Is the UK’s tax burden too high?

Introduction

On December 2 2018, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted “The tax burden is too high”. His assertion derived from an analysis of historical data undertaken by the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) which had been commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph. The TPA reported that the tax to GDP ratio had reached a new high of 34.6%, breaking the previous high of 34.3% seen in the early 1960s.

What does “too high” mean?

It seems reasonable to assume that “too high” in this context means that the tax level is impeding GDP growth; it’s not easy to think of a second reason for tax to be too high. This made me wonder whether there is an objective basis for asserting that tax is too high and prompted me to investigate whether a link between a nation’s GDP and its tax level exists.

Methodology

I chose the year 2016 (for which complete data exists), and because it is recent, to examine whether a link exists. I used all 35 countries comprising the OECD (Lithuania was not then a member) to get a sampling frame of sufficient size and because these countries are considered to be developed. The UK is a member of the OECD.

To measure the tax level of a country I used “tax as a percentage of GDP” published by the World Bank for the year 2016. I then classified each country as “high tax” if the country’s measure was higher than the OECD average (published by the World Bank) and “low tax” if the measure was below.

To measure the affluence of a country, I used “GNI per capita” (at PPP) for 2016, also published by the World Bank. I classified each country’s affluence as “rich” if its GNI/capita was above the published OECD average and “poor” if the GNI/capita was below. The terms “rich” and “poor” to denote a county’s affluence have been assigned for convenience and are not intended to be literal.

I then set up a 2 x 2 contingency table and applied a Chi-squared test with one degree of freedom to test whether a significant link between tax level and affluence existed. I used Yates’ continuity correction  in calculating the test statistic as recommended by the literature. The contingency table is show below.

Chi Squared table

Results

The Chi-squared test statistic, adjusted for Yates’ continuity correction, came to 0.00288.   This is well below the 5% significance level of 3.84 for a Chi-squared variable with one degree of freedom. A test statistic value of above 3.84 would be strong evidence that a nation’s tax level and national income are linked (one influences the other). Because the test statistic returned such a low value there is insufficient evidence to support a hypothesis that national income and a nation’s tax level are linked, at least for OECD members. In plain English, there is no discernible link between a nation’s level of taxation and its national income.

Conclusions

The claim made by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Taxpayers’ Alliance that UK tax is too high does not stand up  when a cross sectional analysis is undertaken. A simple time series analysis on the UK’s “tax as a percentage of GDP”, as conducted by the TPA, is insufficient to conclude whether tax is either too high or too low. This is because the time series analysis says nothing about the consequences of tax levels on national income (or some other variable of interest).

Jacob Rees-Mogg is remunerated (rather well) by taxpayers. Many voters would say they deserve better than his shoddy, scantily-evidenced assertion.  It is also disappointing to discover that the study by the Taxpayers’ Alliance lacks sufficient rigour to support a meaningful conclusion. The TPA’s audiences should be wary – this example shows it does not seem to engage in research of sufficient depth to support its conclusions!  Is the TPA subordinating sound methodology to ideology  here? It seems so. Readers beware!

Appendix: World Bank source data

World bank data

 

 

Value Added Statements for Dummies

This is a short presentation to demonstrate how value added statements are prepared and to explain how they differ from the accountant’s traditional profit or loss account. A single example will be used which will capture the essential differences.

Example

Below is shown a firm’s statement of profit or loss and value added statement. The two statements are shown side-by-side for ease of comparison.

During the period, the firm purchased plant and machinery for use within the business at a cost of £30m. Because this is capital expenditure, there is no entry in the statement of profit or loss to record this purchase. In the value added statement, the £30m cost appears against “bought-in materials, goods, and services” to obtain the “net value of output” figure. The firm’s investment activity is then shown by the investment adjustment to arrive at “net value added.”

VAS for dummies

Derivation of value produced figures

Bought-in materials, goods and services is equal to the purchases figure taken from the profit or loss statement (£80m) plus the capital expenditure (£30m).

The inventory adjustment is equal to the closing inventory minus the opening inventory. If this figure is positive then it represents additional investment in inventory. If negative then it represents disinvestment in inventory.

The depreciation adjustment is the total depreciation charged to the profit or loss account. This will usually be shown as a negative figure in the value added statement and represents consumption of capital in the period.

The investment adjustment is equal to the capital expenditure during the period. If this adjustment is positive then investment in new productive capacity has occurred. If negative, then disinvestment in productive capacity has occurred. The new productive capacity may consist of either tangible or intangible assets or some mixture.

Derivation of value distributed figures

To pay employees is the wages figure taken from the profit or loss account. The figure should include employer’s on costs, including employer’s National Insurance Contributions, and other employment taxes where they exist

To pay government is the sum of business rates and corporation tax charged to the profit or loss account. The figure represents the contribution the firm makes to the upkeep of the nation’s infrastructure and public services that enable firms to flourish.

To pay rentiers is the sum of property rents, licence fees, patent and copyright charges and the like. Payments to parties who derive income from ownership rather than from provision of a service or goods are recorded under this heading.

To pay financiers is the sum of interest charges in the profit and loss account plus dividends paid in the year. Payments of interest and dividends paid should be offset by interest and dividends received. Interest and dividends received are distributions of  value added produced by other firms. 

Undistributed value is equal to the retained profits shown in the profit or loss statement.

Fallacies of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Fallacies of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Taxation does not fund government spending

It does! Governments can fund public spending in just three ways: 

  1. Through taxation;
  2. By borrowing from the private sector;
  3. By borrowing from its banker (the central bank).

The last option on this list is forbidden in most advanced economies. This leaves taxation and borrowing from the private sector as the only available funding sources.

