Taxing the Rich

In its 2011 budget statement the United Left Alliance (ULA) pointed out that while unemployment and taxation of workers had gone up, net financial assets of households had increased by €45 billion between 2008 and 2010, which meant that while many workers’ living standards were taking a hammering the wealthy in society were actually getting richer.  They therefore called “for a radical shift in taxation policy so that those with the real wealth pay according to their ability to pay.”

We all know the arguments against such a policy – higher tax rates, especially for those at the top, will discourage work, investment and business creation.  It would be tempting to dismiss such arguments except that Marxists believe that it is profits that regulate the operation and performance of the economy.  Surely reducing the returns to profitability would reduce capital accumulation and economic growth?

Research has shown however that the massive reduction in top tax rates in the English speaking world has not led to improved economic grow compared to countries without similar tax cuts.  The reduction of top tax rates, which were over 70 per cent in the 1970s, by over 40 percentage points in the US and UK has not witnessed any more impressive growth there than countries which have not reduced the rates by such enormous amounts.

This could be because high tax rates are not  the disincentive claimed, that those affected are often not capitalists, that most profits are reinvested and not subject to income tax anyway, and that profits are determined by much stronger and more fundamental forces than taxation of individuals or taxation in general.  Many people believe that those earning astronomical amounts of money simply want more of it because they are greedy, obscenely status conscious and engaged in grotesque exhibitions of conspicuous consumption.

The ULA has put forward plans to raise taxation on the rich in order to “use the money for a state funded programme of job creation.”  They state that the top 5 per cent hold 46.8 per cent of all wealth and have total net financial assets of €219.3 billion.  These figures are taken from Credit Suisse ‘Global Wealth Report’ in November 2011.  Elsewhere they quote a figure from the Central Statistics Office which estimates total net financial assets of €117 billion in 2010. If we assume non-financial assets (property) as 53 per cent of the total this would give a total wealth of €249 billion and that of the top 5 per cent at around €117 billion, over €100 billion less than they calculate from the Credit Suisse report.

It should be kept in mind that all economic statistics are estimates and subject to all sorts of errors.  One thing they are not is exactly right.  The Central Statistics Office has revised its GDP figure for last year by €2.6 billion while the Department of Finance double counted and found itself €3 billion better off.  How much more is this the case when the very rich seek to hide as much of their wealth as possible, which varies as the various markets go up and down, including the stock markets and currency markets. Looking at the Credit Suisse report I calculate the wealth of the top 5 per cent at ‘only’ €185.7 billion instead of €219.3 billion.

One more check available that I am aware of is to look at the ‘Wealth of Ireland’ report published in 2007 which recorded it at the height of the boom.  If we assume a fall in property prices of 50 per cent and its estimate of the share of the top 5 per cent at 40 per cent we arrive at a figure of almost €206 billion.  This however excludes the fall in value of shares, which dropped by 47 per cent between September 2007 and November 2010.  If we assume that equities were 40 per cent of financial assets the value of wealth becomes €188 billion.  This discussion only goes to show the uncertainty involved.  We will therefore go with the ULA budget statement number of €219.3 billion without any illusion that it is exactly right.

The ULA proposes an annual wealth tax of 5 per cent which would bring in roughly €10 billion a year (219.3 times 5%).  It also proposes that those earning over €100,000 should have their taxes increased.  These people, it says, have a total income of €20 billion and paid €4.86 billion in income tax.  This should be increased by a further €5 billion.  The ULA also sets a target of an additional €2 billion to be taken from the super-rich tax exiles.  Thus an extra €17 billion would be raised per year which, allied with refusal to pay for the bank debt, would be used to reverse cuts in social welfare, abolish the Universal Social Charge, increase tax credits for workers and reverse cuts in health and education etc.

There are five reasons why this won’t work

Firstly the sums involved.  The proposals above, where they to come in on plan, would raise €17 billion yet the budget deficit in 2010 excluding the bank bailout costs was €17.4 billion.  There would therefore be no room for closing this deficit while also funding the state-led investment programme of over €5 billion per year, which the ULA statement said was to be partly funded by tax increases. This also ignores reversing the €12 billion of cuts etc. which took place before and during 2010 in order to arrive at a deficit of ‘only’ €17.4 billion at its end.

The second is the nature of the wealth. Roughly half the wealth is in financial assets and half in property.  The financial assets will be in cash and bits of paper like shares which can be sold for cash.  To turn this wealth into money that can be used to pay workers to provide services, reverse workers’ tax increases and procure services it will be necessary to sell these bits of paper after the wealth held as cash is exhausted.  The value of these bits of paper, such as shares, may very well fall if a lot are sold at one time or it is known that they cannot be held and sold at what might be considered by their owners as the most favourable time.  The value they are held and valued at may therefore be greater than what could be got in a sale.  Everyone is familiar with this because of NAMA and the property collapse.  How much more of a problem is this for that half of assets which is property?

