I know it’s a shocking thing for an economics writer to confess, but I’ve lost my faith in the Search for the Golden Tax System. I no longer believe that reforming our tax system is the magic key to improving the nation’s economic and social wellbeing.
As we start to review the modest achievements of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government over the past five years, business people, economists and accountants are lamenting its lack of progress on tax reform.
It raised expectations of sorely needed reform, then wilted at the first hint of political difficulty. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government did little better in its six years.
So, the zealots are telling us, the tax system remains unreformed, a millstone around our economy whose threat to our future becomes ever-more urgent. Every so often, one of the big four firms of chartered accountants comes up with its own plan to fix everything.
Sorry, not buying. It’s true our tax system is far from ideal, but if after decades of trying we’re still no closer to nirvana, it’s doubtful we ever will be.
Meanwhile, other aspects of the economy just as important to our present and future wellbeing, and just as in need of “reform”, languish while we obsess about taxes.
Such as? Education and training. Health. Cities with long commute times. “Sorry, we’ll get on to it as soon as we’ve increased the GST.”
The never-ending quest for tax reform is being promoted partly by econocrats, tax economists and tax accountants who specialise in the topic and have little to contribute on other issues.
She didn’t put it this way, but the truth that tax “reform” has long been pushed by well-off men for their own benefit – and at the expense of less well-paid women – was demonstrated in a paper given at a tax conference last week by one of our leading tax economists, Professor Patricia Apps, of the University of Sydney Law School.
She showed how the Productivity Commission’s recent report finding there’d been no increase in inequality in recent decades rested on lumping couples’ incomes together, ignoring the difference in contributions by each partner and, in particularly, assuming that “home produced goods and services” – such as childcare, cooking or cleaning – make no contribution to the family’s standard of living, so can be ignored when they have to be bought in because both partners are working.
To be fair, the commission did its analysis the way it’s usually done. But that’s because such analysis is mainly done by men, to whom it never occurs to take account of home production.
Apps used samples of more than 2400 households from the official household expenditure surveys in 2004 and 2016 to divide their income between that contributed by the “primary earner” (mainly male) and the “secondary earner” (mainly female). Primary earners were aged between 20 and 60.
She found that over 12 years, the incomes of primary earners’ in the bottom decile (group of 10 per cent) rose by 53 per cent, increasing to a 78 per cent rise for those in the eight decile and 124 per cent for the top decile. Look like rising inequality to you?
Then she estimated the income tax those primary earners paid, after adjusting for inflation. Comparing the last year with the first, those in the bottom decile got a real tax saving of $1450 a year, whereas those in the top decile got a saving of $12,340 a year.
So, high income earners benefited most. But get this: after the bottom decile the tax saving fell to a low of $200 for the fifth decile and $370 for the sixth. It then started rising slowly until it leapt for the top decile.
See what’s happened? Very low income earners have done OK, earners at the very top have done brilliantly, and people around the middle have got peanuts. Guess where the (mainly female) secondary earners are likely to be congregated?
Of course, the high income-earners keep telling us their tax rates need to be cut to encourage them to work harder. But Apps has calculated the workers’ “labour supply elasticity”. In effect, she finds it’s very elastic (price-sensitive) for part-timers, but quite inelastic for full-timers, particularly those who’re highly paid.
Looking at primary earners in the top decile, she found that, despite their huge pay rise over the 12 years, and their generous tax cuts, the average number of hours they were working was virtually unchanged.
The various tax changes we’ve had – which aren’t nearly enough to satisfy the tax reformers – have favoured (mainly male) high income-earners, without any sign it’s made them work more.
The people whose decisions about whether to leave the home to do paid work, or to move from part-time to full-time, are those most likely to be affected by the tax they have to pay, but are no better off and probably worse off.
No prize for guessing these are mainly women with children. All this is long known by true tax experts – but just as long ignored. Tax reform is a game for well-off men on the make. Wake me when the women take over.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.