Money is a liability of the government

No it’s not! Customer deposits held by retail banks are liabilities of those retail banks. These customer deposits are not liabilities of the government or of the central bank. As an aside, money deposited with these banks is an asset to the depositor (customer).

Government spending precedes taxation

This could be true if money was created and injected into the economy by the government. But this condition does not hold. Most money in circulation is created and injected into the economy by private banks. 

Taxation alone determines a currency’s value

It is true that governments require taxes to be paid in the national currency and this creates demand for the currency. However, a nation’s international trading performance and capital flows also affect demand for a nation’s currency and its value. So tax is not the sole determinant. 

Conclusion

The “magic money tree” does not exist!

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Basic Income and Welfare

Background

A recent Guardian piece by Declan Gaffney asserts that a Universal Basic Income could not replace the UK’s social security (or welfare) system. The piece can be read here:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/10/finland-universal-basic-income-ubi-social-security

A basic income that replaced the UK’s social security system would need to be so generous that it would disincentivise the jobless from looking for work. Hence a punitive social security system that relies on sanctions is necessary because otherwise the jobless will not look for work. In short, such a Basic Income would make life too comfortable for the lazy and workshy.

Well perhaps this is true. given Declan’s assumption of a universal and unconditional basic income intended to replace the social security system. Such a basic income would need to be very generous and might well have the effect that Declan fears. A valid  inference of Declan’s fine piece is that Basic Income is a nice idea but infeasible; so let’s keep means tested and contingent benefits. and rely on Universal Credit to provide the right balance between carrot and stick.

Should the idea of Basic Income be abandoned?

Given Declan’s point, that UBI could not, or should not, replace the social security system, is Basic Income simply a nice but impracticable idea?

I agree that it would be too expensive for basic income to replace all social security, at least in the UK’s circumstances. UK housing costs, for example, are far too high and would need to fall massively before a Basic Income could be anywhere near sufficient to cover housing costs. Until such time as the high cost of housing in the UK  is addressed, a system of means tested benefits for housing costs will be needed.

Similarly, the social security system also provides contingent benefits, that is benefits which compensate for disability, unemployment, old age, and child rearing. It would not make sense for a uniform basic income to be set at a level  which covers contingent costs  of minorities – it would be far too expensive. In any case, the National Insurance Fund insures against some of these contingencies via contributions.

So Declan says (and others say) that the current social security system accommodates the variegated needs of the population and that a basic income is unnecessary and inadequate. However, I do not believe Declan’s argument is dispositive.  A modest basic income scheme, that is, one which does not seek to replace all social security benefits, is a practical  and worthwhile option.

Proposal for a modest basic income

A hat tip to Mike Gist (@mgist) who suggested that I calculate the net tax liability at different income levels before and after introduction of a basic income. I have done this analysis for the tax year 2015/2016, assuming an annual personal allowance of £10,600, which, to help fund the scheme, would be scrapped. So post tax income after implementation of basic income and after scrappage of the personal allowance is being compared with post tax income before scrappage of personal allowance. Tax credits have been excluded from the analysis.

The analysis shows that no one, whatever their income level would be left worse off if annual basic income were to be set at £4,240. Below is a graph of the results.

  1. The graph shows that for market incomes of below £45k (approx) tax payers would be better off post tax after abolition of annual personal allowance under basic income of £4,240 p.a.
  2. For incomes between £45k approx and £100k, there is no gain or loss. For incomes over £100k there is a gain which stabilises at £4,240 when income reaches £120k approx.
  3. The gain for incomes over £100k arises because personal allowances are currently restricted or non-existent at this level. Scrapping the annual personal allowance as per the scheme thus causes all income levels to be treated equally with respect to personal allowances.

Basic income simulation

Other points

  1. The analysis shows that the cost of even this modest scheme will exceed the current (pre-scheme) income tax take. To establish the cost of the scheme it is necessary to know how many people will gain how much for all income groups.
  2. A basic income set at £4,240 is sufficient to replace Job Seekers’ Allowance for the unemployed, and Working Tax Credits for those in work. Hence the aggregate spend on JSA and WTC can be deducted from the additional cost calculated in point 1.
  3. The basic income would replace working tax credits without the cliff edges and complexity that the existing system contains.
  4. The graph’s U shape is caused by the kinks in the current income tax schedule, and not by the properties of the basic income scheme itself. The withdrawal rate is a constant 20%. There is thus a strong incentive for workers at lower pay rates to increase their market earnings.
  5. The scheme has been formulated with the same parameters as are used in the existing income tax regime. That is the bands and rates (20%, 40%, and 45%) on which income tax is charged are identical as those which are in current use.
  6. Some of the annual gains of £4,240 accruing to 45% tax payers (those earning more than £150k p.a.), could, if a government had a mind to, be taxed away by raising the rate to 50%.
  7. The scheme should be acceptable to the electorate since there are no losers.

Summary and conclusions

An ambitious basic income scheme, that is, one that seeks to replace all social security benefits, is probably incontrovertibly infeasible.

However, because an ambitious scheme may be infeasible this is not necessarily a good ground for rejecting the concept of Basic Income completely. A modest scheme may be both feasible and worthwhile.

A modest scheme, as outlined above, could replace Job Seekers’ Allowance and Working Tax Credits. Withdrawal rates would be at the basic rate of income tax of 20%.

A need for other social security benefits would continue. Incentives to work could be improved by addressing housing costs which are currently so high that without Housing Benefit support it does not pay people to work.

Replacing Job Seekers’ Allowance and Working Tax Credits with an unconditional basic income removes the threat of starvation (which JSA sanctions represent) as an instrument of government policy.  Starving people is wrong and most people would agree that starvation should not be used by governments as a weapon against civilian populations.

Acknowledgements

@mgist for his suggestion that inspired the analysis

@cjfdillow for his comprehensive descriptions of how basic income works.

