Tagged: tax

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.

Money matters

john-key-too-drunk-to-drive

John Key on raising incomes for low-income families, 3 News, 9 Sept 2014:

Prime Minister John Key says there’s no evidence that giving people money makes any difference.

“What really makes a difference is employment and employment opportunities,” he told reporters.

John Key on tax cuts, 3 News, 10 Sept 2014:

“Whatever the number was for an individual or a household, whether it’s $500, $1000, $1500 – you can pick your poison – I don’t accept the argument that doesn’t matter to a low- to middle-income family. I think it does matter.”

Don’t believe the scaremongering on capital gains tax

capital gains tax first world problem

The unholy trinity of National, right-wing blogs and the mainstream media are scaremongering about Labour et al’s proposed capital gains tax again. Because it’s new and because it’s a tax, it seems scary and there’s easy political points available in opposing it. But in fact most countries have capital gains taxes. New Zealand’s tax system is one of the most generous to the rich, and part of that is our anomalous lack of CGT.

The current scaremongery relates to inherited family homes of deceased family members. The impression John Key et al are putting across is that a grieving, struggling family will have to scramble to sell their deceased parents’ family home to avoid being stung with a hefty capital gains tax they can’t afford. IF that were the case, a one-month “grace period” certainly doesn’t sound like long enough to grieve, get organised & sell the house to avoid financial ruin.

But it’s NOT the case. Even without a grace period, only profit since inheritance – I repeat, profit since inheritance – would be taxable (and at a modest 15%). If a family inherited a house worth $400,000, and sold it a year later for $430,000, they’d incur tax of $4,500, but they’d get to keep the other $25,500. They’d still be $25,500 better off than if they’d sold the house straight away, and $425,500 better off than if they hadn’t inherited the house.

This is no different from inheriting any other profitable asset. Currently, if you inherit a company, and it makes $30,000 profit over the next year, you’ll be liable for 28% ($8,400) company tax on that profit. There’s no “grace period” there. And more importantly, there’s no “grace period” on the profits – 72% of which you’ll keep and no doubt enjoy.

So it’s extremely dishonest of Key to portray families inheriting profitable assets as somehow hard-done-by, simply because they’ll incur tax on those profits. Truly hard-done-by families are the families of (increasingly numerous) people who’ve never managed to buy a house (largely because of tax-free property investment). Those families will receive no inheritance (let alone profitable inheritance), and many struggle to pay for (increasingly exorbitant) funeral and burial costs.

Years from now, if my siblings and I inherit my parents’ house and it makes capital gains by the time we get around to selling it, we’re not hard-done-by if we incur tax on those gains. We’re lucky my parents own their home in the first place, and have something to leave us (in fact, something that continues gaining value until we sell it).

That said, I do tend to agree there should probably be a grace period of maybe six months, because the tax is supposed to target people who buy extra houses for profit, not people who gain an extra house by accident because a relative died. Besides, it may take some months to decide whether they’ll sell it, keep it as a rental, or have other family move in (in which case it remains a family home, thus exempt from CGT). But a grace period would be an act of compassion to people who don’t really need it; certainly not a demand of justice or need.

Of course, Cunliffe didn’t help his own cause by remembering the policy wrong and declaring unequivocally that the grace period will be one month. In truth, the length of the grace period is a detail that they’ll leave to an expert advisory group to work out. It was incompetent of Cunliffe not to know this.

Anyway, despite those two caveats: don’t believe the hype. Look into it, listen to David Parker’s explanation, think about it, etc. After doing so, no right-thinking person would think there’s anything to worry about.

National’s big housing announcement: tinkering for the middle-class, hand-outs for the rich

One-word summary: Pathetic.

Scoop cartoon housing crisis I’ve blogged before about National’s staggering denial of the housing affordability crisis. It seems they’ve now woken up somewhat, as they’ve released a housing policy as the flagship policy announcement of their campaign launch.

They claim to have “overhauled” the existing scheme (introduced by Labour in 2007) whereby you can withdraw from your KiwiSaver savings for a deposit on your first home, and many people can get a government top-up too.

