GST confusion

By Eric Crampton 19/04/2015

In last week’s NZ Initiative “Insights” newsletter, I’d hit on public misunderstandings around GST. People think taking GST off food would be strongly progressive, because poor people spend a greater fraction of their income on food, but richer cohorts get a much larger fraction of the total benefit because they spend more in total on food. If you want to help poorer people, run the redistribution directly rather than taking GST off food.

I have never been a fan of the old prayer wishing confusion upon one’s opponents. In a real war, your enemy’s confusion helps. But in policy battles, it rather seems to me that that confusion hurts everybody.

Take GST. New Zealand is blessed with what is about the world’s cleanest value-added tax. Australia’s GST is in dire need of modernisation – their tax exemption regime around food, for one, makes ridiculous and arcane distinctions between bread and crackers and around just what gets to count as a pizza, as noted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this week.

Nevertheless, it is not hard to find local advocates of exempting ‘healthy’ food from GST to change peoples’ diets, or for exempting food entirely to help poorer people. Both proposals are hopelessly confused: they are very costly ways to fail to achieve the desired objectives.

To start with, so long as richer people spend more money on food than do poorer people, exempting food from GST does more to help richer people than it does to help poorer people. If your goal is to help poorer families be able to afford more food, policies that reduce the cost of housing leave more space in the budget – but we will come to that later. Food exemptions from GST are a very expensive way of helping poorer people as compared to just using our existing income transfer programmes – or making jobs easier to get.

Further, exemption regimes make a mess of GST accounting. If you think that we should tax people until they eat the way you want them to eat, it is better done with an excise regime than by wrecking GST. We will be taking on the case for and against food taxes later in the year.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but John Creedy and co-authors have run the numbers on this one. Their abstract, in a forthcoming NZEP piece:

This paper investigates the welfare effects on New Zealand households of zero-rating food in a goods and services tax (GST). The detailed effects, for a range of household types, are investigated using Household Economic Survey data. Demand responses to consumer price changes are estimated and welfare changes, in terms of equivalent variations, are obtained. Comparisons are also made across clusters, consisting of groups of households with similar characteristics. A tax change is found to produce a very small amount of progressivity in the GST. Redistribution is from households without children and with high total expenditure to households with children and low total expenditure, and towards older households.

You get far more progressivity, if that’s what you want, by transferring more money to poor people. Their bottom line?

The analysis supports earlier studies suggesting that the use of zero-rating in an indirect tax structure provides a poor redistributive instrument compared with direct taxes and transfers