All errors are mine.

Appendix:

Calculation of post-tax income 

Appendix Basic Income calculations.png

 

 

 

 

Beware the ideas of IDS

Introduction

I am a proponent of Negative Income Tax (NIT). I am because it can deliver social security via a basic income, because it is simple and cheap to administer, and because it is libertarian.

In this piece, I try to set out why implementing NIT in Britain does not require any radical surgery to the existing income tax system. I also point out that the disincentive effects of NIT are comparatively low. I suggest that the sanctions regime currently in vogue would be inappropriate under a fully developed NIT. I also briefly explain why the cost of implementing NIT, at least at first, is likely to be close to zero.

What is NIT?

It’s a very simple idea. For those individuals whose incomes fall below the personal allowance, the tax authority, instead of charging income tax, makes a reverse payment to top up the individual’s income. One of its original architects, Milton Friedman, thought the payment should be universal,  unconditional and be made without moral judgement. His idea was to replace complex and judgemental social security systems. The logic of income tax automatically and progressively claws back negative income tax payments when an individual’s income exceeds their personal allowance.

How would IDS and his followers view NIT?

Despite the libertarian origins of NIT, the IDS school of thought would seek to bring NIT, were it to be implemented in Britain, within the currently fashionable sanctions regime.  IDS  has already expressed his intention to bring in-work benefits within the sanctions regime. It is hence reasonable to suppose that IDS would wish a NIT system to be conditional and to include it in his beloved sanctions regime too. It is pretty clear from the high level of  coercion embodied in Universal Credit that IDS does not share the libertarian values of NIT.

How would a negative income tax look in Britain?

Surprisingly perhaps, it would look similar to the current income tax system in Britain – most people would notice no change to their income tax charge and to their net pay. Income tax, whether through deductions at source or through end of year self-assessment would operate as now,  without change to method or amount. Only individuals with incomes below the personal allowance would notice any difference.

Only a comparatively simple tweak to HMRC’s software would be needed to implement NIT. NIT would be simple, cheap and low risk to implement. Because radical surgery to the existing system would not be needed, a government should not find practical objections to NIT implementation.

So how would NIT differ from the current income tax system?

At the moment, the first £10,600 of an individual’s annual income is tax free – individuals pay income tax only on their annual income in excess of £10,600. The starting rate of tax for incomes above the £10,600 threshold is 20%. For the purpose of this explanation it is not necessary to consider the higher income tax rates (40% and 45%) as these are unaffected by NIT. In fact, NIT will make no difference to the income tax charge for anyone whose income exceeds £10,600, whether their marginal income tax rate is 20%, 40%, or 45%. Only those whose income is below £10,600 will be affected by NIT.

Example:

Freda’s annual income is £8,000.

Her tax charge under the current system is 20% x (£8,000 – £10,600) = – £520, which, because it is negative, means HMRC will not seek to collect income tax from Freda. So Freda pays no income tax and her post-tax income is £8,000.

In contrast, under NIT the negative result of -£520 produced by her tax computation  would trigger a payment to Freda of £520 from HMRC. Her post tax income would hence be £8,520 (£8,000 + £520). In effect, Freda’s wage is being topped up by the state through the tax system.

NB. 20% x (£8,000 – £10,600) can be written as 20% x £8,000 – 20% x £10,600

So why not stick to tax credits currently operated by HMRC?

The NIT calculation is very simple and should logically be preferred to the complex strictures and administrative expense of the tax credit schemes currently operated by HMRC. A further point is that IDS’s intention is to bring in-work tax credits into the benefits sanction regime via Universal Credit.  This will add further complication to an already over-complicated system.. An NIT could ease the burden on Universal Credit, which is already creaking under the weight of its own complexity. The implementation proposed here is modest and cautious. Over time, increasing confidence would hopefully impel a government to implement NIT comprehensively, perhaps with a view of complete replacement of other social security benefits.

Would a negative income tax have disincentive effects?

IDS et al hold that low income earners are discouraged from increasing their earned incomes because they are in receipt of tax credits and other means tested benefits. Increased use of sanctions (the withdrawal of benefits) has been IDS’s chosen method of countering these putative disincentive effects.  NIT would be perceived by IDS to have disincentive effects given the evidence. IDS et al would thus argue that receipt of NIT should be conditional and subject to sanctions should a recipient be perceived as “free-riding” on the revered tax-payer. IDS is not a libertarian.

The withdrawal rate, (the amount by which the state top-up is reduced for each additional £ of income) is  equal to the 20% starting rate of tax. This is far lower than the 65% withdrawal rate aimed for by Universal Credit. The NIT implementation proposed here thus compares favourably to IDS’s Universal Credit.. This suggests that sanctions should not be necessary to “motivate” NIT recipients to increase their incomes

How much would NIT cost?

Confining NIT (at least to start with) to recipients of market incomes and to pensioners then the answer is not much. This is because their benefits and tax credits would be reduced by the amount equal to the NIT payments received by them. NIT would be payable only where market incomes and pensions fall below £10,600, so many people would not be NIT recipients, The total social security bill and tax take would be identical as between the current arrangements and NIT.

So why implement NIT then?

A modest and cautious implementation has been recommended here so that the costs and risks of failure are low. Over time, more benefits of NIT can be captured. These benefits include

  1. reduced administration costs;
  2. better incentives;
  3. increased flexibility;
  4. a basic income;
  5. simplicity;
  6. reduced benefit costs;
  7. a more constructive role for DWP;  and
  8. less state coercion

Using the tax system to deliver a living wage

In a previous post, I proposed a formula for calculating income tax that would provide for a  negative income tax. I did so because I believe a negative income tax system would be simpler, fairer, more humane, technically more feasible , and cheaper to develop than the current Universal Credit project being rolled out by Her Majesty’s government. A negative income tax would be administered by HMRC and have at its core the following formula for calculating income tax:

T(n) = m∑Y(n) – c∑H(n) – ∑T(n-1)

where

m is the single marginal tax rate;

c is the hourly value of the tax shield

∑Y(n) is the cumulative market income received by the end of period n

∑H(n) is the cumulative hours worked by the end of period n

∑T(n-1) is the cumulative income tax paid by the start of period n.