In fact, they’re only making a few changes to the scheme:

1) They’re increasing the house price limits – you can now buy a house worth more and still be eligible for the top-up. This is good and necessary, given our skyrocketing house prices. But it will be generally wealthier people gaining eligibility.

2) That’s even more true for the second change: Currently, the top-up is $1,000 for every year you’ve been in KiwiSaver, to a maximum of $5,000. National will double these amounts, but here’s the kicker: only for those buying or building brand new houses.

3) Aside from the top-up, you can currently only withdraw your employee and employer contributions for your first home deposit. National propose to let you withdraw your annual government contributions (max $521/year) too. I’m actually 100% behind this, and don’t know why it’s not already the case – but, again, the people with the maximum government contributions will usually be wealthier.

4) In October, the Reserve Bank introduced Loan-to-Value ratio restrictions, meaning most buyers now need a 20% deposit for a home loan. This has slowed house-price inflation, but also priced poorer people out of the market. Under National’s proposal, first home buyers will now only need a 10% deposit. This will certainly help, but it’s only a partial backing-away from the Reserve Bank’s policy.

I agree with most of the above, and I’m glad the government have stopped ignoring at least one aspect of the housing crisis.

But there are at least five significant problems, which mean this policy completely misses the mark:

Firstly, it’s pretty small-fry. A lot of it is good, but “tinkered” or at best “expanded” is more accurate than “overhauled.” A couple with maximum eligibility will be able to draw $7,294 more of their savings for their house deposit. If they can afford a new house, they’ll also get $10,000 more from the government. They’ll also probably benefit from being able to buy with a lower deposit – let’s round up the total benefit to $20,000. But that’s still only how much house prices inflate in Auckland and Christchurch every few months. (If you’re buying on your own, all these amounts will be halved, except the house cost/inflation of course.)

Secondly, it helps the better-off the most. “Maximum eligibility” does not correspond to maximum need, but maximum privilege. This is already a flaw with KiwiSaver and the home withdrawal scheme – the people with the most to withdraw are those who’ve earned the most since 2007. But it’s compounded under National’s proposals.

Even more significantly, while the proposed expansions let normal buyers withdraw more of their own savings, they give an extra hand-out of $5,000 per person free money to those who can afford to build or buy new houses. How many people do you know who can afford a new house, let alone for their first home? If you can think of anyone, I’m guessing they either have parental assistance, inherited wealth or very high-earning jobs (you can earn quite a lot and still be eligible, btw). Acknowledging that even these privileged people need help buying homes is admission that our house prices are out of control. But it’s disgusting that the less-well-off are denied this generous and much-needed hand-out.

Thirdly, National’s numbers look impressive by themselves (90,000 helped! Thousands of $ of support! Only costs $218 million!), but if you actually whip out your calculator and analyse them, you’ll notice that only the 10,000 luckiest will be eligible for the big bucks, their mortgages will still be officially classified as 150% unaffordable, and even with these big benefactors pushing up the average, the average assistance is only about $2,000 per home-buyer.

Fourthly, this only helps people buy their first home; it doesn’t do anything about the investors with multiple homes, crowding the market and pushing both rents and house prices sky-high. Unlike in most other countries, you can still “earn” tax-free passive parasite income off other people’s poverty, and unlike Mana, Green and Labour, National don’t see a problem with this (not surprising, since many of them are property investors themselves).

Fifthly, the best National can offer is modifying an old Labour idea, which speaks volumes about their lack of vision. Labour thought up KiwiSaver in the first place, and now they, Green and Mana actually have new ideas to help people into home ownership – and, unlike for National, the most emphasis goes to the people that need it the most.

The parties and the facts on minimum wage

put-the-politicians-on-minimum-wage-and-watch-how-fast-things-change

I’m a huge fan of minimum wage laws, which were introduced in NZ before any other nation-state, in 1894. Along with a good welfare safety net (remember when we had one of those? I don’t), they ensure employers can’t take advantage of prospective workers’ desperation to exploit their labour while paying them barely enough to survive, like upper classes have done for most of history and most of the world. They also put more money in the pockets of lower-income earners, which means more money circulating in the local economy, rather than the ‘trickle-down’ approach that directs more money to Swiss banks and Hawaiian holiday homes. All this is good for all workers, and good for society. As a Christian, I can’t help but agree that minimum wage laws as a necessary (though not sufficient) response to James 5:4-5, and enactment of Luke 6:20-21.

