Reviving Georgism: How the Greens could improve their taxation policy

Previously, I wrote that I would vote according tax reform policy because I consider tax reform as fundamental in resolving economic equality in NZ and abroad. It’s also no secret that my voting preferences are best understood in a left-wing framework, but this does not presuppose I would vote for a NZ Left party if their tax policy had worse outcomes.  Anyhow, I was reading the Greens taxation policy and decided this was a good time to write the third installment of Reviving Georgism and discuss how the Greens could improve their taxation policy to address the unrelenting economic inequality smothering NZ.

(Obviously, I am critiquing from a non-economist perspective but in light of Henry George’s economic theory)

Summary of Greens Taxation policy

The Greens state that they envision a tax system that ‘supports communities and the environment, encouraging sustainable behaviour while providing sufficient revenue for the effective operation of Government’.

They insist that a tax system should be broad based to avoid excessive reliance on personal and business income taxes, and that the tax base should include: Personal & Business Income Taxes, Consumption & Expenditure Taxes, Targeted Environmental Taxes, and Taxes that acknowledge the value of common property (Resource Rents).

The Greens also advocate Ecological Taxes (ET), a Capital Gains Tax (CGT), and a Christchurch Earthquake Levy (CEL) as part of their policy proposal. In addition, they recommend setting up an ecological tax commission, increasing the top marginal personal income tax rate, altering the progressive tax scale, and introducing a universal tax free threshold for the first $10,000 of income.

The Greens support exempting the family home from CGT, restricting foreign purchases of local assets, and treating investment income equally for tax purposes.

This taxation policy is intended to ‘shift taxes off work and enterprise, and onto waste, pollution and scarce resources’. The Greens insist under their taxation policy ‘clean business pays less and everyone pays less income tax’.

Note, I will not be discussing The Greens monetary policy included in the taxation scheme, in this post, except to point out that if productive income tax is abolished, individuals would receive their full wage and this is likely to be spent back into the economy, increasing the money supply in circulation without having to artificially create more money or print more money.

Why tax at all?

Most of us probably agree that under current economic conditions we need to fund public services for the most vulnerable members in our communities and for other community needs. And generally, tax is considered acceptable for this purpose. The question for now then is not whether we should tax, but rather what should we tax.

Of course, hard leaning right libertarians will probably dispute the use of taxation altogether, but for the purposes of this post, I will not explore that particular argument.

As pointed out in my previous posts on Reviving Georgism here and here, I explain how Henry George proposed targeting what we take not what we make and he saw this is as fundamental to eradicating poverty and instrumental in advancing progress.  I think that the Greens vision could be highly compatible with Georgism if more radical changes were made to their taxation policy  and if they simplified rather than complicated the tax system because their vision is not too dissimilar from George.

Analysing the Greens under a Georgist lens

Currently, the Greens taxation policy is not the fairest way to draw revenue for public services because it places a large tax burden on the productive earnings of individuals and businesses and burdens them with further costs attributable to an array of other taxes (existing and new).  But it does at least feature land and resource rents, which are not only relevant to Georgism but probably the most important component of an efficient and effective tax system.

I find the Greens phrase  ‘funding the effective operation of Government’ problematic, because it’s so general in nature it ignores that the tax system must be simple or efficient if we want effective government. As pointed out in the Taxing Question of Land ‘complex tax systems allow for avoidance, evasion and expensive administration costs to both the public and private purse’. So it is really a matter of fiscal responsibility to implement a simple tax system. The Greens seem to presume that the introduction of CGT counters the avoidance issues, but they ignore the cost it takes to administer further taxes and to enforce payment, and the fact that individuals and businesses may still be able to hide that revenue in offshore tax havens.   Unfortunately, the Greens policy does not simplify the monstrosity of a tax system we currently endure, it introduces a raft of new taxes without abolishing any existing taxes, and effectively feeds the monster.

The Greens also insist that a broad base tax system is necessary to reduce the burden on income earners, but seem to equate ‘broad base’ with many taxes. Broad base just means not restricting to narrow sources, and as the Land Value Tax Campaign argue land itself is the broadest base of all from which to draw public revenue since it’s the hub of basically all economic activity. The Greens seem to overlook the practical role of land and natural resources in this sense.

