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Tax reform mustn’t be a gift for the rich

Written By: - Date published: 5:25 am, August 21st, 2009 - 16 comments
Categories: tax - Tags:

Vernon Small’s pieces on tax in the Independent and Dom this week have been interesting. He provides a good overview of the issues around a land tax, capital gains tax, and raising GST. He points out that most economists argue we should tax things that can’t be taken away or avoided and things we want to discourage – so tax land, capital gain, and consumption while taxing work and income less. There is also the argument that as the workforce shrinks as a share of population in coming years, we can’t expect to get enough revenue from taxing wages.

Small thinks that these are all too politically sensitive and won’t go anywhere but I wouldn’t be so sure. English seems to get the need for change. The Greens have been calling for a capital gains tax for years, Labour isn’t set against it. Both could probably live with a land tax and even an increase in GST but it would depend how income tax would be cut in turn. National wants to give the tax cuts to the already well-off:

[The Tax Working Group] working within National’s policy framework that aims, over time, to move to a top rate of 30 per cent for personal income, businesses and investment. Bridging the gap between the current 38 per cent personal rate and 30 per cent would cost about $800 million, with another $300 million-odd needed to lower the middle 33 cent to the same level. Finding that amount of money, either by rejigging the tax base or preferably broadening it, is a big ask…

And, unfortunately, Small himself accepts the narrative that income tax cuts have to come off the top.

A small tax on land alone could fund a big move in personal tax rates. A 0.1 per cent tax – $460 million on the $460 billion of privately-held land – would offset the lost revenue from cutting the 38 cent rate to 33 cents.

But it doesn’t have to be that way and it shouldn’t be that way. Income tax cuts made possible by new taxes or tax increases must be shared by all. Most importantly, the poor must not be left out as they were from National’s April 1 tax cuts and as they would have been from National’s now cancelled 2010 and 2011 cuts. Introducing a tax-free bracket would be the fairest and simpliest option – everyone earning more than the top of the bracket would get the same cut in dollar terms and the poor would get the biggest cut in percentage terms.

For example, if increased GST, a land tax and capital gains tax raise $3 billion in new revenue, that would allow a $8,000 tax free bracket – a $1,000 a year tax cut for everyone on more than $8,000, which would more than offset the increase in GST for those on low incomes. There ought to be no reason why the Left couldn’t support that. However, the Left certainly would oppose introducing those new taxes just to give the rich a tax cut they don’t need. It is the nature of the complete package that is important.

Journos need to be careful not to buy into the narrative that income taxes automatically come off the top rates and start asking who will benefit from any reform proposals.

16 comments on “Tax reform mustn’t be a gift for the rich ”

  1. marcus lunch 1

    Far enough making a tax free step on the tax ladder however will this replace the rort that is WFF? I hope so as WFF takes tax, administers it & then redistributes less a large admin cost. Lets cut WFF, create a tax free band, create CGT on property (all property), lower tax thresholds up the ladder and increase GST to 15-17.5% to pay for it. And beneficiaries don’t get the tax breaks.

    • Eddie 1.1

      WFF is administered by IRD in conjunction with the PAYE system. It’s a simple bolt-on to the existing system, doesn’t take a lot of extra admin.

      If you cut WFF, you’ll be leaving out of pocket a whole lot of ordinary families on low and middle incomes who pay little or no effective tax at present

  2. singularian 2

    My opinion is that a tax cut/reduction should be just that, not a game of merry go round where some new taxes are introduced to offset whatever is being reduced.

    Tax cuts should result in less Government spending if they can’t make remaining revenue go further.

    • Eddie 2.1

      the debate is about reforming the sources of govt revenue. That’s a separate issue from the total amount of tax raised. And the should be kept separate so that any reforms don’t get bogged down.

  3. marcus lunch 3

    Hmm, less government you say? What is this heresy you preach evil one.

  4. Chris 4

    That’s a mighty big ask: Journos need to be careful not to buy into simplistic arguments spun by Mactional.

  5. lprent 5

    Producing a tax free bracket would also produce a lot lower probability of the left simply pushing the progressive taxes back into place next time.

    It is ridiculous as a nation to penalize people and their kids for being poor by sticking them into a poverty trap. The countervailing argument that reducing taxes on the more wealthy encourages more investment, has been shown over the last 30 years to be a fallacy. it may do. But to date all that has happened is that the money has been sunk into a useless housing bubble. Fix that problem first and see if the investment pattern changes.

    In the meantime, keep training people, especially kids, out of lifetime poverty patterns. It is too damn expensive for the economy. Raising gst hits the poor hardest and giving the benefits to the better off does nothing for the country except fuelling housing bubbles

  6. Maynard J 6

    Any reform of the tax system will have one of two goals, with four possible side benefits.

    The goals are a more progressive system, or a more regressive system.

