I’ve been asked a few times about the Grattan Institute’s new report Balancing budgets: tough choices we need. It’s a substantial piece of work, and isn’t driven by a partisan agenda or special interest lobbying. On the other hand, I disagree strongly with the implicit criterion for policy design. This is nowhere spelt out, but the analysis is clearly driven by the following rule: seek policies that maximize GDP growth, subject to the constraint that the poorest (bottom 20 per cent of) households should not be made worse off.
This is most evident in the recommendation to remove the GST exemption for fresh food and use some of the proceeds to compensate the poorest 20 per cent of households. Let’s compare this with the alternative of raising income tax rates for high income earners (say, the top 20 per cent). By design, neither proposal has much net effect on the poorest 20 per cent. But the food tax falls mostly on the middle 60 per cent of households, since the top 20 per cent don’t spend much more on fresh food than the middle income group. It’s true that the cost of raising money through income tax is higher (Grattan uses an estimated cost of 25 per cent of the gross revenue) than for a food tax (5-10 per cent). But let’s spell this out a bit. Suppose you need to raise $500 in net revenue (roughly speaking what you’d get from the food tax for a household spending $100 a week). Would it be better to impose the tax on Gina Rinehart (in which case, taking account of the economic costs of collecting the tax, you’d have to raise an extra $100 or so compared to the food tax) or on one of her employees. If you regard Rinehart as an extreme example, take the choice between taxing a university professor (definitely in the top 20 per cent) or a campus worker such as a gardener or cleaner (not in the top 20 per cent, but normally not in the bottom 20 either, since this group consists almost entirely of people on pensions and benefits).
The fact is that Howard’s tax cuts, mostly carried on by Labor, used the temporary proceeds of the mining boom to permanently increase the after-tax income of the top 20 per cent. That’s the biggest single cause of the budget problems identified by the Grattan Institute, and the first thing that needs to change if we are to fix those problems.