One tax hike I’ll be hoping for in the Budget (and some cuts as well)

Back home in Ireland, it’s said that asking for directions will often get you the reply, “I wouldn’t start from here.” We might say the same thing about the UK’s tax code. Nobody drawing up a tax system for the country would create anything like what we have right now, and when it comes to reform – well, I wouldn’t start from here.

One example, which I talked about on the Today Programme this morning, is VAT. VAT is usually considered to be one of the least bad taxes around: in theory, it doesn’t discourage production, it isn’t very regressive, and it doesn’t distort the economy.

I say “in theory” because in practice the UK’s VAT system is a mess. It is riddled with exemptions (I am including zero-rated and reduced-rated goods in this) that distort people’s spending, which means that resources are being wasted, because people are buying relatively more of the untaxed goods and less of the taxed ones than they would be if the playing field was level.

The usual argument for these exemptions is that they are needed to reduce the burden on the poor. This is a powerful argument but it is wrong.

Many of the exempted items are unlikely to benefit the poor anyway – financial services, the construction of new dwellings, domestic passenger transport – but even for things like children’s clothes and food the argument is wrong. Although poor people spend a greater fraction of their budgets on exempted items like these, total spending on these goods rises with income, so most of the forgone revenue is actually from the rich.

The extra money raised could easily offset the extra cost to the poor by reducing income taxes on them (including national insurance contributions) or by raising the Universal Credit payment level. We could actually offset the extra cost to almost everyone, but except for people on low pay I think there are better taxes we could cut with the money left over.

The IFS estimated in 2010 that scrapping all VAT exemptions would raise an extra £26-28bn, based on 2010-11 numbers. Conservatively, rounding that up to £30bn to account for the larger economy, and spending half on boosting the incomes of the poor, we have £15bn left to play with. We’ve suggested scrapping capital gains tax to boost investment and using the rest to reduce the deficit.

In simplifying VAT we can make one important tax much less destructive without hurting the poor and use the money left over to cut taxes that are even worse.

Politically, this might not deliver good headlines, but if it was done at the start of the next Parliament the boost to people’s living standards by the next election could, improbably, make raising taxes on food and children’s clothes a real winner.

We might not want to start from here to get our sensible tax system, but this is one reform that could be a good step in the right direction.

Believe it or not, people actually like smoking and eating fatty food

Public information campaigns and nutritional labelling are good at informing people about what’s healthy and what isn’t, but don’t seem to have much impact on what they actually eat. That’s what a comprehensive review of 121 ‘healthy eating’ policies found, and I think it should make us rethink more heavy-handed policies to do with unhealthy food, tobacco and alcohol.

There are benefits as well as costs to every activity that public health groups want to discourage. We know there are benefits because people do them freely. But we know there are costs as well, like living a shorter and less healthy life.

The liberal view is that each person’s cost-benefit calculation is different, because they enjoy and dislike things differently. In this view there’s no case for stopping people from doing things unless they don’t actually have the information they need to make a judgement. We should want to make people’s lives better as they themselves understand ‘better’, not according to a single measure we’ve decided on, like lifespan.

So telling people that sugar makes them fatter may be a good policy, if they didn’t already know that. And policies that do that do seem to make people more informed. But what’s interesting is the impact they have on people’s diets – usually not much, and sometimes an unexpected one.

For example, a 2008 study found that people who used nutrition labels had big increases in fiber and iron intake, but no change to their total fat, saturated fat or cholesterol intake. The UK’s ‘five a day’ campaign about fruit and veg was very successful at getting people to think about eating more fruit and veg, but increased people’s intake by an average of 0.3 portions a day (which was not viewed as being a very good improvement). 44 studies of similar campaigns in the US and EU have shown about the same size effect.

To some people that might make it look like we need to do more. To me it looks as if people view the costs of changing their diet to something less enjoyable or convenient as being quite important, and are willing to forgo some level of health to avoid that.

Maybe this tells us something about cigarette regulation too – there is some evidence that smokers actually overestimate the risk of smoking and some that they underestimate it. If they do overestimate the risks, we’re ‘informing’ people so much that it’s become misleading.

It would be fair to respond to this that people have no real way of doing a proper cost-benefit analysis about eating sugary foods or smoking, but because the state can’t measure the benefits – that is, the pleasure – it is just as limited.

The fact that people do change their habits about iron and fibre, but not fats, suggests that they aren’t ignorant, they just don’t want to eat less fat! If that’s the case and we’re working to improve people’s lives on their terms, there is no case at all for more heavy-handed policies like taxes, ingredients restrictions and advertising bans.

The five things you need to know about TTIP

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. I think it’s a good idea. Here’s what you should know about it:

1. Abolishing tariffs is only a small part of TTIP.

Tariffs are generally low between the EU and US, but for some sectors they are very high. The EU currently imposes a 10% duty on car imports from the US, and the US imposes tariffs as high as 40% on some clothes from the EU, like shoes. Getting rid of those high sectoral tariffs will allow for greater economic specialisation, and the EU and US economies are so large that even reducing small tariffs overall would boost wealth levels a bit.

2. The biggest costs to trade are from so-called ‘non-tariff barriers’, and getting rid of these could have a big effect.

Most of TTIP is designed to harmonise regulation where there is redundant double-regulation (or ‘regulatory incoherence’) of firms operating in both the EU and the US. For instance, cars may be just as safe in the US and the EU (or not – nobody’s sure yet), but have to adhere to completely different safety requirements to achieve that. Harmonising car safety regulations could make it cheaper to build cars without reducing car safety at all. Because of different rules about egg washing that don’t seem to make a difference to actual safety, US eggs couldn’t legally be sold in the UK and vice versa. Some regulations are simply designed to make it more expensive for foreign firms to sell goods, to protect native firms. Harmonising some of these rules should reduce costs substantially.

