The Great Tax Wars

I just finished “The Great Tax Wars” by Steven R. Weisman, a book that was given to me by a friend several years ago. I met this friend during the Foreign Service selection process and he mentioned how much he enjoyed reading tax history. I accepted his offer to send me a copy and have read it off and on over the last 4 years. Although it took me a long time to finish, that’s an indictment of my lifestyle rather than the book itself. It would get packed up in a move and end up deprioritized when unpacked. It’s an interesting read though and recommended for those interested in U.S. political history as much as tax junkies.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. The obvious history of U.S. federal taxation legislation is in and of itself interesting to me. The author succeeds at personalizing these “tax wars” through the politicians fighting them and setting a rich stage incorporating world events and social trends of each era. Conflict and war are at the root of tax policy and he demonstrates the effect warfare has on national finances, then the lesson legislators attempt to learn from each incident. It’s a fun ride through familiar history (Civil War, the Industrial Age, WWI, the depression) with so many familiar names (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, William Jennings Bryan) but the tax war focus reveals another facet of these events, tied together over time, that results in a particularly interesting and readable coherency.

I’ve collected another shelf of financial histories that I’ve resisted reading until I finish The Great Tax Wars. It isn’t hard to read, I just kept forgetting to pick it up. I’m excited to move on to some of these others now.

I’m a Seoul Man

Got my assignment yesterday, a Consular-Political rotation in Seoul starting June 2014. I’ll get a full course of Korean in DC that is perfectly timed for Miku to get a full year of school in the U.S. This wasn’t even close to my top choices (it was #15 on my list) and I’d really wanted to do a full Political tour instead of a rotation, but I’m not complaining in the least. I know the guy who got the job I really wanted, a Political/Military post in Singapore and I’m very happy for them. I’m stoked to learn Korean and this is going to set me up well for future career work in EAP. Maybe I’ll be able to get Chinese somewhere along the way and really lock things up.

This is still a long way out. I’ve got a year left in Abuja and then 9+ months of training before Korea. The next 4 years are set though. Odd to think that Miku will be 13 when we leave Seoul in 2016.

Also, Happy Birthday, America. Hope we can all take a moment to reflect on what has made our nation and country great. We need to consider how we are failing to live up to that legacy too.

So what do I do, again?

The Foreign Service is the diplomatic arm of the US government. We live and work abroad, representing the interests of the US and its business and providing support for American citizens overseas. We are a service corps, similar to the military. We are members of the Department of State and are most recognizable by the Secretary of State and the myriad ambassadors that represent the President at missions overseas.  Historically about 2/3 of US ambassadors have been career foreign service officers with political appointees comprising the rest.  We work at embassies and consulates. There is only one embassy in any country; consulates primarily provide consular services but also have reporting sections as well.

The Foreign Service has two general classes, Specialists and Officers. All members of the Foreign Service typically serve 2 year tours although there are cases where extensions are granted or 1 year is standard (in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example). Specialists bring specific skills and experience to the service. These are the people responsible for security, the IT infrastructure, and running the offices. Specialists are the essential support structure that a mission needs to accomplish its goals.  Officers are all Generalists and are assigned to a career “cone” but will work in other cones over the course of their career.  Everyone serves in the consular cone during one of their first two tours.

Management officers are responsible for the running of the embassy.  They hold all the parts together and keep everything functioning. I think of them as the heart of the organization, pumping blood through the body and keeping everything working.

Public Diplomacy officers are the public face of the United States. They control outreach and public relations.  They run the programs out of the embassy and the “American corners” that we have throughout the world. Up until the ’90s, they were part of the US Information Agency but were then folded into the Foreign Service proper as Public Diplomacy. I characterize them as the mouth of the mission.

Political and Economic officers are very similar. They are reporting officers responsible for keeping up on events and people in the host country. The primary difference is their focus. As you’d expect, economic officers focus on the economic side of things while political officers keep their eye on the general political and social comings and goings. Both types of officer write cables back to Washington with analysis and policy recommendations. The cables made famous by Wikileaks were written by political and economic officers.  These are the eyes and ears of the mission. I’m primarily a political officer but am working as a consular officer this tour as part of my obligation as an entry level officer.