Comments

The proposed tax system has a single marginal tax rate. The choice of this rate is a political as well as a technical decision (i.e., achieving the desired behavioural effects) An individual’s hourly tax-free pay is given by the grossed-up tax shield (c / m).

In this post, I want to show how a negative income tax system can deliver what many describe as a “living wage”. The figure of £10 / hour has been mooted as a living wage. I shall hence assume this figure for the living wage  in my illustration.

Prologue

In this post, I will incorporate the UK’s national minimum wage (NMW), currently £6.50 per hour, into the model.

I will also use a marginal tax rate of 40%, a tax rate which is both comparable to and competitive with existing UK income tax rates (20%, 40%, and 45%). Hence m has been set to 40% or 0.4 in my illustrations.

I will assume a working week of 35 hours and an individual’s weekly hours will be capped at this level.

I will also show how the model can be used to generate a basic income. I will briefly set out my views on whether a basic income should be conditional or unconditional.

Calculating the tax shield

In this section, I will show how negative income tax can transform the minimum wage of £6.50 / hour into a living wage of £10.00 / hour.  To achieve this, the value of the tax shield (c) must be calculated with reference to the minimum wage and to the living wage of £10.00. The value of the tax shield (c) must be set so that the hourly negative tax payment makes up the difference of £3.50 

Ignoring the summations in the above f ormula (they are not necessary here), we have

T = m x (£6.50) – c = – £3.50

T= 0.4 x £6.50 – c = – £3.50

c = £6.10

The tax formula that transforms the hourly national minimum wage of £6.50 to an hourly living wage of £10 will thus be

T(n) = 0.4 x ∑Y(n) – £6.10 x ∑H(n) – ∑T(n-1)

or on a week 1 basis, the hourly tax charge will be:

T = 0.4 x £6.50 – £6.10

= – £3.50 (negative,  as required)

Illustration

Lenny earns the adult minimum wage. He works 35 hours per week. His pay slip will show:

Market income (35 hours x £6.50/hour)                                       £227.50

Negative income tax  (35 hours x £3.50)                                     £122.50

Take home pay (35 hours x £10 hour)                                         £350.00

 

Lenny now receives £10 per hour.

Incentives

The hourly post-tax income of someone whose market income is £10 would be transformed to £12.10.

T= 0.4 x (£10.00) – £6.10 = – £2.10 (negative)

Hence that individual would take home £10 – (- £2.10) = £12.10 for every hour worked at or below the 35 hour weekly cap on hours. So although the “differentials” between market incomes have narrowed the higher paid worker still receives more per hour than the minimum wage worker.

Tax free allowance

The break-even hourly income with an hourly tax shield of £6.10 and a marginal tax rate of 40% is £15.25. This means a worker with an hourly income of £15.25 will neither pay income tax nor receive a tax payment. This is equivalent to an annual tax free allowance of £27,755 (compared to the current allowance of £10,000 p.a.). Individuals with a a market income of above £15.25 per hour or £27,755 per annum would pay income tax of 40% on the excess.

Basic income

The parameters used in the formula produce an amount 0f £6.10 per hour for those who have no market income. This could be taken to be a basic income payable to anyone whose market income is zero.

T = 0.4 x £0.00 / hour – £6.10 / hour

= – £6.10 per hour (negative)

The issue is whether this fortunate by-product of negative income tax should be conditional or unconditional.

Unconditional basic income

An unconditional basic income would credit every citizen with 35 hours. The basic income would thus be received by every citizen of working age.  The basic income would amount to £213.50 (35 hours x £6.10 per hour).

Hourly income with unconditional basic income and living wage of £10/hour

Hourly income with unconditional basic income and living wage of £10/hour

Conditional basic income

A conditional basic income would credit some groups with 35 hours a week but not others. For example, the disabled, the infirm, and those with caring responsibilities could be credited.  This would automatically trigger a payment at HMRC of £213.50 to individuals falling in these groups. The unemployed would be credited with hours only to the extent of their hourly contributions to society via voluntary work and / or participation in counter hysteresis activities (such as internships, work placements, or work programmes).

Hourly income with a conditional basic income and a living wage of £10/hour

Hourly income with a conditional basic income and a living wage of £10/hour

Conditional or unconditional basic income?

My main concern is that every UK citizen should have access to honest and adequate income. For disadvantaged groups, income accessability, particularly with increased benefit conditionality, can often be an issue.

Provided plentiful opportunities for voluntary work and / or opportunities to engage in counter hysteresis activities are made available to physically and mentally capable individuals without a market income then basic income should be conditional along the lines described above. A reasonably generous income of £213.50 per week would accrue to such individuals if their engagement in these activities was for 35 hours a week. Lesser contributions would be rewarded proportionately.

Summary of the model

Basic income = £6.10 /hour. May be conditional or unconditional. Could replace unemployment benefit.

Minimum wage (statutory)  = £6.50 / hour.

Living wage (assumed) = £10.00 /hour.

Break-even wage = £15.25 /hour.

Marginal tax rate = 40%

Maximum hours of credit = 35

Some final points

The withdrawal rate for someone transiting from unemployment to minimum wage work is about 43% (0.4 x £6.50 / £6.10). This is substantially better than the proposed withdrawal rate of 65% planned for Universal Credit.

