Monday, 25 August 2014

Budget 2015 and Tax Cuts

Nat O'Connor: Minister for State, Simon Harris, has joined the chorus calling for income tax cuts. His argument, as reported in The Irish Times, is that paying 41 per cent income tax from €32,800 is at a "low point". Changes would, he said, "incentivise work".

He added, the Government should "look at how could we incentivise people who are working to continue to work, to do the extra hours". From his European election campaign he claims that many people he canvassed were reluctant to work overtime because of the risk of entering a higher tax band.

As TASC has outlined in great detail, Ireland is a low tax country (tax 30.2% GDP versus EU average 40.7% GDP). Moreover, someone moving into the higher tax band of income tax only pays the higher rate on that slice of income above the theshold. So the total percentage tax paid is very low.

A single person on €28,500 pays a total of 15.9% of their salary in income tax, PRSI and USC combined. At €37,500, he or she pays 21.6%. At €45,000 (well over average earnings), the total tax paid is 26.1% (far beneath the marginal rate of 52%).


(Table 3 from page 5 here).

The argument that people are refusing extra work or extra hours just doesn't make a lot of sense. There is a clever play on words that says that you pay 52 cents out of every euro in tax for money earned in overtime. This is only true if you also argue that many of the hours you work in your basic time are completely 'tax free'. In reality, we pay tax on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis on the total we earn in that period.

Bearing in mind that married couples don't begin to pay the higher rate of tax until their income is between €45,400 and €65,600, only one in six pay anything at the higher rate of income tax (click here).

At 18.7 per cent, the actual level of tax paid by people on average earnings in Ireland is among the lowest in the Western world (see page 2 here). The OECD average is 26.6 per cent. In Belgium, Germany or Denmark, a person on average wages pays over twice as much tax as in Ireland, in addition to higher local taxes and charges.

The real question is who will pay for tax cuts? The likely answer is that people reliant on health services, education or social protection will receive less or pay more for services. This will deepen inequality, while also sucking demand out of the economy. Like as not, vital infrastructure spending will be further cut and delayed, which slows down Ireland's long-term economic recovery.

Ireland is already at the low end of all EU countries in terms of taxation. We cannot grow our economy by constantly cutting taxes, as this undermines the role of public services and infrastructure that are the fabric of society and the economy. The hope that Ireland will return to boomtime growth levels is unlikely to appear as a silver bullet to balance the budget. So a mature debate on tax levels and public spending is called for.

Given that, for example, the new Minister for Health is seeking an extra €500 million for the health budget, and there is still a gaping hole in the public finances, how will tax cuts be funded?

Read more!

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Inequality Debate

Cormac Staunton: The ESRI today released a Research Note on The Distribution of Income and the Public Finances.

It adds to the growing debate on economic inequality in Ireland. The paper asserts that the level of inequality in Ireland has fallen since the onset of the crisis in 2008 and that “the burden of increased taxation had to be carried by those on middle incomes.”

Given the importance of inequality and the continued discussion of helping those on “middle incomes” these claims require some analysis.

Inequality – on the rise again
The paper says that Ireland has seen “a significant fall in the Gini coefficient in the crisis years 2008-2012”. The Gini Coefficient is a measure of income distribution. A high figure implies higher inequality and a lower figure implies more equal distributions of incomes.

However, according to CSO SILC data the Gini for Ireland in 2008 was 30.6. In 2012 it was 31.2. This means that in this period, overall income inequality actually rose.

While inequality as measured by Gini did fall in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and hasn’t returned to the heights of the boom (it was 32.4 in 2006), the change in Gini in the period up to 2012 does not show any clear reversal of the trend towards rising inequality in Ireland.

The rise and fall (and rise) of high incomes
The paper also shows the decline in the incomes of those earning more than €100,000 a year from 2007 to 2011. The number of tax units earning over €100,000 fell 14.7 per cent. The total income of that group declined by 22.9 per cent and average incomes fell 9.3 per cent. The paper uses this as evidence to show both a lessening of inequality and a negative impact (through higher taxes) on those on “middle incomes”.

While the fall in incomes for those above €100,000 is dramatic, there is provisional data to suggest that those incomes have been on the rise from 2011-2013. Total income above €100,000 was 10 per cent higher in 2013 than in 2011. Also the number of tax cases in this category rose from 99,129 in 2011 to 106,650 in 2013.

So while there was an initial reduction in high-incomes from 2007 onwards as the economic crisis took hold, there is already a recovery underway for this group.

What is "middle" income? 
The paper also implies that the tax “burden” has increased for those on middle incomes. There is no definition of what constitutes “middle income” in the paper but it is appears to be anyone below €100,000.

Defining “middle income” is of course tricky. However it is unlikely that this paper is referring to “average incomes” because we know that taxes on average incomes in Ireland are amongst the lowest in the OECD.

It seems from the paper that “middle income” means those above average wages (which are around €37,000), but below €100,000.  This is not so much middle as “upper” as those above €40,000 are in the top 30% of earners, and 95% of income tax cases are below €100,000.

Assuming this is the group, (€40,000-€100,000) that is referred to as “middle incomes”, it is clear that their contribution to overall income tax take did rise from 43.4 % of all income tax to 46% from 2007 to 2011.

However, looking again at the 2013 figures we see this is falling again, down to 45.1% in 2013. (Total income in this group has also increased by 5% in that time.) This is in line with rising incomes above €100,000.

Whatever the definition of “middle income”, looking at “percentage of all income tax paid” gives an incomplete picture of the tax system. It also does not take in to account the effect of massive cuts to services, which affect those on low incomes (low wages or welfare incomes) the most.

The paper does cite another ESRI study from 2013 which gives a broader analysis of the changes in taxation since the crisis which found that “changes in taxes and benefits tended to have the biggest negative effect on the top (-15 per cent) and bottom deciles (-12.5 per cent) of the income distribution”.

Given the complexities of incomes, taxes and welfare, this is perhaps a more relevant description of the effects of the system, rather than focusing on the “middle income tax burden”.

For more information, TASC has produced a series of papers on the current tax system.


Read more!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Global Open Government Partnership offers a new platform for reformers

Nuala Haughey: Ireland today published its first National Action Plan as part of the global Open Government Partnership (OGP).  The two year plan contains a total of 26 commitments spanning three main areas: Open Data and Transparency; Citizen Participation; and Strengthening Governance and Accountability. (Read the Action Plan)

This plan comes at a time when trust in government in Ireland is worryingly low. Its publication also coincides with the annual MacGill Summer School, whose invited guests are discussing the need for root and branch review of our institutions to ensure more transparency and democratic accountability – like they do every year.

The Open Government Partnership is not about such radical transformative change. As a voluntary partnership with a modest qualifying threshold for membership, it is more carrot than stick, reform rather than revolution. Since its launch in 2011 it has grown from eight participating countries to 64. In many of these states, governments and civil society are working together to develop and implement open government reforms with various degrees of ambition.

And yet it would be wrong to dismiss OGP as just another genteel club affording politicians a global stage on which to boast about how open and transparent they are. One of the key strengths of this nascent partnership is that it provides an international platform for domestic reformers – both public servants and civil society – who are committed to making their governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens. This generates a healthy peer pressure between countries to do better, go farther. It also allows non-governmental organisations to share and compare strategies and goals, to showcase good practices and to build alliances to push for reforms at national, European and global levels.

OGP also provides a new domestic platform for reformers by encouraging governments to consult with citizens and civil society in drafting and implementing National Action Plans. In Ireland, the National Action Plan was drafted by government officials with input from interested citizens and civil society members from a range of non-governmental groups, including TASC.

While some countries’ OGP action plan commitments may be weak, the partnership has helped deliver some substantive reforms in its four years. In the UK, the government committed through OGP to create a publicly accessible central registry of information on beneficial ownership of companies in a bid to crack down on aggressive tax evasion and money laundering.

In Ireland, sustained pressure from civil society groups involved in Ireland’s first OGP National Action Plan attributed to the recent announcement by Minister Brendan Howlin that up-front application fees for Freedom of Information requests are to be dropped. This will remove a bureaucratic barrier faced by members of the public and journalists, who currently have to cut a cheque for €15 each time they seek access to public information.

