Saturday, May 14, 2016

How the budget stacks up as tax reform

When politicians announce a tax cut to be delivered after they've been re-elected, there are no prizes for guessing it's an electoral bribe. But they never fail to sanctify the exercise by assuring the lucky recipients that the money they're getting will do wonders for the economy.

Malcolm Turnbull is going into this election promising a pathetically small tax cut to the top quarter of taxpayers, which starts – officially, anyway – the day before the election.

Plus a one-sixth cut in the rate of company tax that's to be phased in over the next decade, starting small and ending big.

Company tax will be cut because Turnbull & Co Ava Plan to help Jobson Grothe​.

Which sounds nice. But is it good enough?

Before the last election, Tony Abbott promised to devote his first term to laying the ground for major tax reform. There'd be a full inquiry – with no restrictions on what could be considered – a green (discussion) paper and finally a white paper setting out exactly what the government planned to do in its second term if re-elected.

So we're entitled to view the tax measures announced in the budget against the major renovation we were promised.

How does the budget stack up as an exercise in tax reform? How does it measure up against the two big reform criteria of efficiency and equity (fairness)?

Well, the budget contained five big tax measures, but they don't add up to an integrated whole.

First is the tiny tax cut, which will have an annual cost of about $1 billion, and a combined cost of almost $4 billion over the four years of the "forward estimates" shown in the budget.

Then there's the plan to slowly cut the company tax rate from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, but starting with small business and working up in size, not getting to big business until 2024-25 and reaching the finishing line in 2026-27.

This will cost $700 million in the budget year, 2016-17, rising to $1.7 billion by the last year of the forward estimates, and costing $5.3 billion over the first four years.

We've subsequently been told (reluctantly) that, by 2026-27, the total cost of the phase-in will be just a fraction higher at $48.2 billion. Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics estimates that, by then, the annual cost of the full cut will be $16 billion. Not cheap.

Helping to cover the cost of these personal and corporate tax cuts will be a big rise in the excise on tobacco (raising $5.2 billion over four years), the crackdown on multinationals' tax avoidance (raising about a net $3.3 billion over four years), and the net saving from various reforms of superannuation tax concessions ($3.2 billion over four years).

Let's start with equity: how do the tax measures affect the distribution of income between rich and poor households?

Since the tiny tax cut ($6 a week) goes to only the top quarter of income earners, it's "regressive" (reducing high earners' average tax rate by a higher proportion than low earners' average rate). But, obviously, not by much.

On the other hand, the superannuation changes hit the top few per cent of fund members quite hard, then give about half of those savings to members with lower incomes, particularly women. So, quite "progressive".

Strictly speaking, taxes on tobacco are highly regressive – and getting more so as the better paid give up smoking or never take it up.

But is discouraging poor people from smoking doing them harm? Not in my book.

It's a lot harder than you may imagine to determine whether cuts in company tax and reduced tax avoidance by multinational companies are progressive or regressive.

But I'll unpick that knot on another day so we can move on to efficiency. An economically efficient tax system is one that raises the revenue we need with least distortion of the choices each of us makes about working, spending, saving and investing.

Since most taxes do have effects on our choices, the efficiency objective is about choosing the combination of taxes that does least to affect them.

It's a stretch to imagine the tiny tax cut will have much effect on incentives.

And despite the government's claims about the fabulously beneficial effects of the company tax cut, if you actually read its own modelling you discover the benefits are tiny – and would take 30 years to arrive.

People hit by the super changes will tell you they'd discourage saving, but don't believe them. Their effect – if any – will be on which tax-preferred vehicle wealthy people use for their saving. Studies show high income-earners save a lot of their income regardless of the incentives offered.

But there's a class of taxes that are consciously used to discourage certain forms of behaviour. High taxes on tobacco are an example. So is a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide.

And there's another small class of taxes that can't distort behaviour because they tax only "economic rent" – the profits or other benefits people enjoy that are in excess of the returns they need to keep them doing whatever it is they've been doing.

A good example is a resource rent tax. Another is a tax on the unimproved value of land.

Judged as tax reform, this budget does little to improve efficiency by shifting the mix of taxes away from taxing "goods" (such as work) to taxing "bads" (such as pollution). Nor has it done anything to shift towards taxes than don't distort behaviour.

Though one of its first acts was to abolish a tax on a bad – the carbon tax – and a tax designed not to distort choices – the mining tax – the government has done little to replace them with anything better.

This budget is a plan for jobs and growth? Only at the rhetorical level.