Showing posts with label middle-class welfare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label middle-class welfare. Show all posts

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Summary of many tax and benefit changes on July 1

The government has taken to announcing changes in taxes and benefits long before they take effect. But that day has to come eventually and a host of changes - big and small, good and bad - are set to start tomorrow week, July 1, the first day of the new financial year.

Actually, all the bad changes start on July 1, but some of the good ones have arrived this month.

Even so, July 1 will be the most significant day for tax changes since July 1, 2000, the start date for the goods and services tax.

Two new taxes are starting, the carbon tax and the mining tax, though combined they raise far less than the GST.

Like the GST, both taxes come as part of packages, meaning much of the proceeds from them are used to cover the cost of cuts in other taxes and increases in pensions and benefits.

But here's a difference: the government is increasing the budget's redistribution of income from higher- to lower-income earners by imposing means tests and by other means.

A means test on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate will take effect and the 20 per cent net medical expenses tax offset will also be means-tested.

Next are changes to the taxation of superannuation. Super contributions have been taxed at the flat rate of 15 per cent. Now, workers earning up to $37,000 a year will, in effect, pay no contributions tax, whereas those earning more than $300,000 a year will pay 30 per cent.

Older workers had been permitted to make concessional contributions to super, including by salary sacrifice, of up to $50,000 a year, but this will now drop to $25,000.

The minerals resource rent tax will raise only about $3 billion a year and has been designed to have no adverse effects on the economy or retail prices.

Proceeds from the tax will be used to provide two new tax concessions for small business and cover the cost of replacing the tax rebate on parents' spending on school children's education expenses with lump-sum bonuses for each schoolchild. The first bonuses have just been paid.

Mining tax revenue will also cover the cost of a tiny increase in unemployment benefits (from March) and an increase in the family tax benefit Part A, to take effect from July 1 next year.

The carbon tax will fall mainly on the production of electricity and gas. It will add 9 per cent to household electricity and gas bills, but quite small amounts to most other retail prices.

Treasury has estimated that, all told, the tax will add just 0.7 per cent to the consumer price index. Since Treasury was right in predicting the 10 per cent GST would add 2.5 per cent to the index, you can believe it.

However, the total rise in household electricity bills from July 1 will be twice that attributable to the carbon tax.

Whereas the GST will raise $48 billion next financial year, the carbon tax is expected to raise $4 billion in its first year and about $7 billion in later years.

Because it's designed simply to raise the prices of emissions-intensive goods and services relative to other prices, much of its proceeds are being used to compensate people for their higher cost of living.

But, again, the compensation is going only to low- and middle-income earners. Means-tested pensions, allowances and family benefits have already been raised.

And a limited tax cut will take effect from July 1. The tax-free threshold will be raised from $6000 to $18,200 (but with a largely offsetting reduction in the low-income tax offset). About 60 per cent of all taxpayers will get a tax cut worth about $5.80 a week, but no individual earning more than $80,000 a year will receive a cut.

All that higher-income earners get is a separate, backhanded saving: the end of the temporary flood levy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tough love or kindness - a taxing dilemma

Something very important is at stake in this year's budget and the opposition's response to it: the shape of Australia's welfare state. Will it continue to be needs-based, or will we progressively make benefits universal - available to everyone regardless of income?

Historically, people on the conservative side of politics have strongly supported means-tested benefits, whereas people on the left have been attracted to the idea of universally available benefits, thus removing the ''stigma'' attached to the receipt of benefits.

These days, however, we're witnessing a strange role reversal where the Liberals move away from needs-based benefits and Labor seeks to return to them.

Our means-tested welfare system is an inheritance from the Menzies era. The Whitlam government introduced universal health benefits in the shape of Medibank and began phasing in a non-means-tested age pension. The Fraser government was conflicted: it dismantled Medibank and restored a watered-down means test, but introduced a more generous, non-means-tested family allowance.

The Hawke-Keating government restored Medibank as Medicare, but put a lot of effort into tightening up means-testing, imposing it on the family allowance and making considerable savings to the budget.

