Progressive Income Tax and Efficiency

The delightfully named Ben Spies-Butcher of the CPD writes in support of the Henry Review’s proposals for the income tax system as opposed to a flat tax. In a nutshell, he feels that the Henry Review’s scheme offers great efficiency benefits by simplifying the tax system and reducing high and uneven effective marginal tax rates for low income earners without losing “the progressivity, or fairness, of the tax system by giving large tax cuts to those at the top.”.

It is a bit confusing to me that social democrats rely so heavily on the fairness argument for progressive income tax. Sure it is central to their own values, but I think it overlooks the good reasons to think that a properly designed progressive system can be quite efficient.

Short of sin and Pigou taxes, where the “distortion” is beneficial, and rent taxes that have no distortion, revenue is best raised where distortion is minimised. Income taxes clearly have the potential to distort, but this potential is not equal at all income levels. The elasticity of labour supply is far greater at the lower end of the income scale, and thus income taxation becomes far less distortionary as income increases, allowing higher taxes with little ill effect.

The first reason is the diminishing marginal utility of money goods. The amount of stuff a each extra dollar can buy makes much more difference at the lower incomes than at the higher. This is probably taken as an equity argument, but it also means that taxes’ effect on  the high income earner’s utility, and thus their behavior is also reduced relative to the same tax on a low income earner.

Which brings us to the second point. Since some people are still working in high paying and taxed jobs, rather than choosing greater leisure instead, there must  be non-money goods reasons for working. Careers that carry their own utility in the form of professional satisfaction, or keeping scores with rivals.The jobs that are likely to have greater inherent utility are disproportionally at the higher end of the income scale in the professions, upper management etc. Here people are less likely to withdraw their labour because of marginal tax rates because the return to their efforts comes in non-money forms such as job satisfaction, career progression, reputation and the like. The jobs as the lower end of the scale are far more likely to be seen as a form of support rather than a calling. Pay may be the entire reason for working, and thus taxing it here would have far more effect. Which leaves the point scoring with rivals – comparing salaries. Since this is relative rather than absolute, taxation on a given income level would have no effect on this motivation to work if it is applied universally. As long as participants are assured that their income peers aren’t getting away with tax rorts, tax can reduce the absolute salary without affecting the relative salaries that they use to rank themselves.

And lastly, there is differing ability for workers to actually control the amount of labour they supply.

In one form there is simply the ability to choose how many hours are worked, when pay is directly related to that number of hours. There is an extreme amount of lumpiness in the hours offered by employers due to strong cultural and institutional factors. There is also the fact that in most jobs two people working is not equivalent to one person working the same hours combined – employers don’t really have the ability to deal with elastic workers. The 9-5 job has great inertia for this reason. The ability to choose hours in this manner is limited to some waged jobs (no salaried workers) and some of the self employed who can take more, or less clients – and here convention and the expectations of customers often require a 9-5 work week. Subsequently, the workers whose supply of paid wage hours are likely to be more elastic, and thus affected by taxation, are disproportionally likely to be in waged jobs where it makes no difference whether two workers or one does a given amount of hours as long as x hours are worked. These are generally part time jobs and low skilled jobs in retail and services – all at the low end of the income scale.

The other form is workers who give greater or less effort in a salaried job relative to the promise of promotion or a pay rise. It is possible that such a worker will decide that the tax reduced higher earnings from these is not worth the greater effort, but I think that the very uncertain relationship here combined with the further complexities of firm culture and institutions means that the effect of taxation here will not be considerable compared to other factors.

So there is good reason to think that a flattening of the tax system at low income levels will reduce distortion there. This is promised by the Henry Review plan Spies Butcher gives backing to. But there is equally good reason to think that taxation has limited effect on labour supply at higher income levels. To adopt a flat tax here would reduce revenue without a return (in efficiency or of misanthropes from Galt’s Gulch). If revenue needs to be raised, this is a fairly efficient way to do it. It doesn’t need to be justified by equity alone.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Gavin R. Putland
11 years ago

One can replace income tax with a consumption tax, while retaining the same distribution of after-tax spending power as under the existing “progressive” income tax, provided that NET (not gross) wages and salaries are preserved in the transition; see Swallowing a camel…

An alternative method of making a consumption tax progressive is to include a “prebate”, as in the U.S. “Fairtax” proposal.

