Consider the Goods and Services Tax (GST). It is a beautiful value-added tax applied cleanly and comprehensively across the tax system. But nobody in New Zealand appreciates it. Because nobody in New Zealand appreciates it, everybody wants to carve out a tax exemption for their favourite thing: fruits, vegetables, healthy foods generally, and feminine hygiene products are recent examples.
Here is what happens if you do that.
Australia runs a messy GST riddled with exemptions. Somebody decided groceries should not be subject to GST, but some snack foods should be. So bread is not taxed while crackers are. In 2010, Justice Sundberg of the Federal Court in Melbourne had to decide whether an oven-baked Italian flat bread, a mini-ciabatta, counted as a bread or a cracker for tax purposes.
The importer of the bread flew in Giampiero Muntoni to testify in court that the mini ciabatta was a bread, not a cracker. And Muntoni is far from a layperson in such matters. As Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies reported, Muntoni “holds an EU certificate that entitles him to certify whether a product is a bread or a non-bread item for value added tax purposes in Italy.”
Think about that. Italy’s value-added tax needs expert certified bread deciders. A certified profession dedicated to determining whether something is bread. The only conceivable reason such a profession can or should exist is to satisfy the requirements of a broken tax system.
Winston wants “basic foods” to be exempt GST. Imagine how many thousands of experts we will need for the scores of court cases over what is or is not a basic food.
America’s patchwork of state-level sales taxes are even worse. Every state can apply its own unique taxes. This is not limited just to deciding the rate of taxes, but also the definitions of what is and is not taxable. Some states apply sales taxes to candy but not to other foods, and different states have different definitions of what counts as candy. Wisconsin’s Department of Revenue even issued a 1,437-word memo explaining which types of ice-cream cakes, or slices thereof, are taxable or untaxed.
The mess is just as bad at the federal level, where free tans at video-rental stores are taxable but not tans provided as part of a health club membership. A simple enough (albeit ludicrous) 10% tax on tanning services proved anything but.
The economic consequences of a system riddled with bread-deciders and jam-deciders and ice-cream deciders and tan-deciders can be staggering. Taxes become far less efficient not only because of the holes riddled throughout the system, but also the legal costs of producers trying to convince courts that their product is exempt rather than taxable.
We should value that we have such a comprehensive GST that avoids this madness.
Were New Zealand to exempt healthy foods from GST, we would well be on the slippery slope. It is one of those things that sounds really easy, but would be an utter disaster in practice.
What counts as healthy? Not only does the medical evidence keep changing, but there would also be a string of boundary cases needing adjudication. If beans are healthy, what about frozen beans? Beans in a can? Beans in a can with pork fat and sauce? How much pork fat and sauce before it is taxable? What if we use Jamie Oliver’s recipe and fly him in to say it’s good?
I think TOP have proposed dividing all food into three categories of good, neutral or bad and good has less GST, neutral the same and bad more GST. Jesus Christ, imagine it.
Even worse, think through the consequences of tax exemption.
Under the current beautiful broad-base, low-rate system, companies gather all their receipts for everything they purchased when making things and claim the GST on them. They then charge GST on the full value of their final product. Their net GST is on the value they added to their inputs along the way, since they netted out the GST from the inputs. Nice, clean and easy.
If some goods were exempt from GST, we would have problems. Imagine you were a food manufacturer making two products. One attracts GST and one does not. It is possible to charge GST on one product and not the other, but all the point-of-sale terminals would need to be reprogrammed – feasible but expensive. But how do you start thinking about claiming the GST on your inputs if you are selling an exempt product. You will need to justify how you apportion all your plant’s shared costs across the different product lines. And Internal Revenue would worry you were loading costs onto the taxable line to claim GST where you shouldn’t. The auditors would be kept busy.
This is a key point. If all of your sales are subject to GST at the one rate, then all of your inputs are also – very simple. Start having some stuff GST exempt and/or at a lower rate and you can no longer do that. You then need to apportion every fixed expense to every product line.