However, the withdrawal rate rises as the starting hourly wage rate rises. At a starting rate of £15.25 per hour the withdrawal rate is 100%. It is unlikely that such a high withdrawal rate would be a disincentive to accept work at this wage rate.

It seems likely that a negative income tax designed with the parameters outlined in this post would lead to a lower overall income tax take for the government. Some of this might  be due to a lower marginal tax rate of 40% for top earners compared to their current 45% and because the tax free allowance is more generous than the current £10,000 annual allowance. For this reason, it may be better to use income tax as a means of correcting the inequalities that arise from distortions in the labour market (eg directors effectively setting their own pay) rather than as a means of raising revenue.

Capping the corporation tax deductibility of market incomes to £27,779 per employee (the annual tax free allowance) may also help to mitigate reductions in the income tax take.

The redistribution of income arising from this variant of a negative income tax system is likely to have a stimulative effect on the economy. Poorer workers with a high propensity to consume relative to richer workers should increase demand and hence economic activity.

Self-employment and negative income tax

Introduction

Previously, in “Is Universal Credit the wrong approach?”, I proposed that a thoughtfully designed negative income tax system would be more effective in delivering UC’s stated aims. I believe UC is fundamentally flawed, primarily because it does not address the UK’s low and falling wages. The feasibility of designing incentives to make work pay into UC, in an environment with low and falling wages, may be logically flawed. This doubt exists in addition to the current uncertainty about UC’s technical feasibility. In this post, I set out how negative income tax (NIT), the proposed alternative to UC, would apply to the self-employed.

Recap of the negative income tax proposal

1. Income tax would be assessed on Comprehensive Realised Income (CRI).

2. An individual’s tax-free allowance would be calculated according to the number of hours worked. The value of each hour worked would be £20 and be capped at 40 hours per week (2,080 per year).

3. A single rate of tax would be applied to comprehensive realised income, By way of example, and for philosophical reasons, the single tax rate has been set at 50%,

4. Carers, the disabled, and the infirm would be credited with 40 hours per week by HMRC. This would release  a payment of £800 per week (40 hours x £20/hour) to individuals falling in these categories. Any earnings would not disqualify recipients from this minimum income guarantee. However, earnings would be taxed at the marginal rate of 50%.

5.  Job seekers would be paid according to the hours they work part-time, voluntarily in the charitable sector, and in work placements. These hours would be notified to HMRC by the placement providers using HMRC’s Real Time Information reporting system. Payments would be accordingly triggered at HMRC. The placements would not be compulsory – job seekers would have choice as to the  number of hours and type of work they took on. The role of the DWP would be to find and arrange work placements in cases where the job seeker has been unable to do it for themselves.

6. The self-employed (sole-traders and partners), would be allowed a tax-free allowance equivalent to deemed hours of work. The imputed hours would be capped at 40 hours per week (or 2,080 per year), as for all other cases. The hours worked would be imputed by dividing the tax-adjusted earned profits by the standard value of an hour (£20) and multiplying the result by the marginal tax rate. This arrangement would be necessary since no third party could attest to the number of hours worked.

H(n) = m x Y(n)  ⁄ c

Where

H(n) are the imputed hours for the period (capped at 52 x 40 = 2,080)

Y(n)  is the tax adjusted profit in period n

m is the marginal tax rate (set to 50% in the examples)

c is the standard value of an hour worked (set to £20 in the examples)

Example 1

Stephen enters self-employment at the start of the tax year. His (tax-adjusted) profits for the year come to £10,000. He has no other sources of income.

His imputed hours for the year would be

H(n) = £10,000 x 50% / £20 = 250

Hence Stephen’s tax charge for the year would be 

T(n) = 0.5 x £10,000 – 250 x £20 = £0

Stephen’s disposable income is hence £10,000 because his tax charge is zero. He has used up 250 hours of his annual allowance of 2,080 hours. He could have used the unused allowance to do part-time work and/or voluntary work. His income would have been supplemented had he done this.

Had Stephen also sold his house at a capital gain of £40,000, his income tax computation would be:

 T(n) = 0.5 x £50,000 – 250 x £20 = £20,000

Hence his post-tax comprehensive realised income would be £30,000. He is charged no tax on earned income but is charged 50% on his capital gain (an unearned component of comprehensive realised income)

 

Example 2

Anita enters self-employment at the start of the tax year. Her (tax-adjusted) profit for the year comes to £100,000. She has no other sources of income. Her imputed hours of work in year n are calculated as thus.

 H(n) = £100,000 x 50% / £20 = 2,500

The hours must be capped to 52 weeks x 40 hours per week = 2,080.

Her tax for year n would be:

T(n) = 0.5 x £100,000 – 2,080 x £20 = £8,400

Anita’s disposable income (take home pay) is hence £91,600. Her tax rate is 8.4% on her earned income. 

Had Anita also received rental income (i.e., unearned income) of £10,000 in the same year then her income tax computation would be:

T(n) = 0.5 x £110,000 – 2,080 x £20 = £13,400

Note that the unearned components of comprehensive realised income have again been taxed at a straight 50%. This feature, whereby an individual’s tax-free allowance is calculated on hours worked, assists in aligning the tax system with the “making work pay” agenda that underpins the government’s welfare reforms and UC.

NB. The parameters used in these examples, i.e., a working week capped at 40 hours, a marginal tax rate of 50%. and a standard hour set to £20, produces a tax-free allowance of £83,600 on earned income. This produces low average tax rates on middle earnings and is very generous by current standards. It is intended to incentivise. Of course, the average rate will approach the marginal rate of 50% as incomes rise.

Is Universal Credit the wrong approach?

