Class war and cognitive dissonance: do the rich pay enough tax?

In the SMH, Jess Irvine has written a post accusing the rich of not paying enough tax. Strong piece. Very clickable, quite memorable, and in places, very reasonable:

“It is right to think that rich people should pay more tax than the poor. Happiness studies show an extra dollar means a lot more to a poor person than a wealthy person. So, we maximise society’s wellbeing when we raise taxes from the rich, rather than the poor.”

In the AFR, an equally strong reply:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 1.50.33 PMThis was written by the gossip columnist though, which suggests The Fin is passing up the opportunity to really take the bait.

All this has me thinking. Do the rich really pay enough tax?

Instinct says “No!”

There is, however, a bit of cognitive dissonance the average policy wonk faces in answering such a question.

Let’s face it. Most of us consider that question by imagining those richer than us paying more. Few readers interpret it as “should I pay more tax?” even though plenty of you find yourselves in a household making over $100,000 a year.

Secondly, the average policy wonk already knows the facts.  (The graphs that follow come from a terrific Productivity Commission report that is just a few months old.)

Those on higher incomes do pay the most tax in Australia.  The few families making $175,000+ a year contribute more total tax than the (far greater) numbers of households making under $100k.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.48.55 PMThe tax burden is squarely aimed at the top of the income distribution curve.Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.36.43 PMWhen you look by assets things get a bit more complicated, but the overall trend is still richer people tend to pay more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.29.19 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.27.41 PMn.b. for whatever reason the data above is by group not decile, and the groups aren’t evenly sized. Sorry. Here’s the distribution of actual households across those groups:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.26.42 PMOne technique Jess Irvine uses to support her call for more tax on the rich is raising the spectre of widespread income tax rorting.

I wrote about rorting in Crikey last year after we learned 55 people who earned over a million dollars paid no tax in 2012-13. That fact went viral. But it represents just 0.6 per cent of millionaires.

Most income millionaires seem to pay a lot in tax – 93  per cent of them are in a group with an average tax rate of 42 per cent. Another 6 per cent pay an average rate of 35 per cent.

I reckon tax evasion is far more common in corporate tax than income tax. But Irvine’s article says we can’t do anything about that.

She goes on to argue we should institute a land tax. It’s a good conclusion to what has been a fairly odd argument. I support a land tax. I’ve been pleased recently to see it getting a fair bit of attention.

But it doesn’t really follow from her argument.

It seems to me the rich already pay a lot of tax, are fairly honest about it, and don’t actually complain that much. Is that the end of the argument?

I say no.

This “do the rich pay enough tax?” question is just a proxy – an emotive, perhaps even fun-to-think-about proxy – for a question about whether our society is fair.

So, is Australia fair?

That’s a better question, because it allows that bubbling pot of cognitive dissonance to simmer down for a moment.

The answer is probably a qualified yes. It could be fairer still, if we focus on eliminating disadvantage.

We can hold onto the fact the rich pay most tax, and permit the idea society could still be fairer.

There are many ways to eliminate disadvantage, and make society fairer. Minimum wages and strong public health systems are a big part of it.

When we look at America, we see what can happen without them. That is an economy much less fair than the one we experience.

Transfers are another major way to make a nation fairer. A basic income, or minimum income policy would go a long way to making Australia fairer. But I don’t see arguments for hiking taxes on the rich helping create the sort of consensus necessary for that change.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.37.21 PMAmong the many charms of minimum wages, public health and transfers is they don’t discriminate. Everyone has access to them. It’s far harder for a Tory gossip columnist to mock the idea of Medicare than the idea of soaking the rich.

So thinking about areas of disadvantage that are important to eliminate seems to be a better way of looking at fairness in the Australian context. If higher taxes are required for such policies to be afforded, precedent suggests they will fall on those with capacity to pay.

Meanwhile thinking about ways to raise the same amount of tax more efficiently is probably the best argument for land tax.

For these reasons, I’d suggest dialing back instinctively appealing arguments the rich should pay more tax, in favour of more targeted arguments about avoiding corporate tax fraud or eliminating disadvantage.

Should the wingpsan of a hawk equal the wingspan of a dove?

Janet Yellen is in a tough spot.

The US Federal Reserve chair presides over a country in pretty good economic health. Unemployment is just 5.3 per cent. But even though the official interest rate is zero (technically 0 to 0.25 per cent), there is huge pressure to not raise that official interest rate.

