Perhaps not surprisingly the only feedback I received to last week’s column on tax evasion and tax avoidance was from persons who would generally be considered among the better off. And who want more from the society and the tax system because “they work hard, create jobs and have a choice.” Those comments are filled with arrogance, self-importance, self-interest and self-delusion. As though the stevedores, the public health workers, the cane-cutters and others do not work hard, or do not have a choice. They have a choice and that is why they daily flock the Passport Office in Camp Street from 5.30 AM for a passport to go to the Caribbean, North America, to anywhere, to work harder, to earn and to enjoy the fruits of their harder work.
In Guyana the tax system is heavily weighted against the poor and the commentator and columnist was only mildly exaggerating when he said that workers pay a total of 49% of their income in taxes – 33 1/3% income tax and 16% VAT. In fact that commentator forgot to mention the employees’ 5% NIS contribution which in public finance is a form of tax while the rough calculation of 49% ignores the range of zero-rated VAT items and the personal allowance of $35,000 per month. Overall however, the tax burden is very much around the 50% tax to GDP which makes Guyana one of the most heavily taxed countries in the world.
Soaking the Poor
Yet, for some reason there is no real commitment to tax reform about which we have been hearing since 1992. Tax reform is rat poison, for all practical purposes off the table, better understood by those who pay taxes than those who impose them. This is ironic, for some of the most important steps in the march to democracy involved taxation. The Boston Tea Party has to be given pride of place for its inspiration to the independence movement in the US and the iconic statement “no taxation without representation”. How can those of us who were around in the sixties, forget Peter D’Aguiar’s Axe the Tax Campaign when then Premier Dr. Cheddi Jagan sought to introduce a measure of tax reform? Ann Jardim, one of the leaders of the UF carefully ignored the introduction of new taxes but rallied the working class against a miniscule increase in the rate of the personal income tax. Today those who have followed her in the UF are part of the new scheme that takes from the poor to give to the rich, in taxes and state assets.
In the sixties, the political classes were on different sides of the political divide – a left-leaning government seeking to achieve a more equitable sharing of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship by the trader and business class. Today while the ruling party may have vestiges of working class preferences, its Government seems beholden to the business class whose position of influence – whether at the head table at the Office of the President or at the Pegasus Poolside on Friday evenings – has come to be the defining feature of the Jagdeo Administration. We no longer hear about equity in the tax system, let alone the distinction between horizontal versus vertical equity. Indeed, any acceptance of the concept of tax reform by this Government is not out of conviction but out of a commitment made as a precondition to receive more and more gifts and grants from the donor community.
Businesses’ stranglehold on the agenda is not peculiar to Guyana. The current wave of globalisation, driven first by the Reagan-Thatcher axis and adopted and sold by the international multilateral institutions across the developing world like snake oil salesmen of old, has witnessed a concentration of wealth and income and a widening of the socio-economic divide. The effect has been a corresponding increase in business’s ability to set the agenda for political discussion and its effective veto over public policy. In Guyana, under the agreements made by the Administration with the donor community any semblance of economic policy is driven by the National Competitiveness Council that is dominated by business interests rather than national interests. The NCC has been more successful at stalling in the interest of the status quo than at achieving any meaningful changes.
Recent research under President Bush revealed that elected officials tend to be unresponsive to the policy preferences of low-income citizens and that they disproportionately favour business interests and the wealthy in all areas of public policy. Like their counterparts in the US, those interests in Guyana also opt out or are favoured by a tax system set up in 1929 for the ruling plantation and trader class and only episodically reviewed subsequently for reform. Indeed, since 1929, there have been only two or three events that could qualify as tax reform and with only one being targeted at getting the rich to pay a fair share of the tax burden. The first of the reforms took place in the early sixties when Dr. Cheddi Jagan brought in Hungarian-born world-class economist and socialist thinker Professor Nicholas Kaldor, to overhaul the country’s tax system. Those reforms included the introduction of the Capital Gains Tax, the Property Tax and steeply progressive but at the highest end, counter-productive, marginal tax rates that went up to 75% from a base 5%.
