Futile to resist rise in tax

I’m still working through the backlog that built up while I finished my book manuscript. In the process, I forgot to post my Fin column from Thursday 25 March, which points out that we will, sooner or later, need more tax revenue. Here it is

Futile to resist rise in tax

In the early 1970s, radical American economist James O’Connor was among the first to detect the arrival of what he called ‘the fiscal crisis of the state’. As O’Connor realised, the combination of growing demands for services such as health, education and publicly-funded pensions with the costs of the US military machine could not be met from available tax revenue.

Connor anticipated that the resulting crisis would provide an opportunity for the left. In fact, of course, the ‘tax revolt’ which began in the late 1970s paved the way for a resurgence of market liberalism in the 1980s. The resurgence was led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and emulated around the world

The advance of social democracy, which had seemed unstoppable for most of the 20th century was halted and then put into reverse. Governments everywhere reduced taxes, and particularly top marginal rates of income tax. The welfare state was cut back. Governments tried to shed their responsibilities for infrastructure, handing them over to ‘Public-Private Partnerships’ assembled by financial institutions.

For a while this seemed to be working. Deficits were reduced and debt levels stabilised. But in the wake of the global financial crisis, the fiscal crisis of the state has re-emerged with a vengeance. Governments everywhere are looking at empty coffers and wondering if they will be able to repay their debts.

A fairly common set of responses is emerging. First, governments around the world have finally bitten the bullet on the need to increase the eligibility age for pensions. This process is painful and uneven, but it looks likely that a pension age of 70 will be the norm in most countries by 2050. That is, broadly speaking enough, to restore the solvency of publicly-funded pensions.

In other areas such as health, education and infrastructure,however, the demands on governments are only going to increase. Structural change has led to an increase in the proportion of national income needed for social and physical infrastructure.

At the same time, the financial sector, which seemed to offer painless ways of providing such infrastructure without drawing on the public purse, has turned out to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Even after the costs of the current crisis have been met, the requirement for the state to guarantee financial stability will represent a huge contingent liability.

The only solution is an increase in revenue. For most governments, the simplest way to raise a lot of revenue is to increase the rate of value-added taxes such as the GST.

Income taxes present a bigger problem. Although both the US and UK have increased the top marginal rate of taxation, this is still in the ‘too hard’ basket for most governments. Instead the main focus so far has been on broadening the base, particularly by attacking tax avoidance and evasion. After decades of delay, the OECD has finally taken action to shut down the international tax haven industry. Individual governments have gone further, going in to the market for bank employees willing to sell lists of tax-dodging clients.

Finally, there are some new options. One is revenue from a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme. This has been overstated by some proponents, and even more by detractors, as in Tony Abbott’s Great Big New Tax on Everything. The revenue from pricing carbon is unlikely to amount to much more than 1 per cent of GDP, a fair bit of which will be need to compensate vulnerable households and to fund adaptation and mitigation measures.

Then there is the appealing prospect of making the financial sector pay for the government guarantees that allow it to keep on making outsize profits. The current betting is on President Obama’s proposal for a levy, but the long run solution must surely be a tax on financial transactions, as proposed decades ago by Nobel Prize winner, James Tobin.

Compared to the rest of the world, Australia’s position is relatively strong. Our debt levels are comparatively low, the hard decisions on the retirement age have been taken, and top marginal tax rates were never cut to unsustainably low levels. Our biggest constraint is the virtually impossibility of raising the GST rate. The Henry Review will make interesting reading.

Regardless of how we do it, taxes must rise to meet the demands of a modern society. Tony Abbott gave an eloquent demonstration of that point recently when he proposed his own Great Big New Tax to finance paid maternity leave.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

87 thoughts on “Futile to resist rise in tax

  1. That’s equally misleading since it screens out all of those who’ve contributed to the pension through their taxes, but have died.

    Life expectancy in 1900-10 for 15 year olds was ~50 years. Which is 65.

