This piece first appeared in New Matilda.
For someone who piously bemoans an “us versus them” mentality in political culture, Treasurer Scott Morrison certainly drove a deep wedge into the social fabric with one of the centrepieces of his budget. There are four thresholds in the personal income tax system; Morrison chose to increase one of them, supposedly to offset the insidious effects of “bracket creep.” The third threshold will be raised from $80,000 to $87,000.
Other thresholds don’t change. Taxpayers making over $80,000 will thus get a small saving ($6 per week at most). Those who make less, get nothing.
It’s not the most expensive tax cut in the budget. It will cost an estimated $800 million in the first year – barely half the $1.5 billion lost annually by cancelling the deficit repair levy on incomes over $180,000, and far less than the ultimate cost of Morrison’s company tax cuts. But it is the most transparent and easy to understand of all the budget’s tax measures. And it will spark the most gossip around the water-cooler. Who makes over $80,000 per year, anyway? And who makes less? It’s hard to imagine a more “us versus them” tax policy.
The Treasurer’s own rhetoric reinforces this schism: he says it will “reward hard working Australians,” encourage them to work overtime, take more shifts, and accept a promotion. The clear implication is that people making less than $80,000 are not interested in working more hours or taking promotions. Indeed, they aren’t even “hard working” in the Treasurer’s terms, and hence don’t merit protection from “creeping” taxes.
The Treasurer tried, but failed, to define the measure as one that benefits “average” wage-earners. Mean annual earnings for a full-time worker employed year-round are indeed near $80,000. But this does not remotely describe the typical Australian. First off, the mathematical “average” is skewed upward by super-high incomes at the top of the income ladder; the median full-time wage (received by the full-time worker in the exact middle of the distribution) is $10,000 lower than the average, and well below the threshold. Likewise, women (even those employed full-time year-round) earn $10,000 less than the mathematical mean.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison delivering his first budget, in 2016.
But the bigger problem is that a shrinking share of Australians have full-time permanent jobs to start with. Part-time work now accounts for almost one in three jobs – the highest on record. And labour hire, temporary contract, and other forms of precarious work are increasingly the norm. Very few of those workers earn anywhere near $80,000. At most about one in four Australian workers (and perhaps 15 per cent of all tax-filers) will get the full $6 per week saving.
The whole concept of “bracket creep” is itself as misleading as Morrison’s maths. He says taxpayers are “pushed” into higher tax brackets by rising incomes, constituting a punitive and underhanded tax grab. But this description merits some careful second thought.
There are two different reasons why a worker’s income might rise. One is pure inflation, experienced across all wages and prices. In that case, nothing “real” changes, and a higher tax rate might seem unfair (although we should remember that the cost of many government programs also grows with inflation, and someone has to pay for that).
Alternatively, it might be changes in a worker’s real income that qualify them for the next bracket. If they worked more hours or took a promotion (as the Treasurer urges), then their real income rises, and so does their tax. That’s not bracket creep, and there’s nothing “underhanded” about it. In fact, that is the whole point of a personal income tax system in which tax rates depend on income.
Moral panic over bracket creep is all the more ironic given the unprecedented stagnation in Australian wages, reflecting sustained weakness in the job market. Average weekly earnings in the private sector are growing at their slowest pace in history: under 1 per cent per year (slower than inflation). The budget itself acknowledged this is badly hurting Commonwealth revenues. With wages going nowhere fast, this is hardly the time in history to make a mountain out of a bracket creep molehill.
If the government truly wanted to prevent inflation from distorting taxes, it could simply index all parameters in the tax code to consumer prices (as other countries, like the U.S. and Canada, have done). Then all thresholds, not just the one cherry-picked by Morrison, would rise 1.3 per cent this year, the same as year-over-year inflation. But that would depoliticise the whole process, hardly acceptable in a year when every single clause of the budget is focused on getting the government re-elected. So Morrison picked one politically-potent threshold, lifted it seven times faster than inflation, and left everyone else to get “creeped.”
Previous ad-hoc increases to thresholds have lifted them far faster than inflation. In fact, with this latest increase, the third tax threshold will have risen twice as much as inflation since 2003. Combined with rate reductions also targeted at top brackets during that time, government revenues have been undermined badly, and the upward redistribution of after-tax income has been exacerbated.
In short, the politics of Morrison’s over/under game are hard to understand. He will deliver a tiny benefit to less than one in four employed workers, and barely one in seven tax-filers. Most Australians won’t get a cent. But the economics are even worse. His divisive and false anti-tax narrative undermines the long-run stability of the government’s revenue base, damages public services, and reinforces inequality.