Monday, March 17, 2008

Quasi-revenue-neutral tax reform

Polls suggest that voters increasingly want lower taxes, even if that means lower spending. Tax cuts are popular. This poses quite a conundrum for politicians who aren't willing to take serious measures to control spending and have no room to borrow.

Revenue-neutral changes to the tax system seemed like the way out for a while but they are a political nightmare because the losers will hate you for it and the winners will prove fickle and ungrateful.

The new solution politicians appear to have hit upon is the quasi-revenue-neutral change. The most politically successful example was the Conservative increasing of the Inheritance Tax threshold 'paid for' by a new flat rate charge to non-doms. The secret is to find a change that is revenue neutral from the Treasury's point of view but a tax cut from the perspective of ordinary people.

There is a problem with all this. It's quite hard to get large sums of money out of the rich 'other'. There aren't very many of them, they leave or use the advantages that made them rich to hide their money from you. Charges on non-doms, of whatever political colour, appear unlikely to raise money. Attempts to crack down on tax avoidance drive ordinary people to bankruptcy but don't yield much by way of revenue. In order to finance their plans Menzies Campbell's Liberal Democrats had to define "rich" down to £35,000 each, in a two-earner household.

With his Vehicle Excise Duty proposals Alistair Darling must have thought he was onto a winner. He could raise revenue from "gas-guzzlers" and give it to the working poor. Unfortunately, there aren't that many Hummers out there and they're already heavily taxed. In order to get substantial amounts of revenue he had to increase VED on the kind of cars ordinary people drive. We crunched the numbers and once it started to be reported that cars as humble as a Nissan Micra would be paying more tax the political logic of the changes looked a lot more suspect. To find out how much your car tax will go up visit

Darling's plan failed and the Budget became a disaster. As the News of the World reported: “for the first time since Labour came to power in 1997, support for the government has SLUMPED after a Budget”. This is another example of quasi-revenue-neutral tax changes failing to deliver the political goods.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com

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