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.