Don’t Be Evil

Do you remember when we had that big scandal surrounding MP’s expenses? And we found out all the crazy things they had been claiming for? And then they said that it was ok because their claims had been within the letter of the law?

I can’t help but spot the irony when, in more recent weeks, companies such as Google, Amazon and eBay have been summoned in front of MP committees to explain why, in spite of lots of sales, they have managed to pay so little tax in the UK.

“We’ve paid every penny according to the letter of the law!” They claim.

“But it wasn’t in the spirit of the law!” Say the MPs (who have presumably found some kind of salvation in the intervening months).

Since their dodgy expense claims were exposed, MPs seem to have had developed a sudden fetish for these televised committees in which they, (the goodies) can heap their new-found morality on the baddies – G4 security, the BBC, the newspapers, tax savvy multinationals etc. But has the fastening of these people in the metaphorical stocks, while our MPs throw their metaphorical rotten vegetables really achieved anything?

I’ll be clear – I don’t think Google et al should get away with paying so little in tax but this mock outrage from MPs gets my goat. Should we really be that surprised that a company turns out to be a bit of a shit just because their motto says, “Don’t be evil”?

It’s a nice thought but in reality it is simply unreasonable to assume that when you have tax loopholes in your system, someone (most likely a big and powerful someone) won’t take advantage of them. Companies will look at what the negative publicity will cost their shareholders and will look at what the reduced taxes will give their shareholders and they will make their decision based on that. If they didn’t they would be being negligent to their shareholders.

There is, of course, one way for our MPs to address this and that is to close those loopholes. These companies sell a lot of stuff here and make an awful lot of profit here. If the laws of the land don’t turn any of these profits into tax revenues then it is time to change the laws of the land and guess who makes them?

It’s up to our government to make sure that the loopholes are closed and it is fairly daft to expect these companies to pay tax that they could legally avoid because of “morality”. Yes, I’m sure our MPs all feel like paragons of virtue when they sit on their committees but let’s all be sensible here – these companies are concerned with profits, not morality and to be honest why shouldn’t they be?

When the UK has exploitable tax laws then it is the duty of our MPs to make them non-exploitable, not to faff around trying to play the morality card. And while we’re on that subject let’s be brutally honest here – given their history, these guys have absolutely no right to play that card.



The Tax Delusion

Have you ever met a climate change denier? I wonder why they don’t believe in global warming. Using some fairly basic maths you can calculate the Earth’s surface temperature assuming no greenhouse effect exists – it’s about minus 18°C. The reason we’re not in a permanent ice age is because of the greenhouse effect.

“Rubbish!”  you say, “the greenhouse effect is something new, we didn’t have it before and it wasn’t that cold!”

The greenhouse effect is actually nothing new – it’s been around as long as carbon dioxide, water vapour and other greenhouse gases have existed in our atmosphere. The problem now is that our activities are increasing the concentration of these gases. Basic physics states that this should increase the Earth’s surface temperature and lo and behold that’s exactly what we observe. Of course there are many factors that affect our climate at any one time and while we cannot be 100% sure how much the greenhouse effect will affect the surface temperature in any one given year, we can be sure of these two facts, which are absolutely indisputable:

a) We are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

b) Greenhouse gases increase the surface temperature of the planet

When the temperature starts going up in line with this it is surprising that lots of people choose to put their heads in the sand and deny what theory and evidence shows is very clearly happening. The reason I think, that this denial-phenonmenon exists, is simply that it is much more convenient for people to live in denial than it is for them to accept reality.

Accepting the true scale of the problem means significantly changing our lifestyles and a lot of people don’t want to do that. Pretending that climate-change skepticism has any basis outside cloud-cuckoo land allows people to continue doing what they’re doing and avoiding this massive inconvenience.

This blog isn’t about climate change though.

Have you ever met a supply-sider? Supply-siders have a lot in common with climate change deniers. I should explain what I mean by a supply-sider. It’s about tax though, so grab a coffee before you continue.

Cutting income tax has a positive effect on economic growth because people have more incentive to work and have more disposable income to spend. The problem though is that tax cuts need to be financed by cutting public spending and that has a negative effect on economic growth and a negative effect on people’s quality of life. As an alternative to cutting spending, we could borrow to cover short-term tax cuts but we can’t make permanent tax cuts and still have a functioning NHS, education system, armed forces etc. etc.

That much is, again, basic maths and uncontroversial. Unless you are a supply-sider. Supply-siders believe that the effects of tax cuts is so ridiculously large that they more than pay for themselves – that cutting taxes actually increases government revenue and everyone becomes better off because of it.

Nowhere are supply-siders more prominent and militant than in America. When Bill Clinton took office he took over a large budget deficit. He responded to this by introducing tax rises on the middle-classes and wealthy. Supply-siders went mad – claiming that this would starve the economy and usher in financial disaster! In fact what happened was that the economy grew, unemployment went down and the deficit turned into a surplus.

