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.