Consular officers execute the consular duties of embassies and consulates. They adjudicate visa applications and provide services to American citizens overseas. These services include replacing lost passports, registering new citizen births, and assisting in cases of distress, often involving arrests or deaths. On the visa side, there are two basic types, immigrant and non-immigrant visas.  Immigrant visa interviews are much more exhaustive and have different standards of adjudication. The Lagos consulate processes all of the immigrant visas for Nigeria so I probably won’t get any experience there. There are almost as many classes of immigrant visas as there are letters of the alphabet, depending on the purpose of travel.  US law establishes the criteria for qualification for everything from diplomats and government workers to visitors to students to religious workers to refugees and victims of violence.

My job then is to review each non-immigrant applicant and interview them to determine if they meet the criteria established by US law.  Fundamentally consular officers need to establish that applicants are bona fide non-immigrants and aren’t just intending to stay in the US once they get there. We have to make sure that the appropriate visa is applied for and that they meet the criteria for eligibility.The biggest challenge is the volume. There are so many applications that we don’t have much time to interview them, usually just a few minutes.  It’s fun so far, though, and I’ll share some thoughts on the actual experience of adjudication later.

I think that’s the Foreign Service in a nutshell.  There aren’t all that many of us, about 8000 Officers and 5500 Specialists. The Department of State is one of the smallest in the government, with a budget about 1/20 of the Department of Defense. We also work with CDC and USAID overseas, and there are always a small contingent of Marines at post.

If I forgot to cover something or you have any questions, feel free to comment.

It all comes down to this

December 28, 2010 changed my life. After the extended prelude of my delayed application, lack of test seats after applying, then the written test, the Personal Narrative Questions, the Oral Assessment, the medical exams for me and the family, the security investigation, the final suitability review and then the waiting on the register, I’d finally gotten invited to join the Foreign Service.

Skip ahead to March 28, 2011. I’ve quit my job and moved to DC alone, leaving my family behind. I meet an amazing group of people who prove true to first impressions and have become a very tight and valuable group of friends and colleagues.  Then the bidding process, where I discovered that I really did want to go to Abuja, Nigeria, if possible. Somehow I forgot to learn what the national flag of Nigeria looked like and ended up surprised on Flag Day to be the first person assigned there. Diplomatic passport and visas, consultations and distance learning.

My family has visited twice and we’ve decided that they’ll stay in Japan for the next two years. I’ve purchased hundreds of pounds of food and “consumables” in addition to some toys (ipad; new bass and amp!) and appliances (tv, stereo, dvd player). I’ve got a whole slew of electricity converters and UPS to preserve my electronics and permit me to use them in spite of the consistent power outages in Nigeria.

And I’ve acquired a new family member, the coolest cat I’ve ever know, Sugar. Yesterday I was worried I might have to abandon her at the airport. Today I hold a rabies titer result (she’s clean!) as well as recent veterinary certificates. I’m pretty sure I’ll have no trouble tomorrow, which leads me to…tomorrow.

It has all come down to this. After all the preparation and testing and waiting and wondering and training and orientation and packing and flying and buying, it ends. Tomorrow I depart these United States in order to represent the President and nation and protect and promote the Constitution and the values our great nation is founded on.  It is a great honor to be able to serve this country.

It’s been a great two days here in New York City. I can sense its greatness even from the tiny bit I’ve seen over the last 36 hours. Now its off to Africa, to Nigeria, to Abuja for 2 years. How awesome is that?

Bidmania ends!

I just sent in my bid list to my CDO and now its all up to karma, I guess.  I’ve felt kind of like Forrest Gump in this whole process, just being myself and things have worked out splendidly.  Even if I don’t get my most desired post, I’ve got a good strategy in place that should produce something relatively in line with expectations, regardless.  I’ll be happy no matter where I end up, and there’s no guarantee that your first selection is going to be roses and candy.

It was an interesting process, really.  I found out today that I’m off language probation, so I’m free from that issue in the near term.  Language is still going to be a big consideration for me in the future and I’ll likely learn Chinese, maybe Spanish/Portugese eventually.  But for now, I’m hoping for a non-language, early departure post.

