An interesting little puzzle about corporation tax

We regard this as an interesting little logical puzzle, this fuss being made about corporation tax at present. The basic starting point is that corporations don't pay the tax at all, they cannot. All and any taxes mean the wallet of some live human being is lighter. Whose pocket is being picked by which tax is the study of incidence.

About which we have an interesting paper:

Data on the foreign activities of American multinational firms provide wage rates and interest rates for a panel of more than 50 countries between 1989 and 2004. Evidence from applying this framework to these data indicates that between and 45 and 75 percent of the burden of corporate taxes is borne by labor with the balance borne by capital. 

We do not, by any means, insist that this specific number is correct. However, we do insist on the basic underlying logic of the case. Which is that the more mobile factor of production will bear less of the tax burden, the more immobile more. Mobility here is a close proxy for elasticity of course. Which brings us to the common complaint about that corporate taxation

Second, capital - financial and real - and goods and services are now more mobile across national boundaries than ever before. This is because many highly valued modern products - such as the iPhone - are relatively lightweight and can be shipped economically (and in volume and rapidly) by air. Other valuable modern products weigh nothing. Consider the digital nature and economic value of operating systems and the multitude of apps for smartphones and the growing value of "big data." Financial capital and services are also weightless. These products can be shipped globally with a few strokes on a computer and at the cost of a few electrons.

A major and unheralded problem for modern governments is that they are landlocked, while firms and their plants and equipment and job bases can move with growing ease among countries at decreasing cost.

Which brings us to what we think is the interesting little puzzle. When capital was less mobile the incidence of such taxation weighed more heavily upon the capitalists. Perhaps a good idea perhaps not but what was actually desired at the time at least. Now with the greater mobility such corporate taxation necessarily falls more upon the wages of the workers, the least mobile factor of production. Yet this is exactly the point where people are calling for more corporate taxation. Just when we absolutely know that it's not the capitalists or the rich people being taxed.

The very thing which is causing the problem being complained of, that mobility of capital, is exactly the thing which says we shouldn't be trying to tax it in this intermediate manner, through the corporation. Yet the campaigning insistence is the other way around, that because of the mobility we must tax it more, as we actually cannot in this manner.

Isn't that an interesting little puzzle? It's almost as if the campaigners don't understand the subject, isn't it? 

Is the MoD living beyond its means?

An old joke in the Armed Forces is that if the Secretary of State has to choose between sacking military personnel or Whitehall desk-drivers, the military personnel have to go because he needs the latter to do the calculations. There has been some shedding of top brass and civilians in recent years but the hierarchy remains excessive. The Royal Navy has 30 admirals and 70 commodores to supervise the commanders of the 29 fighting ships we still have. We also have a miscellany of 48 support ships and boats including HMS Victory, still included in the RN’s list of 77 active ships 212 years on. That must frighten Johnny Foreigner. The 7,760 Royal Marines (about five brigades) have four generals and 10 brigadiers. Top heaviness also applies in the other services.

The aggregate defence bill for 2016/17 was £44bn., the main items being service personnel, hardware and IT procurement and equipment support at £9bn. each, and £7.5bn. on running the department. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of service personnel halved to 160,000, with talk of more cuts to come, whilst the proportion of officers increased from 13% to 17%. Estimates are hard to establish but between 5% and 10% of service personnel are probably employed in civilian roles, mostly procurement and equipment support.

The Royal Navy is far the most expensive service. After 50 years of maintenance experience, it is strange that we still need four ballistic submarines in order to have one at sea. The only two naval engagements in the last 70 years were in the Falklands, where two frigates pursued an Argentine coaster which escaped by running aground, and in 2011, a British destroyer, together with Canadian and French warships, scared off a few pro-Qadhafi boats attacking Misrata. No one was hurt nor damage done. Of course the Royal Navy has also been keeping order on the high seas and responding to humanitarian crises.

