The perils of non-compliance

Ireland and America are suffering the same problem with their contentious taxes.

A flat tax, levied on milllions of people matching a basic selection criteria, is being fought vehemently. Although non-payment is ostensibly illegal, in practice it is unlikely to result in any real punishment. This in turn could result in a major headache for the government. Am I talking about Dublin or Washington? Both, obviously.

The Irish property tax is the subject of a massive campaign of non-payment. At the first deadline for registration, last Saturday, only half of Ireland's 1.6 million households had registered to pay. There will be many more waves of deadlines, threats and posturing before it comes but the theoretical end-point is jail.

Clearly, that isn't going to happen to 800,000 homeowners. But what other possibilities do the government have? They can't afford – politically or finanically – to back down. The expected year-one revenue of €160m is too much to turn down and in a country seems to have taken all the austerity it can bear, a moment of weakness could well mark the end of the project.

The government may simply hope that attrition (and increasingly scary letters) will reduce the number of holdouts. It is possible to jail a few thousand people in a way that it isn't with a few hundred thousand.

But they then have a further problem, in that they are "only" fighting over around €80m. If they still want to come out on top financially, they can't go for expensive measures of coercion. For instance, it costs over €75,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year; if each holdout manages to take up just five hours of a civil servants time, then at the average wage, they would cost the government more than they owed.

As a result, any enforcement the government does will have to be enacted on the cheap, which won't be easy given the scale of the problem.

On the other side of the Atlantic is a tax that nobody wants to admit is a tax. The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare to its detractors – imposes a $695 charge on anyone who fails to purchase insurance. This individual mandate is the subject of a supreme court hearing which is baffling many economists – because it really is all in the name.

The constitution, after nearly 250 years of interpretation, allows for the imposition of taxes by Congress for pretty much any reason it sees fit. There are still limits to the legislature's power, but it is universally agreed that if the individual mandate were a tax, it would be legal. In fact, the Republican alternative to the act is essentially just that, except instead of imposing a tax on those who don't buy insurace, it gives a tax credit to those who do. In fact, the credit, which is over $2,000, imposes a far bigger penalty on non-purchasers than Obama's plan.

The administration knows how unpopular new taxes are, however, so it is refusing to call it one. And the opposition is playing along, because they know that their best chance to get the bill overturned involves pretending that the new tax is a fine along with the government. And so the court case continues.

That's not the only strange political compromise in the bill, though. In the one measure that supports the claim that the mandate is not a tax, there are no legal penalties for non-compliance. The IRS, which administers the charge, is able to send threatening letters, but ultimately non-payment means nothing.

Even more worrying for the admistration is the fact that the charge is actually far too low to do what it is meant to do. Its implementation is due to the fact that Obamacare requires insurers to take anyone who asks, and cover all pre-existing conditions; but this led insurers to fear that people would remain insurance-free until they got ill, then buy healthcare until they got better. If this were the case, health costs would shoot up, and everyone would be worse off.

Hence, people are penalised for not buying insurance even if they are healthy. All well and good, no?

Not quite. Health insurance is really expensive. That's what got the US into this mess in the first place, after all. $695 a year is actually less than almost every insurance package currently on the market, so the fear for many is that healthy young people will take a decade of paying the charge (or not paying it, if they have the courage), then join up when they get ill. If that happens too much, then insurance premiums will rise further – making that course of action even more appealing.

As President Obama and his Irish counterpart Enda Kenny are learning, making people do what you want them to is hard.

Barack O'Bama: The president with the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Credit: Getty

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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.