TRAUMA FOR THE TAX-MAN
Is 2019 the year when everything starts falling apart?
It certainly feels that way.
The analogy I’m going to use in this and subsequent discussions is ‘fire and ice’.
Ice, in the potent form of glaciers, grinds slowly, but completely, crushing everything in its path. Whole landscapes have been shaped by these icy juggernauts.
Fire, on the other hand, can cause almost instantaneous devastation, most obviously when volcanoes erupt. Back in 1815, the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) poured into the atmosphere quantities of volcanic ash on such a vast scale that, in much of the world, the sun literally ceased to shine. As a result, 1816 became known as “the year without a summer”. As low temperatures and heavy rain destroyed harvests and killed livestock, famine gripped much of Europe, Asia and North America, bringing with it soaring food prices, looting, riots, rebellions, disease and high mortality. Even art and literature seem to have been influenced by the lack of a summer.
The economic themes we’ll be exploring here have characteristics both of fire and of ice. The decline in prosperity is glacial, both in its gradual pace and its ability to grind assumptions, and systems, into the ground. Other events are likelier to behave like wild-fires or volcanoes, given to rapid and devastating outbursts, with little or no prior warning.
Fiscal issues, examined in this first instalment of ‘fire and ice’, have the characteristics of both. The scope for taxing the public is going to be subjected to gradual but crushing force, whilst the hard choices made inevitable by this process are highly likely to provoke extremely heated debate and resistance.
Let’s state the fiscal issue in the starkest terms:
– Massive credit and monetary adventurism have inflated GDP to the point where it bears little or no resemblance to the prosperity experienced by the public.
– But governments continue to set taxation as a percentage of GDP.
– As GDP and prosperity diverge, this results in taxation exacting a relentlessly rising share of prosperity.
– Governments then fail to understand the ensuing popular anger.
France illustrates this process to dramatic effect. Taxation is still at 54% of GDP, roughly where it’s been for many years. This no doubt persuades the authorities that they’ve not increased the burden of taxation. But tax now absorbs 70% of French prosperity, leading to the results that we’ve witnessed on the streets of Paris and other French towns and cities.
It’s been said that the two certainties in life are “death and taxes”, but ‘debt and taxes’ hold the key to fiscal challenges understood improperly – if at all – by most governments. The connection here is that debt (or rather, the process of borrowing) affects recorded GDP in ways which provide false comfort about the affordability of taxation – and therefore, of course, about the affordability of public services.
The subject of taxation, seen in terms of prosperity, leads straight to popular discontent, though that has other causes too. In order to have a clear-eyed understanding of public anger, by the way, we need to stick to what the facts tell us. I’ve never been keen on excuses like “the dog ate my homework” or “a space-man from Mars stole my wallet” – likewise, we should ignore any narrative which portrays voter dissatisfaction as wholly the product of “populism”, or of “fake news”, or even of machinations in Moscow or Beijing. All of these things might exist – but they don’t explain what’s happening to public attitudes.
The harsh reality is that, because prosperity has deteriorated right across the advanced economies of the West, we’re facing an upswell of popular resentment, at the same time as having to grapple with huge debt and monetary risk.
If you wanted to go anywhere encouraging, you wouldn’t start from here.
The public certainly has reasons enough for discontent. In the Western world, prosperity has been deteriorating for a long time, a process exacerbated by higher taxation. The economic system has been brought into disrepute, mutating from something at least resembling ‘the market economy’ into something seemingly serving only the richest. As debt has risen, working conditions, and other forms of security, have been eroded. We can count ourselves fortunate that the public doesn’t know – yet – that the pensions system has been sacrificed as a financial ‘human shield’ to prop up the debt edifice.
This at least sets an agenda, whether for 2019 or beyond. The current economic paradigm is on borrowed time, whilst public support can be expected to swing behind parties promoting redistribution, economic nationalism and curtailment of migration. Politicians who insist on clinging on to ‘globalised liberalism’ are likely to sink with it. The tax base is shrinking, requiring new priorities in public expenditure.
