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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.