Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Give and take: The new tax is a piece of cake

Years ago, the Keating government had a problem with pensioners wasting taxpayers' money on prescriptions. Knowing their elderly patients got their prescriptions free, doctors were happily issuing ones their patients might or might not end up needing and pensioners were taking them to the chemist and getting them filled, just in case. Many of these often very expensive drugs were not used.

So the government decided to impose a nominal fee on pensioner prescriptions of $2 a pop, just to make people think twice about whether they'd be needed. But, anxious though it was to save big money by reducing the waste of taxpayer-subsidised pharmaceuticals, the government had no desire to leave pensioners out of pocket. It worked out the average number of prescriptions pensioners had filled, multiplied it by $2, and increased pensions by that amount.

I dredge up this story because it may help you understand something about Julia Gillard's planned carbon tax that many people find puzzling.

If Gillard is imposing a carbon tax to raise the price of electricity and gas, with some flow through to the prices of other items, so as to discourage us from using so much fossil fuel, why is she undoing the effect by giving us back most of the tax we'll pay as cuts in income tax and increases in pensions and family benefits?

What's the point of this money-go-round, as Tony Abbott calls it? How can it do any good?

Though the carbon tax will raise about $9 billion a year in revenue, raising revenue is not its primary purpose. Rather, its purpose is to change people's behaviour. And one of the most basic ideas in economics is that the best way to change people's behaviour is to change the prices they face. If there's some activity you wish to discourage, raise its price relative to all the other prices people pay.

When, after a cyclone, the price of bananas shoots up relative to the prices of other fruit, people tend to buy fewer bananas and more apples and oranges. When the price of beef rises more than other meat, people buy less beef and more chicken.

The thinking is that if you raise the price of fossil fuels and emissions-intensive goods relative to the prices of all the other things people buy, they'll change their spending in ways that reduce the use of fossil fuels.

It's not necessary to leave people worse off to get them to change their spending patterns. And since the primary purpose of the carbon tax is to change relative prices rather than to raise revenue, you may as well return the revenue to people by cutting income tax and increasing benefits.

(You can't give back all the revenue because you're using part of it for other purposes, so you favour low- and middle-income households and let higher-income households take it on the chin. Since your calculations about how much the carbon tax will cost people are based on averages, and not everyone fits the average, you give low-income households a bit more than the average so fewer of them are undercompensated.)

Now, you may say finding ways to cut your use of electricity and gas isn't as simple as buying apples rather than bananas, and you'd be right. There are ways to reduce energy use around the house, but I suspect the main way people will respond is by buying a more energy-efficient model the next time they're replacing an appliance.

If you think no amount of energy saving in the home is likely to bring about the degree of reduction in fossil fuel use we needed to achieve, you'd also be right.

People have an automatic tendency to apply government moves such as this to themselves and their homes but, in fact, the relative price change is directed mainly at the big industrial users of electricity and, more particularly, the generators of electricity.

It's when their existing power stations come to the end of their useful lives and are replaced by less-polluting generators that the big steps forward will be made.

The government claims the changes it will make to the income tax scale - lifting the tax-free threshold from $6000 a year to $18,200 - is a major reform, meaning about a million people will no longer have to submit tax returns.

Tony Abbott counters that it's a terrible change: "This is the first time in a generation that marginal tax rates have been increased." The bottom tax rate of 15 per cent is to be increased to 19 per cent, and the second rate of 30 per cent increased to 32.5 per cent.

Both sides are playing on the public's ignorance of the complexities of the tax system, in particular the operation of the "low-income tax offset" of $1500 a year, which lifts the present effective tax-free threshold from $6000 to $16,000, but is then clawed back after people's incomes exceed $30,000 a year, at the rate of 4? in the dollar.

Under the new arrangement, this offset will be cut to $445 a year and its rate of withdrawal cut to 1.5? in the dollar. When you take this into account, Labor's grand reform becomes a minor reform. Most of the million people aren't paying tax under the present system, they just have to put in a return to claim the offset.

As for Abbott, the change will involve no increase in anyone's effective marginal tax rate. All it means is that the hidden 4 per cent rate at which the offset is withdrawn will no longer be hidden.

The carbon tax is neither as good as Gillard claims nor as bad as Abbott claims. Funny, that.