If you had to tackle this at all, you wouldn’t choose to do it with the “everything bubble” likely to burst, bringing in its wake both debt defaults and currency crises. But this process looks inescapable. With its modest incremental rate rises, so derided by Wall Street and the White House, the Fed may be trying to manage a gradual deflation of bubbles. If so, its intentions are worthy, but its chances of success are poor.
And, when America’s treasury chief asks banks to reassure the markets about liquidity and margin debt, you know (if you didn’t know already) that things are coming to the boil.
Tax – leveraging the pain
If it seems a little odd to start this series with fiscal affairs, please be assured that these are very far from mundane – indeed, they’re likely to shape much of the political and economic agenda going forward. The biggest single reason for upsets is simply stated – where prosperity and the ability to pay tax are concerned, policymakers haven’t a clue about what’s already happening.
Here’s an illustration of what that reality is. Expressed at constant values, personal prosperity in France decreased by €2,060, or 7.5%, between 2001 (€29,315) and 2017 (€27,250).
At first glance, you might be surprised that this has led to such extreme public anger, something not witnessed in countries where prosperity has fallen further. Over the same period, though, taxation per person in France has increased by €2,980. When we look at how much prosperity per person has been left with the individual, to spend as he or she chooses, we find that this “discretionary” prosperity has fallen from €13,210 in 2001 to just €8,230 in 2017.
That’s a huge fall, of €4,980, or 38%. Nobody else in Europe has suffered quite such a sharp slump in discretionary prosperity – and tax rises are responsible for more than half of it.
This chart shows how increases in taxation have leveraged the deterioration in personal prosperity in eight Western economies. The blue bars show the change in overall prosperity per capita between 2001 and 2017. Increases in taxation per person are shown in red.
In the United Kingdom, for example, economic prosperity has deteriorated by 9.8% since 2001, but higher taxation has translated this into a 29.5% slump in discretionary prosperity. Interestingly, economic prosperity in Germany actually increased (by 8.2%) over the period, but higher taxes translated into a fall at the level of discretionary prosperity per person.
Prosperity and tax – Scylla and Charybdis
The next pair of charts, which use the United Kingdom to illustrate a pan-Western issue, show a problem which is already being experienced by the tax authorities, but is not understood by them.
The left-hand chart (expressed in sterling at constant 2017 values) shows a phenomenon familiar to any regular visitor to this site, but not understood within conventional economics. Essentially, GDP (in blue) and prosperity (in red) are diverging.
This is happening for two main reasons. One is the underlying uptrend in the energy cost of energy (ECoE). The second is the use of credit and monetary adventurism to create apparent “growth” in GDP in the face of secular stagnation. This, of course, helps explain why people are feeling poorer despite apparent increases in GDP per capita. Total taxation is shown in black, to illustrate the role of tax within the prosperity picture.
The right-hand chart shows taxation as percentages of GDP (in blue) and prosperity (in red). In Britain, taxation has remained at a relatively stable level in relation to GDP, staying within a 34-35% band ever since 1998, before rising to 36% in 2016 and 37% in 2017.
Measured as a percentage of prosperity, however, the tax burden has risen relentlessly, from 35% in 1998, and 44% in 2008, to 51% in 2017.
Simply put, the authorities seem to be keeping taxation at an approximately constant level against GDP, not realising that this pushes the tax incidence upwards when measured against prosperity. The individual, however, understands this all too well, even if its causes remain obscure.
What this means, in aggregate and at the individual level, are illustrated in the next set of charts. These show the aggregate position in billions, and the per capita equivalent in thousands, of pounds sterling at 2017 values.
As taxation rises roughly in line with GDP – but grows much more rapidly in terms of prosperity – discretionary prosperity, shown here in pink, becomes squeezed between the Scylla of falling prosperity and the Charybdis of rising taxation. The charts which follow are annotated to highlight how this ‘wedge effect’ is undermining discretionary prosperity.
Finally, where the numbers are concerned, here’s the equivalent situation in France. As far back as 1998, tax was an appreciably larger proportion of GDP in France (51%) than in the United Kingdom (34%). By 2017, tax was absorbing 54% of GDP in France, compared with 37% in Britain.