    The side benefits are disincentives on negative externalities (and of course vice versa) reduced collection costs, reduced tax avoidance and reduced distribution costs, all through a simplified system.

    National’s goals are to increase the regression, but it appears they are willing to consider doing to by reducing a regression in another area. This is achieved by reducing income tax on the wealthy (relatively, of course, before someone jumps up and down that $60k is not wealthy) alone, while introducing a tax on profits derived from wealth itself in the form of property.

    I really liked reading this article – pointing out that the former does not need to be a given when considering tax reform. The only thing I would point out is that a CGT is still a tax on income, but a different form of income. Reducing tax on the staple income of all New Zealanders – wages and salaries – and increasing it on incomes only avilable at a direct external cost to others (in this case, increased rents etc upon all dereived by limited ownership of a fixed and finite resource, land) is something I support, given a revenue-neutral standpoint.

    I wonder what method land owners will find to rort a CGT. I am sure they will find a way to write off profits from land if needed.

    • RedLogix 6.1

      I wonder what method land owners will find to rort a CGT. I am sure they will find a way to write off profits from land if needed.

      Absolutely. Only muggins pay CGT in Aussie. Which is one of the many reasons why CGT’s are a complex, expensive and clumsy tax…. and never raise as much actual revenue as a govt might hope for.

      A straight Land Tax is a far simpler and cleaner system, much more preferable, and far harder to rort.

      • Maynard J 6.1.1

        Feel free to do a piece on the pros and cons of each, if you have a spare minute…or hour…or half day!!

  7. RedLogix 7

    But to date all that has happened is that the money has been sunk into a useless housing bubble.

    Fine, I agree with the sentiment, but the behaviour will not change until the root cause is changed. I would suggest that the four main drivers of property as the most popular investment are:

    1. It works. I recall reading a while back that around 80% of all wealth in this country is generated from property.

    2. It has a low subjective probability of total failure. Each individual only gets a limited number of chances at securing prosperity, each investment counts, and if any one of them falls over totally there is a high risk of everything falling over. This is why people are so keen to structure their investments into isolated entities to try and mitigate this risk. With any other investment there is a real chance that due to circumstances completely beyond your control, you can loose almost everything. Normally the worst that happens with property is that in the end you have to sell it.

    3. For the same reasons the banks regard it as solid security. For this reason they will lend high Loan to Value Ratios on this asset class above all else. A bank will lend you 80% (or more) to buy a house. They will not lend you 80% of the value of shares, not even shares in their own bank!

    4. Banks make money by lending people money. The more money they lend, the more profit. The property bubble was driven by banks increasing LVR’s to above 80% and reducing serviceability criteria. This pumped more credit into the system and drives prices up. It’s that simple.

    Nothing much can be done about points 1-3. Property will always have these inherent characteristics. The circuit breaker is at point 4… the banks. In order to prevent another property bubble (and although I invest in property, I’m no fan of these stupid excesses at all) the govt must step in to regulate the banks.

    Long term property values havre typically trending about 14-15 times rental values. Banks should be limited to lending no more than 12 times the imputed rental value of a property (which effectively limits LVR to no more than 80% as well).

    Banks must be strictly regulated to maintain strong working capital reserve ratios at all times. At least 15%.

    The dangerous banking practice of funding short term and lending long term must be strictly limited.

  8. lprent 8

    Or add GST to certain types of financial transactions? Each mortgage payment is a financial transaction. That means that property that does have an income that isn’t rent (no GST) will be able to claim it back. Simple rentals and leases will not. Adding a tax to those types of transactions should help push money into something more productive including productive property.

    I know why it wasn’t done in 1986. The computer systems were crap and couldn’t handle the overhead of more transactions on the systems at the time. Not the case now.

  9. RascallyRabbit 9

    Regarding tax on lower incomes;

    That harbinger of Laissez-faire capitalism and recipient of big-business charity the New Zealand Institute strongly advocated for the current round of tax cuts be repealed and replaced with more lower-income friendly tax adjustments in many of its discussion documents this year.

    If a think-tank such as that is advocating it then why shouldn’t the government listen?!

    (Takes off rose-tinted glasses)

    I am all for adjustments in the tax system that make those on lower-incomes better off and allows us to allocate capital more productively as a nation.

  10. tsmithfield 10

    The more complex a tax system is, the more opportunities there are for clever accountants to devise tax minimisation strategies for their clients.

    A simple consumption tax such as GST is much more efficient as it removes the opportunities to discover loopholes in the system.

    • Maynard J 10.1

      Of course the converse (W.R.T the benefits of a simple system) applies, in that it is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel.

      Whether you’re happy with a simple but blunt tool, over a complicated but accurate tool would depend upon whether you think there is a need for accuracy 😉

      (note I do not disagree with your point!)

    • snoozer 10.2

      on the other hand, the higher GST the greater incentive for people to claim personal spending as a business expense so the GST can be written off

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