Employers and right-wingers often respond to the minimum wage (or proposed increases to it) in the same way they did to the abolition of slavery: countering that minimum wage laws end up hurting the people they mean to help, by making jobs unaffordable for employers, and therefore increasing unemployment. However, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, most economists now agree that reasonable increases in the minimum wage don’t increase unemployment, and may even decrease it. They’ve found room in their theories to explain this, by observing that reality is more complex than their older models.

The SMH also offers plenty of real-life examples of minimum wage increases not increasing unemployment. New Zealand’s history, Treasury and Department of Labour corroborate this, as does recent US experiencevarious other research and this very rich man. The Living Wage movement adds evidence of employers actually getting more value for each wage dollar by paying employees better, as their staff are healthier, less likely to need long hours or second jobs, more loyal to their workplaces, better-motivated and often more productive. New Zealand has notoriously low productivity, so higher wages may help improve this.

If the old, baseless myths of minimum wages harming workers and employers are cast aside, there remains no economic or ethical justification for a minimum wage below a living wage, “the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life” and “enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.” The living wage is currently calculated at $18.80 per hour.

I thought it would be useful to survey the various political parties’ policies and past records on the minimum wage and/or Living Wage, to see what each of them may do if in power after September the 20th.

There’s some quite significant differences, which I’ve roughly quantified in scores out of ten for the sake of TL;DR readers who probably haven’t read this far anyway.

The parties on minimum wage

Alongside the below, please note that Bryan Bruce recently asked all parties “whether they would or would not support in principle the introduction of a living wage rather than a minimum wage.”  “The Green Party, Labour, Mana, Maori Party. Alliance and Internet Party said Yes they would. ACT, United Future, Conservative Party, Democrats For Social Credit said No. NZ First gave no answer, while Bill English for National refused to answer saying the question was hypothetical.”

National 2/10: No policy; presumably status quo

Policy: National typically don’t campaign on policy, and they have barely have any policy on their website compared to every other party – including nothing on the minimum wage. We can assume current trends will continue.

Past record: The 1990s National-led government was famously committed to lowering, not raising wages, due to similar beliefs to the minimum wage myths discussed above. They let it stagnate except when NZ First forced them to increase it in 1997 (nice graph here), and left it in 1999 at about 40% of the average wage. The current National-led government have done better; they’ve maintained it basically where Labour left it in 2008 – around 50% of average wage. They’ve increased it gradually, though much slower than the last Labour-led government – 18.75% in six years (just above inflation) compared to 71.43% in nine years (considerably above inflation; they also introduced Working for Families – see below). Their latest increase has been the highest – 50c to $14.25. They promote this a lot in their media releases. If their ‘status quo’ policy continues, it will further increase inequality, because it’s well out of step with economic growth.

National also re-introduced lower minimum wages for young and new employees, because of the minimum wage myth that it would increase youth employment. This bill passed with the support of ACT and United Future, with all other parties opposing.

Labour 8/10: $15 then $16.25; target of 2/3 of average wage; Living wage ($18.80) for public jobs 

Policy: Labour have a clear policy to “Increase the minimum wage by $2 an hour in our first year,to $15 an hour in our first hundred days in government, and increased [sic] again to $16.25 an hour in early 2015.” They will also “Set a target of returning the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage by the end of our second term, as economic conditions allow,” noting that the minimum wage “averaged around two-thirds of the average wage in the post-War period until the policies of Muldoon, followed by the neoliberal period, slashed it to just 40% of the average wage by 1999. The sixth Labour government brought it up to half of the average wage, but it has flat-lined since then.”

They also intend to reform employment law to be more in the interests of workers, and support the Living Wage movement in a number of ways: they’ll “Ensure that all core public service workers are paid at least the Living Wage, and extend this as fiscal conditions permit,” favour private sector firms who pay living wages, and “progressively address inequities in the pay of the publicly-funded aged care and disability care workforce and non-teaching staff in … schools.” The latter would be great for our huge numbers of hard-working, poorly-paid aged-care workers. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that government subsidies are currently not enough for rest homes to pay their staff a living wage.