The MoD’s central problem is procurement. The armed forces first decide what they want.  They know procurement policy requires competition but faced by a choice of tailor-made or off-the-peg, the former is chosen 50% of the time, by value or number, and not tendered competitively. It is awarded to a favoured supplier on a cost plus profit basis. In theory, more profit is permitted when there in higher risk but in practice all the risk falls on the taxpayer. Seven of the top ten suppliers obtained more than 80% of their business non-competitively. In these cases, no one says “why not have the tried and tested that will do much the same job at less cost?” When spending other people’s money, only the best is good enough.  Unfortunately, the “best” too often turns out to be mis-specified, more than budgeted and years overdue. On all 14 occasions (out of 166, January 2015 – September 2017) where the MoD’s Investment Approvals Committee (IAC) challenged the bespoke decisions, they were told it was too late as commitments had already been made.

Procurement has been a mess since the MoD was born. The latest reform addressed non-competitive contracting in particular.  The Defence Reform Act 2014 established the Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO) and the accompanying Single Source Contract Regulations. In essence the idea was that full transparency would enable buyers to look for better value and discourage contractors from taking the advantage they traditionally have. In 1961 I was auditing Fairey Engineering, then on government cost-plus contracts. We were encouraged not to stint on our expenses because the more we charged, the more profit Faireys made. Today’s regulations would have made little difference.

Now, three years after the new regulations became law, only 110 of the 1,891 MoD non-competitive equipment contracts are operating under the SSC Regulations. The government claims that these new regulations will save £1.7bn over 10 years but with equipment purchasing running at £9bn. p.a., that is only about 2%. And how is the counterfactual, what would have been the case, calculated?

Add the MoD’s procurement section’s internal problems. After a very mixed career, and none in procurement, the head of Heathrow, Tony Douglas, was selected to run Defence Equipment and Support but quit just two years later: “after claims that his department is in chaos and struggling with rising costs”. Half a dozen other top procurement officials have quit too. Procurement management was compromised by 386 (24%) of the commercial posts being unfilled at the end of August 2017. Of the 33 major projects independently monitored in 2017, five were in serious trouble. One recent example of procurement failure was the near £1bn. computer upgrade “suspension”, i.e. fiasco. The MoD, naturally, blames its US supplier, DXC Technology, “the world's leading independent, end-to-end IT services and solutions company, helping clients harness the power of innovation to thrive on.” With annual revenue about $25bn. and a workforce numbering over 170,000, it seems unlikely that such a business would be unprofessional.

At best, the new procurement arrangements appear to be sticking plaster. The MoD is believed to be £20bn. overcommitted. It claims to be able to offset that with unspecified short-term savings. Perhaps more cuts of military personnel.

The MoD is the largest customer of British industry. A radical cutback in its procurement would severely damage our economy. The solution has to be buying competitively whilst ALSO buying British.  We must get away from the cosy cottonwool relationships that exist at present and benefit the later careers of the upper reaches of the MoD.

As a major player in the global market, the UK has some ups and downs. In terms of heavy weapons, the UK is the 6th largest exporter, just ahead of Israel[15], with great dependency on Saudi Arabia and the middle east but that may be more due to political relationships than competitive, value for money considerations. And the terms offered overseas, or even domestically, may not always match those obtained from the MoD.

The solution is quite simple: the Investment Approvals Committee must be made independent of the MoD by transferring it to HMT and given teeth. In future, the MoD should not be allowed to make non-competitive procurement commitments without the IAC’s explicit prior approval. The IAC must insist that good enough is good enough, especially where that equipment improves compatibility with our allies. For the good of the country and our armed forces, the IAC must gently wean British contractors dependent on the MoD towards winning in the free market competition. Of course, there will always be some areas where, for security reasons, the UK needs its own solutions but they need independent verification.

Things not to do: Abolish university tuition fees

Someone has to pay for university education. In the 1960s when 5 percent of the population cohort went to university, it was possible to meet this out of general taxation. The 5 percent had a very generous ride, with free tuition and local authorities paying maintenance grants. There was, though, a widespread feeling that Britain needed more educated people, and that a higher proportion of the age group could benefit from university education. People looked to the US, where roughly 40 percent underwent higher education.

Today the proportion in the UK has risen from 1 in 20 to 9 in 20, a figure comparable to that of the US. The costs of this increase imposed a huge strain on public finances, and the question was asked whether the general taxpayer or the direct beneficiary should be financing it. University graduates start with higher salaries on average than non-graduates, and estimates put the lifetime extra earnings at an average of roughly £80,000. Obviously the figure varies with the subjects chosen.

