As we all know, sort-of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who now owns a bit over $3 billion in Facebook stock, renounced his U.S. citizenship from his new digs in Singapore. Whether he did this to avoid paying U.S. taxes on his windfall is a matter of dispute. I suppose it is possible that the timing was coincidental.
Not everyone is buying it, though. Two senators have introduced a bill, cleverly (if awkwardly) titled the Ex-PATRIOT Act, that would build on existing immigration law that makes people who renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes inadmissible to re-enter the country. The bill would create a presumption of intent to avoid taxes if a person with a net worth above a certain amount renounces citizenship.
There may or may not be constitutional problems with that, and while I’m not thrilled with the bill itself, I’m far less thrilled with Saverin’s defenders. Americans generally enjoy the freedom to travel where they will (thank you, U.S. Supreme Court). The thing is, if you renounce your citizenship, you are no longer an American, by your own choice.
That’s what makes Bill Bonner’s piece at the Christian Science Monitor, in which he extols the basic human right to travel, so unintentionally hilarious. He thinks that we should leave Mr. Saverin alone, and he cites various important historical statements of rights to support the thesis that Mr. Saverin should be able to go where he likes. Regardless of the provisions of the Ex-PATRIOT Act, this is absurd.
He quotes the Magna Carta of 1215:
It shall be lawful to any person, for the future, to go out of our kingdom, and to return, safely and securely, by land or by water, saving his allegiance to us, unless it be in time of war, for some short space, for the common good of the kingdom: excepting prisoners and outlaws, according to the laws of the land…
Emphasis added, for reasons that I will make clear soon if you can’t figure it out for yourself.
Bonner goes on to quote Article 13 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Finally, he cites Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
(1) Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.
(2) Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.
(3) The above-mentioned rights shall not be subject to any restrictions except those provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others, and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant.
Bonner then gets to his basic point, if you want to call it that:
People should be able to move where they want, no? They should be able to look for lower tax places to live, shouldn’t they? After all, we’re Americans, aren’t we? Aren’t we all descendants of people who tried to improve their lives by moving to a new place?
Apparently, a lot of Americans don’t think so. Facebook is going public. And one of Facebook’s founders has moved to Singapore. He will save, by one estimate, $67 million in taxes by giving up his US citizenship. He says that’s not the reason he gave it up. But you can believe what you want.
And now the politicos are up in arms. Mr. Saverin has helped to give them an asset worth about $100 billion. Are they grateful? Do they bend down and kiss his derriere?
No! They want to tax him even more heavily…and prevent him from ever setting foot in the US again.
Two points I want to make here, and then I hope to never speak the name of Bill Bonner again:
1. Eduardo Saverin gave up his U.S. citizenship. Under U.S. law, that makes him an “alien,” the same as anyone at any overseas embassy or consulate who has to beg to come here. Is that fair to most “aliens?” Hell no. But people who think Saverin’s newfound wealth makes him special can go do anatomically-improbable things to themselves. If Saverin wants to enjoy the fruits of freedom of movement into and within America, he can damn well apply for a visa the same as everybody else, subject to the same laws as everybody else, including the one that says you can’t come back if you did what Saverin might have done. The new law won’t affect that at all, since Saverin already made his bed.
2. I suspect that this isn’t so much about the human right of travel within and between nations as it is that Saverin was somewhat involved in a $100 billion venture, and therefore, according to Bonner, the rest of us owe him something. That might be true under some circumstances, except for this: when it came time for Saverin to give something back to the nation whose laws enabled him to make billions, and whose citizens and residents owe him some debt of gratitude (at least according to Bonner), he took his ball and went to Singapore. See my earlier comment re: anatomically-improbable acts performed upon oneself.
We are not supposed to have royalty in America. We are supposed to be a nation of laws. People like Eduardo Saverin cannot, under the immigration laws of the land, cease being American to skip out on their taxes, then expect to come back to fanfare for being so damn awesome.
Bonner caps off his missive with a dire warning:
If Chuck Schumer has his way, entrepreneurs like Eduardo Saverin will think twice before setting up shop in America!
Eduardo Saverin was a college student who had the good fortune to be roommates with Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg had the good fortune to catch the attention of Sean Parker. Skill and hard work played a huge role in the creation of Facebook, of course, but you are fooling yourself if you think that luck wasn’t an almost-equally huge part.
Eduardo Saverin was an American citizen before he was an entrepreneur. It was only becoming an entrepreneur that led him to stop being an American. Bonner’s warning is nonsense. He is essentially saying that, if you have enough money, you should be able to move to whatever country demands the least of you, then leave again if you don’t like it there. Nothing is stopping people like Saverin from leaving the United States. We don’t make it easy for ordinary mortals from most countries to come here, so we sure as hell should not make it easy for ungrateful rich crybabies to do so.
Photo credit: ‘John, Magna Carta’ by unknown, held by The Granger Collection, New York (Britannia.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.