In the face of the critical and systemic governance shortcomings facing Ireland, today’s National Action Plan constitutes a modest step. But is it a step in the right direction and civil society needs to continue to work to see the commitments implemented and to maintain the drive for more ambitious reforms towards increased openness and accountability in public life. For readers interested in following Ireland’s OGP journey and/or getting involved in the loose civil society grouping which has formed around it, please sign up for the mailing list or visit the website www.ogpireland.ie for more information on the civil society activities around OGP.




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Monday, 21 July 2014

New MA in Sociology: Work, Labour Markets and Employment

NUI Maynooth has launched a new MA in Sociology: Work, Labour Markets and Employment, which is now accepting applications for September 2014.

Full details, including the overall postgraduate education framework, are available at https://www.nuim.ie/sociology/postgraduate

In addition, there is a question and answer session on Weds 23rd July from 5-7pm on Facebook and Twitter. Details are available at:
https://www.nuim.ie/news-events/ma-sociology-qa-live-facebook-and-twitter-23rd-july-5-7pm

The course directors are Prof. Seán Ó Riain and Dr. Mary Murphy.

Description:
This is an innovative course, taught by leading scholars of Irish and international workplaces and economies. It incorporates modules on the key themes of the degree, on research methods and on analytical thinking as well as a thesis project carried out by the student. There are opportunities for international study (in Valencia) and for research internships.

The course should be of interest to those seeking the necessary critical and analytical skills to understand the dramatic and rapid changes in work, labour markets and employment in recent decades and how different societies are responding to them.

This programme will be of interest to a wide range of constituencies including those working in or interested in a career in social or public policy making; labour market analysts; trade union and business and trade association officials; social entrepreneurs; people working in local and national government with responsibility for work and labour market initiatives; those working in training, up-skilling and work transition initiatives and those involved in Intreo, Solas, Education and Training Boards and in Local Employment Services. It is also relevant to graduates in the social sciences and cognate disciplines considering undertaking doctoral research in the fields of sociology of work, social policy, education and innovation.

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Friday, 18 July 2014

Juncker's New Start for Europe

Nat O'Connor:On 15 July, Jean-Claude Juncker was elected President of the European Commission. As part of securing votes from the S&D grouping and others as well as the EPP, Mr Juncker pledged to pursue a broader, more socially balanced agenda as President of the Commission.

His short speech is here. He also published a 12-page manifesto, A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change. Although this got some coverage in Irish media, it deserves greater scrutiny and serious engagement.

Juncker has pledged €300 billion for job creation over the next three years. It's not clear how much of this is new money, but if Ireland's 1% of the EU's population received a proportionate share, that would be €3 billion - or €1 billion/year, which is large enough to significantly boost GDP and job creation. By way of illustrating the scale of the potential impact, NAMA has pledged to build 22,000 housing units with €1 billion. The EU money could build another 66,000 - with short-term job creation and long-term reduction in the housing affordability crisis. Of course, it might get channeled into other areas, but the potential economic impact of this scale of money should be clear.

He proposes a new European Energy Union to reduce reliance on oil and gas. This is a wise move, given many EU state's reliance on Russian gas. It also is explicitly being done in the name of addressing climate change.

Juncker has called for some reversal of the deindustrialistion of Europe, with a call for a 25 per cent growth in industrial output as a proportion of GDP (from 16% to 20%) by 2020. That's ambitious, but an important marker in the need to reduce the financialisation of the economy and focus on production in the real economy.

He proposes replacing the 'troika' with a more democratic and accountable structure. He has named red-line issues of European regulation (like health, social standards, etc.) that won't be compromised in the planned free trade agreement with the USA. And he talks about the need for a gender-balanced commission, at political and administrative level as a "political must".

This is not to endorse the manifesto, but simply to point out that there are some big commitments there (and a lot more than have been named above), which provide perhaps the closest thing we are going to see to a government manifesto of priorities for the five-year European Commission under Juncker's leadership.

Read more!

Promoting growth and job creation through investment

Cormac Staunton: Taxes have both positive and negative effects on the economy and job creation. However, discussions of ‘tax cuts’ often focus on the positive impact for business and consumption, while ignoring the other side of the coin; public investment and services are also good for business and jobs.

Public spending is part of our economic output (GDP) along with private consumption, investment, imports and exports. Hence, all things being equal, tax cuts will lower GDP because it will lead to lower public spending. This is what is meant when Budget’s ‘take money out of the economy’.

Classical economic theory assumes that lower taxes lead to cheaper labour costs and more money in people’s pockets, which would increase employment and consumption. Ultimately, the theory argues, this leads to growth in the private sector and more tax revenues that should off-set the losses from cuts to public spending. This theory has been repeatedly shown to fall short in the real world, especially when taxes are already extremely low.

This is the situation in which Ireland now finds itself, with the lowest tax ‘wedge’ on average wages in the EU and a total tax take that is three quarters of the European average. As a result, more direct interventions to boost the economy through increased public spending are needed. These are likely to have a more positive impact on increasing growth and employment than tax cuts.

One of the major challenges facing the Irish economy is weak investment. Our gross capital formation (public and private investment) is only 10.7% of GDP, which is the lowest in the EU. The low level of investment in Ireland can partially be explained by the slump in construction, as well as by lack of access to credit and high corporate indebtedness. There may also be a perception of low returns on investment given the low growth in the economy.

It is also caused by the fact that successive budgets have disproportionately targeted capital spending over current spending, radically reducing Ireland’s investment in infrastructure, which is the backbone for future economic activity, including in education (‘human capital’) and research (for innovation).

Tax cuts won’t increase investment 
Cutting taxes relies on the private sector to make up the shortfall in investment and consumption. High levels of private debt, means that tax cuts are highly like to result in people paying down debt, rather than investing or increasing savings. While paying down debt will be beneficial in the long-term, there is no guarantee that these funds will be lent to Irish companies and entrepreneurs and used for investment in Ireland.

The dysfunction of Ireland’s banking system certainly means that most of these funds will not be lent to SMEs in the short-term. If tax cuts are only targeted at the small minority who currently pay the higher rate (estimated to be 17% of income earners), there will also be no corresponding boost to consumption from low and middle income households that would help struggling business.

Public Investment 
Public spending not only provides essential services, like health and education, but it can also be a key investor in the economy. The private sector relies on the quality of public infrastructure such as roads and broadband, as well as education, training, public transport and other services, all of which create an environment in which private business can thrive.

Public bodies also purchase a huge volume of goods and services from the private sector in Ireland, everything from office equipment to bricks and mortar. In fact, with increased tendering and outsourcing in recent years, the public and private sectors have never been more interwoven.

Government spending directly results in increased business and employment in the private sector too. In 2011, a TASC report estimated that the government expenditure in the enterprise sector was between €4.7 and €6.2 billon.

As a result, public investment and Government consumption impact directly on aggregate demand. A recent IMF study found that the economic multipliers from government investment and consumption are larger than the multipliers from cuts to labour income taxes, consumption taxes or corporate taxes.

In other words, measures that directly impact on demand in the economy (such as government spending increases) have a greater impact on economic growth than those that rely on private sector spending to boost demand (such as tax cuts).

Of course, it is not possible to increase Government’s contribution to GDP unsustainably. Public spending is limited by available revenue and the size of the public debt, the sustainability of which are directly related to the strength of the economy. What is required is an intelligent balance between public spending and private sector activity, including measures to optimise the efficient co-operation of the public and private sectors. 

Given that Ireland has low taxes and low public expenditure, and a low overall level of investment in the economy, there is an opportunity to maximise returns from public investment. If the Government has identified available funds, these should be used to complement the low level of private investment, and potentially ‘crowd in’ additional private finance by providing attractive investment opportunities in key infrastructural projects.

This would increase economic growth in the immediate term and put in place the necessary infrastructure to foster long-term growth, to the benefit of private sector activity and sustainable job creation.

Read more!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Only One in Six Pay The 41% Higher Income Tax Rate

Nat O'Connor: Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, has confirmed TASC's analysis that few people would benefit from changes to the higher income tax rate of 41%. In responding to parliamentary question on TASC's analysis, he confirmed: "I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that they estimate that just over 17% of income earners were liable to Income Tax at the 41% rate in 2013." (Link: KildareStreet.com)

TASC's concern is that changes to the higher income tax rate would only benefit the one in six of the highest income earners who pay tax at the higher rate. (Link: TASC Policy Briefs)

It may surprise people that only one in six income earners pay any tax at the higher rate. Unfortunately, this is a stark reminder that many people in employment earn relatively low wages - and only some couples have two good incomes. Many people do not even earn a Living Wage of €23,000/year.