It seemed unfair that people less intellectually endowed should be paying higher taxes in order to provide a free entitlement to lifetime higher salaries for their more academic counterparts. Someone who left school to become an apprentice bricklayer was being asked to pay higher taxes to finance someone to become a far better-paid investment banker. It seemed like a subsidy to the children of middle class parents.

Tuition fees and loans were introduced to shift more of the cost onto those who benefitted the most from university education – the graduates themselves.  But there is no doubt that as costs have spiralled, so has the burden of debt undertaken to finance fees and maintenance.  A typical graduate can be £50,000 in debt by the time they graduate, including about £6,000 in interest charges.

Rather than shift the burden back onto the general taxpayer, the solution might be to move to a loans system like that used in Australia. In place of a Student Loans Company there is a Higher Education Funding Council that pays the fees at the time in return for a promise to repay when the graduate is earning enough. At a salary of AUD50,000 the repayment starts at 4 percent of salary, and at AUD95,000 it rises to 8 percent. The amount outstanding is indexed with inflation, but no interest is charged. The average repayment period is 8 years, and the proportion never repaid is 17 percent, compared with the UK's 45 percent. The system resembles the UK's, but the terminology is different and most students accept it as fair and do not feel the burden of debt incurred to the extent experienced by their UK counterparts, particularly since no interest is added.

Crucially, the Australian system allows for different courses to set different fees, so that students can choose less costly courses if they wish to trade higher future earnings for a lesser commitment undertaken while studying.  The UK could overhaul its funding of higher education by incorporating similar features.

Why yes, again, Brexit and the terrors of import tariffs

We are beginning to get to the point that we suspect a conspiracy here. For we've another of these reports telling us that Brexit is going to visit the Holy Terrors upon us all. Which, of course, it, might, for perhaps polite Europeans will no longer speak to us. But it isn't going to be true that the country's terms of trade are so ruined by tariffs that we'll all start to starve.

Today's entry is from the Food Foundation, which tells us that the imposition of WTO import duties upon ourselves will lead to food prices rising. Thus fewer will have their five a day and at some future date all die of scurvy (it's possible we might have exaggerated). 

Five-a-day eating targets for fruit and vegetables could become unaffordable for millions of low-income families as a result of Brexit-related food price rises, a report says.

The Food Foundation says that already-feeble consumption rates of healthy food in the UK could nosedive under Brexit because the triple impact of exchange rates, labour costs and tariffs could add up to £158 a year to the amount a family of four spends on fruit and vegetables.

Their full report is here and their source for the effects of import duties is this from the Resolution Foundation (see where our mutterings about conspiracy come from?) something we've already commented upon:

Clearly reverting to MFN tariffs with the EU is by no means the only possible outcome from a “no-deal” Brexit. If we leave the EU without a free trade agreement some have argued that the UK should unilaterally reduce all tariffs to zero. Our analysis indicates that should the country do this the benefits to consumers would be low. Across those good affected by the tariff cuts prices would fall by just 1 per cent. 

The Food people conveniently leave out that effect. We just can't think why either. 

Just to make it as clear as we can. Upon Brexit we have a choice, we in Britain get to decide this. We can tax ourselves with import tariffs on the things we buy from foreigners or we can decide not to be bloody fools and thus fail to do something so damn stupid. If we do tax ourselves then prices will, naturally, be higher than if we don't. But there is absolutely nothing in any set of rules, regulations or international agreements that insists we've got to go doolally the moment we're outside the EU. So, please, could varied think tanks all stop stating that we must go mad? 

Then there's this from the Foodie report.

These are crops which we only import from countries outside the EU. Their prices are unlikely to change (over and above the effects of the exchange rate) unless we unilaterally reduce tariffs. Several of these crops are grown in low and middle income countries where pressures on prices driven by UK supermarkets can have substantial impacts on the sustainability of production and treatment of workers. If free trade agreements resulted in reductions in price of these products and a growth in the UK market, the knock-on effects on producing countries would need careful consideration.

Seriously? If we remove tariffs then we'll buy more of these things, raising demand for them, and this could be a bad idea because poor people will be able to make more money supplying them to us? 

Are these people smoking the banana skins rather than eating what's inside them? 

The ASI's 2017 Budget Wishlist

Ahead of the Budget on Wednesday 22nd November we give our view on the changes the Chancellor should make to cement Britain's economic recovery, and end Britain's productivity and housing crises. 

