A crazy little thing called tax

If tax is love then New Zealand needs to show a lot more affection, writes Max Harris. 

The Spinoff is hosting Tax Heroes – a series covering tax, who pays it and what it means. Click here to read more.

Love is a deep warmth that we direct towards other things. It’s a value we often associate with romance, but love can exist in friendship or across a community, too. It’s a mood or disposition (the writer James Baldwin once called love “a state of grace”) – a way of being in the world that involves being sensitive to the needs of another. And like the Māori term aroha, love is connected to other values, including goodwill, selflessness, and attention.

When economist Shamubeel Eaqub said last year that “tax is love”, the phrase struck a chord with me. Shamubeel and I had spoken about love and politics before. I’d written a bit about a ‘politics of love’ in 2015, and he gave a talk in 2016 about love as the basis and goal of economic policy.

Tax is love in three ways.

First, through tax we express love to all others with whom we share Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s sometimes just not enough to express love through words or gestures alone. If my employer is kind and polite to me as an employee, but does not pay me the living wage, it’s hard to say the employer shows me love. Similarly, contributing resources to a collective pot is a way to back up words of empathy.

Second, both love and tax involve being sensitive to our capacities and others’ needs. It is part of the core of love that we might give more warmth to others in times of need. In the same way, tax works in different ways depending on what we are able to contribute. The progressive income tax is another reminder that we’ve never had one law for all: there’s general acceptance of the idea that people with more resources and power should give up a little more of what they have, proportionally, for the public good.

Third, love and tax come from the a worldview that sees us all as interdependent. Love requires a relationship between two people or things. And the essence of tax is redistribution, where money is gathered from taxpayer for another recipient or purpose. Tax reminds us that we are all in a common endeavour or project: it gives the lie to Margaret Thatcher’s line that “there is no such thing as society”.

Of course, tax might not always feel like love. I don’t want to deny that the compulsion of tax sometimes feels strict. For those struggling to make ends meet, paying tax (like any significant outlay of money) is not easy. But the way we talk about tax is important. And if what I’ve said above is right, we should stop always describing tax as a burden or cost, and start seeing it as an acknowledgment of the benefits we derive from public services – and a loving contribution to the wellbeing of all of us.

Illustration: Toby Morris

A loveless generation?

If tax is love, then – to crib a phrase from Lorde – we’re a pretty loveless generation. New Zealand largely under-taxes people, compared to similarly situated countries, and we have a political culture that discourages discussion of new taxes.

When I tell people in the UK, where I’ve been living, that New Zealand has no inheritance tax and no capital gains tax (except for ‘the bright line test’ on resale of property), I’m mostly met with dropped jaws.

New Zealand’s top marginal rate of income tax is also comparatively low. The highest rate in New Zealand is 33%, for earnings over $70,000. Compare that to a top rate of 45% in the United Kingdom, under a Conservative government. The top rate is 45% in Australia, under a Liberal administration. It’s 39.6% for Canada.  

On top of that, we’re unusual in not having a further tax bracket for earners with particularly high incomes. People who earn $71,000 pay the same marginal rate as those taking in $500,000 (or more) a year. In the United Kingdom, there’s a high-earner bracket for those earning £150,000 or more. In Australia, there’s a rate for those earning $80,000-$180,000 – and then a higher rate above $180,000. There may be a greater number of higher earners in Australia and the United Kingdom, but it remains the case that the progressivity of our system is undercut by the lack of this additional tax bracket.

Some might say that the strength of New Zealand’s tax system lies in its broad base. But it is not clear who decides whether the base is broad enough. We don’t, after all, have a wealth tax, land tax, or stamp duties.

And even if there is a broad base, the levels of revenue matter, too. Our overall tax-to-GDP ratio is below the OECD average. Without sufficient levels of revenue, we can only ever hope for so much from public services. We have to limit our ambitions for public transport or housing or regional development. And we can only do so much to tackle current rates of inequality.

Even more concerning than relatively low rates of tax, though, is the way certain kinds of tax are demonised in public debate. Take the last election as an example. The National Party continually raised the spectre of new taxes, saying for instance when the Labour Party ruled out tax changes, “Two taxes down, five to go.” Labour and the media responded by drawing attention to the fact that National had introduced multiple new taxes while in government. The focus was on the need to avoid and minimise tax, rather than a mature discussion of the fairest and best way to raise revenue.