In Q1 2014, average earnings per week in Ireland were €689.88/week (€35,874/year) (Link: CSO).

With average earnings €3,074 higher than the threshold to pay the higher rate of income tax, how can it be that only one in six income earners pays at the 41%?

Here are two major reasons:
1. Marriage - over 1.7 million people in Ireland are married, compared to 2.5 million who are single, which includes those who are co-habiting, but considered 'single' for tax purposes (Link: CSO). Although the threshold for paying the 41% income tax rate is lower than average individual wages (a single person begins to pay tax at 41% on that part of their income above €32,800) it is almost certainly not lower than average household income levels. Through sharing tax credits, a married couple with one income begin to pay the higher rate from €45,400 and a married couple with two incomes pays the higher rate from a variable threshold up to €65,600 (depending on the balance between the two incomes).

2. The Maths of Averages - Average earnings of nearly €36,000 does not imply an even distribution of people on either side of the average. In fact, many more than half earn less because it take a lot of low income salaries to average out one highly paid employee. For example, one person on €110,000 (in the top 10%) combined with four minimum wage workers on €17,542 gives an average of €36,034 each. In order to bring the four workers up to a living wage of €23,000, the high pay would have to be brought down to €88,000 (average €36,000 each). In other words, high pay matters in terms of the shrinking incomes of the 'bottom 90%' in society.

Revenue provides statistics on the distribution of income, based on the gross income of tax cases (single or couples). While bearing in mind that some couples might choose to make separate tax returns, the Revenue statistics can be used offer a conservative estimate of income distribution in the economy. Table IDS1 on page 6 shows a large number of tax cases (presumably including many pensioners with small declarations and part-time workers) on less than €15,000 annual income. But conversely, out of over 2 million tax cases, only around 200,000 cases declared incomes over €75,000; of whom less than 100,000 had incomes over €100,000 (most of these high income cases are married couples).

Based on 1.9 million people in employment, it should be clear that couples where both spouses are on 'above average' pay of €40,000-€50,000 each are actually doing very well compared to everyone else. This is not to deny that many of them have high mortgage debt and high childcare costs. But squeezing the 'bottom 90%' through tax cuts for the top 10% is not the way to solve these problems.

Postscript: And it doesn't matter whether the rate is cut from 41% or whether the band is shifted upwards, so one begins paying the higher rate from 34,800 instead of 32,800. Only one in six income earners (at the top end of earnings) would benefit.

Read more!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Government Priorities, Jobs and Taxation

Nat O'Connor: Jobs has (rightly) emerged as the number one priority for the Government for the remainder of its term in office (Link: Statement of Government Priorities).

But are the economic ideas underpinning the strategy sound? And will it add or subtract from Ireland's level of economic inequality? I have selected five points from the ten-page strategy document to illustrate some strengths and weaknesses of what is being proposed.

1. "Our economic strategy will ... return the economy to full employment (2.1 million people) by 2020." (page 2)

Employment in Ireland peaked in 2008, at 2,147,300 employed (Link: CSO). At the time, there were 2,792,362 people aged 20-64, which gives an 'employment' rate of 76.9 per cent.*

*With the caveat that some people younger than 20 or older than 64 were probably in employment, so this percentage figure is an over-estimate. However using the age group 20-64 is nonetheless the Eurostat standard and relates to the EU's 2020 employment targets.

The CSO has estimated (here, page 38) that the population in 2021 will be 4.9 million people, of whom 2,837,800 will be aged 20-64.

On this basis, the Government's target of 2.1 million in employment by 2020 would be 74 per cent of working age adults (20-64), which is nearly three percentage points lower than the level of employment achieved in 2008. The 2.9 percentage point difference would mean 82,296 less jobs than if the same employment rate of 76.9 per cent was achieved by 2021. Hence, talk of 'returning' to full employment or 'restoring' all the lost jobs may give some people unrealistic hopes - especially older workers with low skills or specialised construction skills that are surplus to the economy's needs. And it might dissuade people from taking up re-training opportunities.

The Government has defined 'full employment' in 2020 as 2.1 million jobs. But there are better definitions. We could define it as everyone who wants paid employment should have it. More specifically, we might specify full-time employment, as many people work part-time involuntarily.

On the positive side, this new target is higher than under the national EU 2020 targets, where the Irish Government's target was an employment rate of 69-71 per cent, probably reflecting the higher number of younger people in third level education, plus the historically higher level of people (mostly women) working in the home or in unwaged care work, voluntarily and involuntarily.

The CSO population projection report focuses mostly on labour force population rather than total population. This makes significant assumptions about the percentages of people in third-level education, working in the home, disability, care duties, etc. Yet it is precisely policies to achieve structural changes in these areas that could change these proportions and get more people into paid employment.

For example, Ireland has among the most expensive childcare in the world. A shift to a state-subsidised system would have two employment effects. In the immediate term, it would enlarge child care as a sector of employment, with career options for women in particular (based on the experience in other countries). In turn, an even larger cohort of people who are currently full- or part-time carers for their children (again, mostly women) would be released to seek employment in line with their preferences and qualifications. Both of these effects would enlarge the labour force as a percentage of the working age population.

Structural changes such as the child care example show how paid employment can be extended to more people. But of course, this would only be possible if higher taxes were levied on all households to pay for subsidised childcare (essentially a redistribution from everyone to benefit young children, who in turn will have a better life start and will benefit us all when they are employed and paying taxes in future).

Childcare has to be paid for anyway, but a national system could achieve real efficiency savings through economies of scale. But this kind of structural change to sectors of employment is not visible in the Government's job plans. So how else can employment be generated?

The total population of Ireland is expected to grow significantly between 2008 and 2020, according to the CSO's projections. We know population growth expands the economy: there are simply more people needing the same basic goods and services, and that creates more jobs to be done. However, a bigger population also means more people seeking work, so while GDP may rise, GDP per person may not.

Beyond population growth, there are two further major options for job creation: money and new ideas. But where will they come from?

Last time Ireland achieved 2.1 million employed it was at the height of the boom. A great deal of money was borrowed by private households and businesses, and spent on property. In many cases, tax breaks - from mortgage interest relief to hotel tax breaks - spurred on this process. But at the core was borrowing from the future to pay for the present. Inevitably the bubble burst and Ireland lost around 300,000 jobs - many of which were directly or indirectly linked to the property bubble - or which were collateral damage, as businesses went down because their owners had taken on debt, possibly leveraging business assets. Meanwhile, national debt went through the roof due to lost tax revenue and the costly bank bailout, while private debt had also become among the highest in the OECD.

Where is the money going to come from to bring us back to 2.1 million jobs? While there may be some pent up demand for housing, people's ability (or desire) to take on mortgage debt has hopefully been tempered by recent history. We know that companies continue to complain of a lack of lending by financial institutions to SMEs. So, hopes for debt-fueled growth are limited. Never mind the fact that debt-based growth is risky and can go badly wrong, as we know all too well.

The Government seems to be betting on 'new ideas', which are an uncertain foundation for future job growth.

2. Actions in the revised Government priorities include "Using the new network of 31 Local Enterprise Offices in every local authority to support entrepreneurship and small business activity" (page 3)

Actually, the new LEO structure could be quite dynamic. There are exciting possibilities to focus on the different strengths and natural advantages in each local area, and they are a way to spread work around the country. There needs to be free rein to allow local experiments, including at the edge of traditional paid work sectors: possibly involving co-operatives, non-profits and social enterprises.

The Government could probably do more by supporting the development of LEOs in each local authority: a few more staff could operate forums and meetings with local people and businesses, do market research, and generally maximise the potential for idea generation. Of course, nine out of ten ideas might not work - LEOs need to encourage trial and error, and to give people the opportunity to keep returning to the drawing board until they can come up with viable business models. And LEOs have the advantage of small scale in many cases. For many areas, the creation of even ten new sustainable jobs would be a big win.

However, 'entrepreneurship' is not a magic wand and the creation of jobs from new ideas alone is rare. Investment money is needed too for LEOs to become a real engine for job creation.

