Is an emissions trading scheme a carbon tax?

I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:

The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.

There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.

Sea change

Maybe it’s my chronic over-optimism, but it seems to me as if there has been a sudden change in the long-sputtering debate about taxation in Australia. Until a few weeks ago, “tax reform” was, as it had long been, code a “tax mix switch” which in turn was code for “tax food and use the proceeds to cut the company tax rate or the top marginal rate of taxation”. Joe Hockey was still pushing the second part of this package only a week ago.

But the reports coming out of the recent COAG summit seemed to convey a general acceptance that more tax revenue is needed to fund health expenditure in particular. The two top options were an increase in the rate of GST or an increase in the Medicare levy, with little mention of “base broadening” (more code for taxing food).

Meanwhile, Labor has been talking about a Buffett tax, that is, a minimum rate of tax levied on gross incomes, regardless of deductions. And, while the LNP still assumes that it can win by running against a “carbon tax”, that belief seems to have come unmoored from any general theoretical viewpoint. How can Abbott run against a “great big new tax on everything”, if he is happy to discuss a 50 per cent increase in our existing “great big tax on everything”, the GST?

I’m not clear what has happened to bring this about, or whether I’m misreading the signals. But it certainly looks to me as if the great political taboo against even mentioning higher taxes has been broken.

Balancing the books

I’ve been at the Australian Conference of Economists for the last few days. Today we had presentations from the Queensland Treasurer, Curtis Pitt, who is about to bring down his first budget, and from Commonwealth Treasury Secretary, John Fraser.

Curtis Pitt’s big announcement was a rearrangement of debt and equity in Government Owned Corporations, increasing their borrowing and transferring the resulting equity to the general government balance sheet. The result is a $4 billion reduction in general government debt, part of a program to bring the debt/revenue ratio down to around 70 per cent.

A transfer like this doesn’t make any difference to the state’s net financial position. Bu it makes the point that publicly owned assets are assets, not liabilities, and the fact that we own them makes the state’s position stronger. As long as the higher gearing ratio is commercially sensible and the debt can be serviced out of GOC earnings, there’s no reason not to use this to improve measures of general government debt.

Privatisation also makes no difference to the net position, assuming assets are sold at their value in continued public ownership, and the proceeds are used to pay down debt. However, the StrongChoices plan put by the LNP at the last election, would have dissipated around half of the sale proceeds on pork-barrel projects (to be delivered only if the LNP won the seat in question). So, compared to the alternative, Labor’s management is fiscally responsible.

The only measure that is unaffected by balance sheet reshuffles (at least if it is correctly measured) is net worth, and the only way to increase net worth is for income (revenue and asset earnings) to exceed expenditure.

John Fraser’s performance was as expected, which is to say, deeply disappointing. As a colleague sitting at our table remarked, he came across as a politician not a Treasury secretary. Fraser repeated the Henry Review’s criticism of stamp duties and the case for not taxing mobile capital. But when I asked if that meant he supported land taxes, he squibbed the question, waffling on about what a great group of officials he was working with in the states.

The Laffer hypothesis in Australia

I didn’t have time to respond, but the IPA brought Arthur Laffer out to Australia a month or two ago. For those interested, over the fold is a relevant extract from Zombie Economics.

Of rather more concern is the evidence that both the Secretary of the Treasury, John Fraser, and his Deputy for Revenue, Rob Heferen are adherents of the Laffer hypothesis or something very close to it. Fraser gave evidence to the Senate endorsing the Reagan tax cuts (based on Laffer’s hypothesis), while Heferen has claimed that something like 50 per cent of the revenue lost through a company tax cut will be returned through dynamic effects.

Although no issues are ever truly resolved in economics, this informal survey published by Ezra Klein is revealing. Klein asked various people about the tax rate at which revenue would be maximized. His respondents fell into three groups: left/liberal economists, who mostly gave answers around 70 per cent, rightwing pundits with zero credibility who gave answers around 20 per cent, and serious right/centre-right economists, who declined to give a direct answer to the question.

This suggests to me that the debate over the Laffer hypothesis has been won fairly conclusively by the left, and that those on the right would prefer to frame the question in the more defensible (though still, in my opinion, incorrect) claim that we face a long-run trade-off between equality and growth.

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Rethinking tax policy for Australia

The title of this post is taken from that of the recent Treasury Discussions Paper on Tax, entitled Re:Think. Sadly, as I point out in this Guardian piece, there’s very little evidence of rethinking from Treasury. Most of the paper could have been lifted straight from the Asprey Review of 1975, and the sensitivities of the current government have ensured a step backwards from the Henry Review, with carbon taxes and resource rent taxes now off limits.

Undeterred, I’m going to start on my own review. I’m going to try something a little different in blog terms. This post will be updated whenever I get a chance, both with new material and in terms of publication date so that each new version will appear at the top of the homepage, hopefully with the comments being carried with it. I’m putting in some headings, and starting off with an idea I mentioned recently, that of a tax on bank profits

Aggregates: Revenue, expenditure, budget balance, debt and net worth

Revenue options

* A tax on the super-profits of banks, reflecting their privileged position. Tax base $29 billion. Possible revenue $5-10 billion, or 0.3-0.6 per cent of national income/GDP.

* Reforming the treatment of negative gearing “Quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains. Revenue estimate: rising over time to $5 billion a year, or 0.3 per cent of national income/GDP.

Expenditure requirements

Negative gearing

As I mentioned a while back, I’m planning a series of posts on tax policy. Since debate about “negative gearing” has been spurred by the suggestion that Labor might restrict it, this seems like a good time to cover the topic.

I’ll give my summary upfront, then go on. The problem is not negative gearing in itself but its interaction with the concessional treatment of capital gains. There are a variety of solutions, but the best is probably to “quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains.

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