Monday, January 7, 2013

Conditional Love


Just before Christmas, corpulent French film star Gérard Depardieu turned in his French passport and announced he was forthwith a citizen of Belgium. He did so as a protest to French president François Hollande's new wealth tax, which requires people who earn more than €1m ($1.3m) to pay 75% tax. Depardieu insisted that he has paid 145m in taxes in 45 years at pre-existing tax rates, and that he felt that France was now punishing people for being creative and successful. The French are bracing themselves for a mass exodus of the rich for tax-friendlier places.

A similar exodus took place in England in the 1970s when two successive Labour Party prime ministers, inspired by Denis Healey, enacted even stiffer penalties on the rich. Rather than give up their millions, many English actors, pop stars and run-of-the-mill tycoons emigrated elsewhere. It makes me wonder how many American millionaires - actors, athletes, and business execs - would leave if taxes were returned to their pre-Reagan era level (75%). Would we regard them as traitors or as savvy businessmen?

Fifty years ago, the rich in America lived without hardship under a 90% tax rate. Of course, it wasn't called a "wealth tax" - it was simply what the government decided was a fair share of the wealth, earned or unearned, in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population. It seems today that the commitment of the rich to their respective countries has become conditional. Evidently, as long as societies decide that the wealthy should bear more of the burden of taxation than everyone else, wealthy people will look for - and find - ways to evade being taxed.

Depardieu, now 64, is a great actor - when he wants to be (The Return of Martin Guerre, Danton, Under the Sun of Satan, Cyrano de Bergerac, Le Colonel Chabert). But he seems to have identified himself too closely with the character he played in Bertrand Blier's Going Places, whose French title, Les Valseuses (the testicles) more accurately identifies the type. His try for a Hollywood career went badly after he told an interviewer that, when he was a teenager, he had committed rape on an unspecified number of women. Like Marlon Brando, who ballooned to elephantine proportions in his later years, Depardieu has allowed his appetites to rule his life, and he doesn't seem willing to trim down. Consequently, his physical grossness restricts the kinds of roles he can even consider playing.

Evidently, Depardieu is ungrateful that France made him the most famous French actor since Jean-Paul Belmondo. His attitude is typical of wealthy people who think that they made money all by themselves, that no one else was involved in its acquisition. Film director Claude Lelouch tried to remind Depardieu that his higher tax rate was an indication that he was lucky and successful. I think that if an American actor who is as comparably famous as Depardieu is in France decided to renounce his citizenship just to avoid paying stiffer taxes, he would find himself becoming very unpopular very quickly.

A few days ago, the French Constitutional Council overturned Hollande's wealth tax measure, accusing it of "breaching the principle of fiscal equality between households." The simple fact that there is an enormous fiscal inequality between households in France makes nonsense of the Council's ruling. And Hollande says he is determined to "restructure" his proposal and get it passed. Will Depardieu take up Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's offer of Russian citizenship, where the top tax is merely 13%? Perhaps Depardieu would fit in well in such a hooligan state as Russia.

Now what if France were in actual peril, from a foreign attack, and what if Depardieu were a young man called upon to defend his country? Would he scarper off to Belgium (or Russia) to save his miserable hide? Would he claim that he did it because he's an artist and that the rules that apply to ordinary citizens of France didn't apply to him?

There is an old joke about the fighting mettle of Frenchmen:

"How many men does it take to defend Paris?"

"Nobody knows." 

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