Business and Finance Article on Tax

Following on from last weekend’s discussion of tax issues prompted by Garret Fitzgerald’s column here‘s an article I wrote on reforming our tax system for the current edition of Business and Finance (Admittedly, I wrote the piece prior to finding out about the omertà code of silence on writing about low taxation. Hopefully, I won’t get mugged on the way home.)

One point that I raise is whether the proposed Universal Social Contribution (USC) is a good idea. In addition to the question of the fairness of raising tax rates on our poorest workers, this proposal may affect work incentives and contribute to rising structural unemployment. An alternative would be raise the standard rate (yes, I’d prefer a flat tax) or to provide a credit against the USC that can get clawed back as incomes rise.

High Earners and Tax: Media Misinterpret DoF Report Again Department

The Irish Times reports:

For example, the latest official breakdown on the 423 highest earners in the State showed that for 189 individuals who earned €500,000 or more in 2008, the average tax rate was 19.86 per cent.

I’m afraid this isn’t true. This report does not relate to the 423 highest earners in the State, as I’ve written about here, here and here. It only relates to a subset of the highest earners who would have paid less than 20 percent because of tax loopholes but who are not doing so now because of the introduction of a minimum rate.

To be fair, I don’t blame the journalists because the relevant document is so poorly written.  At this point, however, I really think the folks in the Department of Finance responsible for this report should consider issuing an official clarification.

Update: In comments, Joseph O’Toole reckons I’m being mean to the Department of Finance because this is a Revenue Commissioners report. Well, I found the report here on the Department’s website, which suggests that they are responsible for its release. But, yes, the report is put together by Revenue Commissioners staff.  So let me rephrase my point: Whoever is responsible for this report might think about issuing a clarification.

DoF Document on Tax Reliefs

I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) earlier this year about a Department of Finance release that discusses the impact of restrictions on the use of tax breaks for higher earners via the imposition of a minimum effective tax rate. I pointed out that the document is very poorly worded and leaves itself open to being misinterpreted.

Well, the latest edition of this release is out and it’s still got the same poor wording and it’s still being misinterpreted. I had missed the release when it came out but realised that the DoF’s poor wording had struck again when I heard contributors to Sam Smyth’s Sunday morning radio show discussing the report and saying how puzzled they were at how few people seemed to be earning large salaries (e.g. puzzlement at the idea that only 23 people earned over €2 million in 2008).

Let’s recap on this report. The report does not purport to be a full accounting of the tax paid by rich people in Ireland. Rather, it only covers those who would have paid less than the minimum effective tax rates that have been introduced. So, the whole report relates only to the 423 people who earned over €500,000 and were subject to the minimum effective tax restriction.

The document should emphasise throughout that these 423 people represent only a small subset of those earning over half a million euros in 2008: Unpublished information from the Revenue Commissioners published in the Irish Times last year (nice table here) showed that there were 5,393 cases of people earning over that amount. However, the report does very little to emphasise this point, leaving itself open to misinterpretation.

Sure enough, many people reading the Sunday Tribune today would have been apalled to read this piece about the Department’s “analysis of high-income earners” informing them the report showed “most of those earning more than €500,000 paid tax at a rate between 15% and 20%” and also providing other estimated tax rates that are not at all representative of the rates being paid by average high earners. For example, the figures in the Irish Times table show that the correct figure for the average tax rate paid by those earning over half a million is 32%. Remember also that this doesn’t include PRSI and that these individuals are now paying an additional 6 percent levy on income over €175,000.

I’m not saying there isn’t room to raise more tax from the rich or that tax reliefs shouldn’t be closed but it hardly helps public debate about this issue when the Department issues documents that are so easily misinterpreted.

Update: Ian Guider who wrote the piece for the Tribune linked to above has written to me to point out that the piece mentions 423 individuals and so he reckons it should be clear that all subsequent statements in his article refer only to a small subset of high earning individuals.

A 20 Percent Tax Rate for Higher Earners?

On Tuesday night near the end of his TV3 show, Vincent Browne returned to one his favourite themes, the taxation of those on higher incomes. He put the following statement to Fianna Fail TD, Timmy Dooley

In June of last year, the Department of Finance showed that in spite of efforts to close off tax loopholes in the 2007 and 2008 budgets, people earning over a half a million still pay only 20 percent of their income in tax. Now why weren’t they targeted rather than people on social welfare?

Dooley told Browne that the budget had seen an increase in the effective tax rate for these individuals to 30 percent, to which Mister Browne responded, “Not true, It’s just not true.” Later, after Mister Dooley discussed other steps taken to stabilise the public finances, Browne asserted that “You could have achieved the same thing by targeting people earning half a million and you didn’t bother.”

On the same theme, in his column in Wednesday’s Irish Times, Browne stated

How come there was no crisis when a report by the Department of Finance last June disclosed that, in spite of the alleged attempt to close tax loopholes, the average effective tax rate for people earning over €500,000 was just 20 per cent?

I’d like to address three aspects of the TV exchange and this column.

Property Scheme Tax Incentives

One of the major issues that I think needs to be addressed this year is the role played by tax expenditures in our budgetary system. Reports such as this one by TASC have pointed to closing off tax expenditures as having an important role to play in closing the budget deficit. Chapter 8 of the Commission on Taxation report does a pretty good job of listing many of these tax reliefs and recommends shutting many of them off. There are serious discussions worth having in relation to many of these reliefs, such as those for pensions, but I don’t have the time to get into these issues now.

Interestingly, one particularly controversial type of relief that the Commission report does not examine is property incentive schemes; the report argued that since the decision had been taken to close off these schemes on their completion, they should not be examined. Information on the cost of these schemes was, however, reported to the Dail by Minister Lenihan last November in response to a parliamentary question from Joan Burton. The link to this answer is here but I know not to trust links to the Oireachtas website so I’ve also put up the answer as a Word document here.

The total amount of tax revenue lost from these schemes in 2007 was €435 million. I suspect this is smaller than some people might have expected, given the widespread nature of claims that the very richest in society are managing to pay almost no tax through their extensive use of these schemes.

Still, it is a decent amount of money. It would be interesting to know what these schemes are expected to cost this year and next and whether they can legally be closed. I suspect they can. Another interesting question is whether many of the individuals that availed of these schemes are now bankrupt and wouldn’t be able to pay any tax.