The Greens insist that their taxation policy lowers income taxes but it doesn’t. It raises the top PAYE rate to 39% for those that earn over $80,001.00. The Greens retain a tax-free threshold which is intended to offset the land and resource rents that form part of their ecological taxes. In addition, there is no reward for clean business, there is simply an exemption from paying the maximum rate.

In order to understand the alleged benefits of the Greens income taxation, I carried out a comparison between the current PAYE scheme and the Greens PAYE scheme. The table below shows the current thresholds and tax rates against the Greens taxation proposals. It also provides two examples illustrating that the Greens are wrong to say that ‘everyone pays less income tax’.

Current PAYE 
Tax rate
 
Greens PAYE
Tax rate
Up to 14,000
14,001 to 48000
48,001 to 70,000
70,001+
10.5%
17.5%
30%
33%
Up to 10,000
10,001 to 42,500
42,501 to 80,000
80,001+
0%
19%
33%
39%
(Note: all comparisons exclude all other levy's/taxes)
Example A: XX earns $90,000 per annum
AA under PAYE
$90,000
AA under Greens PAYE
$90,000
$14,000  - 10.5%
$34,000  - 17.5%
$22,000  - 30%
$20,000  - 33%
$1,470
$5,950
$6,600
$6,600
$10,000  - 0%
$32,500  - 19%
$37,500  - 33%
$10,000  - 39%
0
$6,175
$12,375
$3,900
TOTAL
$20,620
TOTAL
$22,450

Example A shows that someone who earns $90,000 p.a pays an extra $1,380 p.a under the Greens taxation scheme.

Example B: XY earns $48,000 per annum
XY under PAYE
$48,000
XY under Greens PAYE
$48,000
$14,000 - 10.5%
$34,000 - 17.5%
$1,470
$5,950
$10,000  - 0%
$32,500  - 19%
$5,500   - 33%
$0
$6175
$1,815
TOTAL
$7,420
TOTAL
$7,990

Example B shows that someone who earns $48,000 p.a pays an extra $570 p.a under the Greens taxation scheme.

So despite the Greens universal subsidy for the first $10,000 earned, no real benefit accrues to the income earner. The use of progressive taxation nullifies the intended effect of a tax-free threshold. It’s probably why Labour dropped it and why National have argued against it.

LVT avoids issues inherent in progressive taxation

Supporters for progressive taxation schemes typically argue that the most well off members in society should pay more than the least well off members. I agree to an extent, except I don’t think ‘well-off’ should have any bearing on actual income earned – such income goes to the income earner in exchange for their labour. I’d argue that well-off is those with the privilege of holding land, that is, those whose increases in wealth occur through the State sanctioned legal privilege of land holding (*NB, I do understand that there are persons who are asset rich and cash poor which needs special attention when implementing a tax reform such as LVT).

Other issues that concern me with progressive taxation are:

  1. self-employed earners may opt to work for cash jobs to avoid paying the higher tax rate, thereby reducing the amount of revenue collected for public services/effective operation of Government
  2. it could discourage individuals and businesses from acting charitably because of the increase in tax from their productive earnings, thereby reducing the funds that might otherwise be invested or directed toward charitable causes
  3. by having the income tax rate so high and introduction of resource taxes on top along with a raft of other taxes without removing any pre-existing taxes, may in fact drive down wages or employers may choose to employ fewer people to maximize their profits

Avoiding xenophobia allegations

I do worry about the restrictions on asset purchases targeted at foreign purchasers. Restricting foreign purchases of local assets suggests xenophobic attitudes, whether intended or not. However, if land rents are implemented, there is no need for the restrictions because the landowner becomes liable to pay the land tax. The rents accumulated are then redistributed back to the community whose efforts created the unimproved value of the land. This unimproved value is also why I think the Greens are wrong to exclude the family home as a source of tax revenue. Homeowners can simply hold their properties without making any improvements yet the land value increases through the efforts of others but the benefit of that unearned increment goes straight to the land title holder.

Greens compatibility with Georgism

In reference to my earlier posts on Georgism, I do think The Greens are right to argue that ‘work and enterprise should be encouraged and speculative investment in non-productive assets discouraged’, and I also agree that ‘the taxation burden should be reallocated away from income and towards resource use, waste, and pollution’, which is why I think the Greens policies could be highly compatible with Georgist economic theory.

