Saturday, May 5, 2018

Will tax cuts boost the economy? Yes - and no

When politicians seek to win elections by promising tax cuts, they invariably cloak the inducement by claiming it will do wonders for the economy. You’re not accepting a bribe, you’re helping improve things for all of us.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has said that next week’s budget will include cuts in income tax for low and middle income-earners – presumably, to be delivered sometime after the next election. Labor will also be promising tax cuts at the election.

According to Morrison: “Lower taxes will further strengthen our economy to create more jobs.”

But can you believe it? In a narrow, immediate sense, yes.

Particularly at a time when the growth in wages is so weak, low and middle income-earners are likely to spend much of any tax cut that comes their way.

Since the tax cut will be unfunded – that is, it will cause the budget deficit to be higher than otherwise – this increase in consumer spending is likely to add to employment.

But that’s not saying much. If the same increase in the deficit was caused by an increase in government spending, that too would create jobs somewhere in the economy.

So it’s a higher deficit, not lower taxes, that does the trick. It does so at the cost of higher government debt and interest payments, which will have to be paid for later.

As a solution to weak growth in wages, it’s a Band-Aid.

But Morrison’s on about more than just giving the economy a temporary kick-along. He’s arguing that lower taxes make the economy grow better, whereas higher taxes slow it down and cause it to malfunction.

Because, as well as its version of a tax cut, Labor has plans to reduce various tax concessions and so increase tax collections overall, Morrison is arguing that whereas his tax plan would improve the economy’s functioning, Labor’s plan would worsen it.

Now, can you believe that? Well, it makes perfect sense to many big taxpayers. Surely higher taxes discourage people from working as much and from saving as much.

But though it seems obvious, the empirical evidence in support of the theory is surprisingly limited, as the former senior econocrat, Dr Michael Keating, and Professor Stephen Bell, argue in their new book, Fair Share.

They say it’s reasonable to suppose that if taxation is increased beyond a certain limit, it could reduce the rate of economic growth and thereby reduce the government’s capacity to pay for its present activities.

However, they say, “there is little evidence to suggest that most countries are close to the limit after which tax increases would impact negatively on economic growth and be counterproductive”.

If you compare all the developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development over the last 25 years, you find no simple relationship between the level of taxation and their rate of improvement in productivity.

Despite very big differences in levels of taxation as a percentage of the economy, rates of productivity improvement are similar – suggesting worldwide advances in technology are far more influential that tax levels.

As well, the authors say, taxation’s effect on economic growth depends not just its level, but on the “mix” of different taxes (some are better than others) and also on what you spend the tax revenue on. Spending on education and training, innovation and productive infrastructure could be expected to increase productivity.

Next, if we look more directly at the impact of rates of income tax on willingness to work, the evidence of an adverse effect isn’t strong, they say.

Simple observation reminds us that, in Australia and many other countries, where the top “marginal” tax rate has been cut markedly over the past three or four decades (I used to pay 60¢ in the dollar in the early 1980s), there’s been no noticeable effect on participation in the workforce, nor on the number of hours worked by top people.

Formal economic studies reach similar conclusions. Much US research has found that tax has a weak effect on hours worked by those already in jobs, though the effect on decisions to work is a little stronger.

The US research shows male rates of participation and hours worked are especially insensitive to tax rates, with the strongest effects on married women. This is generally supported by the limited Australian research.

And whereas everyone assumes it's people on the highest marginal tax rate who’ll be most affected, research shows the impact is small. The biggest effect is on mothers deciding when to return to work, or whether to move from part-time to full-time.

Why? Because "secondary earners" (including Mr Mums) have more choice than "primary earners".

As for the effect of tax rates on the desire to save, it too is small. Since different ways of saving are taxed differently (a bank account versus superannuation versus geared investments), the main effect of a tax change is on people’s choice of those different ways.

The main reason popular opinion differs so much from empirical reality is that changes in tax rates have two effects, which work in opposite directions.

Economists call the one everyone focuses on the “substitution effect”. Raising the tax on doing an hour of work makes it less attractive relative to an hour of not working (“leisure”). This creates a monetary incentive to work less (or save less, for that matter).

What people forget is the “income effect”. Raising the tax on a given amount of work means it now yields less income. This creates a monetary incentive to work more so as to stop your income falling. (Or save more to stop your savings growing more slowly.)

Whether the substitution effect is stronger than the income effect is an empirical question – it can’t be answered from theory. The income effect is strong when people have targets for how much they want to earn or to save (for their retirement, say).

We’ll spend coming weeks hearing a lot about the disincentive effects of higher taxes. Much of it will be hot air.