Eduardo Saverin owes America nothing

By Ezra Butler on May 17th, 2012

One cannot help oneself but hum “America the Beautiful” while reading Farhad Manjoo’s impassioned essay decrying the supposedly despicable, soon-to-be-newly minted billionaire Eduardo Saverin. It is the writing of an American patriot, who has nothing but the utmost gratitude for the country he calls home. With the subtlety of a Biblical demagogue, Mr Manjoo accuses Mr Saverin of being a Pharisee: keeping to the letter of the law but blatantly ignoring its spirit. It’s not the tax. Saverin’s recently publicised decision to renounce his United States citizenship has somehow offended Manjoo’s American sensibilities.

As a child, Saverin, a Brazilian native, emigrated to the United States with his wealthy family out of fear of the rampant kidnappings which plagued Latin America at the time. He attended an exclusive preparatory school in Miami for high school and the elite Harvard University for college. While at Harvard, he invested in the Brazilian oil industry and made $300,000. Another minor investment, Facebook, turned out to be more lucrative. By 2009, though, Mr Saverin had left the United States and took up residence in Singapore.

In Mr Manjoo’s narrative, Eduardo owes a large debt to the United States, since, on becoming an immigrant, he became successful. But this is a stereotypical case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. In the writer’s view, Saverin is only successful because he emigrated to the United States. I think Mr Manjoo has confused Mr Saverin’s biography with his own experience, in which he apparently suffered from persecution in his native South Africa. He subconsciously equated the word “immigrant” with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

On such a view, the immigrant story is always the same. One relocates because one has no choice. The dislocated immigrant will always be, in such a narrative, part of that needy Biblical trifecta, comprised of the widow, the orphan and the alien. Yet nothing in Mr Saverin’s biography indicates this is true. Nothing suggests his family did not have ample options. As members of the Jewish faith, the Saverin family could have easily emigrated to Israel under the Law of Return. Or, with their wealth, the Saverins could have relocated to England, France, Portugal or Switzerland.

Manjoo’s essay reveals a lot more about the writer than the subject. Is Manjoo afraid of a resurgence of McCarthyism that would question immigrants in the start-up world and their affiliation to America? Nationalism is a horrible tendency. It causes people to think illogically, to kill, to promote second-rate companies simply thanks to the country of their inception. Wanton nationalistic fervour, the idea that people are de facto better in one place than in another, while occasionally preventing people from committing suicide, has not done much else for the West in recent decades.

While a geographical Mecca as well, Silicon Valley is a state of mind. It can be found in every country where there is entrepreneurial spirit. Sarah Lacy’s second book Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky demonstrated that fact. We should cheer on individuals like Dave McClure and his “Geeks on a Plane” initiative as it helps draws attention to struggling entrepreneurs in far-flung lands and encourages the free movement of gifted people around the globe. Sometimes that will mean a movement to reduce exposure to tax in unfavourable tax environments.

Given his loathing for free movement, I am surprised Mr Manjoo has not written a critique of the new Peter Thiel-backed enterprise “Blueseed”, a yacht-based start-up hub located in international waters designed specifically to skirt purportedly unfair visa regulations. Ostensibly, companies funded on that vessel will be free from United States taxation. Or is it that smart thinking about where you set yourself up is only acceptable before you make it big?

We see that successful entrepreneurs, Mr Saverin included, do give back to the ecosystem they thrived in. But that ecosystem is not necessarily a specific geopolitical landmass. To date Saverin has led, according to Crunchbase, at least three investment rounds for different companies. The amounts he invested in each appear to number in the millions of dollars. Mr Saverin paid his dues to Harvard University in tuition and to the United States in the taxes which he has paid to date, substantially more than the average 28-year-old American citizen.

Saverin belongs to a pan-national class. He lives at the extreme end of the spectrum of ideas and of money, both of which are globalised. He once moved to America, creating wealth and taxes. Now he is moving to Singapore, because he is in the business of predicting what will come next over the horizon and protecting his personal assets, so he can be a part of it. America has no right to complain: he owes it nothing.