Saturday, May 11, 2019

Don't trust pollies to tell you the truth about tax

"You don’t grow the economy by taxing it more,” Scott Morrison declared in the ABC’s election debate. Then his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, claimed the Coalition’s $300 billion in tax cuts would make income tax “more progressive” not less. As a prospective major beneficiary of those cuts, I’d love to believe both claims. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support either.

Meanwhile, higher income-earners should be in no doubt they’ll be paying a lot more tax should Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen come to power and get their plans through the Senate.

Labor plans to reduce the concessional treatment of negative gearing and capital gains, unused franking credits and family trusts, abandon the second and third stages of the $300 billion tax cuts, and increase the top rate of income tax by 2¢ in the dollar for three years.

If the line that “you don’t grow the economy by taxing it more” makes sense to you, you need to think harder. Taken literally, the sensible response to it is, “No one ever said you do”. It’s a non-sequitur – the first part of the sentence doesn’t fit with the last part.

Morrison wants you to think it means that taxes always discourage economic growth. This notion suits many well-off people who’d love to pay less tax, but that doesn’t make it true.

Say by some miracle we lived in a world with no taxes. It’s not clear that if we had no one enforcing laws, the roads were shocking, and only the rich could afford to educate their children or see a doctor, the economy would be much bigger and faster growing.

On the other hand, it would be true that taxes held back the economy’s growth if governments collected a lot of tax and then buried the money in a hole.

In the real world, however, governments spend almost all the money they collect in taxes (if not more). Some of that money may be wasted, but much of it does a lot of good – to the economy and the people who make up the economy.

We all benefit from living in law-abiding country, with decent roads, low-cost education and good healthcare, not to mention the high wages our educations and health enable us to earn. Our businesses also benefit from operating in such a country.

It’s true that some countries have tax systems that collect their taxes in ways that do more to discourage economic activity than other countries do. It’s true, too, that some countries spend their tax dollars more effectively than others.

But what economists have never been able to demonstrate is that those countries with high rates of total taxation – the Scandinavians, for instance – have smaller and slower-growing economies than those countries with low rates of tax.

There would be more truth in Morrison’s line if he changed it to say “you don’t grow the economy by taxing it less” – you just leave some people better off and others worse off.

Which brings us to Frydenberg’s remarkable claim that his $300-billion tax plan – where the first stage goes mainly to middle income-earners, but the two later stages go disproportionately to people earning a lot more than $100,000 a year - will make the income tax scale more “progressive” rather than less.

As I explained in detail in this column a month ago, a progressive tax is one that takes a progressively higher proportion of people’s incomes as incomes rise.

But two economists at the Australian National University’s research school of economics, Associate Professor Chung Tran and Nabeeh Zakariyya, have produced a more sophisticated analysis, using the Suits index (invented by Daniel Suits) to express our income tax scale’s progressivity as a single number, and then see how it has changed over the years.

Unsurprisingly, they find that our income tax scale is and always has been progressive (and will stay progressive if the Coalition’s tax plan comes to pass).

They found that, in 2016, the top 10 per cent of taxpayers accounted for 32 per cent of all the pre-tax income, but 46 per cent of all the income tax paid. That’s progressive. Between them, their marginal tax rate (on the last part of their income) was 41¢ in the dollar, but their average tax rate (on all their income) was just 29¢ in the dollar.

More surprisingly, the authors found that the scale’s degree of progressivity changes from year to year, and tends to move in cycles of greater and lesser progressiveness.

What factors cause these cycles? Government-initiated changes in the scale, obviously, but also changes in the distribution of pre-tax income between income-earners and – a big one – the effects of “bracket creep” as inflation pushes people onto higher tax brackets or otherwise raises their average rate of tax.

Significantly, the authors confirmed Treasury’s contention that bracket creep reduces progressivity - that is, it favours high income-earners (who don't have a higher tax bracket to be pushed onto).

They find that the income tax scale’s progressiveness declined in the Howard government years between 2001 and 2006, but then increased sharply, reaching a peak in 2010 (during the Labor years), but since then has declined slowly (thanks to bracket creep and the absence of tax cuts, as governments gave top priority to reducing the budget deficit).

Even so, the scale was more progressive in 2016 than it was in 2004.

Frydenberg’s claim that his three-stage tax plan would make income tax more progressive seems based on the fact that the top tax rate would be unchanged at 45¢ in the dollar, while some lower rates fell and, according to Treasury’s debatable projections, by 2024 the top 5 per cent of taxpayers’ share of total tax paid would have risen from 32.7 per cent to 32.9 per cent.

Should his plan actually come about, the Suits index will tell us whether it really has made income tax more progressive rather than less. Since people on $200,000 will have their average tax rate cut by 4.5¢ in every dollar of income, I very much doubt it.