Burnham and Hoyte
In 1970 the Burnham Administration enacted the Corporation Tax Act which introduced a separate regime of companies while incorporating over seventy sections of the Income Tax Act into the new Act. The next wave saw the abolition of dividend taxation and pensions, unification of the corporate tax rate, the abolition of the progressive income tax and the abolition of allowances – all pro-business and anti-worker in their effect. The PPP/C before President Jagdeo has the distinction of reversing the unification of tax rates and introducing the Minimum Corporation Tax on all, and then only on commercial, companies. Jagdeo has to his credit the immoral imposition of the 16% Value-Added Tax. Now, if tax evasion is illegal then we have to find a word for the imposition of a tax at a rate that is knowingly and admittedly excessive and wrong.
Barring one or two exceptions, every reform then has favoured the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the poor. Here are some of the starkly contrasting provisions in the tax legislation.
1. Wages and salaries are fully taxed. Dividends are fully exempt.
2. Income from personal exertion is taxed at 33 1/3%. Capital gains and interest income are taxed at 20%.
3. The employer-provided vehicle, and sometimes more than one, driver(s) and security are fully exempt from tax. A travel allowance to the worker to help her defray the cost of getting from home to work is fully taxed.
4. The entertainment allowance paid to the executive is fully exempt; the meal allowance paid to the worker is taxable unless a strong case is made for it to a skeptical and uncompromising revenue officer who will claim that a meal is a private expense. As if entertainment does not include a high level of private benefit as well.
5. There is no limit to the pension that is tax-free. Most workers on retirement have to make do with under $20,000 per month. The retired top-executive receives hundreds of thousands tax free.
6. Overseas passage assistance – a throwback to the British planter class, is exempt for all but can only be enjoyed by those with spending power.
7. The working poor are taxed at source; the self-employed with all their benefits and concessions, can decide how much tax they want to pay.
8. There are ethnic and gender biases in the tax system that no one even wants to whisper, let alone acknowledge or debate.
9. The wage earner gets no deductions or allowances; business can deduct most expenses, whether it be the magazine or the business trip.
10. Duty and tax concessions favour those who have economic or political power over those who do not. Just look at the beneficiaries of the duty-free vehicles.
11. Businesses get tax holidays; their workers’ earnings are fully taxed.
12. The entrepreneur has a choice between taxable and tax-exempt business activities; the employee’s only choice is not to work.
No vision, no tax reform
The above, is a brief review of the relative position of the workers versus the executives and the “entrepreneur” under our tax laws. Those laws clearly cry out for reform. But then as the late Richard Musgrove, public finance specialist said, tax reform needs a clear and detailed vision of where we are going – a vision that is sadly lacking in President Jagdeo. That is why he could be so easily diverted to the LCDS as a tunnel-vision strategy for development and even as he heads CARICOM, could be completely sold on a Continental Destiny with neighbouring Brazil. If what he said in a recent speech he gave at a private function is to be believed, he is now looking to Brazil to help us with our rice industry even as his Government pumps $400 million in what by implication is an inefficient industry.
The cry for reform, no matter how compelling or loud, is unlikely to be heard or to win support from those of power within and influence without. A review I saw recently by a leading donor to the Guyana economy, actually praises the country’s fiscal performance, completely ignoring the tax burden that the citizens of the countries making up that donor would regard as completely unacceptable given the low level of public benefits available in Guyana. In many of those countries the entertainment allowance is now denied at the corporate level and in Australia the Keating Tax Reform Package dealt an effective blow at non-cash fringe benefits.
But at the domestic level there simply is no need or pressure for reform. With perhaps a single exception, the top tier of the opposition political parties has shown no interest in tax reform, confirming the view that there is no ideological or class difference among the political elites. Labour has been emasculated by personal interests and petty rivalry exploited by, again, the politically powerful while Ann Jardim’s successor is just another of that elite.
The Ministry of Finance has been depressingly slow at taking any initiatives in tax policies. It has left these to the tax administrators, a fundamentally flawed position – the two roles and functions being obviously different. We need lower rates of tax both on individuals and corporate, removing not the loopholes but the chasms that in some cases discount the nominal rate of tax by as much as 75%. We need a society in which the fiscal benefits and obligations are shared and borne fairly by all and in which relief must not be sought in tax evasion.
Similarly, the President has allowed elements in the private sector to hijack the social and economic debate including tax reform. If any progress is to be made, then the hijackers will have to be brought into line. Failing that, we are left with an inequitable and dysfunctional tax system, high tax rates and massive evasion. That is in no one’s interest.