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Keith Ng’s four tax myths

Written By: - Date published: 7:31 am, May 25th, 2017 - 23 comments
Categories: class war, spin, tax - Tags: , , , , , ,

A useful piece from Keith Ng (an extract from a new PSA booklet on topics in tax policy and practice):

Four tax myths that might pop up this year

Myth 1: “40% of households pay no ‘net taxes'”

The problem with “net taxes” is that it excludes GST, which accounts for 32 per cent of all taxes. Not quite as much as income tax (38 per cent of all taxes), but it’s a whopping big heap not to count. It also only counts cash transfers – so if you get cash from the government, that gets counted, but if you get a service from the government (such as education, or healthcare) that does not.

“Net tax” is an arbitrary and meaningless way to count who is “contributing” and who isn’t. It exists as a political tool. Although it is produced by Treasury, Treasury themselves have never published it. It has only ever been  released by the minister of finance’s office, and usually its first public appearance is on David Farrar’s blog.

Myth 2: The top 10% of taxpayers paying 46% of taxes proves they’re overtaxed

It’s true, the top 10 per cent of taxpayers pay 46 per cent of all income tax – but that’s only half the picture.

How much tax you pay depends on two things: a) the tax rate, and b) your income. It’s pretty straightforward, so it’s incredible how often people blame “high amount of tax paid” on the tax rate being too high, and completely ignore the income effect.

The top 10 per cent of taxpayers make around 34 per cent of all taxable income, nearly as much as the bottom 70 per cent combined. So while they pay a lot of tax, they also make a lot of money.

Myth 3: Bracket creep has reversed the effects of the 2010 tax cuts

…people are still paying less income tax than they did in 2010.

While bracket creep is rightly characterised as “a tax increase by stealth”, successive governments – left and right – have kept it as a handy political tool. It’s a mechanism that automatically raises taxes a tiny bit each year; over time, it gives governments the option to increase spending or to tweak the tax system.

Myth 4: Tax cuts pay for themselves

Here’s an idea: If everyone gave the government less money, the government would receive more money. This is not a joke. The 2010 tax cuts were estimated to cost around $1.1b over four years. But by 2014, the tax cut was supposed to result in the government receiving an extra $175m a year in taxes.

The magical part is a single line in the budget called “Adjustment for macroeconomic effects”. Treasury includes this because they believe that tax cuts will help the economy grow faster, and a bigger economy means more taxes.

By the time 2014 rolled around, the economy grew slower than expected and tax revenue was $4b less than the 2010 forecast.

The PSA’s “Progressive Thinking: Ten Perspectives on Tax” booklet features 10 authors, academics and campaigners writing journalistically on a broad range of topics in tax policy and practice. It is being released on Monday 22nd May in advance of the Government’s Budget, and will be available to read online at the PSA’s website from Monday 22nd onwards.

Keith Ng is a data visualisation consultant by day and data journalist by night, using data to understand and explain complex issues and policies.

Eric Crampton wrote a followup piece: Tax system is heavily reliant on high earners, and a discussion between Ng and Crampton followed on Twitter.

23 comments on “Keith Ng’s four tax myths”

  1. One Anonymous Bloke 1

    So if Treasury issues the same advice about tax cuts in the future, the obvious sensible thing to do is to sack them and hire someone competent instead.

    Public finances are too important to be ruined by partisan fantasists.

    • aerobubble 1.1

      Seymour argued on tv last night that landlords would raise rents if Labour remove the loophole over writing off loses on rentals. This requires that no market forces are at play, that landlords dictate price i.e that Seymour believe that housing is not functioning properly, and that investors would not shy away from becoming landlords if they could not benefit from writing off loses as part of their overall taxes. So was Seymoour being liberal with truth, disingenious, or clueless? Why would a MP vying for at would be regarded as the most astute Epsom voter by behaving like a little shit? Is he aligning himself with his core constituency. Is it any wonder that the housing market is so out of kilter when the ruling economic voter backs such loathsome ideals. Unabated open rent seeking behaviour, clueless to the inevitable destabilization of economic fortunes for all.

      • Et Tu Brute 1.1.1

        You can argue semantics and exactly how it is explained, but it seems a basic, reasonable assertion that an increase in costs (or a decrease in profits) puts upward pressure on prices. Pressure probably being the key word. You are correct that other things come into play, such as the demand side of the curve. But at the end of the day (to use that much-overused phrase), Labour wouldn’t be putting it forward as policy if it wasn’t to try and cool down the housing market… by making investment look less attractive.

        • One Anonymous Bloke

          That’s what all the little speculator shills said in Australia: “if you remove this loophole we’ll raise rents”. They removed the loophole: it didn’t happen.

          Are you going to be a deceitful ignoramus like that ACT low-life, or do facts form any part of your opinions?

          • Et Tu Brute

            I said it applies upward pressure on prices. Not that prices must necessarily go up. There is a fundamental difference. Prices are not set in a vacuum but in a complex environment of thousands (or millions) of individual decisions. But more importantly, if this doesn’t put upward pressure on prices, why even do it? Isn’t the point to make speculation less attractive?