Enter George W. Bush. As a supply-sider, Bush brought in an era of tax cuts and the richer you were, the more you benefitted. This, he assured everyone would make a massive boost to the economy. The surplus quickly turned back into a massive deficit.

Of course these are just two examples (albeit good ones) and there were many other things going on which would have contributed to these two outcomes. Importantly though, supply-siders said that Clinton’s policy to raise taxes on rich people to pay off the deficit would spectacularly backfire and they said Bush’s policy to cut taxes on rich people would boost the economy. In both cases they were 100% wrong.

Like, climate-change deniers, supply-siders ignore logic and evidence simply because the reality is inconvenient. Supply-siders organise huge campaigns to tell voters that their taxes are harming the economy.  They tell people that if they just paid less tax to the government and kept more money for themselves, we’d all be better off. This is voodoo economics. This is one of the ultimate examples of bad marketing. This is to economics what homeopathy is to medicine.

So we can see that while cutting taxes stimulates economic growth, it does not pay for itself. Cutting taxes will cost money and if it is the rich receiving the benefit, it is everyone else who is receiving the cost of it.

It was therefore, with sadness that I read this week’s story about 20 economists writing to the FT to campaign for a lowering of the top tax rate, stating that it was harming the economy.

I do agree we need something to stimulate the economy. As I’ve discussed before on here – we won’t get rid of the deficit without economic growth and there is precious little of it at the moment. I do though have a big problem with attempting to do this through a tax cut on the 320,000 richest people in the country. Don’t misunderstand me – I am not so much of a liberal that I want to advocate the punishment of rich people, I simply think that if you are in the top 320,000 richest people in the country you should not be at the front of the queue when it comes to government handouts.

The supply-siders’ excuse is that by giving rich people even more money we will boost the economy and it will filter down to the poor people.

So which of these boosts the economy more?

a) Giving 10 rich people £1,000,000 each

b) Giving a million poor people £10 each

The letter to the FT offered nothing more than vague anecdote to say why we should go for a). 24% of income tax, it said, is paid by the richest 1%. This could be because taxes are grossly unfair. It isn’t though.

The income gap between rich and poor has been rising for a long time and is now bigger than it has ever been. When a small number of people earn lots of the income, a small number of people pay lots of the income tax. On its own, that figure of 24% paid by 1% tells us nothing useful at all. (I wrote more about this here.)

I reread the letter a few times and couldn’t really understand how 20 economists (a few of them with senior academic positions) could so strongly advocate such a tax cut and only provide a weak argument of vague anecdote to back it up.

To say the least it was a wish-washy argument: “Some rich people might all move somewhere else with a lower tax rate.” Well they might indeed – we all understand incentives. I would have thought though – no I would absolutely have expected that 20 economists arguing for tax cuts for rich people, between them could have come up with something concrete to show why, in the circumstances, this is a good policy. The US has (and has had for a long time) a far lower top income tax rate compared with the large economies in Europe and they’re doing worse than we are. I haven’t see a huge number of UK companies abandoning ship and moving to the US.

Supply-siders argue that when taxes on top-earners are raised that top-earners find ways to avoid and evade the taxes. That’s also true, but it isn’t necessarily a reason to sort it out through a policy of:

“Damn those rich people, they’re so wiley! We’ll have to recoup that money from the less-wiley poor people!”

If our tax rules are this easily side-stepped by rich people then we should look at the tax rules and make them tighter. We should not be saying that poor people should be picking up the bill because we have loop-holes in our tax law.

A very important point that the letter ignored though is what people do with the extra money they receive through tax cuts. If we go with option a) and give 10 rich people £1,000,000 they might spend a bit of it but most likely a lot will go into their savings – they already have plenty of money to finance their lifestyles.

If we go with option b) and give 1,000,000 poor people £10 each they will spend it. When people are really struggling to get by on what they earn they don’t open a savings account.

This is very important because the key reason that tax cuts help to stimulate an economy is because people have more money to spend and in spending that money they stimulate the economy. If we make a tax cut where the extra money goes straight into people’s bank accounts then no economic growth is realised. These are two very basic and indisputable economic rules:

  • Rich people save a greater proportion of their income than poor people
  • Spending money stimulates the economy
It is therefore absolutely the case that option b) would lead to more of the realised tax benefits being pumped back into the economy. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have at least mentioned this in the letter? Maybe shown how they could be so sure that the effect of the disappearing, tax avoiding rich people outweighed this effect?

Anyway, as it transpired, the 20 economists’ letter to the FT had been organised by a PR company. I’ve no idea why a PR company decided to set out to find 20 economists to sign their letter but something fishy is definitely going on.

Labour’s alternative is to make a temporary cut in VAT. This might work quite well as an economic boost – everything is cheaper for a year, buy it now! It isn’t a perfect way of targeting the poorest – VAT has a reasonably equal effect on everyone. The Lib Dems (remember them?) are said to favour raising the threshold below which no income tax is paid to £10,000. I like that one the best.