Past record: While the fourth Labour government kick-started “the neoliberal period” they mention in their policy, the last (Clark) Labour-led government raised the minimum wage much faster than inflation, and much faster than the current National-led government, as mentioned. They also introduced Working for Families to top up sub-living wages with government subsidies – John Key called this “communism by stealth” at the time but now supports maintaining it rather than making employers pay more. They also passed a diluted version of Sue Bradford’s bill for youth to receive the same minimum wage as older adults, which National have essentially reversed (see above).

Green    9/10: 2/3 of average wage ($17-$20)

Policy: The Greens’ policy is to “increase the minimum wage and ensure it cannot fall below 66% of the average wage.” 66% of the average would translate to $17.16 as of a year ago, but as a friend pointed out, raising the minimum wage would also raise the average, so the final figure would be higher than that – it would take a smarter statistical mind than mine to give you a firm figure. The advantage of a relative measure is it deals with the material, absolute effects of inequality, as well as the material effects of poverty. Superannuation is indexed to average wages, and I think it’s a good idea for the minimum wage to be also. The Greens also say they are “committed to full employment with dignity and a living income, and reject[] the idea that economic stability requires either a significant level of unemployment or a low level of protection for those in the paid workforce.”

Past record: Former Green MP Sue Bradford led the charge for youth to receive the same minimum wage as adults, and the Labour-led government passed a version of this. Contrary to what right-wing bloggers and politicians say, it didn’t cause any adverse affect to youth employment; in fact it decreased youth inactivity.

NZF    6.5/10: $16 at first; hinting at possible further increases

Policy: Their policy is to raise the minimum wage to $16 “in the first instance.” It’s not clear what would happen next; Winston Peters has previously said that after an initial raise they will “then add margins for skill and good service,” which isn’t particularly clear either. This lack of clarity means I’ve given them a score below Labour’s, despite their increase being higher until April 2015. They’ll also make employment law better for workers, and reverse National’s policy of lower minimum wages for young workers, preferring a more constructive policy of “subsidizing wages for employers who take on young, unemployed people for trade training and skills programmes.”

Past record: In their confidence and supply agreement with Labour in 2005, NZ First asked Labour to “continue the practice of annually increasing the minimum wage, with a view to it being set at $12.00 per hour by the end of 2008,” which happened. Also, the only significant increase to the minimum wage in the 1990s National-led government was prompted by NZ First. All their media releases on the minimum wage advocate for raising it (or oppose reintroducing the youth rate), and in a speech to the Combined Trade Unions Peters boasts that “New Zealand First has supported every increase in the minimum wage.”

Maori    9/10: Raise minimum wage to living wage ($18.80)

Policy: The policy section of their website hasn’t been updated for this election, and suggests raising the minimum wage to $16 as of 2011. More recently, they announced a policy of raising the minimum wage to the calculated living wage of $18.80. The Living Wage movement’s figure, which is updated each year, is based mostly on absolute measures. The advantage of this is that it deals with the material necessities of living a full life in society, can’t be written off as “merely relative” – though of course this writing-off misses the point spectacularly.

Past record: They haven’t let their role in National-led government blunt their criticism of its slow increases in the minimum wage, saying “The Government should be ashamed of themselves” for raising it a mere 25c to $13.75 in 2013. In the same release, they described “the increase in income inequality over the last 25 years as a major threat to our economic well-being and social cohesion,” and said “The Government should focus on reducing wage inequality by targeting high wages of excessively high income earners” as well as increasing the minimum wage.

Mana     10/10: Living Wage ($18.80) and no lower than 66% of average wage ($17-20)

Policy: Mana’s policy is to “Increase the minimum wage to $18.80 per hour (a living wage) and index it at 66% of the average wage to ensure it remains a living wage.” This combines the advantages of the Māori party policy (combating material deprivation by adopting a living wage) and the Green Party policy (combating the material affects of inequality and relative poverty by ensuring the minimum wage never goes below 66% of the average wage). Their economic justice, livelihoods and social wellbeing policies also include many other ways to “Raise the incomes of low-income earners,” including better protection for workers, working towards full employment by creating community service jobs for the unemployed, reversing National’s lower minimum wages for youth, finally increasing welfare support from the poverty-level it’s been at since 1991, abolishing GST which disproportionately impacts on the poor, and working towards a Universal Basic Income, as recommended by Gareth Morgan.

