Monday, September 06, 2010

Death and Taxes

Learning that your major source of income has been terminated by legal and financial shenanigans beyond your control is a little like receiving a death sentence.  The end is coming but your know not when, only that when your current resources run out, that's it.  It's all over.  When the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's inheritance ran out, he died (it wasn't necessarily connected but it was convenient).  Death, like taxes, is certain (as Ben Franklin and others have pointed out).  Only the timing is unknown.

I stopped paying taxes a few years before I left the states.  Social Security alone did not qualify as enough income.  Other seniors in higher tax brackets still have their yearly financial report to prepare for the government, although the global financial meltdown might be leveling that playing field.  Since settling down permanently in the Land of Smiles, I've neglected to report my presence to the U.S. Embassy.  It's one less fetter to worry about.  But when I began to raid a small savings account set up by my university before retirement, a percentage was retained by the fund for federal and state taxes for each withdrawal.  I did this several times, finally exhausting the account last month.  Call me crazy, but I have refrained from filing a tax return to claim the deducted amounts.  Maybe Obama can use my abandoned tax refund to save the economy.

All my life I've never been very good with money.  I left jobs with the promise of financial success when they became boring, and I never missed the chance to squander an opportunity or fail to capitalize on possible profits.  I put the windfall earnings from my share of my ex-wife's house into a savings account that drew little interest while friends urged me to invest.  I've probably paid too much for the luxury items in my life, the cars and electronic gadgets that have become necessities.  Other people learned early about the benefits of airline mileage (and before that Green Stamps) but I never kept track.  I come from solid middle class roots, my father a salesman, one grandfather an architect, but the roller coast ride of my career path never peaked at what some saw as my potential.  Despite this almost neurotic disregard of financial success, I managed to qualify for over $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits.  And now, without any apparent effort on my part, that's gone.

Being an expat is expensive, I've learned.  Not long after I arrived, the banks began charging 150 baht for every ATM transaction using an international card.  That's $4.81 at the current exchange rate.  I should add that the dollar is plunging against a strong baht and that charge three years ago would have been only $4.55.  And that's just on this end.  U.S. banks tag on an additional charge for overseas transactions.  Recently I withdrew 18,000 baht from a neighborhood ATM.  The Thai bank charged me 150 baht for a total dollar value of $578 and my U.S. bank charged me an additional $5.78 fee.  When charging items with a credit card, merchants typically add on a 3% fee.  But then the U.S. card companies tack on their own fees.  Chase Visa added $1.33 to one $45 bill.  Master Charge added $9.12 to the $304 cost of a cell phone.  I haven't even begun to consider the interest fees from credit purchases which I'm sure have increased since the bank bailout and feeble federal regulations were put in place.  If you want to retire in a tropical climate, bring cash, lots of it, and hope that the native currency doesn't rise up to make it relatively worthless.

 Outwardly, as the countdown to poverty continues, out life style does not seem much changed.  Yesterday was Sunday and Nan and I went for lunch at a popular Asia buffet and followed it with a Thai movie at the cinema next door.  It had the English title of "A Little Thing Called Love" and thankfully there were subtitles I could read (with the occasional humorous grammatical mistakes).  It was a love story which began in high school and ended ten years later in which neither the boy nor the girl were aware of the other's feelings.  Cute, funny and romantic.  I only dozed off a couple of times, and I cried at the end when all turned out well.  The movie tickets were $4.49 each for reserved seats.  Afterward we visited our favorite gold shop in the basement of Central Pinklao where I bought Nan a ring.  She's expert at determining value by weight, design and the day's gold price and can easily negotiate discounts with a smile.  Now she has a total of "two baht" worth of gold jewelry, an amount calculated mysteriously to me, which would qualify for a marriage ceremony according to the custom here of bride price (plus a quantity of cash).  Despite the absence of a ceremony, we consider ourselves married now.  The ring was not so much a present as a hedge against an uncertain future, an investment.  Gold more than land constitutes wealth here.  After the gold transaction, we walked down the street to buy our week's groceries at the Tesco Lotus store, about $38 worth of food. This month my credit card debt exceeded the remaining savings left in my California accounts. 

