The problem with Pigou Taxes

As regular readers will know (often to their great annoyance) I am a great supporter of Pigou Taxes to deal with externalities: most especially a carbon tax to deal with climate change. More generally around here at the ASI we’re all agreed that they’re a very useful tool if not quite the perfect one stop solution economists sometimes portray them as. the problem being, well, it’s the problem with so many things actually: politics.

As an example, here’s the latest little populist campaign being floated:

More than 30 MPs of all parties are backing a motion to stop charging Air Passenger Duty on flights for children who are between the ages of two and 11.

They say that families with school-age children already pay a premium for having to travel in the school holidays, and should not have to pay extra punitive taxes.

It’s true that APD is set at too high a level which is one problem. The existence of an externality (in this case, emissions from flying) does not mean that that activity should be taxed at some punitive rate. It means that there is a correct level of taxation to apply to it. And it was several rises in APD ago that it was at that correct (Stern Review derived, $80 per tonne CO2-e) level.

So that’s the first problem with a Pigou Tax. Give a politician an excuse to tax and he’ll over-tax.

But the second problem is illustrated neatly by this current campaign. Assuming that emissions are a problem are those made by children flying any less damaging than those made by adults doing so? Not for any reason that we can see, no. Therefore there shouldn’t be an exemption. But it’s all too easy for a politician in the run up to an election to miss the point and purpose of such taxation and promise sweeties to the electors.

Politics really is a problem with Pigou Taxes.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’re contra-indicated, only that we’ve got to be both careful and precise with them. After all, all other taxes are subject to exactly the same political interference. But providing that we’ve identified an externality accurately we’re at least doing some good with a Pigou Tax: which is more than can be said about taxes upon capital, corporations, incomes or general consumption. And yes, we do need to get the revenue from somewhere.

The problem with wealth taxes is that they don’t actually work very well

The bit of that recent Piketty magnum opus that had economists scratching their heads was his demand for a wealth tax. For it’s a standard commonplace within the subject that you really don’t want to tax capital. Doing so makes the future a great deal poorer than it could be. Just like that old windows tax made the future a lot darker than it needed to be. There’s an opportunity to explain why in some numbers being attributed to the likely effect of Red Ed’s mansion tax:

Mansion tax could wipe an average of 5pc off homes worth more than £2m should Labour win the next general election and make the proposals a reality.

The plans touted by the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, could mean a 10pc drop for properties valued at £10m or more, and an 8pc fall for homes valued above £5m according to a new report from Savills.

The property group has also estimated a 6pc decline for those homes worth more than £3m.

People who own homes with a price tag above the £2m threshold could see their property value fall 4pc following Mr Balls’ announcement that they will face a monthly levy of £250, a sum which gets progressively larger for more expensive properties.

£250 a month on a £2 million property is 0.15%. This drops the capital value of the asset under discussion by 5% or so. But the sort of wealth tax being demanded by Piketty is 1-2% annually, ten times larger than this tax. Now no, straight line predictions aren’t all that good, there’s changes in elasticity to consider, but it would be reasonable enough to think that a ten times the tax would have ten times the effect as a first stab at a guess.

So, in Piketty’s desired world we’ll be taxing wealth, or capital (they’re rather the same thing) at 1.5% a year and thus the value of that capital, those bonds, stock and shares, that are being taxed will fall 50%. And that’s why wealth taxes don’t work very well. For consider the effect upon investment of a fall of 50% in the value of having made a successful investment.

It’s still just as difficult to come up with a good business idea. It’s still just as difficult to make that idea work, still just as expensive to make it do so. But the payoff from being one of the one in five that do manage to get something real going has just halved. Obviously, fewer people are going to make the effort and take the risks. Meaning that the future will be poorer by the lack of the effects of those new businesses that never were started.

Wealth taxes don’t work very well for the simple reason that they make all our children poorer than they would have been even if they do make our children more equal. It’s not a good bargain, not a good trade off.

Isn’t it EUronic

I actually can’t tell if they’re kidding or not.

From the BBC:

The UK has been told it must pay an extra £1.7bn (2.1bn euros) towards the European Union’s budget because the economy has performed better than expected in recent years.

Replace ‘UK’ with ‘worker’, slot in a different extremely high number, change ‘EU budget’ to ‘UK budget,’ and the system starts to resemble something quite similar to tax law in the UK.

The article continues:

The payment follows new calculations by the EU that determine how much each member state should contribute.

It would add about a fifth to the UK’s annual net contribution of £8.6bn.

A government source said the demand was “not acceptable” while one Tory MP said the UK should simply refuse to pay it.

“UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the UK had been “hammered again” while Labour said it was imperative that the European Commission must reconsider the “backdated bill”.

It appears UK politicians are in complete shock that hard work and serious efforts to pull out of the recession are being threatened by a big, bureaucratic government body that feels it’s entitled to some of those earnings.