  2. James,
    How do you measure a few of the things in your comment? Things like the money supply, the total supply of goods and services and when demand has been fully actualised.
    On another matter, the post war “golden age” was (IMHO) nothing of the sort – women were effectively banned from the bulk of the professions, those of non-Anglo backgrounds were virtually condemned to be in a persistent underclass and there were many, many other problems.
    The world then was not made up of just white men going about their lawful business.

  3. Others (e.g. you Terje), please don’t generalise Alice’s comments to the ‘left’ (whatever that means these days), you know she’s not here representing anyone other than herself (nor are any of us).

    I think this is a fair point and I have been asked this before so I will try harder. However even if Alice does not represent all of the left she is clearly of the left.

  4. It’s a broad church…

    (though libertarianism, which you ascribe to, is pretty broad as well).

  5. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Wrong Terje. I represent my own personal views. I dont like the die hard left but I certainly dislike the die hard right equally. In fact I think both are the cause of more ills than positive gains when it comes to economic policy. You can call me fond of common sense and equilibirum and you would be closer to the mark. You can call me centrist if you like because that is far closer to the mark. You can call me a fence sitter for all I care – I see certain benefits in taking the best from both extremes and ditching the worst and unworkable of their policies.

    I like to think I can distinguish between workable theories and pure ideology and dogma (always an ugly omnipresent danger in this game because economics, like accounting, affects peoples monetary interests and often they with the most money have the most power – not necessarily for the best economic welfare and economic health outcomes. That affects all of us. Slavery is still attractive this century if people could get away with it by convincing others it is necessary.).

    But I also recognise the proclivity for those sitting on extremist views of either direction to label those who dont agree with them as “left” or “right” or “nimbeys” or whatever. Its so convenient. Its an attempt to denigrate and box and disregard people’s individual views – also an attempt to get others to disregard particular individual’s views. I object to that.

  6. @wilful
    Wilful – your recollection of my being warned by our host re “ageist or sexist” comments is as incorrect as MU’s. A recollection is not evidence and unless either of you can come up with the warning – your recollection is tantamount to “hearsay” Wilful. I have so such recollection as it never happened.
    I am still waiting for an apology from MU.

  7. So Alice, now there are two witnesses to testify to these specific warnings. If I made it up or it is merely a figment of my imagination, apparently Wilful has exactly the same overactive imagination. What are the chances!

    “I am still waiting for an apology from MU”. Ah yes of course. I apologise for telling the truth and refusing to be bullied into withdrawing an accurate statement.

    Alice, you previously demanded an apology because no-one else answered my challenge to come forward and verify my statement. Now that another reader has verified my version, well, you still want an apology anyway!

  8. @Monkey’s Uncle
    Hearsay from two (Wilful and yourself) who have a tendency to be like minded in their political / economic views?? Hardly evidence is it MU ?? Note I have not labelled either of you right. A common tactic – called in any other words an attempt to silence my views on the futility of tax rises or my reality of the impossibility of the abandonment of old age pensions (and inherently my unwilligness to subscribe to the “lower my income taxes” howlings of certain sectors of the vocal yet minority views amongst us …yet again????)

    Is it not really that which you object to (but would rather cast aspertions that I am being “ageist” or “sexist” and that “I have been warned by the host before for such transgressions?

    Utterly ridiculous and utterly false. It is both of you (Wilful and yourself) who should be warned here for telling blatant lies.

    Back to the topic MU. No I dont think pensions or welfare should be abandoned. No I dont think income taxes should be lowered (again). Yes I do think we will arrive at the point where income taxes need to be raised. I already think they should. There are too many public services in a mess and no I dont think the private sector “is more efficient” or “does it better” or “will provide.”

  9. @wilful
    So Wilful – agrees with Terje that I belong to “their interpretation of the broad church of the left.”

    Idiots. I am a centrist. Neither you or Terje can get your head around that precisely because in your opinion “anyone not extremely right belongs to the broad church of the left” ipso facto is “left” ipso facto can be thrown into the “left group” ipso facto can be disposed with as “left”.

    You know – I dont suppose you realise how such idiot views get me mightily ticked off. No subtlety. No panache. No sophistication. No elegance and no style. But you have your have your labels and your name calling to fall back on.

