Saturday, 16 July 2011

Labour’s Tax Policy:

There were few surprises in the policy announced Thursday, as much of it had already been announced or clearly foreshadowed. The key policies are
  • zero income tax on the first $5,000 of income;
  • an increase in the top marginal tax rate to 39% for incomes over $150,000;
  • exempting fresh fruit and vegetables from the GST (technically, zero rating them);
  • a 15% capital gains tax.
I would stand to benefit quite nicely from these changes, but I still don’t like the policy. Let’s take each item in turn.
In principle, I don't mind the $5,000 tax-free policy. There are fixed costs to working compared to not working, which are not recognised when one has to pay tax from the first dollar earned. I could see a tax-free bracket having a non-trivial effect on decisions on whether to enter the workforce part time or not at all, particularly if the tax-free threshold could be lifted over time. A tax-free bracket is also a much more moral way of ensuring that workers receive a living wage than would be an increase in the minimum wage. I find it difficult to believe, however, that the other policies in the package could make up for the cost of exempting the first $5,000 of income from tax for every taxpayer. This is the unpleasant arithmetic of tax policy: Tax cuts at a particular income level only have an efficiency-relevant impact on the behaviour of those taxpayers whose marginal income is at that level, but they give a tax reduction to anyone whose income is at that level of higher; cuts in tax rates at the lower end, therefore come at a large fiscal cost for a only a small change in reduced disincentives.
The proposed increase in the top rate is silly. There is such a small proportion of the country’s income earned at those levels that the policy can hardly be expected to bring in a significant amount of revenue, but will surely lead to the usual tax avoidance games. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a purely symbolic policy designed to make people with incomes less than $150,000 feel good that those with more income are being taxed more. If so, it is appealing to a rather ugly side of human nature.
The zero-rating of fresh fruit and veg might just about be the most appallingly cynical election bribe the country has ever seen. I am not saying that it would be the most costly election-bribe policy enacted; that mantle would have to go to either National Superannuation or interest-free student loans. Rather, I suspect that this policy would have the highest cost relative to benefits, with benefits defined according to a policy’s proponents’ underlying preferences. Consider first the costs of the exemption: of relatively small importance is the lost revenue that will need to be made up elsewhere. More important, is the additional transactions costs in compliance, enforcement, and definitions that the policy would introduce. Much worse, is the erasing of the line in the sand that currently stands between a clean GST and one with messy exceptions; once we start on this slippery slope, there will be no clear line left to defend against creeping exemptions and tweaking of the GST system likely to be proposed in the future. Against this, are two putative benefits. First is the idea that the exemption will make the GST more progressive. I haven’t seen any data on this, but I would extremely surprised if taxing fresh fruit and were not a progressive tax; if one wanted to use the tax system to redistribute from poor to rich, I suspect the proposed exemption would rank second only to high cigarette taxes as a method for achieving that objective. The second supposed benefit is the health benefits from eating more fresh fruit and veg. The trouble is that nutritionists tell us there is no nutritional advantage to fresh over frozen or canned, so unless someone can show some convincing data giving a significant elasticity of demand for fresh fruit and veg that does not result from a substitution away from preserved fruit and veg, we would need to dismiss this benefit as well.
Finally, there is the proposed capital gains tax. I have never been a fan of taxing capital gains, but this is a complicated area that needs its own post. There are certainly good economic arguments on both sides. I do hope, however, that media commentators are careful to check the devil in the details. Just because famous economist X is in favour of a capital gains tax, calibrated in a particular way, does not mean that he or she is in favour of any capital gains tax. Neither statements like (“Treasury is in favour”) or government responses made before the details are known (“dagger through the heart of growth”) will move the debate along very far here.


1 comment:

  1. One question I would like to see some consideration of is the costs of these policies... changing the income tax rates is fairly trivial in terms of admin costs but the GST change and CGT does impose unexplained costs on consumers, businesses and Govt.

    Maybe this could be included in the follow up piece on the CGT... What is the estimated net gain to Govt in pure cash terms and what is the deadweight loss to the economy from the additional compliance burden...

    What would also be interesting is some estimate of the economic loss generated through tax planning... I realise that in GDP terms this isn't economic loss per se, but I guess I am thinking more along the lines of perverse incentives created.

    Labour is boring on about the 'benefits'. Someone needs to analyse and consider the costs in an explicit sense...

    Sounds like a job for 'Offsetting Behaviour Man'!!