Class war and cognitive dissonance: do the rich pay enough tax?

In the SMH, Jess Irvine has written a post accusing the rich of not paying enough tax. Strong piece. Very clickable, quite memorable, and in places, very reasonable:

“It is right to think that rich people should pay more tax than the poor. Happiness studies show an extra dollar means a lot more to a poor person than a wealthy person. So, we maximise society’s wellbeing when we raise taxes from the rich, rather than the poor.”

In the AFR, an equally strong reply:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 1.50.33 PMThis was written by the gossip columnist though, which suggests The Fin is passing up the opportunity to really take the bait.

All this has me thinking. Do the rich really pay enough tax?

Instinct says “No!”

There is, however, a bit of cognitive dissonance the average policy wonk faces in answering such a question.

Let’s face it. Most of us consider that question by imagining those richer than us paying more. Few readers interpret it as “should I pay more tax?” even though plenty of you find yourselves in a household making over $100,000 a year.

Secondly, the average policy wonk already knows the facts.  (The graphs that follow come from a terrific Productivity Commission report that is just a few months old.)

Those on higher incomes do pay the most tax in Australia.  The few families making $175,000+ a year contribute more total tax than the (far greater) numbers of households making under $100k.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.48.55 PMThe tax burden is squarely aimed at the top of the income distribution curve.Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.36.43 PMWhen you look by assets things get a bit more complicated, but the overall trend is still richer people tend to pay more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.29.19 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.27.41 PMn.b. for whatever reason the data above is by group not decile, and the groups aren’t evenly sized. Sorry. Here’s the distribution of actual households across those groups:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.26.42 PMOne technique Jess Irvine uses to support her call for more tax on the rich is raising the spectre of widespread income tax rorting.

I wrote about rorting in Crikey last year after we learned 55 people who earned over a million dollars paid no tax in 2012-13. That fact went viral. But it represents just 0.6 per cent of millionaires.

Most income millionaires seem to pay a lot in tax – 93  per cent of them are in a group with an average tax rate of 42 per cent. Another 6 per cent pay an average rate of 35 per cent.

I reckon tax evasion is far more common in corporate tax than income tax. But Irvine’s article says we can’t do anything about that.

She goes on to argue we should institute a land tax. It’s a good conclusion to what has been a fairly odd argument. I support a land tax. I’ve been pleased recently to see it getting a fair bit of attention.

But it doesn’t really follow from her argument.

It seems to me the rich already pay a lot of tax, are fairly honest about it, and don’t actually complain that much. Is that the end of the argument?

I say no.

This “do the rich pay enough tax?” question is just a proxy – an emotive, perhaps even fun-to-think-about proxy – for a question about whether our society is fair.

So, is Australia fair?

That’s a better question, because it allows that bubbling pot of cognitive dissonance to simmer down for a moment.

The answer is probably a qualified yes. It could be fairer still, if we focus on eliminating disadvantage.

We can hold onto the fact the rich pay most tax, and permit the idea society could still be fairer.

There are many ways to eliminate disadvantage, and make society fairer. Minimum wages and strong public health systems are a big part of it.

When we look at America, we see what can happen without them. That is an economy much less fair than the one we experience.

Transfers are another major way to make a nation fairer. A basic income, or minimum income policy would go a long way to making Australia fairer. But I don’t see arguments for hiking taxes on the rich helping create the sort of consensus necessary for that change.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.37.21 PMAmong the many charms of minimum wages, public health and transfers is they don’t discriminate. Everyone has access to them. It’s far harder for a Tory gossip columnist to mock the idea of Medicare than the idea of soaking the rich.

So thinking about areas of disadvantage that are important to eliminate seems to be a better way of looking at fairness in the Australian context. If higher taxes are required for such policies to be afforded, precedent suggests they will fall on those with capacity to pay.

Meanwhile thinking about ways to raise the same amount of tax more efficiently is probably the best argument for land tax.

For these reasons, I’d suggest dialing back instinctively appealing arguments the rich should pay more tax, in favour of more targeted arguments about avoiding corporate tax fraud or eliminating disadvantage.

Why people think tax reform is a knife, and why that’s a problem for Australia.

EDITED on Tuesday September 29 to make it better, fairer, more accurate.

My hypothesis is this: A large part of the Australian public does not understand the tax reform “debate” at all. a substantial part of the tax reform debate.

