Friday, May 28, 2010

Who wins? Who loses? This is worth reading

Paul Frijters, the impressive economist, concludes...

Who are the winners of this tax? They include:

. Mine workers and mining communities. The long-run level of activity should go up, and the pressure on their wages and employment relations should go down.

. The general business community. Non-mining activities are taxed less because mining profits are taxed more, meaning that in general, businesses win out

. The general public, simply because they can expect to benefit from reduced taxation and receive parts of the services bought by this tax.

. The economic system, because this kind of tax is very dependable (minerals can’t run away to foreign countries and hence the tax can’t be avoided), making the public finances sounder and more reliable.

Who are the expected losers of this tax? They include:

. Shareholders in mining activities in Australia. When they bought their mining shares, the shareholders expected to receive a certain flow of profits, and that profit stream is now taxed more, making shares in mining less valuable. These losers include domestic shareholders and foreign shareholders, such as major Chinese interests in Australian firms and foreign shareholders in mining companies operating in Australia. To a certain extent, the RPT means Australia is grabbing in the coffers of foreigners to the benefit of its own population.

. Shareholders in mining activities outside Australia. Many countries are facing the problem of how to tax economic activities without reducing the level of economic activity, and Rent taxes are recognised as being pretty close to the economic textbook ideal as to how to do it. Hence other countries will no doubt follow suit if Australia pulls it off. This makes international mining companies understandably nervous.

. Other holders of fixed assets within Australia. This tax of course establishes the principle that assets that cannot run away might witness an increase in the taxation of the income generated by those assets. There are quite a few other sources of rent that could in principle be treated similarly, making owners of fixed assets justifiably nervous. Land, in particular, would be a prime long-term target for tax increases.

Frijters continues:

The specter that land-owners might be taxed on the basis of the value of that land (as an imputation of its profitability) will undoubtedly make owners of prime real estate nervous, and no amount of protestations on the part of the current government that it will not introduce such a tax will entirely allay the fears of those who see an analogy between taxing what is beneath the surface (minerals) and taxing the surface itself. And it would be quite possible that the Liberals introduce such a land-tax in their next government. Hence all those super-rich that make their money off fixed assets rather than their skills can all justifiably feel they have something to lose from the introduction of this tax.

In short, many of the expected losers of this tax are foreign or super-rich, whilst the expected beneficiaries include the vast majority of the Australian population and the business community.

If the tax indeed goes ahead as hypothesised above, the political question will be whether the few losers will manage to fool the many winners into believing that it is in the interest of the many (including workers in the mining industry!) to protect the few.

I consider Rudd exceptionally lucky with the current avalanche of misinformation and self-interested commentary coming from the rich mining companies. It is not often in economics that a proposed new tax is so obviously a fight between the interests of the few and the interests of the whole, making it easy for economists to be fairly united on where they stand. The more fuss is made about it, the more it can become a defining issue for current politicians and the more satisfaction they can take from the experience.

I fervently hope this debate drags on for a long time and becomes a debate about what kind of society Australia wishes to be: one that is run in the interest of the whole, where small groups of super-rich cannot sway public opinion, or one where any change that has a couple of well-funded losers can be stopped by disinformation and fear mongering.

The full post is at Core Economics.

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