Make no mistake: it has not always been this way. Since the 1980s a group of economists, commentators, and politicians have actively sought to cement the idea that some taxes must be minimised and cut – as part of a general effort to discredit the role of government in the economy. In 1988 the top rate of income tax was chopped from 66% to 48%; the following year it was sliced again to 33%. Inheritance tax was abolished in 1993. Stamp duty was removed in 1999. GST, paid at a flat rate, has steadily increased.

Pushing for a less progressive tax system has been an active political project. We have seen the results of it: household income inequality has risen sharply since the late 1980s. Levels of wealth (largely untaxed) may well have increased, too, but New Zealand lacks the statistics to verify this. That project does not have to continue. We could see government, acting in conjunction with community actors, as a force for good in the economy: an institution that can borrow cheaply, achieve economies of scale, and coordinate activity. A change of course is possible.

The government’s Tax Working Group is currently considering changes to the system, with submissions open until 30 April. Its mandate is relatively limited and it is only considering changes that are revenue-neutral.

Here are three ideas we could be discussing to make good on the claim that tax is love.

1. Restore the progressivity of the income tax system

To achieve a more progressive tax system, we could consider cutting taxes for people at the bottom and slightly raising taxes at the top. The UK has a tax-free threshold for earnings under £11,500 (about NZD $22,000). This ‘Personal Allowance’ could make sense in New Zealand, too, especially for people in low-paid contract work who might not have tax deducted from their pay and so have to arrange their own tax. Those earning above $70,000 might reasonably be asked to pay a little more in tax, and we might consider one further tax bracket for earners above $150,000.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation in 2016 (outlined in my book, The New Zealand Project) suggested that a rate of 39% for earnings between $70,000 and $150,000, and 45% for earnings above $150,000, would bring in an additional $1.688 billion in government revenue. That revenue could make a meaningful difference to investments in, say, mental health or sexual violence services or regional economic development. If the government is committed to progressivity across the board, it could also consider a progressive company tax (which existed in the UK until recently), in part to provide greater support to smaller businesses. There is always a risk that taxes are evaded or avoided when rates are changed. To address this the government should take further steps to address evasion and avoidance, including by beginning an honest conversation about the use of trusts in New Zealand today.

2. Create a Public Contribution Fund for those willing and able to pay more tax

Here’s a slightly more left-field idea: why not give those with considerable wealth and available income the opportunity to pay more into the public coffers, above and beyond their tax liability? We could create a Public Contribution Fund, run by the IRD, that allows additional donations by those who believe they could and should pay more in tax. There might also be an Iwi Contribution Option, which allows individuals to contribute directly to their local iwi (since in my view the best argument against tax in Aotearoa New Zealand is that it’s a contribution to government, an institution that has acquired wealth through colonisation and has not fully reckoned with its own past injustices).

In the UK, where voluntary tax payments have been possible for some time, donations have decreased since 2001 (when they totalled over £2 million), over the same period that there has been an ideological assault on the role of government in the economy. And in Norway, a recent effort to allow donations to government has reaped little revenue. So the Public Contribution Fund is unlikely to be a major money-maker, at least until we change how we view government. It might be an experiment that confirms that changing tax rates – or considering new types of tax (such as a wealth or land tax) – is the most effective way to mobilise revenue.

3. Shift the way we talk about tax

The final suggestion is the most important: we need to transition away from seeing tax entirely as a cost or burden, and begin to see it as a positive contribution to our country’s wellbeing. Members of the media might think twice before using terms like ‘tax relief’, which imply that tax is an albatross around our collective neck. Commentators might remember that public debt can be paid off not only by cutting government spending, but also by increasing tax revenue. Submitters to the Tax Working Group might insist that the group not be limited to revenue-neutral proposals. High net-worth individuals could write op-eds, or even start a small campaigning group, to say that they are willing to pay more in income or wealth taxes. They could help dispel the myth that higher taxes are all about envy or hatred of the rich – and could reinforce the idea that restoring a more progressive tax system is simply a matter of fairness. We need to create space for this debate, and widen the window of what we consider to be politically possible.

You might not agree with these ideas, or the need for the shift. But love it or hate it, let’s have the conversation.


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