If Governor Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination in the US 2012 presidential elections thought that he would neutralise the attacks by his fellow candidates by publicising his 2010 tax returns, he was wrong.
In fact, the revelation that his effective tax rate – the percentage which the tax he pays bears to his total income – is a mere 13.9%, has served to internationalise a debate on what is a fair tax.
Fairness has been regarded as an indispensable ingredient of a proper tax system even before Adam Smith wrote it in stone as one of the canons of taxation.
It is now a hot topic and is the subject of three columns in last week’s Economist. It also made the editorial of the Stabroek News on January 26. The Trinidad and Tobago government too has announced another tax reform project, following a similar announcement by President Donald Ramotar. Let us return to Mr Romney for a moment.
The poor man is worth a mere US$ quarter billion, and together with his wife paid about $3 million in federal income taxes on income of $21.7 million in 2010. His effective tax rate of 13.9 per cent is less than half the 35 per cent top rate of federal income tax applied to any annual income over $379,150 for most top earners.
It is no consolation to the fairer tax movement that the effective rate the Romneys will pay in 2011 is 15%.
Because so much of Mr Romney’s income comes from capital gains, dividends and interest on investments he holds in funds and stocks, he greatly benefits from America’s relatively low 15 per cent rate of capital gains tax (CGT).
Despite having a Swiss bank account and investments in the Caymans under a blind trust, there is no suggestion of impropriety by Mr Romney. He went to great lengths to point out that what he, or rather his trustees, were doing was all within the US tax code that has as many loopholes as our domestic cast net. Romney’s tax rate is below that of most wage-earning Americans because most of his income comes from capital gains on investments.
And that is part of the problem. The other part is Mr Romney’s insensitivity to the glaring income and wealth disparity at a time when there are fourteen million unemployed Americans; where poverty as defined in that country is on the increase, engendering the Occupy Wall Street movement that protested what its leaders consider the unfair share of the income and wealth that goes to the 1%.
Buffet by another name
The USA is a country of data: within days of the end of a month or quarter or year, figures on just about every quantitative measure are released by some department or the other. So it did not take long for Americans to learn that the top 1% of their households earned annually an average of US$1.2 million in 2011 while the national average was US$26,000; accounted for 17% of the income earned by all Americans; or that the top 0.1% earned 8% of the total income.
What accounts for some of the disparity is how the income is earned. The richest 1% receive half their income from wages, salaries and bonuses, a quarter from self-employment and the balance from dividends, interest and capital gains.
The problem lies in the tax treatment of the various sources of income with income from employment being taxed at a higher rate than investment income. And that is where the debate gets heated, philosophical and ideological.
In terms that could easily apply to Guyana, US President Barack Obama denounced that country’s bottom heavy tax system, arguing that persons whose annual income is a million and more should pay at least 30% tax, which is the rate paid by the average middle class household in employment. President Obama likes to cite the “Buffett Rule,” whereby the Omaha billionaire and third richest man in the world pays income tax at a lower effective rate than his secretary does, largely because so much of his income comes from investments. We too have our Buffet Rule except that it goes by another name.
Bush’s views on double taxation
In 1986, the US introduced tax reform measures eliminating the gap between the ordinary and capital gains rates. But while the gap began to widen again during President Bill Clinton’s second term, it became a chasm in 2003 when the George W Bush tax cuts sliced the top rate on dividends and long-term capital gains from 28 per cent to 15 per cent. As the share of income derived from investments has increased over that time, the gap has widened to a point where most persons, including Buffet but excluding the 1%, now believe that the situation is unsustainable and indefensible.
In seeking to justify the cuts, President Bush said he proposed to eliminate the US dividend tax saying that while “it’s fair to tax a company’s profits, it’s not fair to double-tax by taxing the shareholder on the same profits.” Not many people, including economists and almost all the G20 countries, agree with him. Ironically, Guyana and a number of countries in the Caribbean do and in 1994, the PPP/C government of Cheddi Jagan eliminated the tax on dividends received by residents from resident companies.
