time of year again: American tax return time. So for those unaware of the US’s draconian policy as concerns expats, even though I live in the UK, pay taxes in the UK and have no assets or income in the US, I have to file a US tax return and if I get to the point of making too much money here in the UK I’ll have to pay US tax on it. Last year, I was below the limit for paying US tax, but my return was 23 pages long to end with that zero balance. It’s no wonder that I hire someone to fill out the 23 or whatever pages and sign off on them–back in the US I actually did my taxes myself every single year (except when married to the ex when he did them), never needing too much complexity, too many pieces of paper, or too much fuss.

My problem at the moment is trying to sort out my income for 2008 based on a sensible US tax calendar year, which runs from January 1 to December 31. The UK year runs from April to April, which means I don’t get a single statement at the end of the calendar year with my total income, and I have to locate all pay stubs and associated documentation and add it all up in a spreadsheet for my accountant. Some combination of my being really busy and travelling too much, including the whole 3 weeks in Australia over Christmas, means that at the moment these pay stubs are located in various places around my flat, leading to what will surely be days on end of trying to get organized and sort out my 2008 income. I’m quite confident that I have them all and that they are in safe places. But some of them are in less, um, shall we say, traditional places than they could be. Remember when I had my flat all organized in December and had a little wine and cheese party for my staff? The cost of having my flat be that presentable was that several piles worth of papers and mail and, well, pay-stubs were stashed into the little cubby-holes in my IKEA book-cases to which I added little doors for this exact purpose. I now have to spend this weekend going through all of them. And oh yes, there are many random things: remember the whole “gave a talk on less than an hour’s notice dressed inappropriately” adventure back in December? The lovely people at the UK’s Institute of Physics sent me a check for £75 as an “honorarium” for the lecture. Add that to the pile of random paystubs for this year’s taxes. Or not, the check is dated 2009; I can now lose it and be digging around looking for it at this time next year. But can I just say, this is the time where the crap exchange rate actually benefits me: the sinking of the pound relative to the dollar means that I’ll have no trouble at all keeping my income below the US limit for expat taxes.

It’s not easy being green

I’ve been planning the rest of my year in terms of trips, travel and general mechanisms of occasional respite from life on this island. I have two conferences to go to, a tour with my music group, the second annual pilgrimage to Minnesota for the state fair (we got tickets for JONNY LANG at the State Fair GRANDSTAND!!!) and that just gets me through the summer. Further adventures for later in the year still pending. OK, I admit it. I travel a lot. I fly a lot. My current goal is to fly enough this year to be promoted to BA silver frequent flier status. Apparently this makes me evil. I have been taking a lot of crap from my very favorite slightly-over-the-top environmentalist friend, who made a crack about my lack of interest in carbon offsets. I’m so very much of the opinion that they are like the things ancient Christians used to buy off the church in exchange for guilt. I’m just not having it that I am committing some horrid crime by flying. I live on an Island. I don’t own a car and I walk almost everywhere. I’m a pescetarian. I’ve donated lots of money to wildlife organizations and the US national parks system. I care about the environment but am unconvinced that an extra “tax” on my BA flight purchases is a meaningful way to address the problem, as compared to, say, promoting sensible first order basic environmental policies in rapidly industrializing countries like China and India. Of course, in the conversation it came to pass that “love miles” are seen as an acceptable justification for travel even outside of off-setting. So, to my friends and family, many thanks for providing me with an apparently reasonable excuse for my jet-setting lifestyle and poor environmental stewardship.