Fairness – Take two!
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax and fairness.
On leaving the bureaucracy last year there were two issues that drove me absolutely mental and I wanted to put my energies into. The first was the rising prison population at a time of falling crime rates and the second was homelessness. Since then with the former I have become the policy coordinator for JustSpeak and a trustee for Yoga Education in Prisons Trust. For the latter – zip.
So with that in mind I went to a recent Labour Party thing on Housing stuff. But about mid way Phil Twyford said that the Labour Party in its first term of office was going to do a comprehensive review of the tax system to improve its fairness. Now I have heard them talk about this before – but comprehensive review. Wow.
Since then Andrew Little has said they aren’t putting up taxes. So maybe this means this working group will be ‘tax neutral’ in the way Bill English’s was?
Now on the basis that this isn’t simply code for a capital gains tax, I thought I’d do a bit of a scan as to what this could mean in practice. My focus will be on the revenue positive items as the tax community will have their own laundry list of revenue negative ‘unfairnesses’ they will want fixing.
But first I am going to get over myself. Yes fairness could mean a poll tax but when the Left talks about tax and fairness it is implicitly a combination of horizonal and vertical equity. Horizontal equity where all income is taxed the same way and Vertical equity where tax rises in proportion to income.
Alternatively tax and fairness to the Left can also mean using the tax system to remove or reduce structural inequities in the economy and not just in the tax system itself. So here we go:
Now the most obvi unfair thing is the way capital income is taxed more lightly than labour income. Always loved Andrew Little’s comment about the average Auckland house earning more than the average Auckland worker. Dunno why he doesn’t use it more.
Now the lighter taxation might be there for some good reasons including:
- Long periods before it is realised. Is it fair to tax people when don’t have cash to pay the tax?
- Valuation issues. Although this goes once move to realisation based taxes.
- International norm. Soz unfortunately everyone taxes capital more lightly – sigh.
- Lock in effect. If have to pay tax would you ever sell?
- Incentive for entrepreneurship which is a good thing apparently.
Oh and not being able to get elected.
Options include a realised capital gains tax or Gareth’s wealth taxation thing. Both have issues but both would be an improvement if fairness or horizontal equity is your thing.
Alongside the not taxing capital gains is that we don’t tax imputed rents. Remember how owning your own home is effectively paying non-deductible rent to yourself and earning taxable rent? Except the value of the rent is not taxed? Awesome. But its non-taxation also offends the horizontal equity thing – even if it is your house – and so is unfair.
Active income of controlled foreign companies
New Zealand companies that earn foreign business income in their own names are taxed. New Zealand companies that earn foreign income through a foreign company aren’t. Why? International norm. Not fair but everyone else does that too. Also brought in by Michael Cullen. Nuff said.
Capital or wealth taxation
While Gareth’s thing is potentially wealth taxation it really is taxation of an imputed or deemed return on wealth rather than a tax on wealth per se. Actually taxing capital or wealth is where inheritance or gift duties come in.
Now neither of them are actually income taxes. They are outright taxes on capital. And if that capital arose from taxed income then would be very unfair to tax. However not entirely sure that is the case and these taxes are relatively painless as they tax windfalls; don’t effect behaviour and only apply to the well off. So they potentially promote fairness from a ‘reducing inequality’ sense rather than a horizontal or vertical equity sense.
There are a few things here. There are all the issues with interest and capital gains but they reduce if you ever tax capital gains or do Gareth’s thing. Others include:
- Borrowing for PIE investment can get deductions at 33% while PIE income is taxed at 28%
Donations tax credit
Now this isn’t an obvious one as everyone can get a third back of their donations up to their total taxable income. So that is pretty fair. But the more taxable income you have the more subsidy you get. And it can go to a decile 10 school; your own personal charity or a church with an interesting back story. But dude – seriously – who can afford to give away all their taxable income? Perhaps worth a little look.
Labour income that is earned as an employee is subject to PAYE and no deductions are allowed. Labour income that is earned as a contractor is only sometimes subject to withholding taxes and deductions are allowed. Aside from deductions which are likely to be pretty minimal with most employee type jobs – there is an evasion risk when people become responsible for their own tax. Spesh when such people are on very low incomes. Whole bunch of other ‘fairness’ issues too like access to employment law; but this is just a tax post.