And there is an additional issue.  Who would the State sell these assets to?  Workers, self-employed, farmers and small businesses are in no position to buy these assets.  In fact only Irish and foreign rich would be in a position to buy.  But when we consider this for a moment, how would the Irish rich afford to buy these assets when these assets are being taken off them in the first place?  This leaves only foreign capitalists.  Putting it like this, selling off Irish assets to foreign capitalists to finance State expenditure doesn’t look too much different from what the Governing parties want to do.  Perhaps it is proposed that they too are taxed on Irish assets, in line with the policy on taxation of Irish assets held by tax exiles, but this then only puts them in the same position as the Irish rich.  Why buy assets that are going to be taken off you in tax?

Making the most simple assumption that a wealth tax would remove an equal amount of the wealth each year, with a wealth tax of 5 per cent the total wealth of the rich would be cut in half in ten years.  Ten years later it would be gone.  Even with wealth growing at say 2.5 per cent a year, and a wealth tax that took 5 per cent of what was left from the previous year, the wealth of the rich would still be halved in less than 23 years.

In other words this is not sustainable and anything not sustainable collapses long before the final step is taken.  An unsustainable tax base based on property is replaced by an unsustainable tax base constructed on wealth taxation.  The ULA proposes that those earning over €100,000 pay an additional €5 billion in taxes above the €4.86 they are currently paying, on a total income of €20billion, doubling their taxes and moving to an effective tax rate of half of income.  The ULA give the example of the top 0.5 per cent who have a current average after tax income of €400,000 each, which after the implementation of the ULA proposals would reduce to €166,000 each.  This is a reduction of 58.5 per cent in income.  This won’t work because of reason four.

The ‘Sunday Independent’ rich list published in March this year records that the richest man in Ireland is Pallonji Mistry, an Indian tycoon with Irish citizenship, worth €7.4 billion. How long does anyone think he would hang around if he thought the Irish State was going to take half his wealth off him within ten years and reduce his income by nearly 60 per cent?  How many others of his fellow rich would do exactly the same as him?

The ULA have said they have plans to get €2 billion extra out of Irish tax exiles and propose various measures to get this €2 billion.  Unfortunately they have said that “it is impossible to predict the revenue which would be generated by the above measures” which is tacit acknowledgement that they have little confidence that these measures could be effective.  They refer to the US and its expectations that its citizens will pay US income tax on earnings abroad but the Irish state is not the US state.  It says that its demands are reasonable but whether workers believe them to be or not, the rich do not and become tax exiles to avoid tax.  They will not be swayed by ‘reasonable’ demands that they pay up and the ULA knows this.

The ULA has said that even if such people move liquid assets out of the country, as will non-exile tax payers, the tax can be taken from the value of their fixed assets in Ireland.  But this leads us to the problems involved in reason two above.  The idea that the wealth of the rich can be taken by taxation is fine only if one believes that they will not resist with every weapon in their armoury.  The budget statement mentions that there is an investment strike by private investors as if it were some wilful act and not a perfectly rational response to the recession.  Yet serious attempts at taxation of the rich really would produce wilful acts and private investors would use their ownership of assets to reverse investment and sabotage the economy.

Marxists have always been aware that in the class struggle the capitalist class have usually demonstrated much higher levels of class consciousness than workers and their superior organisation will see them able to avoid a great deal of taxation, especially when it becomes worth it.  Their success in this is guaranteed by reason five.

The ULA have stated that “it is a matter for government which has Department of Finance, Revenue Commissioners, Central Statistics Office etc at its disposal to devise legislation to reach the target revenue of 10 billion from the top 5 % and that, in particular that the homes, farms and pension funds of those outside the top 5% be exempt.”  But this is the State that has given rich tax fraudsters two tax amnesties on top of all the various tax incentives and loopholes!

As a Marxist I believe that the state is an instrument to defend and protect the capitalist class, that it is therefore a capitalist state.  I believe that the bail out of the banks even at the cost of bankrupting the state itself is testament to how far it will go to do this.  The recent history of attacks on the working class in order to spare the rich are further examples and are the result not of a policy whim that can be changed but a result of the structure of the state, economy and society.  The proposals of the ULA rely on all this being mistaken.

I remember listening to Today FM and an American writer on financial affairs, whose name I did not hear, being interviewed about the situation in Ireland.  He remarked that Ireland was no more corrupt than many other countries but that what really set it apart was that no one ever seemed to get punished for all the corruption.  Yet the tax plans, and others, of the ULA depend not only on the Irish State not defending the rich but instead actually defending the working class.

The taxation proposals of the ULA are clearly presented as eminently reasonable and practical.  However what is reasonable is decided by class struggle and class struggle means they are not practical.

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