Then came John Howard, the great disciple of Menzies, who spent all his 11 years introducing what economists have come to disparage as ''middle-class welfare''. He introduced an only lightly means-tested family tax benefit, repeatedly increasing it. He added an extra benefit for single-income families - Part B - which was means-tested only to the extent that mothers who did any paid work were rendered ineligible.

He inherited the means-tested childcare benefit but, rather than abolishing it, he added the non-means-tested 30 per cent childcare tax rebate on top. So whereas the first measure carefully excluded better-off families, the second brought them back onto the public teat.

He did something similar for the self-proclaimed ''self-funded retirees''. Older people judged too comfortably off to receive the age pension were given a special senior Australians tax rebate and a seniors health card that entitled them to pay what pensioners pay for pharmaceuticals, $5.60 a pop, rather than the $34.20 even the poorest working family pays.

Perhaps the biggest move in the direction of middle-class welfare was the decision to make superannuation payments tax-free for people 60 or older. Before, how much income tax you paid was a function of the size of your income; now it's also a function of your age. Old comfortables don't pay it, young strugglers do.

Rather than introducing paid maternity leave, Howard brought in the baby bonus, payable without means-testing to women who hadn't been in paid work as well as those who had.

He introduced a non-means-tested 30 per cent tax rebate on private health insurance and changed the formula for grants to private schools in a way that produced winners and losers, then let the losers keep the extra to which they weren't entitled.

The Rudd-Gillard government has been under continuous pressure from economists to roll back Howard's middle-class welfare. One of its first acts went the other way: fulfilling an ill-judged election promise, it increased the childcare tax rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. It has also kept a promise not to change the winners-but-no-losers formula for grants to private schools. But most of its other actions have gone in the Hawke-Keating direction of tightening up means-testing. It imposed a cut-off of $150,000 a year on eligibility for the family tax benefit Parts A and B, the baby bonus, tax rebates for dependants and soon the paid parental leave payment.

The $150,000 a year sometimes applies to a couple's combined income, but often it applies just to income of the ''primary earner''. To avoid adding to the problem of high effective marginal tax rates (where the rate of gradual withdrawal of a benefit as income rises adds on to the rate of tax on the additional income), it's a ''sudden-death cut-off'': on $150,000 you get the benefit, on $150,001 you don't. Because of the sudden-death nature of the cut-off, it was set at a very high level. Even today, only about the top 17 per cent of households have pre-tax incomes of more than $150,000. And only the top 4 per cent of individuals earn more than $150,000. Arithmetically, there's no way people on these incomes can be said to be in the middle; they aren't rich as James Packer is rich, but they are undoubtedly high income-earners.

The $150,000 hasn't been indexed for inflation since it was announced in 2008 and the decision last week was to leave it unindexed until July 2014. This means the level of the cut-off is actually falling in real terms, removing more people from receiving the benefit as the years pass. The budget's other main move to reduce benefits to the comfortably off was the decision to phase out the tax rebate for dependent spouses under 40 and without children.

Tony Abbott and the Liberals have attacked these measures, condemning them as ''class warfare'' and ''the politics of envy''. Abbott has yet to say whether he will oppose them in the Senate, but his party's longstanding opposition to Labor's attempt to impose a means test on the private health insurance rebate suggests he will.

Much is at stake. You may think you pay a lot of tax, but people in almost every other developed country pay a lot more than we do, even the Kiwis. The single greatest reason for our relatively low level of taxation is our inheritance from Menzies of a lean and mean welfare system: low, flat-rate, means-tested benefits. Most other developed countries pay former-income-linked, universal benefits and have high taxes and huge government debt to show for it.

We can take our welfare system in whatever direction we choose, mean or generous. But the more generous we make it, the more tax we'll end up having to pay.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Don't make taxpayers subsidise status seeking

Sometimes I despair of our politicians. They went through the election campaign carrying on about wasteful spending and the desperately urgent necessity to get the budget back to surplus and eliminate the public debt - all while promising to add to middle-class welfare.

Take the federal government's spending on grants to private schools, under which more than half the schools receive more than they're entitled to under John Howard's funding formula based on socio-economic status.