Sam Bowman, Executive Director, on how we should tackle the housing crisis:

"Housing is unaffordable because too few houses are being built in the places people want to live. Too few houses are being built because getting planning permission is extremely difficult and unpredictable – the fact that land given permission rises in price by over one hundred times, in some cases, is strong evidence that planning is the important bottleneck. This leads to phenomena like ‘land banking’, which occurs because developers need to ensure a supply of land they can build on in the future to make sure their workers and machinery will be in use throughout the next few years.

"Cracking down on ‘land banking’ will threaten the existence of smaller housebuilders that will not be able to absorb the costs of unpredictable land supply, and make the market less competitive. What the Chancellor should really do is announce a major revision of planning regulations. One, revise green belt rules so that land within a short walk of an existing railway station is made available for development – 3.7% of London’s green belt made available in this way would give us land for one million new homes. Two, liberalise height and infill restrictions within existing residential areas so that streets of detached and semi-detached houses can densify into mansion flats. The only way to get cheaper housing is to build more of it – remove the regulatory barriers to supply and a housing boom will follow."

Ben Southwood, Head of Research, calls on the Chancellor to scrap Stamp Duty: 

"Popular giveaways are usually to be avoided, but this year Philip Hammond has the opportunity to please both the public and hard-nosed economists.

"Stamp Duty Land Tax is the most damaging major levy on the books, slicing 75p off the economy for every pound it raises—many multiples more than council tax, income tax, or VAT. It gums up the housing market by lumping people with huge bills for moving, stopping people from moving to get new jobs, and discouraging downsizing or upsizing.

"It’s also hated by those who pay it, coming in one giant bill and usually the largest single payment a household will ever make to the exchequer.

"Whether he funds it by raising other major levies, fixing the regressiveness in our current property taxes, or finding some more spending cuts, Hammond should avoid tinkering and scrap the whole thing. Voters and the UK economy will thank him."

Sam Dumitriu, Research Economist, says the Chancellor needs to reform corporation tax to boost capital investment in the economy:

"The UK has one of the lowest levels of capital investment in the EU. Only Portugal and Greece invest less as a share of GDP. At the moment, businesses can only deduct the cost of long-term investments in plants or machinery gradually over the life of the investment creating a bias in the tax system against the long-term productivity boosting investments we desperately need. Recent budgets have compounded the problem – capital lives have been lengthened and the Annual Investment Allowance has been cut from £500,000 to £200,000.

"In Wednesday’s Budget, the Chancellor should reform corporation tax to allow businesses to immediately expense investments in new plants and machinery to boost investment and raise productivity. Recent research suggests that this simple change could raise investment by around 17.5% leading to substantial job creation and a 2.5% wage increase."

Things not to do: Build much more social housing

There is a need for social housing for groups unable to afford ownership or private rentals, or those with special needs. But the biggest shortage in Britain is of private houses at affordable prices.  

In the 1970s and early 1980s social housing, called council houses, represented 35 percent of all houses. They were nearly all owned by local authorities and let out at subsidized rents. Waiting lists were long, sometimes 20 years, and constituted a major bar to mobility of labour, because someone moving to where there was a job would have to give up their place on a waiting list and have to start again.

Furthermore, the right to live in a house subsidized by taxpayers and ratepayers was a heritable asset. Once acquired, it could be passed on to children or dependents. There was a thriving black market sustained by people who no longer lived in their council houses, but let others do so for money while they pretended to be still tenants themselves.

The houses were generally not well maintained. There were always more claims on local authority funds, and tenants were not motivated to repair houses they did not own, so repairs and maintenance tended to involve lengthy waits, while property deteriorated in consequence. Some council estates became by-words for squalor.

The policy of Right to Buy transformed that situation. Government gave council house tenants the option to buy their home at a discount. If they had lived there for more than 2 years, they could buy at 20 percent below its independently assessed market value. This rose to 50 percent if they had lived there for more than 10 years. Many tenants bought, thereby ending the need for annual subsidy. The properties were immediately better-maintained, smartened up with fresh paint. Windows and pipes were fixed immediately since people were now protecting their own property.  

Purchasers felt they had acquired a stake in the country, since the home could be part of their estate, giving a substantial sum to their heirs. This was a population group that had previously owned no assets.

