There are problems with wealth taxes but avoidance, for once, isn't one of them

Taxing illiquid assets is, well, taxing.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has a column in today's Telegraph arguing that George Osborne needs to learn the lesson that "wealth taxes simply don't work". He writes:

The problems involved were fairly basic. Do you tax people’s worldwide wealth? If so, those much-needed businessmen will stay away. Do you tax only British wealth? Then people will move their investments abroad. The Treasury warned Healey that the proposed wealth tax was “political dynamite” – and not in a good way. At a time when Britain was in a desperate economic state, it risked dragging the country down further still. Healey gave up, saying he could not find any wealth tax that would be worth the political hassle.

This is disappointing, because Nelson is largely duelling with straw men here. It is indeed true that a tax on overall wealth could well lead to tax avoidance by the relatively simple tax planning strategy known as "keeping your cash in a Swiss bank account". The thing is, that isn't actually that much of a problem. After all, people avoid income tax as well, yet somehow we struggle on.

The measure for a tax is never "will everyone pay it rather than put their energy into avoiding it?", but "will enough people pay it to make it worth our while?" That's a different calculus, and one which Nelson doesn't address.

But the real disappointment is that, for all Nelson talks about the rising support for a wealth tax, he neglects to mention that most of that support is for taxing a very specific type of wealth: property. It's a shame, because that sort of tax – a "mansion tax", a "land value tax", or whatever form it takes – has its own set of problems which are under-discussed.

The important thing to note about property taxes do is that they completely fix the problems Nelson is concerned about when it comes to wealth taxes in general. You can keep money overseas, but a house in Britain is rather stuck where it is. To the extent that such a tax it increases the cost of living in Britain, it may keep wealthy foreigners away – but only those who haven't already been put off by the extraordinary cost of the sort of houses wealthy foreigners buy.

The thing is, land and property taxes aren't the golden bullet that many on the left like to think, for the key reason that houses aren't particularly liquid assets.

We've all heard the sob-story of the elderly pensioner who could be forced to sell the house he's lived in all his life to pay the land value tax (although we rarely hear it alongside its counterpart, the elderly pensioners who are being forced to moved out of houses they've lived in all their lives because of benefit cuts), but the key concern with such a tax is related to that problem.

If you are taxed, say, 20 per cent of your cash holdings, you pay that tax by handing 20 per cent of your cash to HMRC. If you are taxed on 20 per cent of the value of your land, you can't just hand a wing of your house over to the taxman. You either have to have the cash equivalent available, or sell your house.

Taken individually, that's not the end of the world – few will cry too hard if the odd landowner has to sell a few acres to pay the bill. The problem comes if the tax is set high enough that that sort of sale becomes commonplace.

If too many people end up trying to sell their mansions or land at the same time, then you're stuck with a sadly inevitable collapse in the price that land can go for. That's not just unfair – it means you would be taxing people on assets which are no longer worth what they were when you assessed them – it's also staggeringly inefficient. A well-designed tax should not encourage a fire-sale of assets.

These problems aren't insurmountable, by any means. But they do give pause for thought when considering the truely radical proposals like Peter Tatchell's plan to set the wealth tax rate at 20 per cent. Although back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest such a tax would generate truly staggering revenue, a more modest rate would be a better idea – at least at the start.

This mansion, in Kensington, London, was once the most expensive in the world. What'd the tax be? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).