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:
It’s also worth noting that the increased average income Key mentions has accrued almost entirely to above-median earners:
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:
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:
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.
They’ve also hinted that at some stage before or after the election campaign, they may announce what makes all our hearts instinctively leap, at least before we think about it: tax cuts. This would mark the first changes to tax since 2010, when they shifted the tax burden from the rich onto poor and middle-income earners.
Mana’s John Minto has an interesting reaction. He says tax cuts are a great idea, and suggests shifting the tax burden back again: abolishing GST and tax on the first $27,000 of income, and paying for this by finally taxing the unproductive untaxed income of the 1% – capital gains and financial transactions.
Something tells me a party of property magnates and investment bankers is not going to propose those kind of tax changes – any recovery-era tax cuts will presumedly be along similar lines to their recession-era tax cuts.
Does this strike anyone else as a little strange? Not just because they’re promising tikka masala before the chickens have hatched (the surplus is tiny, and only a projection based on fudged numbers, disguised cuts and abandoning Christchurch).
The main reason it’s strange is that when we were heading into rough financial times, they thought the appropriate thing to do was to cut taxes on the rich. And now in healthier financial times, they again think the appropriate thing to do is to cut taxes (presumedly again on the rich). Never mind the fact that they haven’t paid off their debt from the last tax cuts and tough economic times yet.
The truth is that they’re not responding to the economic climate at all. In tough times or healthy times, they’re pushing a philosophical agenda to let the rich continue getting richer while paying lower taxes, and reduce the social safety net to pay for it. Bill English recently let this agenda slip in a recent speech to the party’s Southern Region conference. They’ve already let public goods and services drop from 35% of GDP to 30% – one of the lowest rates in the OECD – and they intend to reduce that even further, to 26% over the next six or seven years. This is not what NZers want.
The obvious solution is not to let them rule for the next six or seven (or three) years.
You might think tough economic times are a good time to do some study, but that hasn’t been true under this government. This week my union showed clearly and simply the damage Steven Joyce and National have done to tertiary education since 2009:
Step 1) They’ve made tertiary institutions “fund more people for less money while costs rise,” and there’s no sign of funding keeping up with inflation, let alone increasing student numbers, any time soon.
Step 2) Therefore, staff:student ratios have worsened at all our universities.
Step 3) All our universities have decreased their world ranking scores, and these drops are “closely related” to the worsening staff:student ratios.
Steven Joyce supposedly has a master plan for tertiary education – but it’s basically just funding cuts, along with shipping in more international students to make up the funding, more postgrads (but no more student allowance for postgrads), making governance corporate rather than democratic and making tertiary study less a critic and conscience of society, more a skills factory for the economy. The above stats clearly show it’s not working. Lincoln University has followed Joyce’s formula more closely than any other university in NZ. They’re not included in the above data because there’s not enough information available – but they’re in deep trouble economically at least.
The national students’ union, NZUSA, suggests a very different approach – funding full fee scholarships and support services for the first in any immediate family to get a degree. It would cost $50 million a year, surely a bargain in terms of the benefits it would bring: obviously it’d be great for the students and their families, and for building a fair and socially mobile society, but it’d also reap huge dividends for the economy by utilising people and talents that usually fall through the cracks. What Steven Joyce claims to want – tertiary education to benefit the economy – would be better achieved by this than by his exactly opposite approach.
PS: The obvious objection is “but money has to come from somewhere! If they didn’t cut tertiary education funding, something else would have lost out!” To which I say: correct… Perhaps anti-democratic irrigation schemes or anti-environmental motorways or anti-poor tax adjustments should have lost out.
PPS: I wrote the title of this blog before I found the above picture on critic.co.nz. Surely there’s something wrong with your tertiary education policy when it leads at least two people to independently describe you as chowing down on universities.
Well, I didn’t intend two blogs about Bill English in a row, until I saw this press release, where he cynically manipulates statistics to try and show that inequality is equality. English claims the tax system has become “more progressive” since National’s 2010 tax changes, because a higher proportion of income tax revenue is coming from the richest earners.
He’s ignoring one rather important point about income tax: You pay a lot of income tax if you earn a lot of income.
It’s not surprising that the top 12% of households (and 6% of individuals) are paying proportionately more income tax than they were in 2008, because they’re earning proportionally a lot more money. (The above graph shows the top 10%’s incomes rose from about $85,000 to $100,000 from 2008-2011, while the median income stagnated at about $30,000).
Simply put, the rich are contributing a bigger slice of the tax pie because they’re earning a bigger slice of the income cheesecake. This is not something to be happy about, and certainly doesn’t mean taxes are more “progressive.”
Let’s go back to high school for a sec: A progressive tax system partially offsets inequality by taxing higher incomes proportionally more than lower incomes. Income taxes are typically progressive (e.g. Bill English’s $297,400/yr is mostly taxed at 33%, while his toilet cleaner’s $14/hr is mostly taxed at 17.5%). Sales taxes like GST are flat (15% across the board), but in practice regressive, because they take up more of the poor’s incomes than the rich’s.
National’s 2010 tax changes made tax more regressive – the lowest income tax band (under $14,000) dropped 2%, while the top band (over $70,000) dropped 5%. Company and investment tax dropped too, but GST increased. Basically, in a time when tax needs to get more progressive to help combat inequality, National gave tax cuts to the rich instead.
“Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997.
Just like every summer, the Remuneration Authority has announced a back-dated pay-rise for MPs, and just like last summer, they’re claiming that we should actually be feeling sorry for politicians, because their pay is rising slower than average wages, and certainly slower than inflation.
This spurious justification completely misses the point that in the worst financial times since (arguably) the Great Depression, those who are earning at a luxury level – and can live without some of their excess – should be asked to sacrifice more than those who are struggling to make ends meet. Still more so when they are so-called public servants whose pay is symbolically significant.
Unfortunately, it seems that the current government’s stance is pretty much the opposite of this principle – they’re willing to protect a tax system that’s “very generous” to the rich and an environmental policy that’s compassionate towards polluters, even if it means they have to claw an extra $2 from poor people’s prescriptions.
All pay should rise by the level of inflation by default, but as long as politicians are earning more than 99% of their people, they should willingly exempt themselves from the right to a pay-rise in these difficult times, as Hone Harawira has done the last two years.
Better yet, surely this economic climate is a pertinent time to rethink the ridiculous salaries and perks politicians, CEOs and other high-status personages receive? Underlying the Remuneration Authority’s crude proportionalist argument is the assumption that what everyone earns is what they deserve, but the numbers are making that assumption less and less plausible.
Un-elected public service executives’ salaries are even worse than those of elected politicians, and in the private sector, worse still. Over the past ten years we’ve had very healthy economic times and then we’ve had a recession, but one thing has remained consistent: CEO salaries have continued to grow and grow, and are getting more and more out of proportion to workers’ pay.
We all know this, so why do we tolerate it?
Bosses’ salaries and child poverty are two of the most extreme symptoms of inequality, which is at an all-time national high. In order to fix either poverty or excessive salaries, we’ll need a massive mindset shift: we’ll need to stop pretending inequality, poverty and excessive wealth aren’t problems, we’ll need to put to death the delusion that people automatically deserve whatever pittance or fortune they receive, and we’ll need to develop an of the causes and effects of inequality. And we’ll need to gain more control over our workplaces and government, so that we can attempt to halt the banal and relentless redistribution of our wealth into the hands of a few.