Gerard Depardieu’s recent renunciation of his French origins in favor of Putin’s offer of Russian citizenship has left many scratching their heads as to whether to applaud his bravery or to jeer at his selfishness. Even in the face of intense public scrutiny, Depardieu has shown little fear, no easy feat in a society with a widening wealth gap, class warfare and political polarisation.
In the United States, the professional golfer and ninth highest-earning athlete in the world, Phil Mickelson is facing a similar struggle, which made headlines when he said “there are going to be some drastic changes for me because I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted federally and by the state.” Unlike Depardieu, however, Mickelson rescinded his remarks when criticised for his insensitivity to those of more modest means. “Taxes and finances are a personal matter, and I should not have made my opinions on them so public. I apologise to those I have upset or insulted, and assure you I intend not to let it happen again.” Depardieu has yet to show signs of remorse about his exit from an increasingly left-leaning France, leaving some of us to wonder whether he should be touted as a hero for his unabashed refusal to be taxed to death or if he is merely the largest example of tax avoidance, defecting at the time of his homeland’s need .
Fast on the heels of Depardieu, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a plan to start a private equity firm in London alongside the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault (who recently applied for Belgian citizenship). Are these highly visible moves by some of the nation’s most well known figures a case of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” or just the other way around? One-percent rarity cum global phenomenon, the millionaire migration is igniting the political landscape with financial fervor as ex-patriots come under fire from not only their countrymen, but media outlets across the globe. The globalisation of our world has made the move of these men more than mere fiscal strategy, but a political statement amplified in an age of technological revolution.
In a world as intricately linked as ours, the domino effect takes on a whole new meaning when the balance of power is dictated no longer by superpowers, but by news sources. The once anarchic world order is now overseen by a Big Brother of a different kind, your Sky TV’s and your CNN’s. Yes, there was backlash to high taxes in the 1970’s made famous by rock and roll icons like The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie but in today’s world the long arm of the media has a much stronger sway over the political agenda and public opinion. Before, all millionaires had was a disproportionate amount of access to the world’s capital, now millionaires have a disproportionate amount of media coverage as well. Whether it is positive or negative, the media’s judgment on the phenomenon is less relevant than the sheer fact of its high visibility due to the media’s publicity. Once one steps forward, like Depardieu, the idea balloons from rarity, to trend, to phenomenon, to crisis.
With the majority of tax reform still to be negotiated, as France still reels from the French Constitutional Council ruling President Hollande’s seventy-five percent millionaire tax unconstitutional, the United State’s Congress avoidance from the fiscal cliff ground to a halt by gridlock, and Britain’s slow climb to recovery from triple dip recession after Gordon Brown’s 2010 fifty percent millionaire tax, the axe has yet to fall. However, the luxury of time is one thing that cannot be bought by the uber rich as the debt problem demands to be reckoned with. This could lead to drastic measures by governments as they explore “fair” solutions to the twenty-one trillion dollar developed-world’s debt, including a one-time wealth tax on thirty percent of all assets of top wage earners. Fear of this is exacerbated by the media, taking the domino effect to a whole new level. Depardieu’s move to Belgium for it’s “rural, bucolic setting” comes amid reports of tax exiles such as the co-owner of Facebook to Singapore, Tina Turner to Switzerland, and Democratic contributor Denise Rich to Austria. One cannot help but wonder what governments are to do when taxes on the wealthy to redress debt fail because there simply isn’t any wealthy left.
This problem, however, is not a new one, it has already happened. Reported by the Washington Street Journal in November 2012 as “Britain’s Missing Millionaires,” the total number of millionaire tax filers dropped from 16,000 in 2009-2010 to 6,000 in 2010-2011. Now that the phenomenon has an international face thanks to Depardieu, Sarkozy, and Mickelson, how it will play out in the medica cannot be predicted. But just in the same way that the the 99 percenters only needed one street to launch a global movement, the media only needs one recognisable face to see the millionaire migration evolve from Depardieu’s housewarming party to a mass migration of the elite. This time around though, we might just see the movement end differently.
Just because millionaires have access to material wealth and powerful connections does not ensure success in swaying public policy, as evidenced in the past time and time again. But that they do have the one thing that, for lack of, Occupy Wall Street fizzled out: organization. Most would agree that high wage earners are heads of corporations and businesses, and what is a business but an organization? There is nothing stopping millionaires from organizing together. The millionaire migration is not a grassroots movement, it is not a passing trend, it is a global phenomenon with wings. And not just any old wings, but the type of wings that fly Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic. The type of wings that put fiscal security over national identity. The type of wings that fail to distinguish between personal wealth and sense of self. But don’t take it personally; it’s just business.