    I dont suppose it ever crossed your minds to wonder why the green vote is growing – not with more lefties but with more middle liners like me getting heartily sick of the excess of hard right wing policies in both liberal and labour. Ask your politicial leaders to pay close attention to that. Its called a backlash. It happens when the movement pushes too far in a direction the majority dont like or want. Its why the liberals dont poll well these days and why they lost the election.

  10. Alice – it is a bit rich you complaining about being labled. A bit like the pot calling the kettle black. And MU is right you have been warned off before for racist and sexist remarks. On several occassions you have sought to disparage the views of people on the basis that they are old white males, or sometimes young white males. If you are anti male or anti white you should keep your phobias in check and cease with the bigotry. The colour of somebodies skin or their gender shouldn’t be a factor in the worth of their ideas or opinions. And to attempt to drive somebody out of a debate by casting aspertions about their race or gender is quite appalling behaviour.

  11. @Andrew Reynolds
    Deal with this Andy

    Id rather have a rise in income tax and publicly provided essentials like electricity. If you dont think State Labor is hard right and inept because of it – tell me how the privatisation of electricity retailers and IPARTS lovely approval foe electricity price rises is a benefit of competition? These price rises in NSW will decimate all those lovely competitive small businesses you libertarian types want to encourage. Your low income tax pro privatisation views are a sham and they undo the very thing you want (flourishing small businesses).

    Thats quite apart from my centrist views that they also impose unnecessary hardship on hardworking families. They also undo the effects of Rudd stimulus program. They also place excessive power in the hands of private electricity companies. In short the neoliberal ideologies of State Labor are there for all to see and the stench is unmistakeable. Just wait for the election Andy if you dont think a whole lot of centrists and moderates like myself do not switch to get rid of the stench of right wing madness in NSW politics.

  12. @Andrew Reynolds

    anyone that thinks that the ALP is “hard right” (whatever that means) is, ipso facto, not a centrist

    Unless of course the ALP really is hard right … in which case they might be. Your whatever that means obscures the most important point, as it goes to the space for counter-defining oneself as a centrist in opposition to a “hard right” ALP.

    For the record, I don’t agree that the ALP can fairly be called “hard right”. Its dominant fraction is fairly bog-standard conservative on most economic and social questions. Certainly, it is not comparable politically to the US Republicans and it is somewhat less conservative on at least some economic and social questions that the regime it replaced. Its more liberal communitarian members are also somewhat more numerous and influential in policy than is the case with the Liberal-National coalition.

    As far as I can tell, Alice favours an even more communitarian and liberal approach than is by and large explicitly foreshadowed by those more liberal elements of the ALP. Whether this makes her a leftist is harder to say. She may well be entitled to call herself a centrist, as the term is not absolutely definable. It tends always to be defined relatively.

  13. Alice, as far as you being a centrist you have said on previous occasions that you are happy to have top marginal tax rates of 90%. If that is a “centrist” position I suppose those extreme right-wingers you complain of must be people who believe in having a top tax rate of 85% then.

    “Back to the topic MU. No I dont think pensions or welfare should be abandoned.”

    This is a complete straw man, as I never suggested that aged pensions should be abandoned. I merely suggested the age at which people qualify should be raised along with the aging population, and that we should ensure dependence on the age pension does not become too high. I never suggested for one moment that that there should be no safety net for those too old to work who lack sufficient retirement funds.

    You also accuse others of simply labelling your views ‘left’ as a form of cheap name-calling. The reality is that you employ these tactics more than anyone else. Anyone who disagrees with you is an extreme right-winger. In reality, I am not particularly right wing. I tend to be more fiscally conservative but more liberal on social and moral issues like abortion rights, euthanasia, drug law reform, civil liberties etc. In reality I am more of a pragmatist and a centrist, while you are a hard left reflexive ideologue.

  14. Oh and Alice there are now three witnesses to you being given these warnings. And to suggest Wilful is not a reliable witness as he is somehow more ideologically sympathetic to my views is to take silliness to new levels.

  15. Andrew Reynolds :
    Sorry, Alice, but anyone that thinks that the ALP is “hard right” (whatever that means) is, ipso facto, not a centrist. Deal with it.