Initially in the process I went through and eliminated all the posts that I was simply ineligible for simply due to the language requirements and the timing of the post. There’s no way I’m going to learn (Spanish/ Portugese/ German/ Dutch/ Russian/ Chinese/ InsertRandomLanguage here) by the summer. After that, I was extremely flexible, ready and willing to go anywhere.

I broached the subject of a possible hardship post with the Emminent Wife and we began to consider the implications of extending our family separation (NOTE: this is not a legal or marital separation, it’s just the term used when FSO live apart from their families) through the first post.  The more the Emminent Wife thought about it, the more she realized that while it entailed significant hardship heartache, it had some significant benefits for the Emminent Child and her continued cultural development.

Once we leave Japan entirely, she’ll be out of the Japanese cultural system probably for good. Even if we get posted back there, she’ll most likely attend an international school.  Two more years of elementary school would really go a long way for building a solid core and foundation in a cultural sense that is more likely to persevere. It would be great for her to still have that Japanese sense of self that she could tap into in the future, but if they moved out now, it’s unlikely to be but a whisper and a memory in a deep cultural sense.

Although this request represented essentially my worst case scenario and the one situation I’d sought to avoid at all costs, when the EW makes up her mind, fighting her on it only makes it worse.  I trust her enough that I don’t think she did this deliberately. As much as you try to think things through, you can’t really make a real decision until you actually have it in front of you. We felt it when I got the invitation letter and it changed the moving calculation as well.

So yeah, it’s pretty crappy that I’m going to be living alone for the next two years with occasional visit from the two Emminences, hopefully it works out as we’re envisioning it.

Now that’s a pretty huge diversion from the topic at hand though, which is bidding strategy.  As I started to say, I was super flexible, almost to a fault, and this change of perspective really helped me to focus my plan. I formulated a strategy based around in-cone positions at posts with a high hardship differential.  This gets me into the main work I’ll be doing for my career early on and forces me to take my consular tour in the second round.  But if I get posted to a place with a high differential, I’ll get to choose my second post a little bit before others, giving me a slight advantage in choosing a place ideally suited for the reunited family. As additional frosting on the cake, consular positions typically work more regular hours so I’ll be around a little bit more, perhaps, or at least with more reliability and predictability than a political position.  That’s the theory at least.

So now its just a matter of waiting about 3 more weeks.  Hopefully I’m leaving almost immediately thereafter for a hardship post in my cone, but it’s essential I keep in mind the still very real possibility I might spend the next 10 months studying Chinese in D.C.

Going overboard on UAB

Last night we gathered up my books, kitchen stuffis, hobby gear, and clothes in a big pile in the living room. Originally I was planning just to take about 1/2 of our 600 lbs of UAB but as we started putting the stuff together we realized that my wife and daughter don’t need to so much later on so I would take the majority of it. The big challenges were that I have waaaay to many books plus I wanted to bring my iMac (heavy), computer desk, and chair. I don’t think we’ll get the desk and chair into UAB next time but the Japanese movers were willing to ship anything UAB as long as it was under 600 lbs total.

As they started packing up the boxes, though, it became immediately apparent that I’d too many books designated for UAB. I was prepared for emergency library triage and we pared it down to two boxes of books and a box of DVD and books, maybe 2/3 of what I’d set out as shipping candidates. They packed up 19 boxes and we weighed them before breaking down the computer desk and boxing up the iMac and chair:

711 pounds. Only a mere 111 pounds overweight. We found out that we could ship the overweight goods for about $10/lb which would add a measly $1400 out of pocket, plus port-home delivery fees in the USA, so we had to make a quick decision. If we dropped the boxes of books and clothes, we could take the computer, desk, and chair. We’ll still have to mail the books (which are packed! Thank you!) and take an extra suitcase or two, but that will still come to far less than the extra shipping charges we’d be facing.

I felt really bad for doing this to the movers. The main mover guy was such a professional, both in demeanor as in his packing technique. It was amazing him ninja up a custom box for the chair. But they were expecting a 250-300 lb. packout and we threw them into a 700+ lb debacle that involved packing boxes that weren’t shipped. This also muxed up their inventory, as they’d meticulously written down the contents of every box only to have us ask them to pull 6 or 7 of them out at the end.

