Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Canada's generous passport policy

Canadian policy-makers will soon be reviewing the subject of taxes on non-residents and citizenship options. Unlike in many countries, in Canada non-residents do not pay taxes, and yet they have the option to benefit from a number of social programs.

The CD Howe Institute recently published a paper by John Chant, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University, titled The Passport Package. The passport package, says Chant, is the package of benefit options that non-residents receive. These include easy qualification to healthcare benefits, free entry and exit, resident tuition fees, financial assistance when enroled in postsecondary institutions, and more.
Chant suggests that all non-residents pay a flat passport renewal fee. He compares the "passport package" to financial options.

The theory of financial options provides guidance with respect to setting the level of the passport fee. The value to the holders of the passport package over any period equals the sum of the values of each option in the package. In turn, each option has a value equal to the probability it will be exercised in the period, times the value the holder gains from its exercise. Different holders of the passport package would attach different values to each element. A law abiding citizen who values avoiding a year in a foreign jail at $60,000 would be willing to pay $6 a year for the privilege of repatriation if they have a 1/100 percent chance of spending a year in a foreign jail. Someone more criminally inclined may be willing to pay much more.

Like financial options, the options in the passport package are exercised when they are "in the money"; that is, when the value of the object optioned exceeds the strike price at which the option can be exercised. In the same way, passport options are exercised only when their holders perceive that the benefits from exercising exceed the costs.

Often this will be dictated by events. The benefits from higher education become attractive when a student wants to come to Canada to study; the prisoner exchange becomes valuable to someone facing jail in a foreign land; and the option of evacuation and assured entry to Canada will be exercised in times of war and domestic upheaval. The parallel with financial options goes further: if people fail to renew their passport, the option expires out of the money. To make the package self-supporting, the fees would have to cover the cost of underwriting the exercise of the options. The revenues of the package would depend on the reaction of non-resident citizens. Some would judge that the value of the package exceeds the fee and opt to pay, while others would let their passports lapse and lose the benefits. If 20 percent of current non-resident citizens opted not to pay the fee, a $500 fee for five-year renewals would raise roughly $200 million per year.

This seems reasonable. If non-residents don’t find that the "passport package" is worthy of the price tag, they don’t need to renew their passport. It also seems simple. It’s far less complex than actually taxing non-residents.
Chant adds:

John F. Kennedy’s appeal, "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country" was a high mark for the rhetoric inspired by citizenship. Its message, however, is at odds with reality. People do weigh the benefits and costs of citizenship in deciding which and how many passports they carry. Some become and remain citizens of countries where they never intend to live.

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