    I don’t know what your knowledge of the ALP is.

    But the fact is the ALP became pretty much ‘hard right’ at the Terrigal conference and in its national executive interventions subsequently.

    The trickery of promising unions a “prices and incomes” accord but only delivering on wages, is evidence of a hard right agenda. Keating delivering for banks in the 1980’s was a hard right economic agenda.

    The corrupt antics of ALP right in the states (eg WA Inc), are clear monikers of a hard right agenda.

    The manipulations by Catholic groups within rightwing unions also points to hard right corruption.

    They ALP right may not be fascists but they stink just the same.

    Fortunately the hard right, anti-abortion, yankee flag waving fanatics, have been knocked out of ALP preselection in the ACT for the next federal election.

    But they can still have their soirees at the US embassy, can’t they.

  16. @Monkey’s Uncle
    More made up stories MU….”you have said on previous occasions that you are happy to have top marginal tax rates of 90%”? You are having a field day with fantasy..but having said that I think the top should pay double the income taxes they pay now. It worked well in the post war years until the idiocy implicit in neo liberal ideologies (hich y0ou appear largely to pander to on most occasions MU – so as for calling yourself a centrist I would disagree) sold the developed world a crock called trickle down and cut the taxes on top income earners and basically contributed to a near collapse if global financial systems.
    As for three witnesses – I call you the three amigos. Terje apaprently made numerous posts before his memory kicked in. Yours was defective to start with and none of you can locate the so called “warning from the host about me being either “ageist” or “sexist”.”

    Id call that a nice little set attempt to cast doubt on me, label me “hard left” now is it MU??
    Im getting harder left by the day according to you and your three buddies.

    But MU – all three of you have history here as being disagreed with more often than you are ever agreed with on balance and history of being supporters of neo liberal conservative pro private sector ideologies. In particular Terje.

    Tell that to small business and average and above average Australians living in NSW who are now about to be robbed blind by private sector electricity retailers and the NSW Labor Govt. But gto my mind its people just like you three who have been championing the push for greed by governments along with lower taxes for some and much higher prices for the majority trying to work hard, build businesses and be productive.

    Yes it will become futile to resist tax increases to correct the mess the policies you (and your friends) have probably spent years pushing have now created. And no Im not “hard left” for saying so…. and neither am I “ageist” or “sexist” and nor am I any other kind of “nutter” or “pat label” you people want to come up with. Maybe you forgot “Greenie” or “militant feminist” or “nimbey” or one of “Quiggins Quols” or the numerous little name calling efforts developed by those affronted by the idea that they may have to pay a little income tax.

    Had you and your type not agitated and gained such generous tax concessions over the past three decades we would not be in the mess we are in now with their failed policies and failed ideas, which have cost us dearly and will continue to cost us all dearly.

  17. Alice, you’ve got no effing idea of my ideology, and you’re the one busy throwing around labels. My strong criticism of you relates to your incredibly offensive and aggressive attacking style, which gets in the way of an reasonable debate around here. You’re so busy pigeonholing everyone and defending yourself from being pigeonholed that I basically ignore everything you have to say.

    To repeat what I said before, now that I’ve called you out on this, as have several others, and our host, who’s warned you plenty of times, you think I’m some capitalist running dog pig scum, which really is not the case.

    You are completely deaf to this, I realise. But maybe if enough people tell you you’ll get a tiny bit self-reflective about your behaviour around here.

  18. @wilful
    Oh pardon me Wilful – the third musketeer is back for another go? Put up the evidence Wilful or pass. You were the first to recall “the hosts admonition for my “ageist” and “sexist” comments.

    Dont push me Wilful. I might get admonished for challenging the delusions of delusionsists.

  19. Wilful – you were the second to recall such an admonition and Terje was the third and not one of you has much credibility here because so far, you cant find such an admonition (because it doesnt exist and never existed except in your own fertile imaginations and hopes) and I could call on the host to admonish you for faulty and entirely false accusations but I have not which says more about my grace than yours.