If the Greens explored the fundamentals of Georgism, I think they could create a sound tax system that fits their vision while simultaneously addressing the economic inequality smothering NZ.

I think the best way to improve the outcomes of our most disadvantaged members is by abolishing income tax altogether.  This does not mean abandoning social security. The LVT is an effective precursor to introducing a UBI, and subsequently the dismantling of an overreaching State by reducing the need for many of the services the State provides. It is simple and  efficient.

In my opinion, The Greens are in a favourable position. Without the support of the Greens, Labour probably wont be able to govern. This means that instead of the Greens having to resort to incrementalism (after all, Labour have that covered) they can use their influence as part of a coalition to push more radical policy that is less State centred while trying fresh ideas to revitalise the Left and broaden their appeal across the political spectrum.

In summary, The Greens could improve their taxation policy by abolishing taxes on productive earnings and focusing on taxing land and resources. This would simplify the tax system, work toward reducing the size of government and act as a precursor to implementing a UBI.

 

FYI – Over the next week or so, I will be updating my blogshelf to include a page designated to Land Value Taxation. Please email me: ellipsister.blog@gmail.com  if you have a blog or website and want to make sure I include it! Thanks. 

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7 comments

  1. A couple of things.

    We need to get to fundamentals on our monetary system also. We went off the Gold Standard a while ago now. We do t spend tax dollars, we destroy them. We create money via computer keystroke to spend, much as a bank does to lend. So long as we believe tax is a requirement of spending, rather than a means of managing the money in the system, we’re chasing out tails.

    Xenophobia, we’ve jostled over this before. In a utopian world we would have no boarders. But let’s say that Mr International investor is a global food corporation, enclosing land, appreciating prices that drive locals off the land. Tax of any kind isn’t a disincentive to the Feudalist. I fail to see a substantial difference between colonialism and the neo-colonialism we’re witnessing as global business buys the worlds land. By all means move here, or buy a holiday home, but there has to be some discussion about those who simply seek to enclose.

    But I’m with you, LVT seems an obvious and essential fit with The Greens stated desires.

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    1. I tried to avoid discussing monetary policy in this post, but I don’t think I argued tax is a requirement of spending, I suggested that without income tax individuals would have more money, which they would then inevitably spend back into the economy. I also need to spend a bit/lot more time on MMT!

      I do get why the Greens might focus on restricting foreign purchases of local assets, and I understand your concern about purchasing to enclose by global corporates etc But rather than make the policy sound like its a ‘foreign’ issue and opening up to xenophobia claims, draft the policy on restricting multinationals etc because surely the concern is not simply that they’re foreign?

      (Thanks by the way, for your comments!)

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    1. Absolutely. But regardless the Greens claim that ‘everyone’ pays less income tax under their scheme is untrue.

      Fyi – The two income levels chosen were based on the changes to the thresholds, I wanted to see the effects of lowering the mid threshold while increasing the rate vs the mid rate threshold now; and also the same at the top end.

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    2. You are right its only fair I include calculations for median wage. I have taken the figures from Statistics NZ June 2013 quarter (it appeared to be the most recent).

      The median income from wages is $844 p/w which is $43,888p.a. Under the current PAYE the wage earner pays $6,630.40 in tax p.a (excl ACC levy). Under the Greens PAYE scheme they pay $6,633.04 p.a. So they pay marginally less tax under the current PAYE.

      Unsurprisingly, the median income from across all sources is much lower than the median wage. It is $575 p/w or $29,900p.a. under the current PAYE scheme they pay $4,282.50 p.a whereas under the Greens they would pay $3,781p.a. So they pay $501.50 p.a more under the current scheme. Therefore, under the Greens they would receive an estimated $9.60 p/w more.

      But is it fair to increase the tax rate at thresholds at the points the Greens have to give around half the population a mere $9.60 p/w when many of the recipients are already receiving government transfers, and given that sum isn’t exactly significant. If the point of the taxation policy is to encourage enterprise and productive behaviour thereby lifting those on low incomes and increasing opportunities for the unemployed then I still think this policy misses the mark – even though I can see that the Greens have good intentions to help our most vulnerable.

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