Seventy-six per cent of Dutch people think inheritance tax is an unfair tax. But is that right? Sigrid Hemels, professor of Tax Law at Erasmus School of Law, is participating in the theatre tour of the University of the Netherlands this academic year. She gives a lecture on this massively hated tax. She goes back into history and explains the ideas of political philosophers such as Smith, Bentham and Mill and makes a link with current discussions surrounding wealth inequality and Budget Day. At the beginning of November 2023, she performed in the Isala theatre in Capelle aan de IJssel, where several enthusiastic Erasmus School of Law students were also present. How did Hemels experience her theatre performance, and how does she see the importance of sharing scientific knowledge outside the walls of the university?
From lecture hall to theatre tour
In 2016, Hemels was approached by the University of the Netherlands with the request to give a lecture at Club Air in Amsterdam. “Why do you have to pay so much tax?” was the title of her lecture and it was available to see via Ziggo, the University of the Netherlands site and YouTube. “That was fun to do. I think I remember that they were tipped off by a student to ask me for this”, Hemels says. In March 2023, Hemels recorded a podcast for the University of the Netherlands based on her article about Aletta Jacobs' tax-related struggle to enforce voting rights. Hemels: “The people at the University of the Netherlands are great fun to work with. They always take me out of my comfort zone, but also help me to make things just that little bit better and clearer.” Moreover, Hemels believes it is important to take science beyond the walls of the university. “After all, the taxpayer makes it possible for me to work here, and he is therefore entitled to value for his money, so I try to share the knowledge I have acquired as much as possible and in the most appealing way possible. That is why I once contributed to the script for a Klokhuis clip about taxes”, Hemels adds.
Sharing scientific knowledge
The aim of her theatre class is to help people form an opinion about inheritance tax on rational grounds. “And not just based on one-liners derived from political and lobbying motives. Furthermore, taxes are, of course, just super fun and interesting. I like to share that enthusiasm with anyone willing to be open to it”, Hemels states.
The public responds well to Hemels' lectures. “It is very funny to suddenly be approached on the train home or in the shopping street in Venlo by people who have been to the performance. And when I was on the train back from Tilburg, I heard a girl very enthusiastically telling someone on her phone about the performance. I then ducked away, red-faced, hoping she wouldn't see me, but luckily, she only said positive things.” Moreover, Hemels thought it was special that her own students were there in Capelle aan den IJssel. “I thought it was really special that they had bought a ticket to see me. Normally, I am included in the all-inclusive tuition fee package. Of course, I already knew that Rotterdam students are the best students in the Netherlands, but now my theatre colleagues know that too.”
Hemels also looks back with a warm feeling on the conversations with students after the performance in the foyer: “Someone who had graduated a long time ago, law students who had only had online lectures from me during corona times and now wanted to see me give lectures in real life, students who are now in their second year, and so on. That really made it an unforgettable evening for me!”
“Inheritance tax is subject to significant pressure and criticism from society; I also had my doubts about this levy”, says Elisaar Abou Zeid, a second-year student of Tax Law at Erasmus School of Law. “I was very curious about Hemels' perspectives on and arguments for inheritance tax. Hemels managed to convey the content in a clear manner and made a nice link to the ideas of well-known historical scholars. The humorous moments in between provided a nice change. Her theatre lecture completely changed my prejudices about inheritance tax. This is due to Hemels' extensive and well-motivated explanation.”
University versus theatre
Tax topics are challenging to explain in understandable language. “I really had to work on that. At the first performance, a try-out in Den Bosch, I was still lecturing.” Hemels states that the purpose of information transfer is very different in a lecture in the theatre than in the academic setting. “Unlike students, theatregoers do not have to take an exam and are allowed to forget some of what you have said.” Due to the importance of taking science beyond the university walls, it is not the intention to use technical terms. For example, Hemels did not talk about ‘substantial interest' but talked about an equity interest of at least 5%. Hemels: “Afterwards, I asked some students in the foyer in Capelle aan den IJssel whether they knew the tax term for this.”
Moreover, Hemels regularly walks around the lecture hall and asks students questions. “It works differently in the theatre, where you cannot actually see the audience well because of the strong lights. And you cannot blame the theatre audience for not having their law book with them.”
A theatre college is much more tightly organized, Hemels explains. “A big challenge is that I have to stick to the script! And the time, which is very short. College is much looser, so of course I have a clear storyline, but I improvise a lot more. During lectures, you also respond much more to what is happening in the room. The lecture hall is of course a very safe environment, not only for students, but also for a teacher. The theatre is more exciting, more anonymous. And if you make a mistake, you cannot correct it after the break or in the next lecture!”
Hemels has started to look differently at the importance of understandable tax communication. “Not only did I discuss and adjust the entire script endlessly with an editor, but I was also guided for an entire afternoon by a director who also had all kinds of very good tips after the try-out in Den Bosch. I learned a lot from this about sharing my tax message even more effectively with non-tax audiences. For me, the theatre tour is also a great learning process about science communication.”
A critical look
Hemels hopes that, through her lecture, the public will no longer adopt the one-liners about inheritance tax but will think about it critically for themselves. “That is actually the whole purpose of scientific education: to help students (and in this case the general public) to think critically and form a scientifically based opinion.”
Hemels is still determining whether there will be another college tour next year and whether she will be asked again. “After all, only one scientist from each university can participate, and I would also like to wish this experience for other colleagues. And I will see what comes my way in the future.”
The theatre tour runs until the end of this theatre season. “I have already finished most of the performances. In any case, I will still be in Theatre C in Hoofddorp on March 20, 2024. Furthermore, I may be called upon if another scientist is unable to attend."
(It is important to mention that the theatre lecture is in Dutch.)