Labour – and any income – can also be earned through a company. And a company is only taxed at 28% while the top rate is 33%. So if you don’t need all that income to live off you can decide how much stays in the company and how much you pay yourself. Is that fair?
Now of course there is always the old staple – increasing the top marginal tax rate. And yes that does enhance vertical equity but it also causes other problems elsewhere. So if you are going to make the system more misaligned please make sure that it doesn’t become the backdrop for widespread income shifting as it did last time.
Oh and secondary tax. Now there are many things that are unfair including precarious work and over taxation. Not sure secondary tax is one of them. While you have a progressive tax scale and multiple income sources – you get secondary tax. It appears that under BT – page 22 – the edges can be taken off getting a special tax code which should help but secondary tax in some form is structurely here to stay.
Look forward to it all playing out.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about secondary tax.
Early on in my mothering life as a good middle class parent your correspondent – or probs a family member as I was pretty much exhausted for the first couple of years with each baby – bought Dr Seuss’ ABC.
Aunt Abigail’s Alligator A – A – A
All the letters had rhymes with words that started with the ‘profiled’ letter. The exception – pun coming – was the letter X. Because I guess xylophone and xenophophia were outside the target range for preschoolers – the rhyme became X is very useful for words like ax (with no fricken e) and extra fox.
Now while I was still 5 plus years away from discovering tax, Mr your correpondent and I always read that as extra tax. Coz I mean what is an extra fox for goodness sake? Aunt Abigail’s Alligator now that makes sense but – Dude really – an extra fox? What’s that about?
Now amonst the Precariat secondary tax is very much considered to be an extra tax. And according to the Council of Trade Unions the Labour party has promised – as they did last election – to repeal it on coming to government.
Thing is they haven’t actually promised that. They have said in the detail of recommendation S8 that the Government as part of Inland Revenue’s business transformation should look to remove secondary tax. These are subtle but important distinctions which we will come back to. Lucky for them Labour actually has someone on their team that gets tax.
So what is secondary tax?
Well it is the tax deducted on second jobs. It is a function of having the progressive tax scale that the left loves so much.
First jobs get code M which I guess stands for main job. It takes the pay and multiplies it by the number of pay periods to get an annual amount ; calculates the tax and then divides that by the number of pay periods to get the tax for the income in the period. While it is relatively simple it does mean those with lumpy pays – overtime; seasonal workers – are overtaxed as a high pay is assumed to be a high annual income.
Second jobs however people have to choose a flat rate – secondary tax – based on how much they earn from other jobs. And there is a view – clearly shared by the CTU – that this overtaxes their income. Now it is true that it taxes second jobs more than first jobs but this is really just to reflect that extra income means higher tax.
Coz remember how progressive taxation means the more income you earn the proportionally greater tax you pay? Yeah well this is how it is implemented for those with second jobs und the current PAYE system.
Now I fully get that as it is a flat rate and if you don’t earn as much as you thought you will be over taxed. But that is a function of our PAYE system being inherently middle class. As it works beautifully for those on stable incomes ie salaries.
Everyone else with unstable incomes – even if it is only from one job – runs the risk of being overtaxed and then yes needing the claim a refund. And then yes if you go to those refund companies they’ll take a cut. There is an IRD option but they don’t have the marketing budget of the refund firms so it is less well known.
The real issue though is the changing face of employment and precarious work – something the Labour Party is at least acknowledging and trying to address. Yeah I am not sure about the training levy either – but at least they are trying.
So yeah trying to get BT to address lumpy incomes is a good idea. So good that Hon Mike may have his officials on it already.
Just repealing secondary tax though is a really dumb idea.
Unless you are happy with undertaxation and people needing to file and/or becoming non-compliant with all the associated risks. Alternatively it is an argument for widening the bottom bands. But rich people will get that benefit too. So Labour Party – trying to get technology to solve it is the right direction.
Real issue though is the numbers outside the withholding systems coz they’re not employees.