I hypothesise these people are smart, capable and have Australia’s interests extremely close to their heart. But they have no training in tax theory and therefore lack mental models to understand why, for example, Labor’s Chris Bowen, Shadow Treasurer, would be willing to consider cutting corporate tax to 25 per cent.

They just don’t see how tax affects growth.

The most mentally available model of tax is not one where tax is an ingredient in making the cake, but a knife to cut it up with at the end. This matches lived experience. As a worker and consumer, tax happens at the end of transactions. You get paid, then you pay tax. You buy something then you pay GST at the checkout.

So my hypothesis is the concept of tax as an input to the rate of economic growth is not one that is available to most people.

I’ve been thinking about this hypothesis for a while. Today I decided to test it. I chose the following four tax-related articles and read the comments in all of them.

The Age: Malcolm Turnbull halts tax white paper in major reset (163 comments)

Herald Sun: Imbalanced Tax system stunting growth, says Business Council of Australia (7 Comments)

The New Daily: Scott Morrison wants to give us tax cuts (22 comments)

SMH: Scott Morrison: Work Save Invest the Mantra for the new Treasurer (90 Comments).

If people understood that the tax reform was about boosting growth, I expected to see comments engaging on that topic – supporting the link or refuting it, talking about high-tax high-growth countries like Scandinavia, and low-tax low-growth countries too.

If people did not bring this frame of reference, I expected to see the comments focus on other topics, especially distribution.

I read about 280 internet comments. (Which – as you can imagine – meant deciphering a great number of garbled sentences and enjoying an even greater number of insults.)

I coded them according to whether they mentioned growth or output; distributional outcomes; loopholes; or ‘other’.  ‘Other’ accounted for over 200. The remaining results were crystal clear.

tax commentsDiscussion of growth was present in just over two per cent of total responses and was outweighed by discussion of distributional issues about 9:1.

I tried to be generous with the comments I coded as addressing issues of growth. Here’s one:

“The most important thing to do to fix the economy is to get the taxation right! Fact is the economy under Abbott and Hockey was a blatant disaster getting worse!”

Here’s another:

“Penalty levels of taxation combined with high levels of social welfare payments result in deficites, high borrowing costs and a downward spiral of he economy. That is exactly what is happening in Australia. Our economy is headed the same way as the Greek economy. To reverse this Australia needs to increase the incentive to work and invest and reduce the reward for not working.”

In the 61 comments about “loopholes” there were very many along these lines:

“No change in the policies, give the big end of town a tax cut, and spread the burden over everyone with an increase in the GST. Lower income people are worse off as a result.”

Please note that I am not criticising this last comment. Distributional issues are a crucial part of tax policy and that kind of comment is an important input to a well-grounded tax debate.

The point is we do not have a well-grounded tax debate until everyone is on the same page.

The broader tax debate does not address the impact of tax settings on the output capacity of the economy. It is far more focused on fairness.

The “elites” must work to understand the grip matters distributional have on the public imagination. If they still want to press on with tax reforms – and I think they probably should – they need to take two courses of action.

  1. Prioritise matters of distribution in their own thinking. No tax reform will be possible so long as it obsesses on output to the exclusion of fairness. Multinational enterprise tax reform was a very common thread in comments about fairness.
  2. Work to give people the mental models to understand how tax affects output. Without this very little tax reform will be possible at all.

Elites, building a case for reform does not mean repeating the phrase “We need reform!” It’s truistic to the people who understand it, while confusing and annoying to everyone else. It sounds like you’re talking in code, and that implies you’re plotting something.

Instead, talk about “changing tax law so businesses want to do more work in Australia and hire more people.”

If you hector people about tax by saying “it affects investment decisions!” you’re unlikely to cut through. “Investment decisions” sounds like it has something to do with Macquarie Bank.

The comments on the article about Scott Morrison’s “Work Save Invest” slogan showed “investment” was uniformly interpreted as being about buying shares. Many commenters pointed out they couldn’t afford to do that. “Foreign investment decisions” is probably even worse language. It conjures Chase Manhattan and Bank of China conspiring to rip us off.

Talk about economic growth in language people can understand. Use this language even among yourselves, so when it comes time to talk to “real people” it comes naturally.

One way to build capacity in the community is through using metaphors:

  • Tax is not just a knife, but also the yeast that grows the cake.
  • The economy is like a party and tax is adding water to the beer.
  • The economy is like a football match and tax is like adding more umpires ready to blow the whistle at any moment. They disrupt the natural flow of the game.
  • The economy is like a road and tax is traffic lights. If we put in too many in the road won’t be useful any more.