Let’s be clear, though – none of these ideas is going to suddenly pay for itself. Despite the claims of the supply-siders, all tax reduction policies would increase the deficit (or mean additional, unplanned spending cuts.) While increasing the already massive deficit is not ideal, I would be in favour of doing so if it kick-started some growth and simultaneously helped out the poorest people who are struggling the most.

If, when you started off reading this blog post you were an advocate of tax cuts for the rich and are now considering your position then this post has done its job.

If, when you started off reading this blog post you were an advocate of tax cuts for the rich and are not now considering your position then don’t worry, you’re not on your own – George W. Bush is on your side too.


Beating Up The Rich

In amongst the knob gags and poo jokes, someone occasionally writes something serious on Twitter. The other day someone wrote this:

The top 10% of earners pay more than 50% of all income tax. When can we stop beating up on the rich?

It got retweeted and found its way into my timeline. I did try to start a debate with the originator but they didn’t seem to want to take part. Twitter is a fairly clumsy medium for doing so in any case.

I hope I am not doing the originator a disservice but I think the case being made was one I have heard on several occasions – that because such a large proportion of tax is coming from a relatively small proportion of the population they must be more than paying their way and it would be unfair to ask them for even more.

The point I wanted to make was that this statistic on its own doesn’t really tell us enough to know whether we should stop beating up the rich or not.

(I think we are talking about a metaphorical beating up here. I want to make it explicitly clear that I do not condone the beating up of rich people irrespective of the income tax rate for high earners. Except perhaps Duncan Bannatyne and even then no more than a wedgie and a titty twister.)

So why does this statistic not tell us enough on its own?

Reason #1

Let’s look at two fictional economies:


The country of Thatcherland has 10 residents. Nine of them earn £10,000 per year. One earns £10,000,000 per year.
Income tax is a flat 30% irrespective of salary.

=> In Thatcherland the richest 10% of earners pay 99% of the total income tax.


The country of Getoffmyland is populated by 10 farmers. Nine of them earn £10,000 per year. One earns £30,000 per year.
In Getoffmyland, income tax on salaries up to £20,000 pay income tax at 10%. For anything over £20,000 income tax is 40%.

=> In Getoffmyland, the top 10% of earners pay 40% of the total income tax.

If we simply assume that a higher proportion of income tax paid by the rich is equivalent to fairness then Thatcherland comes out as a brilliantly fair economy! Look, that lovely rich person is paying almost all the income tax. The other 90% of residents only have to find 1% between them!

Of course, it isn’t fair though because we just neglected to take into account the income gap between the rich and the poor: If the income is unevenly distributed in the first place then it should not be a big surprise to anyone that the income tax is too.

Reason #2

The statistic tells us only about income tax and we can’t make a valid judgment without taking into account all the other taxes we have to pay. e.g.

  • In Getoffmyland there is another tax which farmers have to pay based on the size of their farmhouse. The bigger it is the more they have to pay.
  • In Thatcherland, this tax has been replaced with a poll tax where all residents pay the same.

Even if the income tax were fair in Thatcherland we would be fairly rash to declare the whole tax system fair without taking the poll tax into account.

Let’s forget about our fictional economies and move to a real one. The UK government is currently in the process of implementing fiscal austerity. At the highest level they have two ways to do this:

  • Decrease Government spending
  • Increase Taxes

It seems to me they are a lot keener on adjusting the former than they are the latter and I do have a big concern about this. In August the IFS published an analysis of the government’s emergency budget and found that contrary to George Osborne’s claims the policies were not progressive. i.e. they proportionally penalised the poor more than the rich. (You can read the post I wrote about that here.)

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. If you hugely reduce the budget of local councils then libraries close, public transport services reduce etc and those services benefit the poor more than the rich who buy their own books and have their own cars. Additionally there have been much publicised cuts to both housing benefit and tax credits and despite what the Daily Mail says, people who claim benefits are not all millionaire hoodwinkers.

Strangely though, throughout all of this, no one has seemed to consider for 5 minutes financing any of this through a rise in income tax on the wealthy (metaphorically beating them up) and I really don’t for the life of me understand why. Austerity in the current climate is foolhardy but if you are dumb enough to want to implement it, why not start with the people who aren’t going to starve?

Prior to the downturn the UK economy had enjoyed 15 years of sustained growth and a great many people benefited because of this. Now the economy is in a bad way, why is a government hell bent on austerity, not considering going back to those who have benefited the most and asking them to contribute more? It seems especially odd when the alternative is asking the poor to foot the bill.

I must though, be fair to the government and highlight a progressive policy they are implementing – the freezing of the television license fee. It is just a shame that David Cameron had to get in bed with Rupert Murdoch to come up with one.

Leaving the rich untouched and taking it all from the poor just increases the income gap, pushing us still further towards the economy in Thatcherland.

And as we approach Thatcherland, the richest 10% will pay more and more of the income tax.

And things will be more and more unfair.