Commentators are right to be cautious. There is plenty of evidence supporting being very cautious about raising rates.

Both Australia and New Zealand lifted interest rates from their GFC lows swiftly. Australia did so in 2009, NZ twice in 2011 and 2014. Both countries dropped rates again soon afterwards, as these graphs show, .

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 12.07.33 pm Being hasty in raising rates is unwise.  So Yellen’s cautious stance is probably appropriate.

But her position is especially difficult because her options are so limited. US rate changes, by convention, happen in lumps of 0.25 percentage points. Just like Australia’s and New Zealand’s.

She faces, by convention, a binary choice. Leave rates steady, or execute a 0.25 point hike that could frighten markets.

A quarter of a percentage point probably appeared vanishingly small back in those dimly remembered normal times, when interest rates were so much higher. But now a quarter of a percentage point looks like quite a hurdle.

The size of a standard rate move now raises questions.

A key one that nobody seems to be contemplating: Should rate rises be the same size as rate cuts? The obvious answer is no.

Economies tank hard.  Recoveries are slower and more tentative. Unemployment rises steeply, but it falls slowly, as this next graph shows.

Recessions send unemployment spiking. And so can low growth.

There is an implicit understanding that rate cuts can be bigger than hikes. The Australian government bundles groups of 0.25 together when things go bad particularly quickly. For example the RBA made a cut of 0.50 in 2012, and three cuts of 1.0 in late 2008 and early 2009.

But there is no explicit understanding that rate cuts could be smaller than 0.25 when they are rising.

Why? There is no apparent technical impediment to this.

Australia is now perfectly capable at holding rates at levels more tightly defined than 0.25 per cent intervals, as this graph of the target (red) and actual (black) rate shows:

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 12.27.37 pm

Whether Yellen should raise rates is a divisive issue. She can counter that political division with a bit of  arithmetic division.

Splitting her first hike into several small pieces is the answer.  Rises of 0.1 per cent – or even smaller – could be just the trick at difficult times like this.

Should we be more worried about the sharemarket, or housing?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 11.56.28 am Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 11.55.27 am

Is the housing sector so pumped full of credit it is about to explode? Or is the business sector so credit starved it is about to die?

Data sourced from today’s RBA financial aggregates.

Why people think tax reform is a knife, and why that’s a problem for Australia.

EDITED on Tuesday September 29 to make it better, fairer, more accurate.

My hypothesis is this: A large part of the Australian public does not understand the tax reform “debate” at all. a substantial part of the tax reform debate.

I hypothesise these people are smart, capable and have Australia’s interests extremely close to their heart. But they have no training in tax theory and therefore lack mental models to understand why, for example, Labor’s Chris Bowen, Shadow Treasurer, would be willing to consider cutting corporate tax to 25 per cent.

They just don’t see how tax affects growth.

The most mentally available model of tax is not one where tax is an ingredient in making the cake, but a knife to cut it up with at the end. This matches lived experience. As a worker and consumer, tax happens at the end of transactions. You get paid, then you pay tax. You buy something then you pay GST at the checkout.

So my hypothesis is the concept of tax as an input to the rate of economic growth is not one that is available to most people.

I’ve been thinking about this hypothesis for a while. Today I decided to test it. I chose the following four tax-related articles and read the comments in all of them.

The Age: Malcolm Turnbull halts tax white paper in major reset (163 comments)

Herald Sun: Imbalanced Tax system stunting growth, says Business Council of Australia (7 Comments)

The New Daily: Scott Morrison wants to give us tax cuts (22 comments)

SMH: Scott Morrison: Work Save Invest the Mantra for the new Treasurer (90 Comments).

If people understood that the tax reform was about boosting growth, I expected to see comments engaging on that topic – supporting the link or refuting it, talking about high-tax high-growth countries like Scandinavia, and low-tax low-growth countries too.

If people did not bring this frame of reference, I expected to see the comments focus on other topics, especially distribution.

I read about 280 internet comments. (Which – as you can imagine – meant deciphering a great number of garbled sentences and enjoying an even greater number of insults.)

I coded them according to whether they mentioned growth or output; distributional outcomes; loopholes; or ‘other’.  ‘Other’ accounted for over 200. The remaining results were crystal clear.

tax commentsDiscussion of growth was present in just over two per cent of total responses and was outweighed by discussion of distributional issues about 9:1.

I tried to be generous with the comments I coded as addressing issues of growth. Here’s one:

“The most important thing to do to fix the economy is to get the taxation right! Fact is the economy under Abbott and Hockey was a blatant disaster getting worse!”