We’re really fortunate to have Japanese movers, I think. They were gracious and accommodating, more so than I reasonably could have expected. I know that I packed plenty of non-essentials that could have gone into HHE (and will before departing for the first post). We’ll also find out how much we regret not saving and UAB for the family in a few months.

Do YOU have what it takes?

Short Foreign Service exam via the Christian Science Monitor. The actual test has more questions and a couple other sections, but this is a good place to start.

For the record, I missed 7 but argue that the second question was poorly worded. I missed two others by not trusting my gut and another was just a straight up bonehead answer. But yeah, I missed 7. You?

What to blog?

I mentioned to my dad that right now feels kind of like I’d imagine it would be like to be sitting in the space shuttle on the launch platform. There isn’t a whole lot to do other than wait, knowing that there’s a lot going on in the background and that pretty soon things are going to change in a dramatic and life-altering way. I’ve toyed with blogging about the FS ever since I started and based on my experience with blogging in the past, I put it off until I had something to write about a bit more reliably. Now that I’m in, I thought it prudent to establish a clearinghouse for friends and family to follow along on our adventure.

But now that this blog has been discovered (I was actually intentionally not publicizing its existence but somehow someone else from my class found it and now I’m on her blogroll), I’m feeling that I ought to do more than just post some general background stuff. But I’m not really interested in sharing the details of the minutiae of the process, both on personal and professional grounds. I will say that I’ve got most of my initial paperwork done and will be submitting it on Monday. I’ve never had to deal with insurance and savings accounts before (in typical Japanese fashion, my wife runs our home finances here), so I’m feeling kind of late to the party in learning about that.

If you found this blog as part of your own personal search into the Foreign Service and are considering going for it yourself, if you haven’t joined the Yahoo discussion groups about the FSOT or FSOA, you really ought to. Once you make it past the FSOA there is also an A-100 group for dealing with the post-FSOA stuff but you can’t join that until you pass the FSOA. And once you get called off the register, each class gets a google group of classmates run by a group who are just finishing their A-100s who serve as mentors. The amount of supports in these electronic lists is simply phenomenal.

I’m very fortunate that the timing of my invitation worked out the way it did. I finished teaching the first week of February and have had a lot of unscheduled time since then. There’ve been a few meetings and more than a few social obligations from friends, students, and colleagues who want to say goodbye, but its been pretty relaxing and I’ve have plenty of time to pack up my office at school. Thanks to a couple of students who did a huge amount of work with me last week, my office is 95% finished. I’ll have movers in next Wednesday to cart away 25 boxes of books and supplies.

Beyond that my main priority is contemplating what to pack into my UAB. I don’t really have all that many clothes and probably can put most of them in my luggage. I’ve got shelves and shelves of unread books that I know I won’t really have time to read in DC yet I can’t find the wherewithal to prune it down to a reasonable number. I know I’ll have some time to fill since I’m living alone but I also know that a fair amount of that time will get filled by the friends I’ll make and exploring the city I’ll be in. I’ll probably take my camera equipment, my XBox, and too many books and end up using none of it. I’m still waiting to hear from a travel tech but do have my itinerary set up and talks with the home movers have begun.

Beyond that, I’m taking advantage of the time to go to tennis class as often as possible, help keep the house chores in shape, and spend as much quality time with my daughter as I can.

How I found the Foreign Service

Following 9/11, I made a concerted effort to learn as much as I could about those events, an effort that led me to oppose the Iraq War in 2003 not on pacifist grounds but based on my perception that the administration’s position was simply wrong. I carry pretty firm convictions and am known to express my opinion rather vehemently, but this isn’t because I’m close minded as much as its that I prefer gladiatorial competition determine which beliefs I lean towards. I’m open-minded and always willing to admit when I’m wrong, so I was hoping that my take on the war was due to some personal failure to properly investigate everything. Alas, I was vindicated.