Past record: Mana is only three years old as a party, so their main past record has been advocating for the last three years for a higher minimum wage, and opposing the reduction of the minimum wage for young and new workers.

ACT    0/10: Scrap the minimum wage

Policy: If ACT had their way, minimum wage laws would be “gone by lunchtime” (to quote their former leader on NZ’s nuclear-free stance). This is part of their welfare [or lack thereof] policy, which they note would be a continuation of the current government’s approach to welfare. It’s interesting that even though the minimum wage is not about benefits, but work, ACT lump it under welfare policy – presumably because it goes to poor people, not rich people.

Past record: All their releases on the minimum wage advocate for lowering it, oppose raising it, or oppose it altogether. They successfully lobbied National to have it lowered for young and new workers. They frequently repeat the minimum wage myths discussed above; that minimum wages are a “barrier to unemployment,” and that a “myth that minimum wages protect the poor.”

UF    2/10: Seems to support the status quo, whatever that might be

Policy: The policy section of their website is in progress, and mostly still lists 2011 policy. I can’t find anything on their 2011 policy or even their media releases on minimum wage, except for saying they’d require “foreign charter vessels … compl[y] with New Zealand minimum wage laws and labour conditions,” which is a good and much-needed policy.

Past record: United Future have been confidence and supply partners of both the last National government and the last Labour government, and from what I can tell, they’ve supported what both their big sisters have done, despite the contradictions. This news report clarifies what I couldn’t find in their 2011 policy: they didn’t support a higher minimum wage last election (not sure about since). Last year, Peter Dunne’s one vote allowed National’s lower minimum wage for young and new workers to pass.

Internet    ?/10: No policy so far

Policy: Their policies are still in progress, and I can find barely anything even being discussed on their policy forum and/or policy incubator – I found a few comments here, which aren’t too encouraging. Ironically, their media releases lack the basic internet feature of a search function, so I’m finding it hard to see if they’ve even mentioned the minimum wage anywhere (except for this release from Hone Harawira on behalf of Internet Mana). Perhaps the most solid statements they’ve made are one-off responses to questions: their affirmative response to Bryan Bruce’s Living Wage question above, Bruce’s other questions and #3-ranked candidate (#6 in Internet Mana) Miriam Pierard’s strong response to bFM on inequality.

Past record: Since they don’t even have policy yet, they certainly don’t have a past record. I suppose Kim Dotcom’s past record is worth mentioning; though here’s another perspective on it. In any case, while Dotcom does have a largely undefined “oversight” role, there are plenty of others involved in shaping policy: candidates, members and even to some extent the Mana party.

Conservative    4/10: $20,000 tax-free threshold instead of raising minimum wage

Policy: I only found one thing about the minimum wage on their website; it’s an undated response from Colin Craig to a reader’s question about the living wage and unions. Craig’s answer shows he believes in minimum wage myths as much as “tough on crime” myths, but it also clarifies his policy, which is to “increase the [non-existent] tax free threshold to $25,000” [now $20,000, and with an undefined flat tax after that] instead of raising the minimum wage.

A tax-free threshold would be great for low-income earners (and is one of the few policies the Conservatives have in common with Mana), but isn’t really a substitute for fairer wages. Quick calculations show if there was flat tax of 20% above $20,000, a minimum wage worker would end up with the equivalent of about $15.50 per hour on current tax rates (though presumably less public services). If it was 30% flat tax, they’d end up with the equivalent of $15/hr on current tax rates. If it was 40% (unlikely, given their low tax rhetoric), they’d end up with basically the same net wages as now.

Past record: I can’t find anything apart from the above.

Scores/10 according to me:

Mana: 10
Māori: 9
Green: 9
Labour: 7.5
NZ First: 6.5
Conservative: 4
National: 2
United Future: 2
ACT: 0
Internet: ?

EDIT (August 2015)

I’ve made a table showing how quickly the last three governments have raised the minimum wage.

Minimum wage increases