3. "Local authorities will retain 80% of the proceeds [of] the local property tax, with the option to vary the rate by up to 15%." (page 10)

There is an opportunity, as the Local Property Tax could represent 'new money', at least for some areas. Ireland's funding of local government is among the lowest in the OECD. While there is currently a populist political rush to lower LPT, mature reflection about job creation might lead some local authorities to conclude that increasing LPT might be the only money for investment their areas are likely to see for some time.

Other changes to local government are worth considering too. Currently, they are not permitted to take on debt, even if they have substantial assets. If LEOs are going to involve a coming-together of local communities to generate jobs, and 'crowd in' private investment through publicly-funded seed investment, more capacity to borrow money locally for jobs projects should be considered.

4. "We will establish a Low Pay Commission" (page 4)

This is a good idea. As argued on www.livingwage.ie, paying people a Living Wage satisfies the social justice argument that everyone working full-time should have a minimum, decent standard of living as a result.

But there is also a strong economic argument for living wages. Raising low pay will boost aggregate demand across the country, with most of that money spent on local goods and services. Whereas profits may be used by companies to pay down debt sooner - or invested or repatriated abroad - re-balancing companies balance-sheets in favour of wages should help local job creation.

Company profitability obviously sets a limit to wage-led economic growth, but there is almost certainly scope to make significant changes in favour of people currently living below a Living Wage.

5. "...individuals and families on the average industrial wage can be paying a 52% marginal tax rate. [...] In Budget 2015, we will announce a tax reform plan to be delivered over a number of budgets to reduce the 52% tax rate on low- and middle-income earners in a manner that maintains the highly progressive nature of the Irish tax system." (pages 4-5)

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is reported as saying “The Government wants to make work pay for Ireland’s families,” ... “Now especially we want to make their lives that bit better and easier.’’ (Link: Irish Times)

This is where the wheels fall off the Government's job plan.

Economic output (measured as GDP) can be described in terms of four components: Consumption (C) + Government Spending (G) + Investment (I) + Net Exports/Imports (X-M).

Ireland has among the lowest tax and social insurance take in the EU, at three-quarters of the EU average. If tax take is cut, then the level of public services, social transfers and/or public investment must fall.

Lower public services will just mean that people will pay more in charges or fees for services, which will eliminate the benefit of a tax cut. (In fact, young healthy single people might pocket a tax cut, but families with children or people facing illness will face worsening services and higher costs). Lower public services will also simply reduce the G component of GDP, shrinking the economy.

Evidence from the ESRI and Central Bank (presentation and report) suggests that higher earners will simply pay down mortgage debt, rather than spend more. This means that the C component of GDP is unlikely to grow to the same extent that the G component will fall due to tax cuts. In normal times, that might give the banks more money to lend - but they are not lending.

If social welfare is cut further, the C component will also fall, as people on welfare spend practically all of their incomes on essential goods and services.

Ireland already has the lowest level of investment (I) in the EU. So further cuts to public investment will shrink GDP and also lower Ireland's potential future growth trajectory, due to the lack of crucial infrastructure.

Hence, the first problem with the tax cuts strategy is that it is unlikely to boost economic output. On the contrary, it is more likely to shrink the economy and cost jobs. (The above arguments are outlined in more detail in A Defence of Taxation, pages 24-28).

The second problem is that only 17 per cent of income earners pay anything at the 52% marginal tax rate (See Minister Noonan's response to PQ). Cuts to the 52% marginal rate are not tax cuts for low and middle income earners: most of the benefit is likely to accrue to people who have higher incomes, worsening economic inequality in Ireland (See here for details).

In conclusion, Ireland had a once-off boom due to a large number of people and businesses taking on high levels of debt. The failures of the weakly-regulated banking sector led to another layer of debt being taken on across all of society. It is not plausible that much more debt can be taken on, or that debt-fueled growth is going to generate more jobs.

We have had over five years for private investors to see the opportunity of low prices and come pouring into Ireland, but this hasn't happened as our investment statistics show.

Lowering taxes won't cut people's cost of living. On the contrary, many people will pay more to replace lost public services. And people on the lowest incomes, reliant on welfare and public services, will see their quality of life further eroded.

The currently most readily available source of money for investment and jobs is the public purse. The deep contradiction at the heart of the Government's new priorities is the idea that we can maintain services and investment, while lowering taxes and giving everyone higher net incomes. But this is a recipe for having your cake and eating it: in reality, it will worsen economic inequality and it won't generate jobs.

The alternative is to re-balance the economy in favour of higher wages, and to strengthen public services, social transfers and public investment based on progressive taxation.

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Ireland's Corporation Tax Regime Under Scrutiny (Again)

Nat O'Connor: It is reported that the Government is considering an early move to close down the 'Double Irish' tax avoidance method permitted by Irish tax law. (Link: Irish Times)

Global pressure is mounting, including from Brussels' investigation into Apple, the US Congress continuing to be concerned about US companies not paying pay at home, and the OECD working on a framework for a new multinational agreement on Corporation Tax.

There appears to be a choice. The Government might "secure better international terms for phasing out such mechanisms by moving early" but IBEC's CEO argues that "a “majority” of businesses here would prefer it if the Government awaited actual action at global level before any Irish move."

Reporting, Arthur Beesley concludes that "The irony, indeed, is that there is no apparent threat to the 12.5 per cent rate itself." But there is no irony. The issue of Ireland's corporation tax regime has always been about the rules, not the rate. In TASC's report, Tax Injustice, the Double Irish tax avoidance method is explained (from page 16).

The likely medium-term outcome of an international agreement on corporation tax is that Ireland will need to change part of our industrial strategy. Currently, we take a little corporation tax from a lot of companies - some of which are based in Ireland because our tax rules allow them to lower the amount of tax they pay globally. In future, to keep up corporation tax revenues, Ireland may need to take more tax from fewer companies. In other words, the pressure to change the 12.5% rate will come from within Ireland to maintain our level of tax take from corporations.

Bearing in mind that the large majority of companies (mostly SMEs) don't pay significant levels of corporation tax, the tax bill will probably land with the bigger companies - some of which are globally mobile, but others of which are embedded in Ireland's economy. The larger companies are also likely to be the most influential in the business lobby group IBEC's push against changing the rules - as they would be in the Government's sights to pay more tax. Although a 'majority' of them might oppose changes now, they are a minority of all companies and employers in Ireland.

Another possible future is that the global rules are tightened (with or without Ireland's co-operation) but the Government decides not to seek more tax from profitable companies here. That would mean a further erosion of Ireland's tax base, which at three-quarters of the EU average is already among the lowest in Europe. Such erosion would mean weaker public services, low levels of social transfers, and even weaker public investment: a recipe for further economic stagnation and hardship.

In all likelihood, three of the largest economies in the world are likely to press for significant change (i.e. the USA, France and Germany). Although this might happen slowly rather than overnight, Ireland will inevitably be carried along by whatever new consensus emerges. So there is a good argument for moving early. What kind of 'better international terms' might Ireland get? Maybe some commitments from large multi-nationals with significant state contracts to stay based in Ireland. Maybe some concession on our legacy bank debt from the EU. But if Ireland is dragged along reluctantly along with other countries that facilitate tax avoidance (like the Netherlands and Luxemburg), this will neither help our reputation nor give us any bargaining power. However, those countries have more alternative strengths in their domestic economies compared to Ireland and can maybe better afford to wait and see.

The Government's consultation on this ends on 22 July. Whatever way this issue turns out, it is likely that international moves to limit companies ability to locate in Ireland to avoid taxation will lead to some companies leaving - although it remains to be seen what that will mean in terms of jobs. Even if this is just a risk, not a certainty, there there is a need to boost all the other reasons why Ireland is competitive, including English language fluency, membership of the Euro zone, an ICT-literate young workforce, and so on. Public services like education, as well as public investment in broadband, the energy grid, re-training schemes and even the Youth Guarantee are all ways for the Government to boost Ireland's attractiveness for business.

But this all costs money... which brings us back to the question of how we get our tax system to add up to provide an adequate level of revenue, including from corporate taxes.

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

A "Zillionaire" Calls for More Equality

Nat O'Connor: "Zillionaire" Nick Hanauer (net worth $1bn+) has written an opinion piece in Politico.com entitled "The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats".

It is a call to self-interested "0.01%ers" to dump trickle-down economics in favour of "middle out" arguments. Give more money to the broad middle class (i.e. everyone in employment) and the economy will grow, leading to more (not less) profits and rewards for those on top.

