Small on Tax

writes on tax:

If it does not move, it. If it can move, try to tax it less. If Treasury used single syllable words, that is how it might define its view of revenue raising.

That’s a great summary. And if we want to have decent economic growth in future we do want a tax system that drives people and investment offshore.

Put simply, since people can leave or  go elsewhere – and so can investment  dollars – they should be taxed the least.

On the other hand, local consumption – which attracts – can by definition only happen here.

Similarly, stuff that is nailed to the ground is relatively immobile, though the investment dollars that build and develop it are slippery.

GST is also a lot harder to avoid than income tax.

Much has been made of ministers “leaving the door open” to a capital gains tax, but that has long been a poisoned chalice. More pertinent is the group’s request for officials to also look at land or property tax.

By coincidence on  the Auckland-Wellington leg of the flight back from Hawaii, I was seated next to a prominent economist and the pros and cons of a was part of the discussion. It is an interesting area to look at (on the proviso that any new tax be matched by reductions in other taxes).

But the economic case for a tax on the unimproved value of land are intriguing – though it would require a big sell to property owners, especially older voters, some farmers and Maori who are asset rich and income poor (with high levels of equity in their properties) and would take the biggest hit from any consequent fall in property prices.

A small land tax could take some of the heat out of the housing bubble, with less need for interest rate hokes in future.

A small tax on land alone could fund a big move in personal tax rates.

A 0.1 per cent tax – $460 million on the $460 billion of privately-held land – would offset the lost revenue from cutting the 38 cent rate to 33 cents.

Starts to get appealing.

It would genuinely broaden the tax base, taxing foreigners who own property in New Zealand, and be likely to push more investment into areas other than property while helping curb a new housing boom.

The inevitable drop in property values would be a two-edged sword. Home ownership would become more affordable, and the extra impost would give owners of bare land an incentive to develop it.

It would arguably be relatively progressive, because wealthier people tend to have more valuable property holdings. And it would provide far more predictable revenue than a capital gains tax.

There is also a ready-made framework in the local-body rating system, to help keep compliance costs down.

I look forward to some of the economist blogs discussing the pros and cons of reducing income tax and instituting a land tax in a fiscally neutral manner. So far the pros seem pretty strong.

Even so, it is hard to make the leap of logic that would see National – the natural home of the landed – slap a new tax on the land beneath their voters’ feet.

It comes back to how seriously you want to close that gap with Australia.

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