“Work doesn’t pay” is the oft cited justification for Universal Credit (UC). It’s not clear that rolling up six separate benefits into one single payment will address this  problem, aka the unemployment trap. Wages in the UK are at best static and may have been falling in real terms over the last decade. Coupled with declining real wages has been the almost complete elimination of affordable council housing. Wages nowadays are insufficient to meet private housing rental costs which have soared due to shortages. So yes, it may pay claimants to remain on benefits, particularly Housing Benefit.

An alternative to UC is to integrate the tax system with benefits. Low earners, instead of paying income tax, would instead receive a generous negative tax payment. The incomes of low earners would be enhanced to the extent that they would no longer need benefits just to survive; in short, integrating tax and benefits could give low earners independence. But how can this be achieved? One framework to achieve this is a system of cumulative hourly averaging combined with comprehensive realised income (CRI) subject to a single rate of tax

Cumulative Hourly Averaging – the advantages

  • It rewards work – those who work will pay less tax on their comprehensive realised incomes

  • It can integrate benefits with tax – a generous negative income tax is facilitated

  • It supports flexible labour markets – the incomes of zero hours contract workers will be enhanced and less variable. There should be no need of a minimum wage.

  • It restores or strengthens the contributory principle.

Comprehensive Realised Income – the advantages

  • It addresses inequalities in wealth distribution – wealth transfers and other windfall gains are taxed at the same rate as earned income

  • It overcomes equitable objections to Inheritance Tax – legacies would be taxed according to the recipient’s circumstances and at the same rate as earned income

  • It reduces incentives to avoid tax – a single rate of tax can be applied to all sources of income

Cumulative Hourly Averaging – the Generalised Model

 The tax charge in period n would be calculated with the following formula:

T(n) = m∑Y(n) – c∑H(n) – ∑T(n-1)

where

T(n) = tax charge in period n

∑Y(n) = Cumulative comprehensive realised income received by the end of period n

∑H(n) =Cumulative hours worked by the end of period n

∑T(n-1) = Cumulative tax paid at the start of period n, and so ∑T(n) = T(n) + ∑T(n-1)

m = the marginal tax rate. I have used a single marginal rate of 50% applied to all components of CRI  without preference

c = the value of an hour of work. I have set this to £20 so as to produce a generous negative tax component which encourages work

 The Mechanics

Before illustrating how the tax calculation works, I have set out some parameters which I have used in the examples below. These are:

  • The standard working week has been set to 40 hours per week

  • The standard wage rate (or the value of an hour of work) is £20. Note this is an administrative value and has nothing to do with a minimum wage.

  • There is no minimum wage

  • A flat rate income tax of 50% applies to all components of comprehensive realised income without preferment. This is a limiting rate, meaning no one in work will pay tax at this rate however high their income.

  • Tax free personal allowances depend on cumulative hours worked and are valued at £20 per hour worked.

  • Tax free personal allowances are carried over to succeeding years, unlike the current “use or lose” system

  • No individual’s personal allowance can exceed 48 hours in a week

  • HMRC operates RTI (Real Time Information) so that incomes and changes in circumstances are reported as and when they occur.

 

Example 1

Freda starts work for 30 hours per week at £7 per hour (£210 per week). She has no other sources of income.

T(1) = = 0.5 x £210 – £20 x 30 = – £495

Freda will pay no income tax and instead will receive £495 under the negative tax mechanism. Her disposable income will thus be £210 + £495 = £705.  Not bad for a week’s work !

In the second week, Freda’s tax calculation is as follows:

T(2) = 0.5 x £420 – £20 x 60 – (-£495) = -£495

So again, Freda’s disposable income (take home pay) will be £210 +£495 = £705. Enjoy yourself, Freda. you deserve it! And so it will continue until Freda’s circumstances change.

Example 2

George starts work as a director of a large company. His monthly remuneration package comes to £60,000. His monthly hours of work are restricted to 208. He has no other sources of income

T(1) = 0.5 x £60,000 – £20 x 208 = £25,840

So George’s disposable income will be £60,000 – £25,840 = £34,160.

T(2) = 0.5 x £120,000 – £20 x 416 – £25,840 = £25,840

So long as George’s circumstances don’t change his monthly disposable income will remain at £34,160.

 

Example 3

Mark Anthony is a notorious playboy who has never done a day’s work in his life. His very rich father bequeaths Mark Anthony £500,000 in his  will. Mark’s tax liability will be:

T(1) = 0.5 x £500,000 – £20 x 0 = £250,000

In the second  period, Mark Anthony decides to do some voluntary work. He registers 30 hours with HMRC.

T(2) = 0.5 x £500,000 – £20 x 30 – £250,000 = – £600

Mark Anthony is rewarded for his voluntary work to the tune of £600 via the negative income tax mechanism. Work pays! Even unpaid work.

 

Example 4

Lois has a severe disability that limits the amount of work she can do in a week to 10 hours. She is paid £3 per hour (there is no minimum wage). HMRC credits Lois with 30 additional hours per week to compensate her for the hours she is unable to work through no fault of her own. She has no other sources of income. In week 1 her tax will be calculated thus:

T(1) = 0.5 x £30 – £20 x 40 = – 785

So Lois’s disposable income in week 1 will be £30 + £785 = £815. This is an example of how institutions can be used to compensate disadvantage.

In week 2, Lois receives a pay rise of £2 per hour to £5 per hour. Her tax calculation in week 2 will be

T(2) = 0.5 x £80 – £20 x 80 – (-785) = -£775

Lois’s disposable income in week 2 has risen to £50 + £775 = £825.  A pay rise of £20 per week has resulted in Lois’s disposable income increasing by £10 and the state subsidy falling by an equivalent amount.

Example 5

Tony is a homeless alcoholic, without work or income. He is offered 40 hourly work credits per week which will trigger weekly payments of £800 via the negative income tax mechanism provided he undergoes treatment for his alcoholism at a residential clinic. In Tony’s case, the  weekly payments are paid directly to the clinic instead of to Tony, Tony will need to price himself into employment when his treatment is completed, a task made easier absent a minimum wage.