This is priceless.

On the issue itself, I agree it’s “not acceptable”, and I dearly hope the UK “simply refuse(s) to pay it.” What a wonderful precedent that would set for next year’s tax season, when hard-working taxpayers (who, according to this year’s stats, will have been working for the Chancellor for 148 days to pay off their obligations), decide that they, too, don’t want to be penalised for working harder and being a bit better-off financially.

Politicians can be slow on the uptake, so I guess there’s no deep surprise that it took them this long to understand the mechanics of ‘hard work = rewards.’ I just hope they whistle the same tune come next tax season.

To Polly the populace are just the milch cows of the State

Polly Toynbee is bemoaning the manner in which UK wages aren’t rising:

On Wednesday Steve Machin, research director at the LSE’s centre for economic performance, laid out to a meeting of economists the collected evidence on the nature of falling pay – and warned that this is beginning to look not like a slow recovery in wages, but a permanent, structural feature of the UK economy. He showed how the group-think of economic forecasters has consistently and wildly over-estimated an expected increase in wages: the OBR forecast for March this year was a wage rise of 4.3%. What happened has been a continuing real fall.

“There has been a startling and unprecedented lack of wage growth as unemployment falls,” Machin says. The “herd mentality” of forecasters is always to expect things to improve, but there is no sign they are right. This begins to look like the new permanent, as flatlining real median pay began back in 2003, long before the crash. Nor, finds Machin, is immigration a cause of falling pay: areas with high or low immigration saw pay fall equally.

Polly does at least pay lip service to the idea of being a Keynesian but I’m sure she would be surprised to find that Keynes would have been fully supportive of all of this happening. If people are unemployed then those people have to be priced back into work: and it was exactly Keynes who pointed out that people get very touchy indeed about falls in nominal wages but will put up with falls in real wages if they’re lightly disguised by a bit of inflation. Further, the Phillips Curve comes out of very much the same sort of thinking. That there’s a trade off between the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. We reach NAIRU (the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) and if unemployment dips below that then inflation will rise. If it’s above it then inflation will fall. And if we’re seeing ever-falling unemployment and no sign of wages rises then we can conclude that NAIRU has fallen: which is absolutely great, for it means fewer people have to be consigned the the scrap heap of unemployment in order to keep inflation at bay in the future. We’ve had a favourable change in the basic structure of the economy.

However, the real shocker to us here is this:

Low pay is not just unjust, it’s crippling the country’s finances.

That’s dangerously close to insisting that the populace are just the milch cows there to pay for the State, the sheep to be shorn of their incomes to pay for public employees. Actually, given that it’s Polly saying it that’s not dangerously close, that’s what she means.

The tax system is the biggest barrier to growth

Outside of academic papers that too rarely see the light of day, most “research” is unremarkable in its optimism about the state of entrepreneurship in the UK. That’s why the RSA’s Growing Pains: How the UK became a nation of “micropreneurs” caught my eye. It paints a stark picture.

The UK, according to the report, has become a nation of micro businesses, while the proportion of high-growth businesses has plummeted: “UK businesses are becoming increasingly micro in size – reducing the overall potential for economic output and future growth, and increasing the economy’s reliance on a relatively small number of larger businesses.”

Since 2000, the proportion of businesses classified as micro (0-9 employees), as a share of all UK businesses has grown from 94.3 per cent of all private sector companies to 95.4%. This represents an additional 1.4 million micro firms and an increase over the same period of 43%.

“At the same time, the proportion of high-growth enterprises has declined sharply, falling by more than a fifth in the majority of regions since 2005.”

Although the number of high-growth firms is expected to rise over the coming years, the report cautions optimism: “performance is expected to remain below 2005 levels in all regions except London”.

So how can we solve the problem? According the entrepreneurs, the tax system (44%) is the biggest barrier to growth – ahead of a lack of bank lending (38%) and the cost of running a business (36%).

Another problem highlighted by the report is that entrepreneurs don’t know what the government is up to:

“Around three-quarters (73%) of small business leaders also say the Government must make it easier for SMEs to access the right information and support for growth. While several of the Government’s recent incentives to support SMEs are designed to address the top-cited barriers, perhaps this information is not reaching the people who need it the most.”

Two polices are put forward in the conclusion to help entrepreneurs. First, “continued reform of the apprenticeship scheme could help micro firms to grow out of this business size category”. Second, “more tax relief like the National Insurance holiday could also pay real dividends.” It would be worth exploring the former in detail (something I plan to work on), but I don’t think another NI holiday goes nearly far enough: Employers’ National Insurance should be scrapped entirely. And no just for small businesses.

Being an entrepreneur is tough. As the report points out, “the majority (55%) of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years.” Scrapping Employers’ NI is the logical place to start.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.