Expanding the GST won’t help, it would hit the ‘middle’ and women the hardest


The rich are getting richer while at the same time paying less tax.rich

But expanding the GST won’t help writes Patricia Apps from the University of Sydney

Many developed economies have experienced a significant increase in inequality in recent decades.

Survey data for Australia show that the share of the top 10% of the income distribution, and more markedly that of the top 1%, has grown dramatically.

At the same time, tax reforms over the period have reduced tax rates on top incomes.

Over the short period from 2004-05 to 2008-09 alone the top bracket limit rose from A$70,000 to A$180,000 and the top marginal rate fell another two percentage points, concentrating billions of dollars of tax cuts in the upper percentiles.

richThose in the middle of the distribution gained little to nothing, an outcome achieved by combining tax cuts at the top with the Low Income Tax Offset.

The LITO raised the zero rated threshold for those on very low incomes while simultaneously denying gains for the middle through its withdrawal rate of 4 cents in the dollar.

Against this background an expansion of the GST, which is well recognised to be highly regressive, is a reform that will further undermine the “middle”.

A weakened “middle” will have negative effects on aggregate demand, jobs growth and productivity.

Proponents of an expanded GST typically claim that a consumption tax is more efficient than an income tax.

For example, Liberal MP Dan Tehan argues a shift from direct to indirect taxes like the GST will deliver higher standards of living.

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This view, which is supported in the Henry Review, reflects the belief that a tax on consumption is more efficient because it allows capital income to be tax exempt. The argument, however, contains a fundamental error in logic.

Modern public finance now recognises that the optimal tax rate on a given source of income, whether labour or capital, can only be determined on the basis of empirical evidence on distributional outcomes and behavioural effects.

Even if capital were highly mobile, which is very much open to question in a number of important contexts, this does not imply an optimal rate of zero.

This principle, derived from the theory of “second-best”, has been well established for over half a century.

Outdated thinking

The argument for a shift towards consumption taxation also reflects an outdated view of the household.

As explained in detail in the Henry Review, capital income is tax exempt under a cash flow expenditure tax (a consumption tax) and under a labour earnings tax (e.g. a payroll tax).tax_time

The two are said to be equivalent.

This is a fallacy that can be traced to the failure to observe that with the dramatic increase in female workforce participation over the last half century the majority of working-age adults live in couple households with two earners.

With information on earnings we can have an individual based tax that is not only progressive but applies a lower rate to the earnings of the partner with a lower income, typically the female on a lower wage.

In contrast, we cannot observe individual consumptions (or saving) in two-person households. A consumption tax is inevitably limited to a flat rate tax on joint consumption and therefore cannot be superior to a well-designed labour income tax.

Compensation problems

The labour supply of partnered women as second earners is far more sensitive to taxes than male labour supply, as evidenced by the significantly higher estimates of their labour supply elasticities.

The higher they are taxed the more likely they are to drop out of the workforce. Efficiency therefore requires they face lower marginal tax rates.

taxDue to the Howard family tax reforms many face effective MTRs that are much higher than the top rate on personal income.

Expanding the GST will not only add to these already excessively high rates, but the provision of compensation targeted towards low income earners, as suggested by Tehan, will exacerbate the problem.

Higher effective rates can only be avoided by introducing a more progressive rate scale on personal income, and this is clearly not the intention.

These issues are missed by KPMG in its analysis of the costs of alternative taxes in terms of consumer welfare loss per dollar of additional revenue.

Liberal MP Angus Taylor cites KPMG’s finding that taxes on labour cost 24 cents for every dollar levied, in contrast to less than 10 cents for the GST. The result is based on a single-earner household with a single labour supply elasticity set at 0.2.

While findings from KPMG’s modelling approach might have been relevant in the 1950s when most households were single-earner, they are entirely fictional for a 21st century economy.

The evidence on wage elasticities suggests female labour is the most mobile factor of production.

Yet under current policy settings partnered mothers not only face the highest tax rates on earnings, many also face excessively high child care costs due to the failure of successive governments to invest in a learning focused public sector child care system.menwomen property

Not surprisingly, well over 50% of married mothers of prime working age remain out of the work force or work part time not only during the child rearing years but throughout the entire life cycle due to loss of human capital.

A conservative estimate of the overall loss would be in the order of 20% of GDP, a loss we cannot afford with an ageing population.

To reduce this loss we need to reverse the direction of tax policy in recent decades – that of shifting the burden from top incomes to wage earners in the middle of the distribution, and particularly towards partnered mothers as second earners.

We also need to cut massive tax expenditures that primarily benefit high income earners and invest the revenue in child care. Expanding the GST is no solution.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.  Read the original article.


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'Expanding the GST won’t help, it would hit the ‘middle’ and women the hardest' have 3 comments

    Avatar for Michael Yardney

    February 1, 2015 Andrew

    The above comment is spot on. This article is clearly written by somebody with a barrow to push against the GST, and the article itself is overcomplicated and misleading. For example:

    – Linking an increase or broadening of the GST to women’s earnings is fallacious. The extra tax impost of the GST would be there on the household’s expenses, regardless of the second earner’s participation in the workforce, so linking it to the MTR of the second earner does not make sense. In fact, a higher consumption tax is likely to lead to greater participation in the workforce for second earners, in order to pay for the increased cost of consumption. Of course, this presumes no adjustment to the wider income tax system as a result of a change in the GST – a ludicrous proposition by the author given the political realities of getting such reform through. A GST increase/broadening would certainly see a decrease in income tax rates for low and middle income earners (imagine the outcry if there wasn’t). A well-designed package could actually substantially increase the tax-free-threshold for second earners, thus encouraging women’s participation. The one area you wouldn’t see much of change in would be the top marginal rate! The author also peddles the shibboleth that the GST is a highly regressive tax, as if the GST would simply be applied without any changes to the tax system. But the increased revenue can easily compensate those in the lower-middle income brackets while effectively raising the MTR for the wealthy.

    – The GST is also an extremely efficient tax which doesn’t drastically change behaviour (unlike income or payroll tax), and has the tremendous advantage of not being easily avoided. So if you’re genuinely concerned about tax minimization by the wealthy and businesses, then the GST is an excellent tax. As the comment above points out, the amount raised from the wealthy due to consumption on expensive items is substantial (on a new luxury car it is the equivalent of what most families pay in tax a year). Compare that to the highest income tax bracket, which the wealthy go to great lengths to avoid, through economically damaging behaviour such as extensive negative gearing and elaborate individual and business structures.


    Avatar for Michael Yardney

    February 1, 2015 Jeff

    Wow………My head hurts now I’ve read this !
    I came to Australia from New Zealand thirteen years ago and have seen how well GST works.
    GST in NZ is on everything and has gone from 10% to 12.5% to 15% now.
    Other taxes such as stamp duty don’t exist any more and personal income tax rates are now much lower allowing people to keep a much larger percentage of their hard earned cash – which is a good thing because the Governments of our countries certainly don’t use it wisely.
    If you save your money it is able to grow and compound much quicker – having had less tax removed.
    If you spend your money and buy luxury items like extravagant homes and cars etc you pay GST.
    Wealthy people spend a lot more money so pay a lot more GST.
    Simple but effective – and doesn’t give you a headache.


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