Information requirements

HMRC will need to keep an up-to-date record of every taxpayer/claimant and changes in their circumstances. This is not as onerous or as intrusive as might at first appear; RTI, which requires employers to submit details of employee  hours and pay in “real time”,  has already been introduced. The road has already been dug.

 Here is a logical record of the information and processing that HMRC would need to collect and process for an employee. The particular employee shown in the record has had a particularly turbulent time, starting as a highly paid director, becoming unemployed, suffering disability, inheriting a sizeable estate, etc, all in six weeks!. The record is not intended to be of a typical employee but is illustrative of how income tax would work under cumulative hourly averaging with CRI .

Table of events

Conclusion

One thing writing this post has taught me is how difficult it is to design a safety net which both protects and incentivises.  A safety net  which is too generous removes incentives to return to, or to get into, work. A safety net built around stick and no carrot is cruel and damaging to individuals. I fear that Universal Credit, with its vicious sanctions regime and its heartless treatment of the sick and disabled, falls into this latter category. I venture to suggest that the negative income system outlined above, albeit with its fault lines, would be more effective than the proposed UC project should the latter ever go live. The system outlined above is certainly kinder than UC. Having said this, it may be that the proponents of Unconditional Basic Income win the day – UBI sidesteps the tension between incentive and protection. Perhaps this is the way to go.

Acknowledgement

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the brilliant work of Douglas Bamford in the field of taxation and philosophy. Douglas very kindly gave me sight of his then forthcoming book in advance of its publication. His ideas on cumulative hourly averaging have very obviously informed this piece, as has his idea of using comprehensive income as a tax base. His book is entitled Rethinking Taxation – An Introduction to Hourly Averaging. ISBN 9781907720918.

Any errors or sub-standard work contained in this piece are mine, and mine alone.

Addendum 2 September 2014

1. Quite rightly, it has been pointed out to me that the negative tax proposal outlined above does not say much about unemployment support. To answer this, I suggest work placements should be available for all jobless people, which they can choose to take up. There should be no compulsion as to participation or as to the type of placement. If a jobless person can arrange a placement of their choice, say in a museum, then so be it. The only requirement would be the readiness and agreement  for the placement provider to submit the hours worked to the HMRC as registered hours. The registration of hours worked each week under RTI reporting would then trigger a payment via the negative income tax mechanism to the worker in the same way as for other employees.

2. People who have caring responsibilities, either for children or for aged parents, should receive hourly credits equal to the standard working week  (40 hours according to the parameters used in my examples).

3. Profits on the sale of houses, even if a house in question is a Principal Private Residence (PPR), should be brought into the Taxable Comprehensive Realised Income calculation. Currently, the gain on sale of a PPR is exempt from taxation.

Should the poor be afraid of a “Flat-rate” tax?

I believe it depends on three things:

  1. How income is defined;
  2. The tax-free personal allowance; and
  3. The tax rate

Realised comprehensive income

In the UK there are three taxes that could be consolidated into a single income tax. These three taxes are Inheritance Tax, Capital Gains Tax, and the current income tax. All three levy tax on assets that flow from one party to another. Each of the three taxes has a separate and different  tax free allowance associated with it and are taxed at different rates.

A realised comprehensive income tax would make no distinction between these asset flows – all flows would be taxed as income. The annual inflows of assets received by an individual from the three sources would be aggregated and taxed as realised comprehensive income after deducting the individual’s annual tax-free personal allowance.

The advantages of a realised comprehensive income tax are:

  1. Simplification. Inheritance tax and capital gains tax would be brought under a single regime;
  2. Less incentive would exist to engage in tax avoidance;
  3. Legacies would be taxed according to the recipient’s circumstances, not the donor’s. This is more just as the recipient’s entitlement to the assets has not been derived through labour or through an identified contribution to society. Many donor’s feel resentment when it is their circumstances that determine the tax due on bequests, as is the case currently.

The annual tax-free personal allowance

Rolling up all three types of income into one obviates the need to have separate tax-free personal allowances for each of the three sources. Setting a single annual tax-free personal allowance of, say, £50,000 would provide generous relief to those whose comprehensive incomes are low or in the middle. It also supports simplification of the tax system.

The tax rate

In the presence of an annual tax-free personal allowance a flat-rate tax would by definition be a marginal rate (not an average rate).

Many ‘small-staters’ and their ilk hold that the state’s share of someone’s income should never exceed 50%. Setting the marginal rate of income tax to 50% respects this limit because of the annual tax-free personal allowance. In fact, many individuals with taxable income will have average tax rates that are far below the marginal tax rate of 50%.

Example 

Suppose the annual tax-free personal allowance has been set to £50,000 and the single rate of tax is 50%. An individual with a realised comprehensive income (earned + unearned + capital gains + bequests) of £100,000 would be liable for tax of

 0.5 x (£100,000 – £50,000) = £25,000

which is 25% of realised comprehensive income received in the year.

Here is a graph which shows average tax rates against realised comprehensive income in a flat-rate tax system with the parameters described above.

Image

The average tax rate will get ever closer to the 50% marginal rate as comprehensive income gets larger and larger.

Conclusions and Summary

What I have shown is that flat-rate taxes, so often proposed by ‘small-staters’ et al, should not axiomatically be feared. This is because the fairness of such schemes can depend on their parameters and the definition of income. Flat-rate taxes need not mean low-taxes, as hoped for by their proponents. The battleground is really about the parameters of such a scheme, not about whether a flat-rate tax system is desirable in itself. A judicious selection of parameters can ensure equity, whilst simultaneously meeting the objections of ‘small staters’ to wealth taxes and high average tax rates on conventional income.

