Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Don't believe all you're told about bracket creep

Beware of treasurers promising to protect you from the ravages of bracket creep. They're like Mafia bosses promising to protect you from robbers and thieves. Maybe they're offering something nice, or maybe they're working some kind of con.

Joe Hockey's speech about tax reform on Monday was more an advert than a policy announcement. He said the government would have to do something about the evil of bracket creep, but didn't say what or when, nor how it would be paid for.

The firmest we got was a hint that the Abbott government would go to the election next year promising a tax reform package involving a cut in income tax.

Hockey explained that "bracket creep occurs when people are pushed into higher tax brackets as a result of inflation and rising wages". Not quite right, but near enough.

Hockey warned that the average income earner on about $77,000 a year is just below the second highest tax bracket of 37¢ in the dollar, which kicks in above $80,000.

He estimates that, if nothing is done in the next two years, about 300,000 people will move into that bracket. And if nothing were done in the next 10 years, more than 40 per cent of taxpayers would be in the top two tax brackets. (Remember that the rate you pay on the last part of your income is much higher than the average rate you pay on all your income. Those on just over $80,000 pay an average rate of 22¢ in the dollar.)

The truth is, all treasurers have form when it comes to bracket creep. It can be prevented easily by increasing the four bracket limits once a year in line with the inflation rate. Malcolm Fraser and John Howard tried this in the late 1970s, but soon gave up.

Why? Because it delivered annual tax cuts that were too small and too mechanical for voters to notice and be grateful for. Much better to let bracket creep rip for three years or so, then have a bigger tax cut just before or after an election.

Every year that bracket limits aren't raised, the treasurer is knowingly letting brackets creep up, unless he (or one day, she) grants discretionary tax cuts. With help from Wayne Swan, Peter Costello delivered eight such tax cuts in a row between 2003 and 2010.

Those discretionary cuts cut a lot deeper and cost a lot more than eight years of "tax indexation" as we called it. They were part of the excesses of the resources boom and turned out to be far more generous than we could afford – as we realised after falling coal and iron ore prices started slashing company tax collections.

This is why, since 2010, successive governments have let bracket creep rip. They're trying to increase income tax collections so they play their part in getting the budget back into surplus. We've had our fun, now we're suffering the hangover.

This means the man who now professes to be so concerned to end bracket creep is the same man who used projections of years of further creep in this year's budget to prove he was getting on top of the deficit.

If you think that sounds a bit sus, try this. The low and middle-income earners suffering most from bracket creep at present, weren't the taxpayers who gained most from the eight tax cuts – those were the high income-earners (such as yours truly).

If alleviating bracket creep was Hockey's true motivation for wanting tax cuts, his response would be simple: leave the rates of income tax unchanged, just raise the bracket limits by as much as you could afford.

But in his next breath Hockey was arguing that the top tax rate – 45¢ in the dollar – which cuts in when incomes hit $180,000 a year, was far too high and needed cutting.

See the scope for trickery? Justify tax cuts by telling the majority of voters on low and middle incomes how tough they're doing it, then give most relief to high-income earners again. Lawyers call it "bait and switch".

Hockey is right in arguing that (thanks mainly to the bias in the eight tax cuts), bracket creep hits low and middle-income earners proportionately harder that it hits high-income earners, thus making bracket creep "regressive".

But this raises an obvious question: how would the tax cuts be paid for? Could we be sure the cure wasn't worse than the disease? Assuming Hockey wouldn't have the effrontery to allow them simply to add to the budget deficit, one way would be for their cost to be covered by (massive) cuts in government spending.

We know from his first budget that this would rebound on the very low and middle-income earners he was purporting to help.

But it's a reasonable bet Hockey is hoping for a deal in which the cost of the cuts in income tax is covered by an increase in the rate of the goods and services tax.

Trouble is, the GST is also regressive. And a recent paper by Professor Patricia Apps, of the University of Sydney, demonstrates that an increase in the GST would be more regressive than the bracket creep it corrected. Why? Because it would hit all those people whose incomes were below the income tax threshold.

Beware of treasurers promising to protect you from bracket creep.