Rather than return to mass social housing, local authorities should be empowered to buy farmland in their area, give it planning permission, and sell it on to house-builders, setting a time limit for new homes to be built upon it. This could add a million new homes within 4 years, bringing down house prices to within the range of young couples. Huge numbers again would become home owners instead of the state dependents that social housing would make them.

Why we should tax improved land values

Tax is complex, and it's natural that people would change their mind when they come into contact with new arguments and new evidence. In the past I've argued that we should only tax unimproved land values. After all, taxing improved land values reduces the incentive to improve land. But I've changed my mind: we have to tax value added, and we do it on everything else, so there is no reason to have a special land preference.

I have always wondered why land value tax enthusiasts were so obsessed with VAT. They have a very specific animus against it, as will surely be demonstrated in many twitter replies to this very piece. Nearly all taxes reduce value-added.

Taxes on capital income reduce the incentive to add value by saving and building up capital. Taxes on labour income reduce the incentive to add value by working, and indeed by gaining experience, qualifications, and skills. Transactions taxes reduce all of this and reduce the value added when something moves from someone who values it less to someone who values it more.

The only exceptions are firstly Pigovian Taxes that balance out externalities—they're more like prices than levies, and make people take into account the cost of their behaviour to others—and secondly lump sum taxes.

Lump sum taxes are those that are extremely difficult to avoid. There's a general rule that the more elastic the response to a given tax, the more inefficient it is; each pound changes more behaviour. Well the response to lump sum taxes is the least elastic—the most inelastic—of the lot. Examples are a tax on height, a poll tax, and a land value tax. Reclaiming land is possible but very difficult, and essentially impossible in the most valuable parts of cities. All of these are highly efficient because none of the incentives around adding value are changed.

Now the first two seem obviously unfair to most people. I think the third is unfair too, for reasons Sam explains here:

If buyers know that they’ll have to pay £10,000 in tax on a piece of land they valued at £100,000, they’ll only be willing to pay £90,000 for that land. The tax lowers the returns from land ownership which is reflected in the value of the land. The current owners of land are the ones who bear the full cost of future tax bills.

It's best seen as a one-off raid on current property owners, or alternatively a nationalisation of all land. Technically a one-off raid on current kebab shop owners is efficient too—if the tax only relates to past behaviour then there can be no response to it. But not hitting people for retrospective (legal) investment decisions seems like a basic threshold for a civilised, and indeed prosperous, society.

A more compelling candidate for the "single tax" base is consumption, which is what the value-added tax hits. But we currently tax consumption of property values at a far lower rate than most other goods, especially as it gets pricy. Expensive flats are massively tax-advantaged because of the intentionally-regressive council tax banding system.

Yes, taxing consumption reduces the total value added by business and commerce in society, but we have to fund government programmes somehow. If we don't want to discourage economic activity with our taxes then we need to slash government spending. Since wealth is just stored-up claims on future consumption, raising consumption taxes is also a one-off tax on wealth. However, a switch to a single consumption tax would not require higher total tax take, just the same roughly-two-fifths taken in a clearer way. And it is less arbitrary, by hitting everything, rather than a single asset class.

What taxing consumption doesn't do is expropriate particular people for arbitrary reasons, disincentivise saving and investment compared to consuming now, or arbitrarily encourage lifestyle, consumption, or employment choices—many of the taxes on the books do.

Amazingly, markets even sort out these workers' rights things

We don't need to be paying all that much attention to the newspapers to see that there's something of a fight going on over workers' rights. Uber seems to be on one side of the contractual line where drivers are classified as workers and thus has certain costs it must carry as a result of employing people, Deliveroo on the other side of that same line where all are self-employed.

And, of course, all those costs of employment are going to come out of the workers' wages in the end, as is true of any division of compensation into wages and costs of employment. It isn't though necessary for all of this to be done through the law an the state's definitions:

Founded by Harry Franks, Sten Saar and Stuart Kelly in 2016, Zego has set out to re-invent commercial insurance for self-employed people, with a particular focus on contractors powering various parts of the gig economy. Its first product is pay-as-you-go scooter and car insurance for food delivery workers utilising platforms such as the Deliveroos of the world.