But that can’t be all. The explanation needs stories about business owners who expand their business once their returns meet a benchmark, and how returns are affected by tax. I can imagine an animation. A business owner making a business plan. Every time she does the maths she comes out in the red, until the tax percentage becomes lower. Then she opens her shop and hires some staff.

Understanding a concept requires knowing several mutually-reinforcing stories that illustrate the same point. The Australian people have not heard enough of these stories. And that is why Tax reform is going nowhere.
NB: In todays’ Fin Review, Laura Tingle talks about this exact issue:

Just as the tax reform debate threatened to choke itself on too many conflicting agendas – increasing the GST, lowering company tax, fixing bracket creep, doing something about superannuation tax concessions – our new treasurer has injected a rather important ingredient: the need to define a reason to do it all.Some of the contributors to the AFR Tax Reform Summit this week have made the observation that an organising principle for the tax reform debate has only rarely been seen amid the worthy, but perhaps too often repeated, calls for individual tax measures to be addressed.

The organising principle needs to be a political argument to voters about why you actually need to mess around with tax in the first place. An argument about corporate competitiveness isn’t really going to cut it out in the ‘burbs.

Yes, we all heard Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey talk ad nauseum about “lower, simpler, fairer” taxes. But they were never able to cut through to voters about why this was such a good idea: that it would – or should – help boost and transform the economy. Instead, it just sounded like a bit of conservative government ideology.”

So if Morrison wants to prosecute that case for tax reform he needs to formulate a story that’s as clear as “Stop the Boats” but for a much more complex concept. Good luck Scott.

Here’s a late-breaking caveat I decided to add.

Among the people who appear to not understand the nature of tax reform are a group who understand it perfectly well but oppose it. They fan the flames of the distributional arguments.

They’re not the only self-interested sorts in the debate.

The fact company tax cuts are now widely accepted  as the most growth-crucial tax cuts in our whole economy is very interesting. Of course cutting it would help growth. But at what revenue cost? And why is it #1? Self interest lurks in any issue where facts are complex.

A deficit tax: Now we really do have a Budget Emergency

Tony Abbott is floating a special deficit tax. If you earn over $80,000 you’ll be up for an extra $800 in tax next year.

Here’s four reasons it’s a bad idea, (and one reason it’s not so bad).

1. We do not have a Budget Emergency. Yet. Our deficits are small and our debt is manageable. What we do have is a looming structural trainwreck as health spending rises while labour force participation falls. A short-term Budget deficit tax fixes the non-problem, while ignoring the real problem.Image

2. Raising taxes while the economy is in poor shape won’t help the recovery. Australia’s growth has been meagre and our unemployment rate rising for most of the past few years (with a blip down in April’s numbers). Smart economics says to spend more and tax less when you’re trying to induce a recovery. This is Keynesianism.

3. Keeping the focus of the budget on the deficit (simple, easy to understand, irrelevant) misses the opportunity to make the budget about something important.

4. If we are so allergic to a deficit of a few billion, we may never borrow again. With Australia’s long-term government bond rate at 3.93 per cent, borrowing is cheap right now.  If we are ever to build any infrastructure round here, we need to borrow money. (Infrastructure costs a lot now and pays off in the long run, so if buy it using cash current generations subsidise later ones). Insufficient borrowing will mean the country comes crumbling down round our ears.

BUT

5. It’s hard to imagine Treasury proposing this idea to the government, except perhaps as a second-best alternative to slashing a lot of programs, and only if the government was hell-bent on returning to surplus immediately. Where you do discern the fingerprints of the department is in the progressive design of the tax, that would mainly slug high-income earners:

[It would] “cost earners on $80,000 at least $800 a year rising to an extra $8000 a year for those earning $400,000 a year.”

Hitting the high income earners may work for Mr Abbott politically too. He hurts only people who are likely to vote for him anyway, keeping western Sydney sweet. That means the people with the highest tendency to consumer their income won’t be hurt, so the economic effect of the tax will be more muted than if it were shared equally. 

Apparently there is a backbench rebellion against Mr Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, which has s price tag of $5.5 billion, and is genuinely not a clever policy. I’ve written before about the economics of cutting it – reducing eligibility from incomes of $150,000 to $100,000 doesn’t make much of a saving – you’d need to be much bolder.

