If the retired are not poor, is it right for them to keep all-day free bus passes?

There has been a considerable fuss over a suggestion for a modest scaling-back of the benefits to the retired. It was proposed that ‘free bus travel’ be available only at off-peak travel times. At all other times, free bus travel would continue to apply.

The fuss has been strikingly one-side: the proposal was denounced by politicians, interest groups and journalists. Otherwise, silence; including on this blog.

The case for this change is easily stated – rush hour is busy because of workers travelling to/from work at times they don’t control. So it is a more efficient use of the bus system that people with more discretion over when to travel, notably the retired, would use (free) buses only at other times.  (Of course they could travel as paying passengers at any time.) Nearly one-tenth of passengers on the buses at rush hour use free bus passes. So either we expand the bus system or we move bus-pass holders to (free) travel at another time and release a lot of bus space.

Available information suggests this change would also improve fairness. There is considerable evidence that the retired are not poor, either in income or in wealth terms. Removing a small fraction of the bus subsidy would seem to be fair, especially if it also made the bus service work better.

The CSO’s 2013 Household Finance and Consumption Survey (Table 12) indicates that in households where the head of household was under 35, median net wealth was €4,000. For households headed by a person 65 or older, median net wealth was €348,000. It seems legitimate to conclude that the retired are not poor in terms of their net wealth. (This is hardly surprising; they have had decades more than twenty-somethings in which to save. Grey and wrinkled has a few compensations.)

For incomes, the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions (Table 1e) reported that in 2016 median net disposable income (adjusting for household size) was €21,387 for those aged 18-64 and not a very great deal less, €17,956, for those over 65. So for every €100 of net disposable equivalised income of the median member of the first group, the median retired person has an income of €84. The costs of the retired are surely lower than those working (mortgage, children’s education costs)? In any case, according to the report (Table 2) those aged over 65, have a lower risk of poverty (10.2% v. 16.6%) and also a lower rate of deprivation (13.1% v. 20.9%) compared to those of working age.

Given the similarity of incomes, there seems a solid basis to say the over 65s are not poor in income terms either, compared to the working age population.

Yet the older generation have various non-means-tested benefits including free bus passes. They were also essentially exempted from the post-2008 income and benefit reductions. I will leave the inter-generational aspects of the planning laws for another occasion.

Subsidies for the retired was recently raised in the UK which “continue[s] to treat pensioners as though they need free travel, winter fuel allowances and the like, despite the fact they are on average now the best-off demographic group in the country.” In a comment pertinent to the Irish case, the writer argued that amongst the UK groups needing more public funds are children and the mentally ill. If money goes to the over-65s, it will be harder or impossible to finance the other programmes.

The broader setting for this discussion is whether our prevailing redistributive and other policies in fact discriminate against younger rather than older generations. Many of the retired and soon-to-be-retired, benefitted from lower costs of going to college, drastically lower house prices, and much more generous pension schemes that today’s twenty- than thirty-somethings will have. On top of this there are pensions, free bus travel and other benefits; some of this money may have more deserving uses, not excluding healthier public finances.

From this perspective, do we redistribute income on the basis of means or, say, voting propensity? Regarding the latter, a rough calculation (exit poll age data, total turnout, and population less non-nationals) suggests that in the 2016 general election turnout was 41% for voters under 24, and 61% for those over 65. 

How, then, was the bus-policy reform proposal responded to? It did not go down well! Its author was personally vilified and the proposal was drowned in ridiculous hyperbole, while more important aspects of the speaker’s policy recommendations at the conference passed unremarked. One Minister remarked that the civil servant’s suggestion was unprecedented. It’s not hard to see why.

There was the usual claim by a journalist that “free bus pass holders have contributed to the economy for decades” On that principle, shouldn’t everyone have everything free forever? (Where are our free newspapers?)

Senator Buttimer of Fine Gael demanded that the civil servant be fired. The Independent Alliance judged that this change would cause “severe hardship” and could jeopardise the ability of the retired to get to hospital. (Severe hardship? Really? No pensions, no cars, no taxis, no offspring, in Independent Alliance constituencies?)

Even the elusive Minister Ross took to the battlements to declare that the change would happen only over his dead body, although some think the Minister’s body has been alarmingly immobile since he took office. (Missing Minister.)  The Minister added that this modest change was no less than “an extraordinary assault on the rights of older people.” (An extraordinary assault?)

As for the temerity of the civil servant, I believe the department he works for is called Public Expenditure and Reform. His remarks were made at a conference where the OECD recommended that Ireland needs to focus more on evaluation of the impact of public policies. The responses amounted to saying: our supporters like this policy, we are not interested in any evaluation.

This sorry episode is reminiscent of the ‘anti-expert’ commentary of members of the Bertie Ahern governments. Minister Martin Cullen in the mid-2000s dismissed warnings of economic overheating contained in an ESRI mid-term review of the public investment programme, as merely the views of ESRI ‘sandal wearers’. He insisted that the government would press ahead in the face of the advice it had itself commissioned. Ten years on, some current Ministers seem to believe much the same thing.