    I am owed the apology here. I dont like people who dont tell the truth Wilful and that includes you.

  20. @wilful

    “Others (e.g. you Terje), please don’t generalise Alice’s comments to the ‘left’ (whatever that means these days), you know she’s not here representing anyone other than herself (nor are any of us).”


    Terje responded…

    “However even if Alice does not represent all of the left she is clearly of the left.”

    You Wilful responded

    “It’s a broad church…”

    Now who is labelling who around here? It really is about time people called you and Terje and MU on this sort of thing because it is not acceptable. I have my views and I have been called “ageist”, “sexist”, “left”, “aggressive”, for defending my views

    which btw dont include raising the pension age and which do include rasining income taxes and providing essential services through public funding (because it is costing all of us more to go down the privatisation road).

    Thats what you really dont like Wilful…not my style…not my “left” politics.not my eitiquette..just my views that you dont agree with.

    Well Wilful, too bad.

    I am still owed and apology and Im still owed some civility. This is an economics blog – not group therapy according to three neo liberals (and yes – seeing as you throw me to into to the basket labelled left – Ill throw you in with the basket labelled neo liberals – unthinking neo liberals I might add but thats not unusual – economics hasnt been about thinking for three decades).

  21. Alice, please remember, one comment/thread/day

    Everyone, please discuss the substantive issue and avoid attacking each other

  22. Alice, please take a couple of days off. I don’t have time to referee these disputes, so I’m closing this thread – JQ

  23. Peter T :
    BTW, pensions were invented when it was obvious that previous community systems (parish relief as a backstop, but the obligation on landowners and families to provide) had irretrievably broken down. Old age is not new.

    Actually, there’s a fair bit of evidence that the “previous community systems” were those provided by Church institutions, and that they didn’t break down but were forcibly removed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries etc. That is, replacement systems never quite grew enough to take up the slack, and ad hoc stuff like noblesse oblige, family support and poor relief only partly met the need (particularly since private resources were also being removed from the poorer groups all along, what with enclosures etc.). Certainly Disraeli traced the damage back to the Tudor period, in asides in his 19th century novel Sybil.

  24. jquiggin :
    Alice, please remember, one comment/thread/day
    Everyone, please discuss the substantive issue and avoid attacking each other

    I’d like to remind people that I suggested incremental and gradual increases in pension age a while back, here (see also this, for broader tax reform suggestions). However, I also proposed that there should be an actuarially matched, incremental and gradual lowering of an age-related income tax break, to allow people the chance to increase their private and personal provision for retirement (otherwise, people coming up to a receding entitlement age would face greater burdens than those of earlier and later generations).

    The object of the exercise was not to force increases in retirement age but to phase out state provision of retirement needs, turning the state element into a long stop and allowing constructive use of the funds instead (letting people invest them to generate real support for later needs). Neither I nor others contemplate just making life harder for at least some, but rearranging the load so it can be managed better – which includes making investments to support the needs. Yes, under present circumstances simply cutting benefits would be harmful, but that’s because of an “other things being equal” problem. The idea is to change those other things too, using an incremental approach that allows that to be done. Engineering out a need is both morally and practically different from just ceasing to cater to it, and in fact it is both morally and practically better than continuing to cater to it – even though just ceasing to cater to it is far worse than continuing to cater to it. But it is not that last false dilemma that is at issue here.

  25. PM Lawrence

    The monasteries went in England in the 1550s. The Poor Law/Parish Relief arrangements were under obvious strain from the early 1800s. There is a gap of 250 years. You also need to consider France, Holland and western Germany. It wasn’t just the church – there were also lots of informal but effective social arrangements.

    The issue with universal or near-universal private arrangements is the temptation – never for long resisted – for those managing the money to divert increasing proportions their way – in fees, investment in their own and their friends activities, and various sleights of hand. This in turn requires detailed and effective supervision, which breeds more elaborate gaming together with diversion of effort into undermining regulation and so on. Familiar story? Leaving private support to the well-off and concentrating public support on most people seems a more stable long-run policy. This does not preclude encouraged or enforced saving in publicly-managed funds (as with the public sector schemes or the industry funds).