 

People before what kind of profit?

Profit may be the most emotive and most disagreed-on word in the modern political lexicon.

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 3.09.41 pm

For some people, it conjures up a deep positive energy. It’s the lacquer of success that tells you your life has not been in vain, a thank you message from the universe.

For others, it’s a totem of greed. It’s the fuel barbarians pour onto the still live bodies of the civilised just before they burn them all, throw back their heads and howl as the smoke covers the moon.

Both can be right.

Whether you drive a Rolls Royce or a 1990 Subaru with a bumper sticker that says People Before Profit, you need to know this.

There’s two types of profit.

Economic profit, and accounting profit.

(for more: 1 2 3 )

Economic profit is bad. Let me explain.

Accounting profit is the profit a business makes after it has paid all its staff, all its bills. It represents a return on the capital the business owner put in at the start.

Imagine a small business person who delivers things you buy on the internet. They buy a van, putting 30,000 into the business. They could have put that money into the bank and got 5 per cent return with no risk, or $1500.

If, at the end of the year they have paid themself for all the hours they put in, and on top of that, the business makes $1500 of profit, that is accounting profit. That accounting profit is necessary for the business to run. If there’s no accounting profit, the delivery business will shut down, as delivery lady realises she should sell the van, put the money in the bank, and work for someone else.

(Really she should be looking for more than $1500 in accounting profit, to help compensate her for the risk of running a business, which is much higher than plonking your cash in a government-guaranteed deposit.)

So, accounting profit is necessary for businesses to exist.

When you see Woolworths Limited reporting a before-tax profit of $3.4 billion on sales of $58.5 billion, some of that is the accounting profit necessary for the share to be worth anything at all. (If the profit drops to zero, the dividend drops to zero. If the return on the share is zero, the value of the share is then also … zero).

But economic profit? That’s bad ju-ju. Let’s go back a step

Us economists think accountants are simpletons. We like to think about opportunity cost. So the idea that you’d measure the profitability of an enterprise without comparing it to a risk-free investment is hahaha, hyuk-hyuk, rofl, tee-hee-hee, laughable.

When an economist talks about profit, they mean it. They are referring to returns you can get over and above the next-best use of your money.  But that’s always obscured in the official data. When an company reports profit, it includes some that is necessary to cover the cost of capital, and the gravy.

And here’s the thing: under the assumption of perfectly competitive markets, there is no economic profit in the long run.

It’s only during deviations from perfect competition, or when market failures creep in that economic profit can occur. The most obvious market failure is market power. If a company is part of an oligopoly, or worse a duopoly (Hi Woolworths), or worst of all, a monopoly, then profit can be expected to ensue.

CBAThis is why we can be fairly sure the profits of Australia’s big four banks are not simple accounting profits. They operate in a protected space under the four pillars policy.

Australians think there is far more bank competition than there really is.

Of course banks should make enough to compensate the people that own the capital that allows the bank run. But should they make more?

Commonwealth Bank, Australia’s biggest, made $7.7 billion in profit last year.

The value of the Commonwealth Bank is $120 billion at time of writing. It was, at least until recently, in the top ten biggest banks in the world by value, even though it is not in the top ten by assets.

Any industry where all the competitors are making  extra profit on less assets should ring alarm bells.

Is that it? is there nothing we can do? I’m glad you asked.

A tax design idea is floating around – currently out of favour – called allowance for corporate equity. It is gentle to accounting profits, and starts to snarl and salivate when economic profits are made. As the name implies, it would allow profits to cover the cost of equity [that’s the money the owner put in, or the $30,000 van in the example above]. After that, taxes rise.

Another way of putting that same idea is to say take the mining super-profit tax and apply it across all industries.

Here’s an excerpt from the Fairfax press, quoting one of my old lecturers, John Freebairn.

“At the tax summit, Melbourne University’s John Freebairn, a former research director of the Business Council, said Australia’s super-profits tax rate might be ”more towards 40 or 50 per cent”. It would only be paid by companies earning ”monopolistic-type rent”. ”And let’s rub it into the banks,” he added. ”They seem to make much higher returns than anyone else.””

But that would not be popular. It’s one reason Wayne Swan ran from the Allownce for corporate equity idea when it had a brief resurgence a few years ago.

But recognising the difference between the types of profit is crucial for anyone who wants to make a difference to society, and tax policy makers know better than anyone else that companies making a super profit are probably managing it at the expense of the consumer.