Averages, intentions and inequality: more Key trickery

median vs mean

Graph from latest Household Incomes in New Zealand report; yellow and pink annotations are mine

John Key is being a Spurious George again. In explaining why he’d love to cut taxes for (mostly) the rich, but just can’t afford to yet…

Key pointedly said that when National took office the average wage was $47,000 a year but had risen to around $55,000 today, and was expected to climb to $62,000 by 2017. This was creeping towards the top tax bracket, where salary earners pay 33c in the dollar for earnings over $70,000.

“I don’t think it was anyone’s intention that someone on the average wage would be paying the highest marginal tax rate in New Zealand,” he said, echoing arguments National has been making in private for months.

Well, Mr. Key, it also wasn’t anyone’s intention for the incomes of the rich to rise so much faster than those of the poor, pushing up the average (mean) income to a level less than 30% of people reach. (Actually it was some people’s intention: right-wingers who think inequality is a good thing)

Key is trying to give the impression that the average (mean) income is the income earned by the person in the middle. But mean doesn’t measure the middle of the people, but the middle of the money; and of course the money is weighted towards wealthy outliers at Mr. Key’s end of the spectrum, who push the average up with their exponentially higher incomes.

A far more useful statistic is the median income: the amount that half the people earn more than, and the other half earn less than. This truly represents the average Kiwi. The median individual income is almost exactly $30,000 p.a. – just under the middle of the third-to-top tax rate band.

It’s actually getting more and more misleading to portray average income as a reflection of middle-income earners: As inequality worsens, the “middle of the money” (average income) is moving further and further from the “middle of the people” (median income). My eye makes it less than 10% difference in 1980, up to about 25% now:

Mean and median over time

Graph from latest Household Incomes in New Zealand report; yellow and pink annotations are mine

It’s also worth noting that the increased average income Key mentions has accrued almost entirely to above-median earners:

income changes recession and recovery

Graph from latest Household Incomes in New Zealand report; yellow and pink annotations are mine

Another problem with mean income figures is they hide inequalities like these and portray a boon for the rich as a boon for everyone.

I do agree in principle with indexing tax-rate thresholds (in fact, all thresholds… *cough*student loan repayments*cough*) for inflation, but Key’s trying to use that principle as a smokescreen for more tax cuts to the rich, spinning this as a release for the average NZer from crippling over-taxation, which is not true on any level whatsoever. Taxpayers between the median and mean incomes actually pay the lowest proportional tax:

Salmond Fig 8-2-01

Graph from Rob Salmond; yellow and pink annotations are mine

And in the context of a supposedly progressive tax system it’s the rich who are really best off:

“At very low incomes, New Zealand’s taxes are a little above the OECD average … But for high incomes, our overall “tax wedge” … is the lowest in the developed world.

Our tax system asks too much of those with little, and too little of those with much.”

This would only get worse under National’s proposed 2017 tax cuts.

In any case, if Key is really worried about too many NZers in the top tax bracket, there’s an obvious solution: Implement a new top tax rate(s) for the super-rich, like most similar countries have:

income taxes NZ aust
income tax UK france
income tax US

Soooooooooo: whatever people’s intention about who should be on the top tax rate, it’s clear John Key’s intention in referring to the mean income, rather than the median, is to mislead (or perhaps he simplify misunderstood statistics in a conveniently misleading way, as with child poverty at the last debate). Sadly he’ll probably largely achieve that intention.

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