Stupid ideas in tax policy

"Let's tax people more than they earn, that'll work."

On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been some truly terrible suggestions recenty as to how to "improve" the tax system.

In the US, [some Republicans are proposing what amounts to a great than 100 per cent marginal tax rate on incomes hovering just over $400,000], as the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman reports:

One possible change would tax the entire salary earned by those making more than a certain level — $400,000 or so — at the top rate of 35 percent rather than allowing them to pay lower rates before they reach the target, as is the standard formula. That plan would allow Republicans to say they did not back down in their opposition to raising marginal tax rates and Democrats to say they prevailed by increasing effective tax rates on the rich. At the same time, it would provide an initial effort to reduce the deficit, which the negotiators call a down payment, as Congressional tax-writing committees hash out a broad overhaul of the tax code.

That would mean, Slate's Matt Yglesias writes, that:

A person with an Adjusted Gross Income of $399,995 is going to have a higher after tax income than someone with an Adjusted Gross Income of $400,005. And it's not a small difference! You're talking about a tax penalty in the tens of thousands of dollar range for popping slightly above $400,000 rather than staying slightly below.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Chris Skidmore MP is arguing for massive marginal tax rates on the poor:

For individuals aged under 25 who have not yet paid National Insurance contributions for a certain period, perhaps five years, unemployment benefit should be in the form of a repayable loan. An unemployed teenager would still receive the same amount of cash as now, for example, but they would be expected to repay the value once in work. A New Beveridge calculates that this could recoup the government over £1.3 billion a year. Even if someone were unfortunate enough to be out of work for the entire seven years between 18 and 25, the total sum repayable would be £20,475 – considerably less than the tuition fees loan, repayable by many of his or her peers. This would also create an additional incentive to take on paid work.

With the numerous benefits which get phased out rapidly in the first few thousand pounds earned each year, making work pay is already tricky. That was the stated motivation behind the government's introduction of its own Universal Credit, which will replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits in an effort to ensure that the phase-out is controlled.

All of that would be for nothing if, the minute you started earning, you were expected to pay back a multi-thousand pound loan. Even taking Skidmore's "solution" at its most charitable, and assuming he literally means a tuition-fee style repayment option, people currently claiming unemployment benefits are, pretty much by definition, the last people you ever want to raise marginal tax rates on.

If your first priority is to punish the unemployed, then this is a proposal which makes sense. If it's to help them back into work, it's a ridiculous idea.

A political cartoon mocks William Gladstone. 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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.