            • aerobubble

              For every up there is a down. I said Seymour sucks because he thinks lowering the value of a rental would automatically raise rents. Nothing about investor pressure, rather investor would sell homes the more costly their position than increase their costs risking asking for more rent. Thats the point of removing the loop hole stress investors who cannot raise rents, as we can see National have come to the party raising subsides so rentor can pay more in rent.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.2

      Treasury are a bunch of fantasists that still believe in the delusional ‘free-market capitalism’ despite all the evidence that proves that it simply doesn’t work.

  2. Ad 2

    Can I just heartily recommend this dense little set of tax essays to everyone.

    It’s exactly the kind of bite-sized set of tax discussions we have been needing for a long time.

    I loved in particular the Baucher and St Johns articles, found myself arguing with Bob Stephens’ contribution, and it was great to see Eaqub remind us of government complicity in the Panama Papers again.

    Each one only takes about 10 minutes to digest. And there’s no major specific political policies on offer – rather some general pointers.

    Thoroughly recommended as the appetiser before Budget 2017 today.

    • Draco T Bastard 2.1

      What are you talking about?

      • Ad 2.1.1

        The link at the top of the post from which this article is sourced.

        Read it.

        • Draco T Bastard

          This bit:

          The second idea is that we ought to be talking about tax like it’s a long-term savings account where we each deposit weekly, knowing that one day, we may well need to withdraw the money to pay for our healthcare costs, even if we’re healthy for now. In that sense, paying tax is a pragmatic decision – what it
          funds may not always be of immediate use to us, but it likely will be in the future.

          The word that they need to be using here isn’t ‘savings account’ but ‘insurance’ because that’s what it is. By maintaining the society that you live within by paying tax you get a huge amount of insurance for very, very little. In fact, it’s far better than insurance because you know that, as long as the society is well maintained, the resources will actually be there when they’re needed whereas with insurance there’s no guarantee of that – as the people of Christchurch found out.

  3. UncookedSelachimorpha 3

    Agree with Ng, but I think there is another important aspect to “The top 10% of taxpayers paying 46% of taxes”. This relies on defining the “top 10%” according to IRD-declared income, which is probably very misleading.

    Really rich people often have very little declared income. So it is likely that the top 10% according to wealth (or to actual income, not IRD-declared income) pay far less tax than the 46% of the total mentioned.

    In fact the top 10% according to wealth own 60% of the nation’s wealth – I bet they are paying a lot less than 60% of the tax, but this government isn’t interested in gathering that type of information. More interested in gathering info on beneficiaries – gotta be “data driven” with the poor people, but not with the richies.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1


    • Jeremy 3.2

      That’s because the discussion outlined by the original author is about income taxes, not wealth taxes. In the long run an asset is only as good as the income it provides, which I believe shows there are a lot of crappy overpriced assets out there, Auckland housing comes to mind.

      If I’ve read the above article correctly the top 10% received 34% of the income and paid 46% of the taxes, bearing a larger proportion as their income allows, so the argument becomes subjective – how much is enough, over what threshold? Everyone has their own opinion.

      • UncookedSelachimorpha 3.2.1

        I suppose my point is that a discussion about income taxes…that ignores the fact that there appears to be a vast amount of real income outside the “income tax” system (especially income from capital)….is almost a pointless discussion. Undeclared real income (which favours the rich) distorts all conclusions about who is paying what.

        “In the long run an asset is only as good as the income it provides”

        The capital value of an asset is often disconnected from its (non-capital gains) income stream, at least in the medium-term – housing in NZ is currently an example.

        • Jeremy

          Apart from capital gains, I wouldn’t say there is vast real income on wealth that is untaxed. If there is, I’d like to know where it is, so I can find it.

          Yes we agree agree that capital value of assets is in many cases disconnected from the income they provide. Above you’ve outlined that the top 10% control 60% of the assets but pay 46% of the taxes, which if I understand your comment correctly, you have interpreted as the top 10% under paying tax, while I believe it indicates assets are overvalued by approx. 33% as indicated by the income they provide.

          I know better but I’m guilty of feeding this due to time constraints.

    • dukeofurl 3.3

      Yes . A high salary income person will have a family trust for housing , very simple to divert money to children at the 10.5% rate.

      Remember the Christchurch surgeons who were ‘paying themselves’ a very small salary compared to what they were actually earning. They were found to be doing so for tax avoidance reasons.
      But the same court case had a 3rd surgeon who was doing much the same thing but had a ‘hobby business on the side’, I think it was an orchard or vineyard or similar and she was found to be just ‘minimising tax’ which wasn’t illegal.

      So you can see all the horses will be stampeding through that particular open gate

      • Jeremy 3.3.1

        I don’t think any tax savings is worth staying awake at night worrying about the IRD. If income is allocated either to a single business, or you personally you will pay somewhere between 28% – 33% over 70K, with an effective rate for most of the top 10% of about 30%, which is not egregious.

        Vineyards for example are generally overpriced, and cash bonfires for the first 4 years +, I think demonstrating that many in the top 10% are throwing good money after bad assets, which increases their paper wealth but not their taxable income.

  4. Morrissey 4

    The news-reading automaton on Radio NZ news this morning dutifully read out the phrase “tax burden”. Is the National Government actually writing the scripts for these slaves now?

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