Published in The Australian on 25 October 2019 under the title “Canberra needs to discover ‘secret’ tax cuts bonus”. Written in my capacity as Research Associate at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Australia’s tax debate needs a reset. The government’s recent tax reform is to be commended but it was based on flawed Treasury modelling that ignored productivity and over-estimated the budget cost of tax cuts by $90bn.
The debate about tax in Australia is often framed as a contest between tax cutters and big spenders. The tax cutters argue that workers should be able to keep more of their own income and that tax cuts provide important stimulus. Their opponents insist that we need more government spending instead of tax cuts and that spending also provides important stimulus. Both sides frame their argument through the prism of stimulus. This is a mistake.
Published in The Australian Financial Review on 17 October 2019 under the title “Tax is the first lever the government can pull for growth”. Written in my capacity as Research Associate at the Centre for Independent Studies.
The Australian economy has stalled. According to the most recent national accounts, Australia’s GDP per person has not increased over the past year, and the IMF predicts the stagnation will continue in the short term.
This gloomy news has led to the inevitable calls for more monetary and fiscal stimulus. But these are the wrong ideas at the wrong time.
There may be a time and place for stimulus policy. Specifically, if there is a sudden shock that decreases aggregate demand, then stimulus policies can potentially improve the situation by boosting consumption spending. But these macroeconomic tools are blunt instruments designed to create a short-term boost during an emergency — and they do nothing to improve long-term productivity.
Treasury modelling of the government’s tax changes make the strange assumption of no behavioural change, leading them to ignore economic efficiency and overestimate the revenue implications. Proper modelling provides crucial further information:
The Low-Middle Income Tax Offset (LMITO) does nothing to improve economic efficiency and will cost about 10% more than expected.
The long-term structural tax reforms scheduled for 2022 and 2024 create significant economic benefits, boosting GDP by about $36 billion/year and increasing efficiency by $13 billion/year – this is over and above the direct financial benefits received by taxpayers.
Treasury estimated the structural reforms would cost about $235 billion over ten years, but proper tax modelling shows the true cost is 38% less at only $145 billion over ten years.
Scrapping the LMITO and bringing forward the structural tax reforms would give large benefits at a relatively low cost; it would be possible to do this while keeping the budget in surplus.
Looking beyond the details of the current tax changes, it is crucial that the Australian Treasury copy the lead of the UK Treasury by introducing dynamic tax modelling before they provide tax advice or forecasts.
The centrepiece of the 2019/20 budget was a proposed doubling of the income tax cuts that were legislated last year. Both the short-run LMITO change and the long-run tax cuts will reduce tax, but the two approaches are fundamentally different.
These differences are important, but they are hidden by the superficial nature of the tax debate in Australia. To differentiate between superficial tax changes and meaningful tax reform, it is necessary to understand the link between taxes, incentives, and behaviour.
We have used a dynamic tax model that factors in behavioural changes. This model applies an elasticity of taxable income to estimate the direct link between tax rates and the tax base, which allows for more accurate estimates of revenue changes, the efficiency cost (deadweight loss) from tax, economic output, and consumer wellbeing.