As the implications of the war deteriorated during the first 3 or 4 years following the fall of Saddam Hussein, I began to feel the urge to do more than simply teach about 9/11, as fulfilling as that was. But I felt excluded from the national debate that was going on in the United States (or even was absent in some ways) and just needed to contribute in some way. I looked into the Human Terrain System program that placed social scientists in military units to serve as cultural translators of sorts, a position that I think would have suited me well but would have taken me away from my family for 9-12 months at a go. With a baby daughter, I wasn’t keen on being gone for that long (and it turns out that there’ve been some problems with HTS).

While I was looking into HTS, I discovered the Foreign Service. It was well suited to my interests and qualifications and my wife agreed that it would be something she’d be willing to go along with it if I could get in. The only problem was getting in. Thankfully I had a great and reliable teaching job that I was happy to stay for as long as it took to get into the Foreign Service.

I filled out my first application in 2007, back when the PNQ were still part of the application. I started the application right before the deadline and decided to wait until the next round in order to put more effort into the PNQ. Life being what it is, this delay lasted almost a year and by the time I resubmitted, the PNQ were no longer part of the application process. I submitted my application right at the deadline and was eligible for the spring test but there were no available seats in Japan, so I didn’t sit for the FSOT until Fall 2009.

I passed the FSOT and went to the FSOA in March 2010. My security investigation began in May and I was on the register in August. I initially started to slip down the register and was resigned to either learning a CNL or improving my OA score. I retook the FSOT in the fall of 2010 while starting my study of Korean. After the initial slide, however, I began to creep up the register.

At the end of December I was #38, but since the lowest invite from the previous class was #35 and that class was 1/3 Political candidates, combined with the reduced A-100 sizes as a result of the budgetary failings of the US Congress, I wasn’t expecting an invitation any time soon. I was quite surprised to find an invitation on Dec 28, and after a few days of family consultation, I accepted it and joined the #160th A-100 class. The timing was perfect, falling right at the end of the Japanese academic year and avoiding any hassles associated with bailing out in the middle of a term. It really felt as if my Forrest Gump fairy tale was still running strong.

White Waters and Black?

I don’t remember exactly when my dad first started talking about Gordon MacCreagh’s White Waters & Black, but his enthusiasm and the details he recounted always stuck with me and I made it a point to get a copy as soon as I could. It took until 1997 to finally read it and I’ve read it regularly since then. It’s one of the most amazing, amusing, and enjoyable books ever written and its a shame that it isn’t more well known.

It recounts an adventure in the truest sense of the word, as MacCreagh signs on as a guide of sorts for a troupe of “Eminent scholars”, academics with no experience and very few social skills who intend to spend 2 years exploring the Amazon’s uncharted territories in 1923, collecting biological specimens and exploring unknown lands. The book takes it name from the two legs of the trip, the first east over the Andes to the Amazon (the white water) and the second back to the west via the Rio Negro (the black). In and of itself that expedition alone has the makings of a classic, but what really distinguishes White Waters and Black is MacCreagh’s delightful perspective on how to deal with the challenges of the personalities and the expedition. It’s this perspective that is most inspiring to me as I embark on this new chapter of my life in the American diplomatic corps.

MacCreagh is funny, flexible, and apparently unflappable, whether dealing with assembling a huge mule train, befriending violent and xenophobic tribes, or accommodating a huge parasitic insect that sets up camp in a hole burrowed behind his knee, all the while juggling the egos and incompetence of the Eminent Scientists (an M.D., Botanist, Entymologist, Ichthyologist, and Statistician compose the bulk of the explorers. The Scribe didn’t make it out of the first camp.). The trials and tribulations endured astounded me yet throughout the debacles and setbacks, MacCreagh finds a way to make lemonade. He’s surrounded by a team of incompetent idiots wholly unsuited for the expedition but it never gets him down. He thrives in spite of everything; indeed he doesn’t even seem to blink at what most anyone would call a setback. He just rolls with it.

Part of the appeal of the foreign service is the challenges that it will pose. The job itself requires one to adapt and problem solve as does life itself. We’ll have to do without when posted overseas, making do instead of lamenting what’s missing. But we should have no problems if I can make half of it what MacCreagh did 90 years ago in the Amazon jungle. I can only hope to make him proud.