Different regulatory regimes might allow for more experimentation, but the feedback mechanisms involved in regulation are so fuzzy that this kind of ‘discovery process’ rarely actually takes place.

3. The economic gains from TTIP could be pretty substantial.

The CEPR estimates that a successful TTIP that removed a lot of these ‘non-tariff barriers’ as well as all existing tariffs would cause an increase to EU GDP by €120bn (0.5% of GDP) and US GDP by €95bn (0.4% of GDP) in total. That’s modest, but would translate into an extra £400 annually for British households. 90% of those GDP gains would come from non-tariff measure cuts.

4. The only regulations that TTIP will prevent in the future are ones that discriminate against foreign firms.

This will include rules that mean that US and EU governments will have to consider foreign firms for public procurement in certain areas (but not publicly-funded healthcare, social services, education or water services). In general the EU is extremely restrictive about the impact TTIP can have on public services. EU governments can organise public services so that only one monopoly provider supplies it (eg, the NHS), and they can regulate whatever they deem to be ‘public services’ at any level of government. The only exception is where an EU government has already opened up a sector to foreign firms (ie, to avoid firms that have already invested from losing their money). This is a pity, I think – I’d like to see EU states sign up to an agreement that stopped them from discriminating against foreign firms in all areas. But TTIP is not that agreement.

5. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in TTIP – the so-called ‘secret courts’ – are nothing new.

Pretty much every free trade agreement signed around the world includes an ISDS provision, which allows firms to challenge states that renege on their part of the deal. Since 1975 the UK has signed 90 ISDS treaties, and 3,400 exist around the world. In that time the UK investors have brought 43 claims against other states. Only two have ever been brought against the UK and both were unsuccessful. What’s more, ISDSes cannot compel a state to change its laws, only to pay compensation to firms if it has broken its treaty obligations. It might seem pointless to have this – the UK and the US both have strong rules of law. But TTIP also includes countries like Greece, Hungary and Romania which have much less reliable judicial systems.

A neat solution to the vaccine problem

A bit of free riding is inevitable in a free society. But sometimes you get so much that it ruins things for everyone. To stop the spread of infectious diseases, you need a certain number of the ‘herd’ to be immune to protect unvaccinated people from the disease’s spread.

In some parts of the US, after years of (baseless) scaremongering about the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, so many parents have now chosen not to vaccinate their children that this herd immunity no longer exists. Until recently they were able to free ride on vaccinated children and avoid the disease, but now measles is staging a comeback.

If it were only the children of these parents who were at risk, we might judge that risking their lives was a price worth paying for parental autonomy, depending on how lethal the disease was. But some children (and adults) cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or because they are too young, so there is a clear external cost to others.

Because of that, depending on the lethalness of the disease, there is a case for government intervention, but it would still be nice to minimise coercion if possible. KCL academic Nick Cowen suggested one elegant way of doing that:

Modest proposal: pay parents of new borns about £2,000 ($3,000) on completion of all vaccines on a standard schedule, or on submission of a medical exemption certificate (just to be fair to children with genuine vulnerabilities to vaccines).

That should get everyone enrolled apart from the truly rich and stupid, and bring herd immunity (the public good we are looking for) up to scratch. If that doesn’t do it, double it. It functions as a good excuse to channel more money to families with young children – think of it as an upfront capital grant. The distribution is so broad that it will have few dead weight losses.

I imagine this would probably work, and it avoids having to put anyone in jail or take anyone’s children away from them.

The housing question isn’t just how many, but where

I usually like Policy Exchange’s work but its new paper on solving the housing crisis is a little disappointing. Its main argument is that “Over one million new homes could be built over the next decade if each of the 353 councils in England built just one garden village of 3,000 new houses”. The arithmetic checks out, but that still wouldn’t do much to solve the housing crisis.

The problem with England’s housing market is not simply that not enough houses are being built. It’s that they’re being built in the wrong places. According to Paul Cheshire, twice as many homes were built in Doncaster and Barnsley (where there isn’t much demand for housing) as in Oxford and Cambridge (where there is) in the five years to 2013. In 2002/03, it was three times as many!

This is why national house construction numbers can often be misleading. The crisis of unaffordable houses is mostly centred on places like London, Oxford, Cambridge and the rest of the South East. People want to live where the jobs are. (As it happens, an older Policy Exchange paper recognised this, suggesting policies designed to make it easier for people to move from North to South.)

Spreading housing development around the country will hence end up doing much less than we might hope. If your problem is a housing shortage in London, building more in Hull won’t help much.

A second problem is that building entirely new villages is expensive, because of the new infrastructure that needs to be built. The report suggests paying for this with levies on the new builds, which just reduces the downward pressure on prices these houses would have. Building all that extra infrastructure is needless when there is already so much empty land around existing train stations to be built on in the South East (enough for one million homes!), where there really is demand for new housing.

I also wonder how much people want to live in villages which really would be very small. At the UK average household size of 2.4, we’re talking about villages of 7,200 people, far enough from existing towns that those residents won’t object to them. As someone who grew up outside an Irish town with a population of 6,666 (seriously), take it from me – these places can be a little dull.

There are 138 authorities in London and the home counties. Building new homes there – even if they had to be in new villages – would be better than nothing, although I don’t know how you’d go about building new villages in central London. Building new homes in places like Scunthorpe and rural Cornwall would be a lot less good, and policies that do not recognise that will distract us from what we really need to do.

Maybe there’s no such thing as a bad policy that results in more housing, but is it too much to ask that they also be houses that people want to live in, in places they want to live?