The argument that an income should not be taxed twice defies not only principle but practice as well, with Peter Ramsaroop’s 33⅓% income tax plus 16% VAT being a politically artful but technically incorrect case. Given that Guyana has a hybrid system of taxation, the income earned from employment is taxed at source on the Pay As You Earn basis and then again is subject to a range of expenditure taxes including most popularly the Value-Added Tax (VAT). Call it what you will, the income is taxed twice.
Those who support Bush’s argument miss the fundamental point that a company is in law a separate legal entity and not a surrogate for its members and shareholders. It can own property, enter into contracts, commit offences and sue or be sued in the courts. Indeed some companies in a single case, take up more of the court’s time than they pay in taxes. But the courts are not the only public goods a company uses: it uses the roads and other public physical and social infrastructure; it calls on the police for protection and security and has a whole department of government dedicated to serve it. It hardly seems unreasonable to expect the company, on its own, independent behalf to help pay for the availability and use of those public goods through taxes.
But apart from those monetary benefits there is another valuable benefit which a company enjoys and that is the benefit of limited liability.
The first UK Companies Act in 1844 was a transformational measure that was immediately embraced by the capitalist class, despite the fact that it came with high corporate and personal tax rates. One hundred and sixty-eight years later, despite several rounds of tax reform, dividends are taxable in the hands of the shareholder at rates varying from 10% to 42.5%.
Here in Guyana we do have statistics. The trouble is that they are not available to the general public and hardly ever feature in any public reports or pronouncements. It is a national embarrassment that we have to rely on the periodic reports by international organisations like the IMF and the World Bank to provide us with relevant information. It is illogical, and indeed immoral, that the capital gain on the disposal of a house is taxed at the rate of 20% but the gain on the shares in public companies is exempt. It is not as if the so-called incentives of no taxation of dividends has brought about a large number of companies or shares in which the average retiree can invest.
In fact, the incentives of no tax on dividends and the exemption from Capital Gains Tax of shares in public have spanned more than a decade in which none of our public companies has offered any shares to the public, nor has any private company gone public.
As we approach the 2012 Budget and supplementaries for unfunded 2011 expenditure, the political parties on the opposition benches will be concretising the generous tax cut proposals in their 2011 elections manifestos. No doubt it will be a healthy and instructive exchange with Dr Ashni Singh under whose watch the VAT was introduced.
But before the parties start their tinkering and trading over some matters of percentages and detail to satisfy those who voted for them, it would be far more useful for the country, if not for them politically, to agree on some fundamental objectives of the changes and reforms they seek.
A challenge for both sides is to stem the widening deficit we experienced under the Jagdeo administration, accustomed to debt-write off, sale of public assets and ever increasing tax revenues.
The apparent endless stream of debt write-off has come to an end, and while tax collections continue to rise, they cannot compensate for the spending over-drive into which the Jagdeo-Singh team has taken us.
The evidence from the Reagan/Bush years to the experiences of Greece, Italy and others is that deficit reduction has to have at least an equal mix of increased taxes and spending cuts.
Tax concessions are considered in economics as a form of expenditure. They need to be re-evaluated and reduced.
We have both central and regional systems of government. We do not need the large number of ministries and ministers.
We have a number of statutory bodies charged with responsibilities which previously fell on the ministries. Some rationalisation seems inevitable.
Jagdeo, who saw himself as the country’s economist-in-chief for nearly two decades, did so much tinkering with the tax system in matters both great and small that a more comprehensive review is now overdue. Guyana is a republic committed to equality and the rule of law but with a constitution which places one person above our supreme law.
And the two leading justices who would be expected to rule on tax cases in the courts were granted exemption from tax on their emoluments during the Jagdeo administration.
There must be other and better ways to reward all our judges. We are a republic without republicans. Mr Romney may seriously consider becoming the first.