September 08, 2011

Britain's 50p Tax Rate: The Evidence Against

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On his excellent blog Analysing British Politics, my Warwick colleague Wyn Grant (with whom I taught The Making of Economic Policy last year) has announced: Economists disagree shock. Yesterday, nineteen other economists and I signed a letter in the Financial Times urging a rapid retreat from Britain's "temporary" 50p tax rate on higher incomes. Today, two more economists (Alan Manning of LSE and Warwick's own Andrew Oswald) have responded, noting that the evidence linking personal location decisions to marginal tax rates is unimpressive. Wyn points out, also, that the precise fiscal effects of the 50p tax rate will not be known for some time.

It is no surprise to find that economists disagree. Wyn and I teach on our course that the world is complex; we often remain uncertain about exactly how causation works, even long after the event. Uncertainty is not the same as total ignorance, however. While the letter that I signed emphasized the tax competition argument against the 50p tax rate, I supported the argument on other grounds for which there exist clear empirical foundations. Because economic causation is uncertain, there is also contrary evidence. I place particular emphasis on the evidence I've selected, partly because I regard those that have produced it as fine scholars.

First, those who support higher income taxation appear to ignore the price we pay in economic welfare. With rare exceptions, taxes distort the allocation of resource and worsen economic efficiency. Some do this more than others. We can rank them by the losses they cause per unit of revenue raised. It turns out that taxes on immovable property cause the smallest losses, followed by consumption taxes and taxes on movable property. Taxes on personal income cause more losses than any of these. Only profit taxes are worse from this point of view. This finding is from work by Åsa Johansson, Christopher Heady, Jens Arnold, Bert Brys, and Laura Vartia, based on data from 21 OECD countries, 1970 to 2005: "Tax and Economic Growth," OECD Economics Department Working Paper No. 620 (2008).

Second, those who think it's okay for the Exchequer to grab some extra money every now and then from the rich, or from banks or oil companies, ignore the price we pay for a volatile, unpredictable tax regime. When businesses contemplate long-lived investments, they must predict the structure of taxes five or ten years in the future. They need a clear idea of where the line will be drawn between public and private property, and where taxation and regulation will start and stop. Temporary taxes are bad, because they can be withdrawn or added to with equal probability. "Regime uncertainty" is bad because businesses lose confidence that they will be allowed to reap the benefits of their ventures. Our world is full of new opportunities, yet business investment is flatlining because of such uncertainties. The baleful role of "regime uncertainty" in prolonging the Great Depression in the United States under the New Deal has been documented by Robert V. Higgs in his article "Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War," The Independent Review 1(4) (1997), pp. 561-590. From this point of view one thing that is wrong with our 50p tax rate is that it is temporary; it should not have been introduced in the first place, and our current indecision is making that worse. Another thing is what it stands for: a populist willingness to raid the rich on the pretext of collective guilt for past and future crimes.

Third, social justice is said to require tax cuts for the poor before the rich. I understand this argument but I find that it is faulty on several grounds. Richer households already pay far more than their share of income taxes. The one percent of taxpayers that pay the 50p tax rate contribute around one quarter of all income tax receipts. What is the principle of social justice that says this is not enough? Besides, the most important measures that will get low-income households out of poverty are job creation, welfare reform, and investments in the family life of children before school (because inequalities in educational outcomes are significantly formed before children ever get to school, and because higher rates of family breakdown contribute in distinct ways to both rising inequality and some children's stunted pre-school development; see The Hills Report: An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK. Report of the National Equality Panel (John Hills, Chair; Mike Brewer; Stephen Jenkins; Ruth Lister; Ruth Lupton; Stephen Machin; Colin Mills; Tariq Modood; Teresa Rees; Sheila Riddell). London: The Government Equalities Office (2010)). Higher taxes on rich people are either irrelevant or harmful to these objectives.

Fourth, it has been said that the economy will benefit more from tax cuts for those on low incomes, because poor people will spend the money and the rich won't. As far as temporary tax changes are concerned there is little basis for this view in either economic theory or evidence. The best recent evidence comes from the United States where John Taylor has shown the complete lack of response of household consumption to the mailing out of millions of tax rebates in 2008 and 2009 and to the "cash for clunkers" programme. For a diagram that says it all, go to

Fifth, it has been said that the rich deserve punishment for bringing the current recession on us. I understand the sentiment but I reject it. It assumes that the only wealth is that gained at the expense of the community. This cannot be true in general: Britain is one of the richest countries in the world, despite our present troubles, because of 250 years of private enterprise, not because of government intervention or controls. I acknowledge that some people gained at the expense of others and this played a part in the financial crash that preceded and caused the recession. Some (not all) were bankers (and not all bankers were at fault in this). This is a serious issue. But the appropriate response is to punish those guilty under the law, and strengthen competition regulation and financial regulation, not to inflict arbitrary collective punishment on the entire class of people on whom we must rely to rescue our economy from its present plight. Besides, it is clear that politicians should share the blame for what went wrong. The credit crunch began in the housing market, which is already highly regulated in most western economies; politicians and regulators were deeply implicated in the overextension of subprime credit. The most convincing argument (measured by standards of evidence and logic) that I have found is that advanced by Raghuram Rajan in his book Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009).

Finally, it has been said that the signatories to the FT letter are self-interested, because they are surely all 50p tax payers. On this I speak only for myself. I am not even close, and I never will be. My only reason to oppose this tax is concern about the harm done to the community in which I live.

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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