Here’s another:

“Penalty levels of taxation combined with high levels of social welfare payments result in deficites, high borrowing costs and a downward spiral of he economy. That is exactly what is happening in Australia. Our economy is headed the same way as the Greek economy. To reverse this Australia needs to increase the incentive to work and invest and reduce the reward for not working.”

In the 61 comments about “loopholes” there were very many along these lines:

“No change in the policies, give the big end of town a tax cut, and spread the burden over everyone with an increase in the GST. Lower income people are worse off as a result.”

Please note that I am not criticising this last comment. Distributional issues are a crucial part of tax policy and that kind of comment is an important input to a well-grounded tax debate.

The point is we do not have a well-grounded tax debate until everyone is on the same page.

The broader tax debate does not address the impact of tax settings on the output capacity of the economy. It is far more focused on fairness.

The “elites” must work to understand the grip matters distributional have on the public imagination. If they still want to press on with tax reforms – and I think they probably should – they need to take two courses of action.

  1. Prioritise matters of distribution in their own thinking. No tax reform will be possible so long as it obsesses on output to the exclusion of fairness. Multinational enterprise tax reform was a very common thread in comments about fairness.
  2. Work to give people the mental models to understand how tax affects output. Without this very little tax reform will be possible at all.

Elites, building a case for reform does not mean repeating the phrase “We need reform!” It’s truistic to the people who understand it, while confusing and annoying to everyone else. It sounds like you’re talking in code, and that implies you’re plotting something.

Instead, talk about “changing tax law so businesses want to do more work in Australia and hire more people.”

If you hector people about tax by saying “it affects investment decisions!” you’re unlikely to cut through. “Investment decisions” sounds like it has something to do with Macquarie Bank.

The comments on the article about Scott Morrison’s “Work Save Invest” slogan showed “investment” was uniformly interpreted as being about buying shares. Many commenters pointed out they couldn’t afford to do that. “Foreign investment decisions” is probably even worse language. It conjures Chase Manhattan and Bank of China conspiring to rip us off.

Talk about economic growth in language people can understand. Use this language even among yourselves, so when it comes time to talk to “real people” it comes naturally.

One way to build capacity in the community is through using metaphors:

  • Tax is not just a knife, but also the yeast that grows the cake.
  • The economy is like a party and tax is adding water to the beer.
  • The economy is like a football match and tax is like adding more umpires ready to blow the whistle at any moment. They disrupt the natural flow of the game.
  • The economy is like a road and tax is traffic lights. If we put in too many in the road won’t be useful any more.

But that can’t be all. The explanation needs stories about business owners who expand their business once their returns meet a benchmark, and how returns are affected by tax. I can imagine an animation. A business owner making a business plan. Every time she does the maths she comes out in the red, until the tax percentage becomes lower. Then she opens her shop and hires some staff.

Understanding a concept requires knowing several mutually-reinforcing stories that illustrate the same point. The Australian people have not heard enough of these stories. And that is why Tax reform is going nowhere.
NB: In todays’ Fin Review, Laura Tingle talks about this exact issue:

Just as the tax reform debate threatened to choke itself on too many conflicting agendas – increasing the GST, lowering company tax, fixing bracket creep, doing something about superannuation tax concessions – our new treasurer has injected a rather important ingredient: the need to define a reason to do it all.Some of the contributors to the AFR Tax Reform Summit this week have made the observation that an organising principle for the tax reform debate has only rarely been seen amid the worthy, but perhaps too often repeated, calls for individual tax measures to be addressed.

The organising principle needs to be a political argument to voters about why you actually need to mess around with tax in the first place. An argument about corporate competitiveness isn’t really going to cut it out in the ‘burbs.

Yes, we all heard Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey talk ad nauseum about “lower, simpler, fairer” taxes. But they were never able to cut through to voters about why this was such a good idea: that it would – or should – help boost and transform the economy. Instead, it just sounded like a bit of conservative government ideology.”

So if Morrison wants to prosecute that case for tax reform he needs to formulate a story that’s as clear as “Stop the Boats” but for a much more complex concept. Good luck Scott.

Here’s a late-breaking caveat I decided to add.

Among the people who appear to not understand the nature of tax reform are a group who understand it perfectly well but oppose it. They fan the flames of the distributional arguments.

They’re not the only self-interested sorts in the debate.