  26. It’s simply a matter of who is best placed to manage the risk. The government can and does allow most people to manage their own risk quite effectively and with all sorts of tax breaks. However, life is too uncertain and there are too many vagaries, so having a modest but not degrading income support system at the end of your life for those who’ve failed to manage the risk adequately is the least society can offer.

  27. Peter T :
    The monasteries went in England in the 1550s. The Poor Law/Parish Relief arrangements were under obvious strain from the early 1800s. There is a gap of 250 years. You also need to consider France, Holland and western Germany. It wasn’t just the church – there were also lots of informal but effective social arrangements.

    I haven’t got my point over. There wasn’t a gap of 250 years in shortfalls of informal and formal systems. Rather, adequacy of those arrangements ended with their main support, church systems, in the early Tudor period. They were replaced in part a generation or so later, by the Elizabethan Poor Law. That held up reasonably in practice until the Civil War, but with hindsight it wasn’t strong enough to carry loads it might face, loads which started to build up in the late 17th century and which left widespread poverty for small but increasing numbers from the early 18th century. It was just that it wasn’t until the 19th century that it was seen to have failed. Likewise, informal support didn’t take up the load, possibly because it was a period of change with yet further loads being added faster than adaptation could occur.

    So the point I was making was that the last time there had been an adequate system was the early Tudor period, and the gap wasn’t one in which other things did that job, it was a gap in which ad hoc arrangements were tried but failed progressively until they were completely overloaded and unworkable – even though failure was incipient and small rather than actual and large for most of the gap, there was still no adequate system.

  28. However, life is too uncertain and there are too many vagaries, so having a modest but not degrading income support system at the end of your life for those who’ve failed to manage the risk adequately is the least society can offer

    I think we ought to have a modest income support system for all people irrespective of age. And that is the package we (the LDP) took to the last election when we argued for a phased end to the aged pension. We proposed a negative income tax but you could achieve a similar thing with a universal social wage.

  29. TerjeP, Wilful, space does not permit me to show the workings, but my own research has indicated that a negative income tax/universal social wage is only workable when it is set at a level far enough below survival levels that, over the whole of life, people still have to work to make ends meet but high enough that they can all price themselves into work and still survive. (In a Malthusian catastrophe the floor comes up to meet the ceiling and this cannot be done.) This means that a workable system along those lines cannot be a direct replacement for current benefits which are enough to survive on, and in particular it cannot be simply a pension by another name for the old. Under such a system, the old would have to have other resources built up when they were younger, which in turn means that it would need a slow transition to allow that to come about. A long stop arrangement would be needed too, to stop isolated anomalies letting some people fall through the cracks.

    That’s a large part of why my own suggestions (referred to above) were for a support system that would act more quickly than a negative income tax/universal social wage, i.e. a negative payroll tax, and a transitional method that would be age related to avoid confronting any age groups with insurmountable hurdles.

  30. PM Lawrence

    Think you need to look more closely at the history. Poverty and associated lawlessness were a major social concern in Elizabethan times, much less so by the early 18th century (effectively as a result of demographic and economic changes which raised labourer’s wages and reduced pressure on land), then started to rise again after c 1750.

    My point about 250 years is that policy lifetimes don’t change that much – this is too long a span to be considered an interim.

    Your point about the monasteries is valid, but the linchpin of arrangements in the 18th century was the squire, who coordinated and supported the arrangements of the village community- and was expected to put in both direct support and rent relief, and use his connections to arrange county or central government support. If you read the inquiries into the Irish famine, for instance, you find English governbments asking “where are the landlords and why are they not doing their job?” – not realising (or wanting to realise) that rack-renting Irish absentee landlords were not tied into the same social and political arrangements as English ones.

    My larger point is that complex social arrangements like support for the aged have to start from where you are socially and economically, and will have many different elements. Schemes that seem to assume a blank slate are not, to my mind, likely to do very well.

  31. Hadn’t checked this thread before: worth it just for more the malignant nonsenses from the likes of Terje and Reynolds; stock-standard Murdoch-ese.

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