The retired in the population used to be poor. That’s not been true for a long time. Policy has to catch up. The Government should seek to improve the efficiency of the transport system particularly when it can be achieved at no loss of fairness. In any event, they should give a civil hearing to policy suggestions.

Complete inflexibility from the retired may leave them with few sympathisers should the large deficits in the public pension scheme require real fiscal surgery in the future.

Latest Assessment Report from IFAC

The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has published its latest Fiscal Assessment Report.  The report and some additional resources are available here.

Accompanying the report is a working paper that looks at how a counter-cyclical “rainy day fund” could be incorporated in the framework of the Stability and Growth Pack.  Last week, IFAC published its assessment of compliance with the Domestic Budgetary Rule in 2017 as well as an update of its Standstill Scenario which estimates of the cost of maintaining today’s level of public services and benefits in real terms over the medium term.

A bullet-point summary of the latest FAR:

  • A rapid cyclical recovery has taken place since at least 2014 and this is continuing at a strong pace.
  • Ireland’s debt burden is still among the highest in the OECD.
  • Negative shocks will inevitably occur in future years and there are clear downside risks over the medium term, namely those associated with Brexit, US trade policy and the international tax environment.
  • Improvements on the budgetary front have stalled since 2015 despite the strong cyclical recovery taking place – one that is reinforced by a number of favourable tailwinds.
  • Any unexpected increases in tax revenues or lower interest costs should not be used to fund budgetary measures.
  • The Council welcomes the Department’s publication of alternative estimates of the output gap.
  • The Medium Term Objective (MTO) of a structural deficit of no less than 0.5 per cent of GDP was reached in 2017.
  • The Council sees the fiscal rules as a minimum standard for sustainability and continues to recommend that the Government commit to adhering to the Expenditure Benchmark even after the MTO is achieved.

And on Budget 2019 in particular:

  • The Government should at least stick to existing budget plans for 2019 as there is no case for additional fiscal stimulus beyond existing plans as set out in the 2018 Stability Programme Update.
  • Estimates of the medium-term potential growth rate of the economy and expectations of economy-wide inflation for next year imply an upper limit for increasing the adjusted measure of government expenditure of 4.5%.
  • In nominal terms this translates into spending increases or tax cuts of up to €3½ billion (“gross fiscal space”) as the starting point for Budget 2019.
  • Previously announced measures – including sharp increases in public investment – mean that the Government’s scope for new initiatives in Budget 2019 will be limited.
  • If additional priorities are to be addressed, these should be funded by additional tax increases or through re-allocations of existing spending.
  • Improving the budget balance by more than planned would be desirable, especially given current favourable times, possible overheating in the near-term and visible downside risks over the medium term.

Revenue Annual Report 2017 and New Research

This morning Revenue published our Annual Report for 2017. The report contains lots of information on Revenue’s activities and outputs last year that contributed to the collection of €50.8 billion in net receipts for the Exchequer, as well as delivering on service to support compliance, the implementation of customs controls and facilitation of trade.

Also published today are a series of research papers that may interest readers of this blog:

Updated Corporation Tax research profiles tax payments received in 2017 as well as analysis of 2016 tax returns. This includes significant new analysis of multinational companies in Ireland.

An analysis of Income Dynamics and Mobility based on Revenue micro data. This examines the distribution of incomes by decile and percentile as well as tracking mobility of income earners over time.

Profiles of Excise Duty and Capital Taxes receipts. Excise, Capital Acquisitions Tax , Stamp Duty, Capital Gains Tax and Local Property Tax cover wide ranging activities, transactions and products. The profiles document these in detail and show changes in core components in recent years.  For the first time, information on capital taxes are combined together with location and earnings data to present new perspectives on the taxes.

Revenue’s latest customer survey, of small to medium sized enterprises in 2017, is Revenue’s fourth SME survey. Responses show that customer satisfaction with Revenue service remains high across a range of headings. The survey also includes a behavioural experiment to test the impact of personalisation on response rates.

Also published is the annual illegal tobacco survey results for 2017 and the first quarterly Local Property Tax statistics for 2018.

 

The taxation of profits from intangible assets and Ireland’s contribution to the EU Budget

In last weekend’s Sunday Independent Richard Curran had a piece the start of which looked at a measure passed via Financial Resolution No. 3 on the night of the Budget speech. He says:

Multinationals make very real profits from charging for the use of their IP. In 2015, the trading profit made by multinationals in Ireland on their IP shot up by €26bn. This was completely offset by capital allowances they received - basically reducing their taxable profit on that to close to zero.

To put it in perspective if we had allowed just 80pc of that to be set against capital allowances, we could have taxed 20pc of it at 12.5pc. It could have yielded around €650m in tax.