I suggest, in the wake of Piketty, that taxing flows of assets as income is a more feasible way of addressing runaway inequality than imposing taxes on stocks of assets (wealth taxes). The exception to this rule would be a land value tax, which can be perceived as a rental charge on privately sequestered natural assets. It is difficult to sustain a moral objection to taxing  a stock in the case of land.

I have not attempted to cost out this flat-rate tax proposal, either with the proposed or alternative parameters. It may be that a flat-rate tax system would raise less than the current sum of capital gains tax, inheritance tax and conventional income tax. If so, then perhaps a Land Value Tax would be needed to plug the gap. The challenge, as I see it, is to find ways of financing generous public services whilst simultaneously defeating the (sometimes spurious) moral objections that Libertarians et al advance.

Towards a truly progressive tax system

Is the UK’s tax system out of date and no longer fit for purpose?

Many people, including myself, would say it is.

Politicians, though, seem unable or unwilling to address the creaking tax and social security systems.

Here are some, perhaps radical, ideas that could transform the lives of ordinary people. The proposals are unlikely to meet with approval from the very wealthy, from those who receive very high incomes, or from those who otherwise have a stake in the status quo. Nevertheless, here goes:

1. Realised comprehensive income

By adding together an individual’s earned income, their dividend income, their savings income, their property income, their capital gains, and their receipts from legacies, one arrives at an individual’s realised comprehensive income.

Taxing comprehensive income simplifies the tax system and makes it harder to avoid tax because all types of income would be taxed at the same rate. The current system taxes the individual components of comprehensive income at different rates. The current system hence provides incentives for taxpayers to manipulate their affairs so as to take advantage of differential tax rates. For example, under the current system, it is usually advantageous for an individual to take the benefit of a transaction as a capital gain rather than as income. This is because capital gains are generally taxed at a lower rate for individual tax payers.

2.  Increase annual tax free allowance to £100,000

The first £100,000 worth of comprehensive income received in a year would be tax free. Such a move, were it to be implemented, would take most, perhaps as many as 98% of tax payers, out of income tax altogether. Only those with comprehensive incomes above £100,000 would be liable for income tax. Incomes above £100,000 are more likely to be unearned, they deriving from rent extraction activities, holding gains, and luck.  It is unlikely that extremely high incomes result from a commensurate contribution towards the common good. Genuinely earned income, that is income derived from an individual’s contribution to society, is likely to be lower than £100k per year and should therefore escape income tax altogether.

3.  Simplification of income tax

Every income tax payer would have the same marginal rate of tax. This would ensure the average income tax rate rises with comprehensive income.

A formula can be used to determine an individual’s tax rate taking account of their annual comprehensive income. The formula would only be applied to comprehensive incomes above £100,000 p.a.

An example of such a formula is a follows:

0.9 x (Y –  £100k)

where Y = annual comprehensive income, the £100k shown in brackets is the annual tax free allowance and the 0.9 (90%) is the marginal tax rate and the limiting tax rate (i.e., the tax rate will never exceed 90% however large an individual’s comprehensive income may be)

Here is a graph which plots comprehensive income against the applicable average tax rate using the formula shown in blue.

Top tax rates graph

Comments

The graph shows how an individual’s average tax rate is determined by their comprehensive income.  For example, an individual with an annual comprehensive income of £0.4 m would have an average tax rate of just under 70% of that income, (the exact percentage is 67.5%).

An individual with a comprehensive income of £0.1m or less would not pay tax on their comprehensive income at all.

As an individual’s comprehensive income increases the closer their average tax rate approaches the 90% limit. However, no individual, however high their comprehensive income, will have an average tax rate of 90%; but very high comprehensive incomes will come close to the 90% limit.

Taxing comprehensive income this way is consistent with free market principles. Company directors and others who can, and do, effectively set their own pay will continue to be free to do so. Using the proposed formula to assess tax on comprehensive income supports freedom but also enables society to benefit. A high marginal rate may also discourage “superstar” remuneration, and thus may help to address runaway inequality which is becoming increasingly prevalent.

4.   Universal Basic Income

The introduction of a universal basic income would guarantee every adult citizen of the UK an unconditional basic income. This would guarantee every citizen social security. This would obviously need to be funded and a Land Value Tax may provide such a fund. A quick estimate suggests that £208 bn per year would be need to be raised to pay a basic income of £100 per week to 40m adults. This is clearly a lot of money.

The universal basic income would have many benefits. For example, the minimum wage could be abolished. The bargaining power of workers would be be enhanced in wage negotiations with employers. Self-employment, because of the risk reduction impact of a basic income, should mean more workers eschewing employment in favour of self-employment. This would contribute to economic dynamism and creativity. A basic income may permit younger people to stay on at college to acquire skills from which they, employers and society benefit. The benefits of a universal basic income are manifold and, encouragingly, the concept is increasingly finding support from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum.

5.   Land Value Tax

A tax on the value of land is thought by many to be a rich potential stream of taxation income.  It has been suggested that, very approximately, one-third of the value of a house is due to the value of the land the house sits upon.

A land value tax would be an annual charge on land owners. It would be charged as a percentage of the value of land owned. Whether a Land Value Tax would provide sufficient funds to finance a meaningful Universal Basic Income is at the time of writing unknown to this author.

A powerful argument in favour of a Land Value Tax as a means of funding a Universal Basic Income is that it supports justice in distribution. Land is a God-given resource which should be available to everyone to profit from. But the land is owned by private individuals who capture the benefits of land ownership despite having acquired the land by means of dubious morality in the first instance. So it makes sense that landowners should fund a Universal Basic Income to compensate those who are forcibly displaced from the means of subsisting from the land.

Appendix

Tax rates for comprehensive income of up to £8m p.a.

top tax table