The tax burden

Fascinating article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee , called
cooling the cutting fisticuffs – take a long, hard look at tax . What the article claims, and what I found particularly interesting, is that the bottom 10% of earners pay 46% of their income in tax, while the richest 10% pay only 34% of their income in tax. What is more, the top fifth of earners take 51% of the national income while the bottom fifth take 3%. This comes from a report by a centre-left pressure group called Compass , and I have no real reason to doubt its veracity.

Apparently the reason for this discrepancy is that the highest earners can take some (or most) of their income in the form of capital gains which is only taxed at 18%. So even though their salary is taxed at a high rate, their actual salary only makes up a small fraction of their total earnings – most of it coming in the form of capital gains. When I first read this I immediately thought that although this may be true, most low earners effectively recover what they lost through taxes in benefits, but I think this doesn’t really make a difference. The public sector makes up something like 40% of the UK’s economy. If we want to sustain what the public sectors offers people in the UK, we have to roughly recover 40% of the total income. We could of course decide that the public sector should only make up 30% of the UK economy which we could achieve by privatising some parts of the public sector, but I happen to believe that this would not be improve things in any way.

So assuming that we accept that the public sector is going to make up about 40% of the UK economy, how do we fund that? Well a simple way would be to take 40% of everyone’s income. This could be through both direct and indirect taxation, but at the end of the day we need this to fund the public portion of the economy. What you could then choose to do is to take a slightly higher fraction of the top earners’s income, leaving those on lower incomes with more money. You can even give some of money back to the lowest earners through benefits since they take such a small fraction of the total income, that this won’t really have a significant impact on government revenue. What you certainly don’t do is take less than 40% of the highest earners’s income. They take such a large portion of the total income that this will have a huge effect on the total amount of government revenue. How can we possibly expect to both sustain the public sector – which I think we should be doing – and draw down the deficit if we don’t at least tax the the highest earners at a rate that will give the government sufficient revenue.

In some sense this isn’t even a discussion about what is fair or not, it seems logical that the simplest way to ensure that government revenues are sufficient is to start by making sure that the highest earners are taxed appropriately. If not enough is recovered from the highest earners, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the remainder of what is required from the lowest earners since they take a smaller fraction of the total income. It seems ridiculous that we are only taking 34% of the total income of the top 10% of earners in a country that intends to have a public sector that makes up 40% of the economy. The top earners presumably would argue that they don’t rely on the public sector to the same extent as the lowest earners, but this is nonsense. Also, in an average sense, something like 40% of their income presumably comes from the public sector. In fact, since they take such a large fraction of the total income, more than 40% must come from the public sector and so taxing them at a higher rate, to a certain extent, is simply recovering public money.

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