The pitchforks argument is as follows "If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when."

Some people might be familiar with Nick Hanauer, as he appears in Robert Reich's film, Inequality for All, as screened by the Jameson film festival with TASC's panel discussion in February. In Reich's film, he reiterates the same arguments for spreading incomes more widely.

Hanauer's opinion piece (and a related TED talk) has been criticised by various commentators (e.g. Max Borders, author of Superwealth a book defending inequality) and Forbes magazine, who helped spread interest in Hanauer's piece by branding it his "Latest Near Insane Economic Plan".

One of Hanauer's central arguments is that Ford paid his workers more, who could then afford his cars. Worstall's counter-argument is a calculation that Ford's workers would spend less on cars than Ford gave them in additional wages.

The problem with Worstall's argument is that Hanauer is talking in more general terms. As Hanauer makes clear, employers cannot be expected to pay uncompetitive wages, hence employers need statutory instruments (like the new $15 Seattle minimum wage) to level the playing pitch. To continue the Ford analogy, if ALL workers gain a living wage, not just Ford's own workforce, hundreds of thousands could then afford cars. That's the real argument for economy-wide rises in wages, for wage-led economic growth.

And are there limits to this? Of course. But the argument is to rebalance the return to labour in terms of wages versus the return in terms of profit or dividends to capital. Balance is the key word here. The growing inequality of the last four decades has seen the balance move in favour of the top 10%, and particularly the top 1% (and top 0.1%, 0.01%, etc.) New tools - a Living Wage, tax reform, etc. - are needed to re-balance things in favour of the 'bottom 90%'.

Another Worstall critique is that savings are essential for investment whereas Hanauer seems in the opinion piece to discredit the role of savings. However, what Hanauer mentions in the Reich film - but does not articulate clearly in the article - is that savings now get invested globally, which does not benefit most people in America right now.

Hanauer is not entering the debate as an expert macroeconomist. However, he is a financially-literate, savvy businessman who made big money from being an early investor (of a family fortune) in Amazon. His entrance into the political debate is precisely that, political. He is challenging ideological touchstones in US political economy, such as the role of the super-rich as 'job creators', the 'trickle-down effect' and the culture of entitlement that CEOs have around extraordinary levels of remuneration. Crucially, he argues that Democrats are failing to win this argument because they talk about social justice, whereas he argues in terms of wage-led economic growth and the self-interest of the rich, who can benefit from a faster growing economy.

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The Basic Argument for a Living Wage

A group of organisations, including TASC, supported a project to calculate a Living Wage for Ireland. The evidence about the cost of living is that a single person working full time would have to earn €11.45 per hour in order to afford a dignified life.

Ireland’s Living Wage is based on detailed item-by-item costs for a basic standard of living below which no one should be expected to live. It allows someone to meet the essentials of life, but focused on needs rather than wants. It is a single measure for all of Ireland, with costs calculated for different areas and it represents a weighted average. A technical group involving a range of experts has had a series of meetings to ensure that the calculation is based on a robust method, in line with similar Living Wage calculations done in other countries. A technical paper is available on the Living Wage website giving all of the details.

The idea of a Living Wage is not just a question of social justice, it also makes economic sense as well. It should be a given in our society that full-time work allows someone to live a modest, but dignified life. The fact that the national minimum wage is so much lower (€8.65), as well as the fact that not everyone at work can get full-time hours, makes it clear that many people at work are going without certain essentials to make ends meet.

In London, and elsewhere, businesses and politicians across the political spectrum have supported a Living Wage. Companies and public bodies have pledged to be Living Wage employers. It makes sense for many businesses too, because if people have more money in their pockets that goes straight into local shops and services. When people go without essentials, that customer spending is lost forever.

And a Living Wage is something that can be afforded. On a weekly basis, it is less than €450 per week. Annually, it is less than €23,300, which is well below average wage levels. In the beginning, the national minimum wage was calculated as a proportion of average wages, but that link was dropped and more recently it has been frozen for seven years, but the cost of living has kept on climbing up.

Economists have talked about the possibility for wage-led growth across Europe and North America, based on the principle of getting more money in the pockets of low income workers and families. A Living Wage for workers – along with a living income for families (which includes public services and social transfers for children, like Child Benefit) – is an essential building block for getting the economy moving again, while making sure that no one is left behind by the recovery.

Beginning a national conversation about a Living Wage is important. Some employers will say they cannot afford it – and that has to be taken seriously. But other countries have managed to tackle the cost of living better than Ireland, for example by limiting the cost of housing or providing state subsidies for childcare. Paying workers a Living Wage is part of the solution to the cost of living crisis, but providing better public services and taking action to tackle Ireland’s high prices for food, energy and other essentials is also part of the answer.

The technical group has focused on provided a strong, evidence-based calculation of what is needed to afford the cost of living in Ireland today. It is now up to everyone to take this conversation forward, to ensure that Ireland’s economic recovery is fair and equally distributed.

Technical details of the Living Wage calculations, as well as whose involved in the technical work, can be seen on www.livingwage.ie

This opinion piece was previously published in The Carlow Nationalist on 8th July 2014 under the title 'Project reveals that Ireland's minimum wage is too low'

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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Cost of High Pay in the UK

The UK High Pay Centre is an independent non-party think tank established to monitor pay at the top of the income distribution and set out a road map towards better business and economic success. They have just produced a compelling three-minute video showing that a FTSE 100 CEO takes home more in three days than an average employee earns in a year.

Details of the staff, trustees and advisory board of the High Pay Centre can be seen here.

The video is based on an analysis of high pay, available as an eight-page report: 'What Would the Neighbours Say?'

They find that the bottom 20% in the UK have incomes closer to Slovenia and the Czech Republic's bottom 20% rather than North-Western European norms, even though average UK incomes are in line with North-Western Europe.

For those who think only a handful of people get paid super-high salaries and so it 'doesn't matter', think again. If the income distribution of the Netherlands or Denmark applied to the UK, 99% of households would benefit to the tune of £2,700 each on average.

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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

€11.45 Living Wage

Nat O'Connor: A technical, evidence-based analysis has led to the calculation of a Living Wage for Ireland of €11.45 per hour. This is based on a single person working full-time (defined as 39 hours/week). The calculation is based on detailed data from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice's budgeting.ie work, which describes each item required for a person to have a Minimum Essential Standard of Living or MESL.

The MESL standard is based on focus groups done with people living on low incomes, to agree a minimum standard of living, sufficient to meet someone's needs (not wants). It is not a poverty standard, but a minimum for a dignified life. Once the standard of living is agreed, researchers from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice look annually at the cheapest possible goods and services available in the market.

The categories of cost can be seen in the summary of the Living Wage (page 2). Some commentators have suggested that €11.45/hour (€446/week or just over €23,000/year) is 'too high' or includes unreasonable 'needs'. Let's look at that.

It might be argued that more frugal living is possible than described by the Living Wage. Well, core expenditure can be seen in detail here for the example of an Urban dwelling adult living alone. (Other detailed budgets can be seen here).

For a single man living alone in an urban area, a Living Wage will allow €57 per week for food along the following lines. Grocery shopping in a chain supermarket (typically a German discounter) including fresh fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet and a limited quantity of luxuries. For example, there is sufficient budget to allow three eggs per week, two litres of milk per week, one packet of biscuits per week, one jar of instant coffee every six weeks, one jar of jam every eight weeks, and so on. The budget does allow for one Deli lunch per week (€5.60), one Chinese takeaway every four weeks (€11.20) and a Sunday lunch out every six weeks (€10.00).

In terms of clothing, the Living Wage allows just over €10.00 per week. For a man (pages 9-11 of the same document), this would typically include: six pairs of socks/year, a pair of slippers every three years, a heavy jacket (€45) every year, a casual shirt every year (€15), a suit every three years (€144), a pair of shoes/year (€30), and so on. Obviously, these are the cheapest available goods. If someone wants a more expensive piece of clothing, he or she will have to make it last longer.

There is similar detail available for personal care items (e.g. shaving cream) and health care (e.g. dental visits). Energy bills are expected to be covered by €9.99/week. The household goods section is instructive. The scenario assumes that a single male lives in furnished rental accommodation and so does not own any furniture. A basic television is owned (€119.95) and is expected to last for ten years, likewise a toaster, iron, and so on. A wooden spoon (€1.99) is expected to last twenty years.