Either approach leads to a marginal income-tax rate of zero for all taxpayers (provided that, under the former approach, new appointments are under a new IR system).

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Perhaps it’s true that some social democrats ‘overlook’ these issues, especially if they are not trained to think in terms of supply elaticities. However, you’ll find that your points about income effects, non-pecuniary motives for work, and lumpiness, are all rehearsed in standard public finance text books. The argument is usually structured along the lines of: (1) progressive income tax is fairer, (2) but there is a danger that high marginal rates don’t act as a severe disincentive to work extra hours, (3) however, there are reasons why for certain groups it wouldn’t be that severe a disincentive.

The main reason the Swedes flattened their tax scale in the 1990s was not concern about disincentives but a consensus that high marginal rates encouraged tax evasion, and were therefore counterproductive.

Mervyn Jacobi
Mervyn Jacobi
11 years ago

Ihink that many people dream about these far to much without realising what the complications are. Whether you like or not, the tax system had a good workout in the 1930′ through to 1950, finding that a top tax of 66.6% was needed to restrain excessive profits and costs. The costs of goods and services fell dramatically, and I never heard of any complaints. The only fault was that the tax on the wage earners was set than at 9 to 10%, and the wole total of taxes both corporate was more than the 30% of GPD, and the politicians had a great spend on perks etc. there should have been no tax up to about $25,000 to keep within that 30% if that was what was needed.

Mervyn Jacobi
Mervyn Jacobi
11 years ago

Sorry for those mistakes, I was not as careful as I should have been

James Farrell
James Farrell(@james-farrell)
11 years ago

For my part I’d like to raise the readership of the former, at least among my students!

Another argument I’m happy to put is for income tax as a Pigovian tax on the externality whereby A’s pay rise causes disutility for B — given the importance of relative income in our utilty functions. We’d be better off reading and painting, and spending time with friends and family, than running on the status treadmill.

But I’m about the only person around here who is sympathetic to such paternalistic and romantic sentiments, and I don’t claim it as a core social democratic doctrine.

observa
observa
11 years ago

CO2E taxing would be the most equitably unavoidable tax we could have with the spinoff that it effectively satisfies either the AGW hysteria or peak oil, whichever is your particular bag. Almost unavoidable and administratively simple via the mine or well head. For CO2 hysterics they have the whole gamut of taxation to play with and the closer 100% reliance, the more equitable it becomes and if the bicycle, reading, painting, home grown organics and mud brick abode is your only real skillset, then the least usurious. What more could Gaia and the social democrat ask for?

Resource taxing in general including land as a resource with nil for natural up to a maxm for tar and cement to up the social cost of turning the natural environment to our wants. Then add an ANWT for those that have enjoyed larger social economic rents along the way, life cycle and sharing adjusted naturally with a special out. Exempt from ANWT for any time they hold it in social trust for current and future generations, namely natural environment holding, with a franking credit for any wealth(income) expended in protecting or creating same.

Your challenge is to better that overall blueprint or throw me a problem/concern and I’ll show you how it deals with that better than any other mix you can think of. I’ll start you off by proferring it’s got all the heady headscratching over the Laffer Curve beat-
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/08/where_does_the_laffer_curve_be.html

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

As no doubt you know Richard, Marshall and Pigou regarded the diminishing marginal utility of money as pretty much axiomatic. It was part of the commonsense on which economics got built. Then some bright spark objected to comparisons of interpersonal utility. Marshall et al had always been careful to couch these comparisons as ones that could be made between groups or on average where they make as much sense to me as anything else in economics, but there you go. They didn’t make sense to those coming after Marshall and Pigou.