Unlike traditional insurance, which can work out prohibitively expensive as a proportion of income for food delivery drivers who may only work part time and even sporadically, Zego charges by the hour, with drivers only buying cover for when they are logged in to the various on-demand food ordering services they contract for.

We have no brief for this company, indeed know nothing about them other than what is in this source article. But here we do have that private sector, that market lubricated by that thirst for profit, coming in to solve one of these problems. And it's not that difficult to imagine such a service offering other forms of insurance - sickness, say - or a method of saving for holiday pay, pensions and so on. 

Do note again that all of the costs of those things offered by a more traditional employer will be incident upon the workers' wages. So their paying for them directly, if they should wish them, will not impact upon net wages at all over time.

Who would have thought it, eh? Markets unadorned manage what some insist can only be achieved through the heavy hand of the state?   

Things not to do: Renationalize the utilities

Most of those who advocate renationalizing the utilities can have no idea what the utilities were actually like when they were publicly-owned. The term itself is an illusion, because the public could exercise no ownership rights; these were exercised by politicians, civil servants and labour unions. When telecoms, energy and water were state-owned, they were characterized by high costs, high prices, inefficiency, lack of modernity and under-investment.

In the absence of competition, customers were effectively captive, so their needs and wants did not have to be addressed. Economists spoke of "producer capture," since the utilities served the interests of the producers in the absence of any consumer power. They were invariably over-manned, since the monopoly gave the unions huge power to dictate terms of employment and to oppose any job losses that new technologies and efficiencies might bring.

They were mostly loss-making, supported by subsidy from taxpayers. Crucially they were under-invested because there were always more demanding claims on public funds. Politicians satisfied electorally powerful groups, but infrastructure renewal carried no votes. In the 1970s the state telephone service would allow you to rent with quarterly payments a handset designed in the 1930s. Phone calls were costly, and overseas calls were prohibitively so.

Water was conveyed along cast iron pipes laid down in Victorian times, and burst water mains in cities were reported daily in the news.  

Gas appliances were bought from gas showrooms in high streets, but customers had to go in person because the showrooms all had unlisted numbers to avoid being bothered by telephone calls. Electricity was inefficient, losing vast amounts of power in transit. It was also expensive, and disconnections for non-payment were common.

They were all transformed by privatization. The formula RPI – X for maximum prices meant that prices came down for nearly all of them, X being the savings anticipated from technological innovation. In the case of water the formula was RPI – X + Y to give the water companies the funds to renovate the storage and conveyance that was so badly outdated.

The greatest change was that they were opened to competition, to give customers the choice between competing providers. What had been thought of as natural monopolies were opened up by allowing different providers to use a common transmission network or grid.  

Privatization made them efficient and cost-effective and gave customers a choice. Renationalization would turn the clock back to the over-priced, inefficient and shoddy services that prevailed under state ownership.

There's not an unlimited amount of ruin in a nation

As Adam Smith pointed out - and as we all know - there's a lot of ruin in a nation. There is not though an unlimited amount. As Zimbabwe shows us and as Venezuela is having a damn good go at proving:

There are two morals to draw from Mr Mugabe’s long, ignominious career. The first is that bad policies, corruptly implemented, can wreck a country with alarming speed and go on wrecking it long after you would have thought there was nothing left. Venezuela has little in common with Zimbabwe culturally, but has also achieved disastrous results by embracing a Latin version of Mugabenomics. By contrast, Botswana, Zimbabwe’s culturally similar but well-governed neighbour, was roughly as rich in 1980 but is now seven times richer.

We can also look at this over a longer timescale, using Angus Maddison's numbers. Roughly enough GDP per capita over history and geography was some $600 a year (these are 1992 dollars, adjusted for inflation and price differences across place). That's simply what a place without what we would call "an economy" in anything like the modern sense produces. There are indeed places out there, thankfully ever fewer of them, which have never had more than this. Those 700 million still living in these conditions tend to be - tend mind - to be some portion of a larger economy, rather than entire nations living at this level.

Except, of course, in our examples of people testing quite how much ruin there actually is in a nation. The real result of Mugabenomics, and the Bolivarian Revolution is testing that limit, is that it is possible to entirely destroy an economy, to reduce living standards to those of the Stone Age. For that's where Zimbabwe has got to, that $600 a year per head, roughly enough, in those 1992 dollars.