The television licence (€160/year) is an expensive cost, at over €3/week. No allowance is made for cable or satellite television. (By the way, 411 people were jailed last year for non-payment of the TV licence)

This budget allows someone to send 20 Christmas cards and four other greeting cards per year, with a total allowance of 30 stamps (55 cents each). The cost of stamps was calculated before the recent nearly 10 per cent rise in the cost of a stamp, to 60 cent - which means yet another €1.50 will have to be squeezed out of an annual budget that is already insufficient. This follows a pattern of publicly-regulated costs going up, such as Dublin Bus fares up 15-25 per cent in 2013.

Some commentators have criticised the allowance of spending for 'social inclusion'. Let's explore that. Under communications, the budget allows for a basic mobile phone (€59.99) and €5 of credit per week. It allows for a laptop (€479) meant to last for five years - i.e. costing €1.84/week. A printer is allowed for (€59.99/ten years), as well as 500 sheets of A4 paper every year (€4.99).

A person on this basic budget has €2 per week to make a donation to charity and is assumed to save €5 per week.

An annual holiday is included, which is illustrated as a week-long trip to Galway from Dublin, with seven nights accommodation (€25/night) and €299 in spending money.

Purchase of one newspaper per week is allowed for (€2.20) and a DVD rental four times a year (€4.60). A trip to the cinema is allowed for every two months (€8.50). Two swims a month are allowed for (€5 each) as well as a weekly football match (€5/week for 9 months/year).

There is a €15/week allowance for socialising/entertainment. This might allow three or four pints of beer per week, or a cup of tea/coffee every day.

The LivingWage.ie website has a new note outlining the allowances for social inclusion and participation under the Living Wage calculation, available here.

There is much more detail in the background data and reports, all available for scrutiny. While there may be quibbles about line items, what any serious examination of the data will show is that the Living Wage is based on a very modest, simple lifestyle. There is very little room for emergencies or special occasions. And the Living Wage is not meant to describe a poverty line, but it is a description of what the focus group participants believe is the minimum required for a dignified life, underneath which no one should be expected to fall. If anything, the Living Wage is too frugal - and of course the reality is that many people on such an income could still experience material deprivation. Not everyone lives beside a supermarket and disability or the needs of extended family members can put further pressure on people's budgets.

The details of the budgets merits serious attention, for many reasons.

It makes it clear that many people in Ireland go without many essential goods and services. This is bad for them, but it is also bad for local shops and immoral for Irish society because such deprivation would be unnecessary if national income was distributed more fairly.

It shows that every small increase in costs under public control or regulation matters - including energy, postage, telecoms and public transport, as well as the effect of VAT and other indirect taxes on prices in the market.

Raising people's incomes up to an evidence-based Living Wage would boost local spending power and benefit many small enterprises across Ireland. It would boost VAT income for the state and lower pressure on supplemental and special needs social welfare payments.

Like with the minimum wage, businesses that genuinely cannot afford to pay a Living Wage could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The Living Wage also provides an evidence base to interrogate why some goods and services are more expensive in Ireland than elsewhere, and what could be done to boost competition or regulate costs to lower the cost of living.

At the heart of the Living Wage argument is the proposition that everyone who works full-time should be entitled to a very basic, minimum standard of living sufficient to for a dignified life. But even the modest suggestion of paying at least €11.45 per hour won't happen unless people and organisations demand it.

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Corporation Tax and the Risk of an "Untenable Fiscal Situation"

Nat O'Connor: Interest observation reported in The Irish Times by international law firm Cadwalader.

“The country’s tax regime is coming under increasing scrutiny by the EU for the aggressive tax planning strategies undertaken by foreign multinationals, a practice termed ‘brass-plating,’” said Cadwalader. ...

The law firm said that beyond the risk of reputational damage, senior Irish officials noted that the trend of inversions may place Ireland in “an untenable fiscal situation” where the gain in tax revenue from redomiciled corporations is more than offset by the accompanying increase in the nominal gross national product used to calculate Ireland’s contributions to the EU budget.

“The resounding concern is that Ireland bears the brunt of the reputational and economic impact of inversions but reaps little of the job creation, substantive investment, economic growth or other tangible benefits typically afford by traditional foreign direct investment,” said Cadwalader in the note.

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Property Tax and Local Government Funding

Nat O'Connor: Taxation is the price of civilised society - and that includes taxes to pay for many basic local services, including planning, roads, housing, parks, playgrounds, street lighting, waste management, libraries, cultural activities and much more.

As such, a story in the Irish Times about four Dublin TDs seeking to protect Dublin City's share of local property tax is not just about Dublin, but it is about creating a rational system so that people all over Ireland can have accountability for how much tax they pay and what they get for it in terms of local services. This basic exchange of taxes for services is at the heart of democracy and civic republicanism, for example captured in the French revolutionary Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen 1789, Article 14: "All citizens have the right to ascertain, by themselves, or through their representatives, the need for a public tax, to consent to it freely, to watch over its use, and to determine its proportion, basis, collection and duration."

The issue being raised by the TDs is a classic case of Government giving with one hand, while taking away with the other. Dublin City may be given 80% of the property tax raised within its borders, but will lose other grants due to this "windfall".

Dublin City has an income of €802.7 million for 2014, down from an income of €825.5 million in 2012. The 2012 income was composed of income from commercial rates (€341.3m), goods and services (€222.7m), money from other local authorities (€96.3m), grants (€89.7m) the Local Government Fund - including motor tax and property tax (€53.9m), the pension levy (€17.7m) and transfer from reserves (€3.9m). See page 31 in the full statement of Dublin City's 2012 finances here (PDF). More information about Dublin City's funding is here (web).

According to Revenue, Dublin City provided €39.7 million in local property tax in 2013, which should double in 2014 (first full year) to roughly €80 million. Eighty per cent of €80 million is €64 million.

Apparently, Dublin only got €2 millon from property tax in 2013, so the windfall is around €62 million - or a 7.7% increase in the city's total income.

There is a further argument that Dublin is the engine of the Irish economy and needs further funds to invest to reinforce this role, which will benefit the wider country. (See this official report: Funding The Dublin City Region). A 7.7% increase in income, coming on the back of years of cuts to local authority funding and a fall in various other income lines due to the economic downturn, is not actually a massive windfall. Local businesses would doubtless argue that it is an opportunity to reduce commercial rates, not least to help get boarded-up shops back into business.

For information, the Department of the Environment's 2013 report on funding for all local authorities is here (PDF).

As I argued previously (here), there are perverse consequences of the electioneering around cutting local property tax. If Dublin implements a 15% LPT cut, even the 15% reduction in the fifth of Dublin City's LPT income to be shared around the country could take millions out of the Local Government Fund, which will really hurt smaller authorities.

At the same time, if Dublin loses a share of the Local Government Fund revenue in exchange for the LPT 'windfall', what that really means is that Motor Tax paid in Dublin won't be spent in Dublin, which undermines another 'local tax'.

Ultimately, local government funding is under the control of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, whose Department holds the purse strings for grants as well as the Local Government Fund. Unless and until local authorities are 100% independently funded, there will always be a risk that a Minister of one political party or from another county will be tempted to reduce funding for local authorities governed by different parties.

Unfortunately, most of the political energy at the local elections was directed at lowering local property tax. Hopefully, some politicians at local and national level will take up the challenge of advocating for 100% independent funding at local level, so that citizens can choose the level of services they want and are willing to pay for.

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Monday, 30 June 2014

McWage: Why we will all be working in fast-food restaurants into our eighties

Paul Sweeney: This article by Douglas Coupland writing in the Financial Times deserves attention (click for full article on FT.com). He writes as follows:

One observation I’ve often heard from European friends, and visitors to North America, is, “It’s as if every single person in your culture has worked at one or more restaurants in their life.” I’d never thought of it before but they’re right … I can’t think of anyone in my orbits who hasn’t waited tables or bussed or dish-washed or cooked for some stretch. For Europeans visiting Canada or the States, remember that restaurant memories are a great conversation starter with most North Americans; everyone has their tales of psychotic bosses, Christmas morning shifts and après-work partying excess.