observa
observa
11 years ago

I find these sorts of analyses of income tax merely interesting academic and historical curiousities because the game-changer for income tax (and so many other forms of tax) is the ‘environmental problem’. A bit like delving into the history of flat earth beliefs in a Spaceship Earth world. The game-changer for me was to recognise that if you were to move to better social pricing of turning the natural environment to our wants, then everything had to be on the table so to speak, if you were to maximise social pricing for the individual. Once you let go of past attachments and a certain degree of dogma or mental mind games at self-justification for those historical attachments, you can see a path forward much better. Which path needs an honest assessment of where you’ve come from, where you want to go and how well equipped you’ll be for the journey ahead. Hence that overall blueprint of mine after that careful assessment.

As far as income taxing is concerned equity was to override the increasingly problematic issues of measuring income and sheeting it home to individuals in a specific taxing period. Welcome to a burgeoning ATO that has degenerated into ‘give us a call and we’ll tell you if we like it’ and a massive legal accounting brainpower that isn’t interested in calling on behalf of their clients, not to mention those McMansions and concomitant housing affordability problems that income taxation rules have spawned. Evasion and avoidance, capital gains tax holidays, private vs business fuzziness, charitable and religious concessions, yada, yada. If all that weren’t damning enough there was the political pressure it creates for clawback by my beloved pet ‘graduazzi’, who have now cottoned on to the compassionatte stance that it’s best to parade it all under the banner of concern for Gaia. When you look about you at all the signposts around you, equity is fast diminishing as an excuse for it all. As I said the real game-changer in that regard is to recognise that income taxing must go if we are ever to socially price the environment much better. Besides regular wealth taxing as a proxy for true income can handle that much better and be thoughtfully designed to give our natural environment true countervailing market power.

There’s another important factor at play here. We’re repeatedly told that we must quickly embrace the new Spaceship Earth/Gaia paradigm and I wholeheartedly agree. However if we are to unleash the full market power of human ingenuity, innovation and sweat, coupled with the free, unhindered transfer of capital then clearly that means unshackling any deadweight to that. Why then would you want to tax human effort in that, as well as continually place impediments to unfettered transfer of land and capital along the way?(stamp duty, capital gains tax holidays and the like)Once you appreciate that you can see where my blueprint springs from and the challenge is to better it or pick the holes in it, bearing in mind all those signposts about you. Stop living in the past because there’s important work to be done and we have to agree quickly on the best third way constitution of the marketplace to facilitate that. See clearly the wood for the trees.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

We’d be better off reading and painting, and spending time with friends and family, than running on the status treadmill.

This might explain the growing popularity of part-time jobs in our Australian economy. It does seem strange that the advocates of the “progressive” taxation that encourages people to work less hours, also tend to be in a handwaving panic about full-time work becoming a thing of the past. Some people are just very hard to please.

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[…] I also support a progressive tax system for reasons of efficiency, as outlined by Richard Green at Club Troppo. Green outlines a lot of reasons to support progressivity on efficiency grounds, including the […]

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[…] which the system would be proportional or regressive. There are reasons to think this would be undesirable even on efficiency grounds, and its effect on equity would be to dramatically increase inequality of disposable […]

Mervyn Jacobi
Mervyn Jacobi
8 years ago

This is a tax system which has been passed by parliament, but undesired by some members of the parties, noticeably the treasurers; Put it on excel and compare it against Wayne’s tax and also against Peter Costello’s. I have put the three systems together and compared the results all at once. Do the same what you see will amaze you.
…….….A…………..B……………………………………… C………………………..…………………D
9 Taxable Income
10
11 Tax Payable =C9*C12
12 Per cent of income =IF(C9>=C14,D12%,(C9/C14)*D12%) 65
13
14 $450,000

M.jacobi.
M.jacobi.
7 years ago
Reply to  Mervyn Jacobi

Both the liberal and labor parties are too corrupt, they swindle. The low income income earners very much to allow themselves to avoid their fair level of tax, and allow the rich to avoid their fair tax and to take obscene levels of income, which has damaged the economy and caused destruction to the car manufactures and the aero industry.