Identity crisis (repost from 2014)

When I posted the following piece two years ago, I didn’t suppose it would be enough to kill the absurd idea that “most Australians pay no net tax”. But, given its obvious kinship with Mitt Romney’s disastrous “47 per cent” catchphrase, I felt sure that hardheads on the political right would kill it off before it lined them up on the losing side of a class war.[1] Not for the first time, I was wrong. So, here’s a reprint.

In the latest issue of Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute Quarterly, Adam Creighton, economics correspondent at the Oz, “explains why most Australians pay no net tax”. That’s a striking conclusion, so I checked it out. Creighton has discovered that most Australians get about as much back in transfer payments and public services as they pay in taxation. The poor get a bit more, and the rich a bit less.

To save Creighton some work in future, can I suggest he consider the budget identity constraint “Expenditure = Income”. Since the government spends on services and transfer payments roughly the same amount as it raises in tax revenue[2], it’s obvious that, for the average Australian the same identity must hold, with income renamed as “tax paid” and expenditure as “transfer payments and public services”.

Next up: Why there is no net travel into the CBD

fn1. Romney wasn’t silly enough to push this line in public. He got caught using it at a donors meeting, when someone secretly filmed him.

fn2. Taking account of the seignorage from inflation, returns on assets, intertemporal transfers through debt etc, this rough equality becomes an identity. Please, no arguments about deficits, and especially about MMT. The point of this post is a really simple, and doesn’t need this kind of complication.

The Oz makes the case for higher taxes

A couple of days ago, I was one of fifty signatories to a letter opposing the proposed cut in company tax rate and rejecting the general idea that Australia needs lower taxes. We got excellent coverage from the ABC, Fairfax papers and so on. But by far the most extensive was from The Australian. I counted at least four stories all with a prominent run on the website

* A straight new story, though of course replete with phrases like “the left wing establishment”
* The IPA attacking the signatories as the “fatuous fifty”
* Shorten also attacking the company tax cut as a recipe for “mayhem”
* A front page piece saying a tax increase is a lazy way of solving our problems

Not so long ago, the Oz would have ignored a statement like this (or stuck it in a short story on the inside pages) with the plausible justification that it’s just a bunch of lefties saying what lefties usually say. The fact that they felt the need to reply over and over is revealing, in two ways.

Read More »

Proof by exhaustion that we need a higher top rate of income tax

Watching the flailing of the Abbott-Hockey-Turnbull-Morrison government on budget policy has been grimly amusing, for those who enjoy politics as theatre. But it has also provided a nice lesson in the policy process, related to an apocryphal[1] story about (IIRC) Thomas Edison. After a thousand or so failed attempts to design a workable filament and design for a lightbulb, Edison was supposedly reproached with discovering nothing, and answered “On the contrary, I’ve discovered 1000 ways that don’t work”.

The AHTM government came to power with the twin slogans “axe the tax” and “fix the debt”, along with a commitment not to cut any public spending that people cared about, and to spend even more on the military than before. That created an obvious problem: how can we bring the budget back into something like balance, given that we have taken on substantial expenditure commitments, and that we can’t rely on bracket creep. To give them credit, they’ve tried just about every answer but one

* First, they tried the standard LNP approach of setting up a Commission of Audit, discovering a budget emergency and breaking promises on spending. That produced the disastrous 2014 Budget, which ended the careers of Abbott and Hockey in due course. Thanks to the backloading of the big cuts, it’s now destroying Turnbull and Morrison. Turnbull has backed off a little way on health, and is still stalling on education. But his disastrous floating of the idea of completely endingFederal funding for state schools means he’ll be in a politically untenable position when he tries to sell smaller cuts, while claiming not to want to kill the sector.

* Second, having killed the carbon and mining taxes, thereby making the deficit even worse, Abbott realised that it would be impossible to claw back the compensating tax cuts given to low income earners.

* Next Abbott called for a tax debate, but ruled out just about everything in advance. Turnbull and Morrison went one better, putting everything on the table, and then killing off each possible option as it ran into trouble. That included the GST, superannuation concessions, the tangle of negative gearing and concessional capital gains taxes, changes to dividend imputation and so on.

* Finally, long after the “all options” discussion was over, Turnbull popped up with the idea of giving income tax back to the states, which lasted all of two days. He is now trying the ludicrous spin that, having rejected his half-baked idea, the states are on their own financially.

So, the government has succeeded in finding lots of approaches that don’t work. The only one left is higher income tax for those who can afford to pay it. The first step would be to maintain the Temporary Budget Repair Levy until the budget is actually repaired. But the real answer is to recognise that the big gainers from the changes in the economy over the past decade or more have been high income earners, and this is the group who need to pay more.

I’m planning to do some proper calculations on this, when I get a little free time.

fn1. Retailing apocryphal stories is anachronistic, now that they can be falsified (or occasionally verified) with a quick Google search. But it’s habitual for old academics, and I regard it as a kind of performance art, like doing a high wire act without a net. In any case, Google is getting less and less useful for anything except selling stuff, so we may have to rely on old skills like memory again.

Refighting World War II

In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend a trillion dollars on fighter plans and submarines. Apparently, there are lots of problems with the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Australia has on order. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking we are, yet again, arming ourselves to refight World War II.

World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world [1]. On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights.

Fighter planes and their pilots still attract most of the attention, and nearly all the glory, in air warfare. But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices: since they see exactly what they have done, the job is apparently much more stressful than that of a fighter pilot. So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars. The specific problems of the F-35 are irrelevant in this context: it will in any case be obsolete by the time it’s delivered.