Working in a restaurant when you’re young doesn’t necessarily mean minimum wage (though it usually does) and, for many people, minimum wage is a stage-of-life thing that we all work through and gaze back on with rose-tinted glasses. When I put the word McJob in my 1991 novel Generation X, I wanted a word to describe what I saw as “a low-paying, low-prestige dead-end job that requires few skills and offers very little chance of intracompany advancement”. It made sense then, and it makes sense now. Back in the early 1990s I began to see the start of a process that’s currently in full swing: the defunding and/or elimination of the mechanisms by which we once created and maintained a healthy middle class. What was once a stage of life is now turning into, well, all of life.

[...]

McDonald’s campaigned for years and ultimately failed to have the definition of the word McJob revised in the Oxford English Dictionary, in 2006 even renting a big screen in Piccadilly Circus to put forth its viewpoint. The saga of this process is a fun read on Wikipedia but, given the accelerating shrinkage of the middle class, it all seems like a frivolous corporate bonbon from a nearly vanished era. Discussions of a minimum wage in 2014 seem to have a nasty bite. As I’ve said before, we’re all going to be working at McDonald’s into our eighties (not all, of course, on the minimum wage) but the relentless parade of numbers that are making this clear to us is starting to frighten people to the core. It’s really happening.

I guess the thing that bugs me about current minimum wage discussions is that the minimum wage has gone from being a drop-dead minimum salary that, if nothing else, protected the young, the weak and the less able from being exploited (and the moment people can exploit others, they will, and we all know it), into a mantra to the effect that if you can’t get by on a minimum wage – rent, food, transport, life – then tough luck sucker; you don’t deserve anything at all – and it’s all your fault – and by the way, you’ve forfeited your voice and participation in your culture.

The minimum wage is now used as a shield behind which politicians can deflect any social criticism that might be central to people who need a minimum wage – student life and education, most social and medical services, artistic and creative life and whatever else you can think of – and basically say, “Well, look, we gave you a minimum wage, didn’t we? So what’s your problem now? If you can’t stretch your minimum wage into food, shelter, lodging, medical, dental, education, then I guess it just sucks to be you.”

Minimum wage has gone from being a device created to protect the worst of power and labour imbalances to a fiscal panacea that allows its wielders to gut valuable social infrastructure while smiling beneath the cheesiest of haloes. I was 28 when I wrote Generation X but the last time I was officially an employee anywhere was in August 1989 – so, technically, I’ve been unemployed for the past 25 years. But about once a month I get this recurring dream where I suddenly realise that I’m unemployed, broke, living in a basement suite and desperately need a job – and so my mind automatically goes to having to work in a fast-food restaurant, and the sensation is terrifying because how on earth is anyone going to be able to live on what you make there? And then I wake up and say, “Phew. I’ve still got a few decades left before manning the French-fry computer. Dang, life is good.”

Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by William Heinemann. Twitter: @dougcoupland

(click for full article on FT.com)

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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Innovation and jobs through public investment

Cormac Staunton: Ireland’s National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) has been ranked in the top 2.5 per cent of incubators; 19th worldwide and 7th in Europe, the highest placement for an Irish incubator. Incubators provide entrepreneurial support for start-up and early stage companies in particular sectors.

NDRC chief executive Ben Hurley said the endorsement provided further confirmation of the central place the centre maintains in the global ‘innovation ecosystem’.

NDRC describes itself as an early stage investor in innovation, making ventures happen by investing in start-ups and improving the environment in which ventures can grow. The NDRC began operations in 2007. Each year they work with approximately 1,000 individuals and invest into between 30 and 40 early stage technology ventures.

It is important to point out that this organisation is almost entirely government-funded and has registered charitable status. In 2012, it received Government subvention income of €4.3m (other income included EU Grant income of €325,319, and syndicated investment income of €10,000). Its main costs are research investment and fund management (€3.6m). Of its total costs, about 40% (approx. €1.8m of €4.5m) are staff costs for 23 staff.

By the end of 2013, the portfolio of start-up ventures supported by NDRC had secured €40m in commercial follow-on investment. The cumulative numbers of jobs created grew more than fivefold to a total of 250 by end 2012. Preliminary projections for 2013 suggest that this will grow further by well over 20% in 2013.

When ‘ripple impacts’ of digital jobs are considered, the NDRC estimates that the true value to the economy is up to 4.3 times the net digital jobs created. That would assume 1,075 jobs as a result of NDRC’s activities.

Without government funding, it is unlikely that an organisation like this would exist. It is a classic example of government investment ‘priming the pump’ for innovation and job creation, which contradicts the argument that the private sector alone can create jobs.

Investment (public and private) in Ireland has fallen from a high of 27% of GDP in 2006 to just over 10% in 2012, which was the lowest in the EU, and almost half of the EU average of 18%.

Cutting taxes is not going to close this gap. But as the NDRC shows, well targeted public investment has the ability to “crowd in” private investment to stimulate jobs, innovation and growth.

Links:
Irish Times Report 26th June 2014

NDRC Annual Report 2012


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Monday, 23 June 2014

What Now for Economic Inequality in Ireland?

Nat O'Connor: Last week, economist Thomas Piketty wowed a packed auditorium in Croke Park, with over 600 people in attendance to hear his analysis of economic inequality. But one key message from the TASC conference was that the debate must be carried forward from here.

As the Central Bank Governor, Professor Patrick Honohan, noted in his response to Thomas Piketty, the topic of income and wealth inequality is "a topic neglected to a surprising degree in most analysis of economic statistics." The Governor also noted "I appreciate the matter-of-fact concern with inequality - especially wealth inequality: I differ from those commentators who do not see the obvious policy relevance of these matters." (Professor Honohan's full remarks are here)

In terms of any policy response to economic inequality, there are three major 'equalisers' that need to be taken into account.

Firstly, good jobs are the primary equaliser for many people. A well-paying job is how many people provide themselves and their families with a dignified life. However, Ireland's economy has failed to generate enough jobs - and too many jobs are low paid, where even with full-time employment people are living in a precarious situation or in material deprivation.

The second great equaliser is redistribution of income through the combination of the tax, social insurance and social transfer systems. This system is progressive where higher earners pay more in income tax and PRSI (albeit regressive in terms of VAT and other indirect taxes, where people on lower incomes pay proportionately more). Social transfers like the state pension, Child Benefit, Rent Supplement, disability allowance, carers' allowance and other welfare payments play an important role in reducing poverty. However, too much attention is paid to the progressivity of the income tax system. While this is a good thing, it is too often seen in isolation from the whole system, which has weaknesses in comparison to other EU countries.

Thirdly, a decisive factor in the equality of 'quality of life' is public services. There are too many demands on people's net incomes in Ireland compared to other EU countries - even the UK. As a result, many people are unable to meet the cost of essential goods and services, which in Ireland include extremely high housing costs, health insurance, the world's most expensive childcare, transport and more. Nonetheless, the value of public services is that education provides opportunities for many people and public health services do mitigate risk for many people - although the length of waiting times rightly causes anxiety for those who cannot afford insurance as it is less the quality of service but the delays that are the greatest risk for those people solely reliant on the public provision of health care.

It is in public services that the weakness of Ireland's tax system is apparent. At only three-quarters of the EU average level of tax and social insurance, is it not surprising that Ireland's services do not provide to the same extent that public services do in many Western European welfare states. As a result of this 'low tax triangle' (low taxes, low service provision and higher out-of-pocket costs), Irish people have to spend more of their net income on services than they do in other countries.

The policy challenge in addressing economic inequality is how to move on all three points of the triangle at the same time: provide more far-reaching services or new services, lower people's cost of living, while of necessity raising taxation to pay for this.

In concrete terms, more far-reaching services might equate to health or education services that are simply free-at-the-point-of-use rather than coming with a slew of up-front fees, prescription charges, school book charges, etc. New services might include state-subsidised childcare or affordable rental housing for the mass market.

It requires detailed cost-benefit analysis to show whether or not expanded or new public services could reduce the cost of living for enough people to make the case for increased taxation persuasive. But the lack of exploration of this possibility is a major gap in the policy debate.

This gap in the debate is problematic because it is precisely through progressive taxation funding of public services that many European countries reduce economic inequality to an extent that Ireland does not. Taxation is not primarily about redistribution of income. In Ireland, social transfers account for less than a third of all spending. What is required of public services is distribution of opportunity, distribution of jobs and collective sharing of risk by all of society.

The counter-argument to this claims that taxes are too high and people want higher net incomes. But the tax debate leading up to Budget 2015 has been (to date) framed in the media as about the 41% higher rate of income tax. However, as TASC has demonstrated, only a third of income tax payers pay anything at this rate - and only a sixth of adults would benefit from any changes to it.