The measure is linked to the recently published Review of Ireland’s Corporation Tax Code and Richard Curran’s piece throws light on most of the key issues, except one: the link to Ireland’s contribution to the EU budget.  This is referenced in paragraph 9.3.11 of the review:

Figures from the Revenue Commissioners and Tancred (2017) show that there was a €26 billion increase in intangible-asset related gross trading profits in 2015. This was offset by an increase in the amount of capital allowances for intangible assets of a similar scale. These gross trading profits are included in Ireland’s Gross National Income but the use of capital allowances results in a much smaller amount being included in the taxable income base for Ireland’s Corporation Tax. Given Ireland’s contribution to the EU Budget is calculated by reference to Gross National Income, this increase in profits has an impact.

Assessing this impact was beyond the scope of the review but is something which the seven-page note linked below attempts to address.  With lots of moving parts precision is difficult to achieve but the broad elements of the issue should hopefully stand out.

A note on intangibles, the taxation of their profits, and Ireland’s contribution to the EU budget

Update: Here is a bullet-point summary

  • In 2015 intangible-asset-related gross trading profits of multinationals operating in Ireland increased by €26 billion.
  • In the same year claims for capital allowances related to expenditure on intangible assets increased by €26 billion.
  • No Corporation Tax is due on the gross profits offset by capital allowances
  • Using estimates from the Department of Finance implies that these figures have risen to around €35 billion for 2017.
  • These untaxed profits are included in Ireland’s Gross National Income which adds about €200 million to the country’s contribution to the EU budget.
  • A cap on the amount of capital allowances that can be used in a single year is to be introduced for new claims for capital allowances on intangibles.
  • Based on patterns for the past two years the Department of Finance forecast that this will result in €150 million of additional Corporation Tax being paid in 2018.
  • The Revenue Commissioners figures for 2015 and the Department of Finances estimates of the impact of recent onshoring imply that  intangible-asset-related gross trading profits are expected to be around €40 billion in 2018 (with a further €36 million added to the EU contribution).
  • If the cap applied to all claims, existing and new, then the additional Corporation Tax to be collected in 2018 could be up to €1 billion using the 2015 figure published by Revenue and estimates from that time used by Finance.
  • If companies who are expected to move IP here in future years are happy to pay the tax now why doesn’t the same apply for companies who already have IP here?

Miriam Hederman O’Brien Prize 2017

The presentation of the 2017 Miriam Hederman O’Brien prize awarded by the Foundation for Fiscal Studies will take place on the Monday 2nd October from 8:00 -9:30am in the Grafton Suite, The Westbury Hotel, Dublin 2.

The aim of the prize is to recognise outstanding original work from new contributors in the area of Irish fiscal policy, to promote the study and discussion of matters relating to fiscal, economic and social policy and to reward those who demonstrate exceptional research promise. The prize forms an important part of the Foundation’s overall objective of promoting more widely the study and discussion of matters relating to fiscal, economic and social policy.

The shortlisted papers are shown here and past winners here.

There will be tea / coffee from 8.00 as well as an opportunity to view stands promoting some of the work and applications nominated for the Award.

The event is free but please register in advance to info@fiscal.ie.

Save the date: September 7 – Policy Forum on Higher Education Funding

I am organising a policy conference on the above topic to be held at the RIA on Dawson Street from 9.30-12.30 on Thursday, September 7.

The main focus will be on the potential role of income-contingent student loans in HE funding.

The morning will begin with short presentations by five speakers, including Bruce Chapman (Australian National University), Lorraine Dearden (Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London), Charles Larkin (Trinity College), Senator Aodhan O Riordain (to be confirmed) and myself. This will be followed by a 60-90 minute discussion session. The event will be chaired by Frances Ruane (ESRI).

I’ll post a detailed programme here when it’s finalized.

Update: Senator O Riordain has confirmed and the final programme is available here.

Presentation to MacGill Summer School

Earlier in the week I contributed to a session at the MacGill Summer School on threats to the economy.  My speaking notes for the presentation are here though delivery may have been slightly different.

Conclusion:

We can build 40,000 houses a year, motorways between our regional cities, urban rail connections in the capital, and the roll-out of broadband across the country. We can reduce taxes, increase social transfers and public sector pay. We can spend all the benefits of the surge in Corporation Tax, ultra-low interest rates and the proceeds from the sale of the banks. They are our choices to make. But we cannot do it all and expect the benefits of prudent economic and budgetary management.

No lobby or special interest group sees their request for support as being the one that pushes the economy into the red. And they are right; but we have to watch the totality of what we are doing. If we try to do too much and fly too close to the sun we will fall to earth.

The biggest threat to the Irish economy may not be the decisions of Teresa May or Donald Trump; the biggest threat to the Irish economy are the choices we make ourselves. Let’s make a better fist of getting it right this time.