Where Are We? Place and No Place for Billionaire 'Citizens'

Unbearable Lightness of Billions
| Public domain source

The billionaires are leaving. Those who've gone stateless already are the tip of the spear (or maybe the scalpel's edge) passing through places without resistance. The billionaires are leaving, vaguely disappointed with citizenship.

Wealth has moved statelessly around the world for decades, pausing to hedge a weak currency, lending millions for a night, or betting on someone's failure to see a number flop from plus to minus. What money now is, more and more of the very very wealthy hope to become.

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The most recent example is Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. He was once Brazilian, then American by naturalization, and now essentially without a state. He quietly renounced his United States citizenship in September after taking up residence in Singapore.

Singapore is one of those places where tides of untethered money rise and fall every day and where a free hand, placed just right, can come away with amazing sums, lightly taxed.

(Among the ironies: Saverin -- famously "unfriended" by Mark Zuckerberg -- will soon earn an estimated $3.8 billion from Facebook, a service that seeks desperately to commercialize an illusion of connectedness. Meanwhile, Saverin floats above a tight little city-state famous for bullying its unwealthy residents into conformity with neo-Confucian values and authoritarian politics.)

Renouncing U.S. citizenship, as Saverin has, isn't common, but it's become less rare. A record 1,780 former citizens reported to the IRS that they gave up their U.S. passports last year compared with 235 in 2008. (The IRS publishes quarterly, by Congressional mandate, a "shame" list of former citizens who have paid an expatriation tax -- imposed only on the very wealthy -- that's part of the renunciation process.)

The number of American renunciates is likely to grow. The United States is one of only two or three nations that taxes incomes based on both residency and citizenship. Americans living overseas have long been obliged to file income tax returns (an irritating formality for most), but now overseas financial institutions also are required to report the accounts of their American depositors to the IRS (to ferret out illicit tax avoidance).

Citizenship shedding -- given the right combination of personal wealth, asset liquidity, and expatriate cunning -- is increasingly a sound financial plan, even if you're not a billionaire.

It's obvious that actual places do not suit the world's régime of speed. Not long ago on BBC radio, three British corporation heads discussed the intersection of place and globalization. "It's immaterial where you are," the European head of an American stock trading network offered as conventional wisdom. Where you are is as immaterial as money, as immaterial as any sort of loyalty connected to any place.

Singapore and similarly displaced sites are a "no place" of convenience that requires no negotiation between setting and character or any conscious projection or absorption of meaning from where you are. It's a place in which, just as inefficiencies in the flow of money are, the conflicting obligations of community and citizenship are ruthlessly eliminated.

The stateless billionaires have embraced the logic of the motel room, another "no place" carefully designed for misremembering the habits and rhythms that are imbedded in actual places. The principal amenity purchased in a billionaire's succession of large and empty houses is amnesia.

The billionaires are leaving because money is lighter than air or perhaps because (as William Deresiewicz noted recently in the New York Times), the billionaires have misplaced their moral imagination.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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