The fact company tax cuts are now widely accepted  as the most growth-crucial tax cuts in our whole economy is very interesting. Of course cutting it would help growth. But at what revenue cost? And why is it #1? Self interest lurks in any issue where facts are complex.

Why do we need 3% economic growth to keep unemployment stable? – Part 2

This series started yesterday when I started wondering about the exact reason we needed economic growth to keep the unemployment rate down.

I wrote an introductory post then, explaining I was going to do some learning in public.  (The risk of embarrassing myself is real). Now I want to dive into this a bit more.

It’s true we need economic growth to prevent the unemployment rate rising. I checked and important people believe it.

RBA Assistant Governor Chris Kent has specifically linked changes unemployment to trend growth. “Since about mid 2012, Australia’s GDP growth has been a bit below trend and so the unemployment rate has been rising gradually.”

And he has given us this excellent graph:

Recessions send unemployment spiking. And so can low growth.
Recessions send unemployment spiking. And so can low growth.

Phew! That’s one thing I got right.

The link between economic growth and changes in unemployment is real and it has been formalised in a relationship called Okun’s Law.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 8.47.18 pmI put the word out on Twitter for an explanation and I was swamped with awesome economists offering helpful explanations. Thanks to everybody.

This was the main thing I heard.  Basically:

  • Because of population growth you need growth in output to have jobs for the new people.
  • Because of labour productivity changes (people getting more efficient) you need more output or else you’ll employ fewer people.

This is a nice neat story. If you have 2 per cent labour force growth and 1 per cent productivity gains, you need 3 per cent growth. It’s mathematically sound. I learned something.

So is that it? Are we wrapped up? All silent?

I still find myself with questions. I want to understand things in more than just mathematical terms.

Productivity causes growth. It allows us to produce more, using the same. But we also need growth to compensate for it? This sends me into something of a chicken and egg loop.

I’m aware that chicken/egg scenario is why economics uses maths so much. Supply and demand need to be solved simultaneously. You can’t think through a market equilibrium slowly because you need an answer on both sides at once.

So I could stop here. But I have other questions.

If rising labour productivity is both cause and cure for unemployment, why is it spoken of in exclusively glowing terms? Would we not be as well off, in unemployment terms, without it?

And population growth causes economic growth too. This is what I believe, a belief reflected in articles like these:

Fewer people want to live in Australia in growth risk for RBA

RBA’s Glenn Stevens: Australia may need to rethink growth

If we did not have the population growth, would we still have stable unemployment? This remains my sticking point – my reason for wondering about the deeper reasons and implications of why we need 3 per cent growth.

Seems to me an important part of the existing population is employed creating space for the new population to live in.

While the productivity angle makes sense to me, the population one still gives me pause. Establishing the new capital stock to accommodate the lives of new babies and new migrants is a huge cause of economic activity. More roads, more shops for them to shop in, more buildings for them to live in, more pipes going to their houses, more hospitals for them to be sick in, etc.

New population consumes and works the same as the existing population; but also requires extra spending. I intuitively believe population growth causes a rise in employment so I can’t quite grasp that it’s a wash, unemployment wise.

Whenever I think about this question I think about Japan, where capital is being abandoned as the population shrinks, and (while unemployment is low) secure employment is a problem.

Perhaps I need to think about this differently? Perhaps I need some more empirical evidence? I’ll dive deeper and present what I find tomorrow.

If you have any thoughts on this topic or want to suggest some reading, please feel free to make a comment below.

Why do we need 3% economic growth to keep unemployment stable? – Part 1

I like to think of myself as not too stupid. When I don’t understand something, I like to dive into that.

  • Sometimes I learn new facts that help me make sense of what seemed like disparate and nonsensical data points.
  • Sometimes I learn what I thought were facts were not.
  • Sometimes I learn new theories of the world.
  • Sometimes I decide those theories are nonsense and the reason I didn’t understand the thing in the first place is that it makes no sense.

Searching out areas where I feel confused or uncertain is a useful way to figure out how to move forward. I try to shield from public view when these areas of uncertainty are to do with economics. But no more.

I believe we need high growth to keep unemployment stable. But I’ve never really understood why.

My economics education was a good one. But I never did honours – let alone a PhD – and it was a long time ago. They didn’t teach us everything, and I’ve forgotten plenty.

This is my way of saying I don’t know everything about economics. (Despite how obvious it is this is weirdly hard for me to type.)