Staying awake at the movie was challenging because of the long day I spent Saturday in Cha Cheung Sao, a province east of Bangkok.  My colleague Dr. Sman has hired me to teach English on four Saturdays at the Mahachula Buddhist University campus next to Wat Sothorn.  I rose before dawn and took a taxi part-way across the city to meet him at a gas station where fortunately there was a small cafe serving cappuccino and sweet rolls.  The drive in Dr. Sman's classic Mercedes took an hour and a half in light traffic.  MCU's classes are held in a new five-story building in a large empty lot next to the wat's high school and down the road from it's spectacular new temple.  Dr. Sman is in charge of the graduate program in public administration and the 35 students, mostly monks and a couple of lay people, are working toward a master's degree with weekend classes.  The large building was quite empty and the department is trying to save money so air conditioning in our fourth floor room was turned off.  With the windows and doors open, however, there was a cooling breeze.  Outside it was overcast with occasional rain showers.

My job was to get them to speak in English.  Most had had little training but the class was mandatory in order that these future administrators would know at least a little of the global business language.  Put a microphone in my hand and I suddenly turn into a stand-up comic with unlimited energy.  I posed questions to the students, asking them to tell me about themselves and their families, and I asked each to stand and speak clearly into the microphone.  On the board I suggested a form for their answers, and by the end of five hours of encouraging and cajoling, I had them all speaking more English than they had probably ever uttered.  They told me their ages, their nicknames, the number of brothers and sisters in their families, their favorite food (bananas won hands down) and their experiences as a monk or a worker or a parent.  I was exhausted yet full of energy, and while Dr. Sman taught another class, I walked down to the temple where hundreds of Buddhists were lighting candles and applying gold leaf to dozens of icons, and took lots of photos.

Last week I turned my class over to the other professor who teaches Wednesday afternoons after learning that most of my good students were absent, the classroom had not been cleaned, the white board was black with unremoved marker ink, and the office, where I have not been paid for two months, was closed.  Sometimes the difficulties of teaching in a culture where different rules prevail gets just too frustrating.  Today, however, I hope to be paid for the five evening classes I taught at the Language Center in Wang Noi before my English class was canceled for lack of students.  And tomorrow, I'm off to Wang Noi to attend a debate in English sponsored by the Foreign Language Department in which several of my students will participate.  The motion they will be debating is: "A life of luxury is better than one of contentment."  I told them that when I was in junior college I was a member of the debate team, and now I am receiving desperate emails from my students asking me what they should say.  I've tried to explain that debaters argue either "con" or "pro," against or in favor of a motion, and that their arguments should consist of a list of reasons, supported by some evidence, to persuade the judges of their truth.  I was also at some pains to let them know that debaters do not have to believe what they are arguing, and can in fact present a argument contrary to their own values (like most politicians).  It will certainly be difficult for monks to argue in favor of a life of luxury.  It should be an interesting day.

Death and taxes?  I think I've shown that it's possible to avoid taxes if you're too poor to owe any.  As for death, life is definitely a terminal condition.  But whether the loss of income is equivalent to death has yet to be proven.  Stay tuned.  


Janet Brown said...

I share your general disregard for financial matters, but Thailand isn't a country where you want to be facing your last dollar--or baht. I was ten years younger than I am now when I decided that being a teacher in Thailand was doing little for my physical well-being,and left until I could find another way to feed myself.

As long as you have the wherewithal to eat at your favorite buffet and go to a movie and buy Nan presents, life is good. When you begin eating one meal a day in a room with no view, worrying about where your next month's rent is going to come from, it isn't very lovely at all. If you are going to make your money as a teacher, at least check out the international schools. With your experience and doctorate, you should be able to make 100,000 baht a month. I know at least one man who does make that, without your education.

Take care of yourself, Will. You can retain your aristocratic disregard for money--but make sure you have enough to enjoy your life.

Anonymous said...

This all sounds very worrying. I hope that things perk up for you.

All the best, Boonie