I am using that emotive description of the new tax because I have previously suggested on this blog that a great big new carbon tax might not be a bad idea if it replaced other taxes that are having adverse effects on economic incentives. So, how good is the carbon tax package announced by the prime minister yesterday?
The first point that needs to be recognized in assessing the package is that it only makes sense if it is viewed as a signalling exercise. By itself this package will have a small impact on carbon dioxide emissions in Australia, a tiny impact on the world-wide emissions and an almost negligible impact on the stock of global emissions and global climate. Its impact depends almost entirely on the extent to which it may help to encourage people in other countries to take similar action to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. If there is sufficient action by other countries more investors may come to expect that development of more efficient alternative technologies is likely to become a profitable venture.
The incentives that the tax provides for development of more efficient alternative technologies are the critical factor in whole exercise. If the world community ever gets serious about making substantial reductions in global emissions, the economic cost will be massive unless low-cost technologies are developed for energy generation and/ or removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the proposed tax is unlikely to induce many people to rush into investing in development of new technology.
The tax cannot credibly be claimed to be anything other than a modest step by a small country. The longer term promises about the extent of reductions in emissions that are aimed for have little credibility. At best, the proposed carbon tax provides a weak signal of Australia’s willingness to participate in global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The signal would be stronger if there was bipartisan support for the tax – but even if it is introduced and remains in place it will not amount to much in a global context.
Why don’t we hear the government arguing that ordinary people should be prepared suffer some pain in order to save the world from a climate disaster? The government is not talking about pain. It seems to have reasoned that since it will be obvious to almost everyone that the contribution of the tax to saving the world will be extremely modest and contingent on similar action by other countries, the tax can only be justified to Labor’s traditional voters if they suffer no pain. The package is being sold to the government’s traditional supporters as a redistribution measure that will actually improve their lot at the expense of the big polluters. And it is all being done in the name of ‘tax reform’!
Could anyone object to a new tax being used to fund reforms that will make the overall tax system more efficient? I imagine that such a proposal would have widespread support. The question that must be asked, however, is whether the proposed increase in the tax-free threshold should be viewed as a reform.
My concern is that the proposed tax relief will do very little to improve the work incentives faced by people with low incomes because it will leave effective marginal tax rates largely unchanged. The government has missed an opportunity to undertake some meaningful tax reform that might raise productivity. If this carbon tax package can be sold as economic reform, then the meaning of economic reform has changed beyond recognition and new words will have to be found to describe policy actions that will raise productivity.
In proposing to raise the tax threshold the government can claim to have followed a recommendation of the Henry review.
However, there is a strong case that greater tapering of welfare benefits would be a better way to tackle poverty traps.The relative merits of increases in the tax free threshold and greater tapering of welfare benefits as means of reducing poverty traps was discussed by David Ingles in a paper for the Australia Institute last year. Ingles suggested: 'In general, the recommendations of the Henry Tax Review are a slight improvement on the current situation but they do not address really fundamental issues and lack a coherent underlying rationale'.
In my view, Ingless goes too far in suggesting that the recommendations of the Henry review lack a coherent underlying rationale, but I can't see a coherent rationale in the way the government is cherry picking the recommendations of that review.