VAT no burden: A different perspective

Last week’s column addressed President Jagdeo’s astonishing, unfounded and uninformed statement that VAT was no burden and therefore in no need of revision. For a newspaper column, it provided an exhaustive and hopefully convincing case of President Jagdeo and Dr Ashni Singh’s broken promise to make VAT revenue-neutral. And so I did not think it was necessary or useful to return to this topic this week.

Let us not be naive. The President could not possibly admit that VAT is a burden. If he did, then being the considerate leader he claims to be, he would have had to do something about easing the burden on “his people” by reducing taxes, something he has never done across the board.

He has found it easier to grant vast sums in concessions to friends, without regard for the laws of the land, than to honour a commitment to the nation. To change the law to pay emoluments to the Chancellor, the Chief Justice and the Auditor General tax free, making some more equal than others. And yes too, to increasing presidential benefits with no limits and no taxation, defying Benjamin Franklin who wrote more than 200 years ago, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But to the poor, the only yes is to the insensitivity of their plight.

Too poor to ‘pay’ attention
My reason for returning to the question of the VAT is because of the level of feedback on the column, including the wag who said that after paying income tax at 33⅓% and VAT at 16%, the ordinary person cannot afford even to “pay” attention to their own plight. Another asked me whether there was nothing that could be done to ease the burden of the high rate of VAT. I had to say that I could not be optimistic. Given the unlawful and increasingly outlandish things the Jagdeo administration does without any hint of embarrassment, there must be few things that it would not do. But another reason for the absence of any optimism is because others who might be expected to challenge, are themselves challenged, emasculated and supine. The consumer movement and the TUC, effectively leaderless and non-existent, have lost both their appetite and capacity to advocate, let alone to protest and defy. The first for fear of losing its government subsidy; the other having lost its credibility. The private sector has chosen the path of least resistance; the rest of society that of apathy.

And of course, everyone wants to be a president, even if they, like Jagdeo, do not know and care whether VAT at 16% on top of a very low threshold income tax rate of 33⅓% is indeed burdensome. Apparently knowledge of such mundane matters is neither an asset nor a requirement for the job of president.

The promise and the reality
In 1992 the PPP/C came to power on a promise of socialism and social justice. Then in the face of the IMF it made an about turn, adopting free market economics, the essence of capitalism. Ever since the IMF programme came to an end, the economy has had no central theme or philosophy. The President may have been educated in Russia but he seems to have an antipathy to both the word and the philosophy of socialism. Even the area in which this government has had its greatest success, housing, contrast the policy of land distribution between the poor and the powerful. Compare Pradoville 1 with Plastic City, or Eccles with Bare Root.

And consider the more blatant, in your face Pradoville 2, at Sparendaam, East Coast Demerara, where the elite are setting up one of the most exclusive communities in Guyana.

What would the Norwegians think of his much touted fear of rising sea levels submerging our coast when there is building right on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean?

The taxpayers of the country would like to know how the land was advertised, allocated and valued; who approved the community and the housing plans; who the money is being paid to; whether there are any conditions and covenants?

If our Audit Office was not so unqualified and compromised, these are the questions it would seek answers to, not whether a few hundred dollars a day spent on the residents of the Palms is value for money.

New brand of economic policy
In a country increasingly run not for a class as capitalism or socialism does, but rather for a handful of individuals, nepotism becomes too charitable a label to describe the economy’s direction. Under this new dispensation, the assets of the state are at the disposal of a few, in which no less than the President adds to the debate about evasion and avoidance, even as a covenant about the period of ownership prior to sale is dispensed with. Another word that comes to mind is oligarchy, a term that is favoured by Dr Tarron Khemraj.

If we were serious about running a national economy, our Finance Minister would not be publishing a statutorily required mid-year of so little moment and equally little practical use.

And this is not criticising simply for its own sake. Where does the Minister tell us, as he is required to do, about the impact on the country’s finances of the delay in the receipt of the Norwegian funds, or where further sums will come from to buy additional generating capacity for GPL? In 2009, GPL received more than three billion dollars from the state, Guysuco many times more, offering in return, blackouts and excuses respectively.

Instead the mid-year report was replete with national income data which could, with more authority and authenticity, have been published by the Bureau of Statistics. And in the process of that delay, the Bank of Guyana, like the Bureau of Statistics, withholds its highly useful half-year report so as not to steal someone else’s squib-like thunder. Under current economic policy and management, it is so much more necessary to satisfy the ego of one or two than the needs of the nation.

Is tax reform dead?
Now that the President has spoken on the tax system all the talk about tax reform might be considered academic and meaningless. A couple of weeks ago I declined an invitation to meet with a consultant ostensibly retained to advise on tax reform.

When the appointment of a consultant to carry out the same or a similar study came up at the level of the Private Sector Commission some time ago, the clear inference was that the appointee must be ‘anyone but Ram.’ I wish the study well even as I recognise that for eighteen years this government has promised tax reform in one breath while delivering regressivity of the tax system that causes the poor to flee into the underground economy or abroad, in another. Nothing will happen before elections 2011, since according to Jagdeo’s thinking it ‘ain’t broken,’ what is there to fix?

Perhaps the consultant can do with some numbers and statistics. Between 1992 and 2009, tax revenues have climbed from seventeen billion dollars to ninety billion dollars. The employed category has seen its contribution to those revenues increase by 860%, from $1.3 billion to $13.2 billion. For companies, their contribution to tax revenues has declined from 26% in 1992 to 20% in 2009, with most of the taxes coming from the commercial banks, GT&T and Banks DIH and DDL. The self-employed that now dominate the country’s economy contribute less than 2.5% of its tax revenues.

And in the invoice example I gave last week, some businesspersons actually benefit by stealing VAT under a system that puts the cat to mind the milk. An economy in which the illegal and criminal are major components must by definition have elements in its tax system that are also illegal and criminal.

And as we think of the tax system and its components, consider that VAT and excise taxes alone contribute more than 50% of total tax revenues.

It is trite to state that VAT and Excise Taxes are borne by consumers including the employed, retired and unemployed. While I have never subscribed to the straight maths of adding the rate of income tax (33⅓%) and VAT (16%) to arrive at the tax burden on the poor, the tax revenue data suggest that the 50% tax burden on the working and non-working poor is not too far fetched.

Reducing the personal allowance
Even before 1994 when I presented a paper Tax Reform – A Vehicle for Economic Recovery, I was convinced that our tax system badly needed reforming. Yes, we have taken some major actions such as the unification of the revenue collection agencies and sporadically have increased one element of the personal allowance.

But what we are asked to forget is that overall we have reduced the personal allowance from the high of a dollar value and one third of taxable income, which prevailed under the late Desmond Hoyte. This means that if a person’s salary was $150,000 per month, their personal allowance was $50,000. It is now only $35,000.

So does tax reform really mean lowering taxes? The answer is an unambiguous “not necessarily.” It is not something that can be easily dealt with in these columns, but I will try to do so. When the father of modern economics Adam Smith set out the four cardinal principles of a good tax system – equity, certainty, inconvenience and economy in collection costs, the question of big, bloated and wasteful governments was not an issue. It is very much so in the Guyana context. Of Adam Smith’s four principles, equity is the single largest question for us. But in a more practical way, it is the level of taxation that is stifling our economy, or sections of it, as some pay and others do not.

We will explore this further in the next fortnight since next week’s Business Page will take a brief look at the 2009 Auditor General’s Report that really tells us nothing that we do not already know.

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