What I’m doing here then, is going on a learning expedition. Trekking deep into territory that has been explored, but not by me. Maybe along the way I’ll learn something. Maybe even have some insights that are new to me. Maybe even have some insights that are new!? Most likely I will discover everyone else already knew something I didn’t.

This is part 1. I’m expecting to be able to put together a few more parts over coming days as I learn a bit on this topic. But for now, I’m going to write about a few of the preconceptions I have that give me the idea this is an important question to pursue.

  1. My sense is if the Australian economy saw population growth and productivity growth drop to zero it would have growing unemployment. But basic economic equilibrium theories would suggest that doesn’t happen. Why wouldn’t all the firms just produce the same again next year, using the same workers?
  2. My guess is that growth has in the past come largely from population growth. Which is weird. It suggests adding new people to the population / labour force creates so much new demand that it props up not only their own job but other people’s jobs too.
  3. The global population is growing fast. But it may stop doing so within our lifetimes. At that point, population growth will stop contributing to economic growth. If population growth causes econ growth causes employment, the end of pop growth could be the end of employment.  That’s a nasty scenario. We may have to choose between the limits of the planet or the employment of its workforce.

At the least this will be a quick two part series where I explain the answer in part 2 and am forced to revise the first thing I said in this post. ;)

Please leave any helpful comments or suggested reading for me in the section below. I’ll write more soon.

Ross Gittins swings at reform, misses, falls flat.

Ross Gittins has just published an article making a case against the reform obsession that grips the current political class.

I like Gittins and I’m always interested in a smack-down of a new religion, so I started reading eagerly.

But Gittins was unable to deliver a smackdown. Unable to deliver much at all.

See if you can spot the fallacy here:

“Simple statistical theory should be telling economists that a protracted period of below-average growth is most likely to be followed by a period of above-average growth.”

Whew, that’s embarrassing.

The nicest thing I can think of to say about it is there are economic models suggesting poorer countries grow faster than richer ones. They imply a degree of catch-up – perhaps those were the theories Mr Gittins was fumbling for?

But the problems with the article go beyond just one dodgy paragraph. His whole case against “reform” depends on the idea that the economy will grow just fine without it.

That’s certainly possible. I actually think the economy might well be about to bounce back a bit. But that doesn’t make a case against reform.

Economists know you get growth from adding more people and machines, and then you get extra growth for free via productivity gains. Productivity gains are the really good gains because they come without real trade-offs. You don’t need more ingredients, just a better recipe.

Productivity gains can come from two main sources.

  1. Better ways of doing business (innovative ways of combining inputs inside the firm), and
  2. Better-functioning markets (innovative ways of combining inputs outside the firm).

Why do we obsess over the latter one? It’s where we have our hands on the lever. Governments can’t really control innovation at the firm level. Not in the short-term at least. They do control market regulation.

So “reform,” that buzzword that’s as popular as a buzzard, refers to this latter issue. Making markets work better.

Sometimes they work better with less regulation (economists arguing against the taxi cartel, for example) sometimes they need more regulation (economists arguing for a carbon tax or higher capital requirements for banks.)

Whether or not you get the first kind of productivity improvement, there’s a chance you can bring growth into existence by focusing on the latter.

Growth matters.

The desire for growth is not about the hope of self-enrichment. The sad fact is growth remains the only way we know to ensure full employment. Unemployment is horrible. It hurts people and ruins lives long-term. Meanwhile higher growth can bring better standards of medical care, lower infant mortality, safer foods, more opportunities to work in satisfying jobs. So the hunt for growth is a humanist pursuit. Obsessing over it is a risk-averse social scientist’s way of trying to maximise human happiness.

Gittins seems to think gambling on future growth is a great idea.

When you convince yourself, as many economists have, that the only way we’ll see faster growth and further productivity improvement is for governments to engage in extensive reform, you’ve convinced yourself our economy is deeply dysfunctional.

Optimism is an endearing quality in a friend, not an economic policy-maker.

The great thing about market reform is it should work whether or not we’re getting the other kind of productivity inside firms. It’s additive. If Mr Gittins’ optimism is rewarded and we see a great surge of firm-level productivity unleashed, it won’t be a mistake to have unleashed market-level reform too.

There are strong arguments against reform. Arguments about the extent of economic encroachment into our lives. About materialism and reification. About market power. About whether we can shape economic growth in ways that brings us more of the good and less of the bad. These are good arguments we should all be engaging in.

It’s a shame those column inches didn’t attempt such an engagement.