This means that taxation in France already equates to 70% of prosperity, up from 53% in 1998. Even though the squeeze on overall prosperity (the pink triangle) has been comparatively modest so far (since 2001, a fall of 7.5%), the impact on discretionary prosperity (the blue triangle) has been extremely severe (39%). This is why so many French people are angry – and why their anger has crystallised around taxation.
The political fall-out
When you understand taxation in relation to prosperity, you appreciate a challenge which the authorities in Western countries (and beyond) have yet to comprehend. Most of them probably think that, going forward, they can carry on pushing up taxation roughly in line with supposed “growth” in GDP. Presumably, they also assume that the public will accept this fiscal trajectory.
If they do make these assumptions, they’re in for a very rude awakening. The modest tax tinkering implemented in France, for instance, is most unlikely to quell the anger, even though it’s set to widen the deficit appreciably.
Politically, the leveraging effect of rising taxation feeds into a broader agenda which, so far, is either misinterpreted, or just not recognised at all, by the governing establishment.
Here, simply stated, are some of the issues with which governments are confronted:
– Prosperity per person is continuing to deteriorate, typically at annual rates of between 0.5% and 1.1%, across the Western economies.
– Rising taxation is worsening this trend, leading increasingly to popular resistance.
– The public believes (and not without reason) that immigration is exacerbating the decline in prosperity, both at the total and at the discretionary levels.
– Perceptions are that a small minority of “the rich” are getting wealthier whilst almost everyone else is getting poorer.
Politicians are seen as both heedless of the majority predicament and complicit in the enrichment of a minority.
The popular demands which follow from this are pretty clear.
Voters are going to be angered by the decline in their prosperity, and will become increasingly resistant to taxation. The greatest resentment will centre around “regressive” taxes, such as sales taxes and flat-rate levies, which hit poorest taxpayers hardest.
They’re going to demand more redistribution, meaning higher taxes on “the rich”, not just where income taxes are concerned, but also extending to taxes on wealth, capital gains and transactions.
Popular opposition to immigration is likely to intensify, as prosperity deteriorates and tax bites harder.
Finally, public anger about former ministers and administrators retiring into very lucrative employment is going to go on mounting.
A challenge – and an opportunity?
In terms of electoral politics, most established parties are singularly ill-equipped to confront these issues. Some on “the Left” do embrace the need for redistribution, but almost invariably think this is going to fund increases in public expenditures, which simply isn’t going to be possible.
Others oppose increasing taxes on the wealthiest, and fail to appreciate that fiscal mathematics, quite apart from public sentiment, are making this process inescapable.
On both sides of the conventional political divide there is, as yet, no awareness that economic trends are going to exert glacier-style downwards pressure on public spending. Nowhere within the political spectrum is there recognition of the consequent need to set new, more stringent priorities. In areas such as health and policing, declining real budgets mean that policymakers face hard choices between which activities can continue to be funded, and those which will have quietly to be dropped.
It seems almost inconceivable that established parties are going to recognise what faces them, and adapt accordingly. The “Left” is likely to cling to dreams of higher public expenditures, whilst the “Right” will try to fend off higher taxation of the wealthiest. Even insurgent (aka “populist”) parties probably have no idea about the tightening squeeze on what they can afford to offer to the voters. It’s likely that very few people in senior positions yet realise that an ultra-lucrative retirement into “consultancies” and “the lecture circuit” is set to become electorally toxic.
Politically, of course, problems for some can be opportunities for others. It wouldn’t be all that hard to craft an agenda which capitalises on these trends, promising, for example, much greater redistribution, ultra-tight limits on immigration, and capping the retirement earnings of the policy elite.
If you did promise these things, you’d probably be elected. Unfortunately, though, that’s the easy bit. The hard part is going to be grappling with the continuing decline in prosperity at the same time as fending off a financial crash.
How, having been voted into power, are you going to tell the voters that we’re all getting poorer, and that some public services are ceasing to be affordable within an ever more rigorous setting of priorities? And are they going to believe you when you tell them that the destruction of pensions is entirely the work of your predecessors? Finally, what are you going to do when one of the big endangered economies fails?