We've got dollars, why bother with democracy

By Jay Kuten

When it was announced that Gerard Depardieu, the famous French actor, had renounced his country to escape taxes and was granted Russian citizenship by the hand of Vladimir Putin, I was surprised by my own feelings.

Suddenly, I felt a tinge of disappointment and even of outrage. I realised soon enough that these were faux feelings, unwarranted and fabricated.

I'm not a big fan of Depardieu and the last movie of his I could recall was made 30 years ago. I didn't feel anything like this when David Beckham moved to Los Angeles. And certainly not when Russell Crowe moved to Aussie.

What was behind the sense of betrayal? I rationalised that it must be part of the "you didn't build that" attitude. After all, Depardieu did not make anything at all. It's not exactly as if he developed a cure for cancer or invented the next big thing.

He's not only the creation of his fans but his wealth is due to his country, which gave him his profession and his fame.

Yes, France has now enacted a 75 per cent tax on millionaires, and no one likes to pay taxes. But doesn't he have some obligation to pay to the source of his wealth in the first place; his fellow Frenchmen? They don't have his millions and the few that might come close are not suddenly fleeing to the warm embrace of normally glacial Putin.

Instead, those millionaires are running to - Belgium, or the UK, or Switzerland - any place that will have them and a little of their money at a lesser tax rate.

So why feel betrayed by the likes of Depardieu because he chose Russia? When Eduardo Severin, a founding owner of Facebook, cashed his $4 billion settlement and jumped ship to Singapore from the US, it caused not a ripple except for the slight back-current of envy of a 30-year-old nerd who hit it big.

The Wall Street Journal, otherwise a pillar of patriotism, cheered him on as a smart guy who would otherwise have had his tax dollars wasted by the US government.

They then took a usual swipe at a tax system that allegedly fails to favour entrepreneurs.

It was finally from that quarter, the financial sector, that I found some degree of solace (or at least understanding).

Vadim Nikitin, a London-based Russian blogger, pointed the way in a piece called, Depardieu and the New Capitalism. European countries have a long history of enticing one another's rich with offers of better deals in regulation and taxation. New Zealand got into the act with its government-supported union-busting in the making of The Hobbit.

Multinational corporations, nominally American or British, move operations offshore in a race to the bottom in search of lower costs and looser regulatory controls, and no one seems to object save the displaced workers.

While Depardieu is hardly the first tax haven migrant, his move to Russia seems to be more than valuing money over his motherland. It places a greater value on money than on democracy.

By choosing the Russian autocracy, Depardieu seems to have traded away the fundamental Western idea that human rights and freedoms are inalienable and non-negotiable.

But that is exactly what multinational corporations (like Apple) do every day by moving their factories to China or management to United Arab Emirates; not just for cheaper labour but for the streamlined governance that eliminates burdensome regulation.

The new capitalism recognises few values save profit. In Harvard professor Michael Sandel's latest book, What Money can't Buy, he posits: "We're moving toward a society where everything is for sale ... not only material goods but the whole of life."

When citizenship, labour rights, or freedom become commodities, maybe it's time we looked at such a market before we find about our precious values that all we've left to discuss is price.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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