This waste continued throughout the Howard government's time in office and the Rudd government's first term. During the campaign Julia Gillard promised to continue it at least until 2013 - the year of the next federal election - and Tony Abbott promised to retain it forever. Abbott also said he would widen Labor's dubious tax rebate for education expenses to include school fees.

When it comes to welfare for the genuinely poor - the unemployed and sole parents - both sides promise ever-greater vigilance in ensuring the undeserving wretches get not a cent more than they're entitled to. The standard case against middle-class welfare is simply that it's our heavily means-tested system that does most to make Australia a low-tax country compared with the rest of the developed world and we should take care not to weaken it.

The more government spending is means-tested, the more redistributive the budget is without requiring high levels of taxation, and the less ''churning'' occurs - taking money from the same people you give it back to. Middle-class welfare increases the dreaded churning.

The Hawke-Keating government put a lot of effort into tightening up means-testing, but Howard was heavily into avoiding it, using unmeans-tested benefits to gratify the Liberal heartland as well as buy the allegiance of ''aspirational'' voters in the outer suburbs. He greatly increased taxpayer subsidies for private schooling and private health insurance, as well as adding to the means-tested childcare benefit an unmeans-tested 30 per cent childcare tax rebate (which Rudd later increased to 50 per cent). You exclude better-off parents with one hand and include them with the other.

What economists call middle-class welfare I prefer to call subsidising ''positional goods'' - goods that are intended to demonstrate to others our superior position in the pecking order.

When, rather than buying a perfectly satisfactory locally made Toyota for $30,000, for instance, we prefer to buy an imported BMW for $100,000, we're spending $30,000 on a car and $70,000 on positional goods.

We tell ourselves how much we value the Beemer's superior qualities, but in truth we want to demonstrate to neighbours and relatives we're doing as well as they are - if not better.

When you remember that most people in rich countries such as Australia long ago passed the point of being able to afford the necessities of life, you realise an ever-increasing proportion of our ever-rising real incomes is devoted to buying positional goods to impress other people.

(The main qualification to this is that as our real incomes rise we also devote more of them to buying ''superior goods'', such as healthcare and education, without that involving a search for greater prestige. For instance, the richer you are the more money you can afford to devote to one of our most evolutionary urges: to postpone death and disability.)

I suspect the pressure on governments to keep taxes low is motivated by our desire to spend more on positional goods. We need more and more disposable income just to keep up with the Joneses, let alone get ahead of them.

It's a free country and if people want to devote their ever-growing affluence to playing such games, that's their choice. But there are some important points to note.

First, such status competitions are socially wasteful. They're a zero-sum game: those who win do so at the expense of those who lose.

What's more, it's a competition that's never resolved: if you get ahead of me in this round, I stretch to overtake you in the next.

Second, if all the angst we go through to achieve greater efficiency and faster economic growth is doing little more than supplying more fuel to a never-ending status competition, it's hardly a noble enterprise. This is making the world a better place?

Third, it makes no sense for governments to be compelling taxpayers to subsidise those who want to play these status games. It's likely a fair bit of the subsidy ends up in the hands of the suppliers rather than the purchasers of the private schooling or whatever.

But get this: even to the extent the subsidy achieves its obvious (but never stated) goal of assisting those who would otherwise be unable to afford the positional good to attain it, it's actually self-defeating.

Why? Because, by definition, positional goods signal your superior standing only if they're something most people can't afford. So subsidising positional goods is a politicians' con: the aspirational punters are deluded into thinking they're being helped to achieve something that's actually unattainable.

When you consider how many demands there are on government revenue - particularly the looming growth in spending on health and aged care - it makes no sense for governments to be subsidising status seeking. Especially not when they're neglecting the provision of non-positional, public goods that would deliver greater benefit, such as reducing commuting times and improving the natural environment.

Economists need to embrace a new principle of budgeting: governments should devote whatever funds they have to delivering good quality public services in such areas as education and health, leaving those who'd prefer to buy those services privately free to do so if they can afford it.