As such, the debate is currently a spurious argument about boosting economic activity through a tax change that will only benefit higher earners - not the large majority of people in Ireland.

The Economist illustrates effective tax rates on a 100,000 USD salary in a diagram here. Ireland's rate of tax and social insurance actually paid on this income level is around 35% (i.e. the middle of the chart - near Brazil and India, but below Germany or France) - and it would be far lower if Ireland's extremely low employer's PRSI was taken into account. What is really being suggested in the focus on the higher tax rate of 41% (52% when PRSI and USC are included) is that Ireland should be more like the UK or USA, countries where people on high salaries pay less income tax - and where overall economic inequality is higher than Ireland.

The progressive counter-argument always requires more evidence than populist anti-tax rhetoric. This is the argument that stronger public services and social transfers would improve the quality of life for more people - even if they had lower net income due to higher tax and social insurance to pay for those services. Moreover, more equal economies often do better. Higher social transfers means more money circulating in local economies. And stronger public services also both directly boost GDP and also can lay the foundations for stronger performance in the private sector (e.g. greater public investment in infrastructure, such as IBEC is currently calling for).

Given the strong evidence that more equal countries do better, and given the low level of Ireland's overall tax and social insurance, the balance of probability favours maintaining or increasing taxation in Budget 2015 - not reducing it. This is necessary to fund public services, social transfers and public investment, which in turn are vital to tackle economic inequality.

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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Ireland's Corporation Tax Residency Rules Under Scrutiny

According to Professor Jim Stewart of TCD, Ireland’s industrial policy is too tax-dependent and he suggested that policymakers were overly influenced by tax professionals who work for the major accounting firms that devise the tax strategies of the multinationals.

Up to €40 billion, or almost half, of the annual profits made by Irish-registered companies fall outside the corporate tax net because so many multinational subsidiaries here declare they are tax resident elsewhere. (read more in this Irish Times report).
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Monday, 16 June 2014

Thomas Piketty and Ireland's Property Tax

Nat O'Connor: The Irish Times had a major article on Thomas Piketty on Saturday (click here) They also had an interesting angle on Ireland's property tax, with Professor Piketty suggesting it should be altered.

This gets us into one of the interesting issues raised by Piketty, which is how we define wealth or 'capital' - that being the key word in Piketty's tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty bundles together all assets - financial, housing, etc. - into aggregate wealth. And he allows the inclusion of negative numbers in this equation, in the form of debt.

One of Piketty's policy proposals to tackle rising inequality is the introduction of wealth tax. He says: “For the same tax revenue that you will get from a proportional property tax, I would transfer it to a progressive tax on net wealth, meaning real estate property value plus financial assets, minus debt, minus mortgage and other financial debt." As a result, he suggests that Ireland should re-calculate the residential property tax based on net value rather than nominal value.

But by extending property tax to include all property (i.e. making it into a comprehensive wealth tax), Piketty argues that "it would serve an important democratic purpose in bringing greater transparency to the distribution of wealth, allowing citizens and public representatives to make more informed decisions."

Crucially, better data on wealth would enable policy-makers to determine whether or not the wider economy and society is being served by wealth concentration, in terms of a jobs dividend. If not, wealth taxation could be adjusted until a better balance is struck.

A joint TASC-NERI paper exploring the potential of a wealth tax for Ireland can be read here

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Thursday, 12 June 2014

IBEC's proposed tax cuts and Ireland's 'Low Tax Triangle'

Nat O'Connor: The business lobby group IBEC is advocating cuts to the higher rate of income tax. Such cuts would only benefit one third of income tax payers, and one sixth of adults in Ireland. The Taoiseach is reportedly sympathetic to this viewpoint, and Minister Noonan has focused on the higher rate of income tax for any cut in Budget 2015 (Irish Independent).

TASC has just published a six-page summary of how much tax people actually pay out of their incomes, in order to inject the facts about income tax into the debate.

The risk for most people is that if the tax cut lobbyists are successful, there will be cuts aimed at the 41% rate, which will benefit only the better-off in society - yet public services and social transfers will be cut again to fund those tax cuts.

In Ireland, most of us pay far less than the 52% 'marginal' tax rates (made up of income tax, USC and PRSI) and we pay much less tax and social insurance than most other Europeans, because our system has more tax credits, tax reliefs, etc. But there is no doubt that many people like the idea of a tax cut because they are under such pressure to meet their needs from their take-home pay.

IBEC has characterised the tax increases in recent years as "penal austerity taxes". Yet, they are ignoring the fact that the tax base was hollowed out during the boom, and tax take collapsed by a third between 2008 and 2010. There is a need to bring in new taxes to replace the unsustainable reliance on property-based tax from stamp duty, as well as income tax and VAT that was ultimately linked to the property bubble. If the Government further reduces taxation in Budget 2015, existing public services will become unsustainable and the national debt could become unstable. As it is, Ireland is still not generating enough tax and social insurance to pay for services.

IBEC's press release argues: "Cut income tax: The tax burden is too high and tax on work is way out of line internationally. The entry point to the higher marginal tax rate should be increased, and the marginal rate reduced below 50%. This will put more money into the pockets of Irish consumers, and ultimately benefit the Exchequer though greater economic activity and tax revenue."

On all points IBEC is wrong:

"The tax burden is too high" - Ireland total tax and social insurance take is three-quarters of the EU average.

"tax on work is way out of line internationally" - As shown in the OECD's latest taxing wages report, the 'tax wedge' on average workers in Ireland is the lowest among EU members of the OECD, and the second-lowest in the whole OECD for single people. This is largely because employer's PRSI is so very low in Ireland.

"The entry point to the higher marginal tax rate should be increased and the marginal rate reduced below 50%" - Why? Ireland's system grants generous levels of tax credits to everyone, while other countries don't. Rates or bands don't matter. What does matter is effective levels of tax paid and in this regard Ireland is much lower than other EU countries (as shown by the OECD and in TASC's analysis).

"This will put more money into the pockets of Irish consumers, and ultimately benefit the Exchequer though greater economic activity and tax revenue" - This is unlikely. Firstly, IBEC's proposal is to give cuts only to the sixth of adults with the highest incomes rather than lower income people who are more likely to spend all of their income in the local economy. Secondly, the ESRI has just demonstrated that higher earners are more likely to pay down debt, not spend in the economy. Even if they did spend, they are more likely to spend on imports or foreign travel - with no benefit to Ireland's economy. Thirdly, many people will have to put their hands in their pockets to pay for services that will be cut if tax revenue falls - so an extra €200/year would quickly be taken back through school costs, medical costs, etc. In sum, there will be little or no boost to economic activity and the loss of tax revenue will simply result in a loss of services. Simultaneously, GDP will contract to the extent that Government spending, investment and social transfer are cut. So the net effect of tax cuts in Ireland's context is far more likely to be a shrunk economy (lower GDP).
One way to understand the issue is to see a triangle connecting low taxes, low services and high 'out of pocket' costs for goods and services that would be provided publicly and paid for collectively in many other European other societies.


If Ireland is to provide better public services and higher levels of social welfare in future, it is necessary to address all three parts of the triangle at the same time.

There is a need to examine cost of living - food, rent/mortgages, childcare, energy, transport and more. This does not need to cost the public finances much. Stronger regulation and enforcement of competition rules to break cartels and oligopolies could make a significant difference, but that would require political will to stand up to businesses not engaged in fair and open competition.

Taking some costs away from individuals and families in favour of public service provision could also be a game-changer. For example, most European countries subsidise childcare to a much greater extent than Ireland. Equally, affordable rental housing is much more frequently available from towns and cities across Europe. Any move to open up new areas of public provision (or subsidy) would have to be funded with new taxes. But it's a question of cost-benefit analysis. Would most people be better off if all of society helped pay for child care, so that they could work in other occupations (growing the economy and paying tax too)? Would most people benefit if the state stepped in to provide cheaper rental housing for a category of workers who will never become home owners? The answer is probably yes.

Tax and social insurance is therefore not a question of 'cuts good, tax bad' - but needs to be part of a conversation about public services, best value for most citizens in the balance of collective services versus individual costs, and working out how to pay for public services sustainably and equitably.

TASC's latest policy brief provides a factual basis to do just that.

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