As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes.

Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.

Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars.

Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.

Having posted this, I’m fully prepared to get a hammering from military buffs who will point out that I have got this or that detail of air and naval warfare wrong. But the idea that detailed knowledge of tech specs or the minor points of military history constitutes expertise is, in this context, quite wrong. In the absence of any significant air or naval warfare within living memory, supposed expertise is about as useful as Scott Morrison’s knowledge of unicorns. The only important thing to know is that, like nearly all military expenditure and nearly all wars, these proposed purchases haven’t been subject to a cost-benefit test and would fail it if they were.

fn1. There’s a case that land warfare has become less frequent, or at least less bloody over time. But it’s hard to tell.

The patrimonial society comes to Australia

Forbes just released its annual list of the ten richest Australians. Of the top eight, four inherited their wealth. The other four range in age from 75 to 85, suggesting that new heirs are likely to be joining the rich list before too long.

This pattern isn’t yet representative of the Australian wealth distribution as a whole, but it is becoming more so. Piketty’s patrimonial society is not far away.

There are a lot of things we can do to promote a more equal distribution of opportunity and outcomes, but a return to taxes on inheritance (preferably levied on the recipient rather than the estate) would be a good start.

Increasing GST: not worth the effort. How about inheritance taxes?

I posted this analysis in December, suggesting that, once the necessary compensation is paid for, an increase in GST wouldn’t be worth the effort. Apparently Treasury modelling (which I haven’t yet located) produces the same conclusion. Given that everything is supposedly on the table, maybe it’s time to look at some new options. An obvious example is inheritance taxes, which raised a fair bit of money before being scrapped in the late 20th century. As the inequality of wealth increases, the case for such taxes becomes every stronger.

Repost

The Grattan Institute has just released a report suggesting that the government should get more revenue from the GST, either by broadening the base to include food, health and education (yielding an extra $17 billion) or by raising the rate to 15 per cent (yielding an extra $27 billion). As you’d expect from Grattan, the analysis is sound and careful. As long as you accept the standard framing of the tax reform debate, in terms of the need to shift from direct to indirect taxation, it is reasonably convincing.

Grattan suggest using 30 per cent of the extra revenue to increase welfare payments and 30 per cent in cutting the bottom two tax rates, thereby compensating low income earners. The overview concludes:

Around 40 per cent of the additional revenue from a higher GST would be left over after welfare increases and tax cuts. At least some will need to go to state governments to help them address their looming hospital funding gap, as the price for their support of the change. This would leave a little – but not much – to reduce the Commonwealth’s budget deficit, or to pay for other tax cuts that promote economic growth.

(emphasis added).

Is that enough to sell the package? I can’t imagine the states going along with a deal like this for less than 20 per cent of the total extra revenue, which implies the Feds are left with 20 per cent, somewhere between $3.5 and $5.5 billion. From a political viewpoint, it’s hard to see this being worth the effort for the Turnbull government, especially with no guarantee of success.

As a comparison, the FBT concession for motor vehicles, reinstated by Tony Abbott costs the budget around $1.5 billion. Exemptions for non-profits, which have been comprehensively rorted, cost at least as much. Add in a few ‘rats and mice” concessions, and the Federal government would have as much as it could get, in net terms, from the Grattan package (Getting rid of the non-profit concession would probably require some compensating expenditure, but the same is true of the health and education concessions under the GST.)

That’s before we get to the elephants: superannuation concessions (also supported by the Grattan report), corporate tax avoidance, land tax and higher income taxes for (say) the top 5 per cent of income earners (reflecting elite opinion, the Grattan report suggests cutting these rates). All of these are hard, but not obviously harder than the GST.

So, why is GST reform at the top of the government’s list? The answer is simple enough. The advocates of reform haven’t had a new idea, on taxation or anything else, in 30 years. They didn’t get the GST out of Keating’s Tax Summit in 1984 and they didn’t get the version they wanted from Howard and Costello in 2000. So, the same old idea keeps on coming up.

More reform threatened

The Turnbull government is apparently keen to undertake more reform, in this case applying to the welfare system. This weekend I saw a couple of media reports, unsourced but apparently based on material supplied by Social Services Minister Christian Porter, based on the “alarming” projection that welfare payments will rise from $154 billion to $270 billion in a decade, more than can be accounted for by inflation and population growth.

A huge dollar figure makes for a scary headline but not for sensible analysis. The prosaic facts underlying this projection are
(a) Welfare payments are dominated by the old age pension
(b) The value age pension increases in real terms over time, since it is linked to earnings
(c) Even allowing for an increased age of eligibility, and more reliance superannuation, the proportion of the population eligible for the old age pension is unlikely to fall

Put these facts together, and it’s virtually certain that the welfare bill will grow broadly in line with national income (usually measured by GDP), and therefore will outstrip growth in population and inflation. Indeed, a quick check suggests a compound rate of growth of about 6 per cent*, almost exactly in line with nominal GDP (assuming 3.5 per cent real growth and 2.5 per cent inflation).

The government’s proposed reforms appear to involve attacks on recipients of welfare in the popular media sense of the term (Jobstart, disability benefits and so on). But the only ways in which the growth rate of the welfare bill can be held much below that of GDP are
(i) Freeze the real value of age pensions, as has been done to Jobstart since the 1990s; or
(ii) Reduce access to the age pension, either by further raising the access age or by tigntening means and assets tests.

* Porter’s briefing apparently suggested 7 per cent, which I can’t replicate. Feel free to check.