Income tax and the politics of envy

* This is my article in BusinessWorld yesterday.

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“The income tax created more criminals than any other single act of government.”
— Barry Goldwater (US businessman and five-term senator)

“The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.” 
— Will Rogers (US actor, humorist, columnist)

The tax reform plan of Dutertenomics known as Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) is composed of (a) overall personal income tax (PIT) cut, (b) hike in excise tax for cars and oil products, (c) hike tax for sugar-sweetened beverages, and (d) hike in number of sectors covered by the value-added tax (VAT).

This paper will focus on the income tax reform: Minimum-wage earners and those earning P250,000/year and below will pay zero income tax. The 13th month pay and other bonuses not exceeding P100,000 are also exempted from income tax. The number of tax brackets has been reduced from seven to six. And the top PIT rate of 32% for taxable income of P500,000/year or higher has been increased to 35% for taxable income of P5 million/year or higher.

To better appreciate the current PIT and proposed changes in the policy in the Philippines, let us compare the rates with our neighbors in the ASEAN.

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The proposed PHL-TRAIN indeed deserves compliment because current PIT policy is highly confiscatory and makes Barry Goldwater’s statement so accurate. Imagine earning an annual income (net of some deductions) of only $10,000 and the Philippine government automatically confiscates one-third of that.

But what the Department of Finance (DoF) and Congress did is to adopt the “increase tax rates elsewhere to compensate for lower PIT rate” philosophy. This is wrong and there are four reasons why.

First, it is possible to abolish income tax, zero, and yet government will still survive and prosper via other revenue sources. Currently there are 10 countries in the world which have zero income tax policy: Bahamas, Bahrain, Bermuda, Brunei, Cayman Islands, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Their governments rely and thrive on selling petroleum, natural gas, lands, and/or earning from consumption-based taxes and financial transaction taxes.

Second, lower PIT rate can expand the tax base and can potentially increase overall tax revenues. More entrepreneurs and professionals from abroad as well as Filipinos working abroad will be encouraged to do business here to take advantage of lower income tax rate and hence, bigger take home pay.

Stated in a simple equation: Tax revenue (T) is a product of tax rate (t) multiplied by the number of taxpayers (N). Or (T = t x N). A decline in t can encourage the increase in N so that overall T can potentially increase, not decrease.

The DoF and Congress leaders have taken the linear and simplistic argument that lower tax rate means automatic lower revenues. They did not consider potential increase in N and T when income tax rate is significantly reduced.

Currently, Asian economies with low, flat income tax rates are Mongolia with only 10%, Macau with 12%, and Hong Kong with 15%.

Third, lower PIT even for high-income people means more take home pay, more domestic consumption which are captured by other consumption-based taxes like VAT, excise tax, property tax, motor vehicle tax, entertainment tax, travel tax and so on.

And fourth, the politics of envy is wrong. The philosophy of “demonize and overtax the rich, subsidize the poor forever” creates moral hazards problem. The implicit message is: Be careful when you become rich because the government will silently demonize you and explicitly overtax you. Aspire to remain poor, poor forever if possible because (a) your minimum wage income plus bonuses will be tax-free, (b) you get lots of freebies and subsidies, and (c) these are no timetable, forever subsidies and transfers.

When there are plenty of poor people, the government is silently saying two things: “Congratulations” and “Thank you.” Here’s how:

  1. “Congratulations — you are entitled to many subsidies and freebies: free cash transfer, free health care, free education until university, free or highly subsidized housing, free or highly subsidized e-tricycle, tractor, etc. No timetable, for life, can extend to your children and grandchildren, so long as they continue to be poor.”
  2. “Thank you — we have more justifications and alibi to harass and confiscate more from the income, wealth, properties and inheritance of the rich and super-rich (especially if they are not friends of the administration).”

Therefore, instead of raising the top PIT rate to 35%, Congress should bring it down to 25% to be more comparable with Malaysia; better if it is only 20% to be more comparable with Singapore rate.

2017060866507Society should reward people who become rich and wealthy via entrepreneurship and efficient professional work, not demonize and overtax them. We should have more millionaires and billionaires, not less; we should have more super rich people, not less.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers and a Fellow of SEANET and Stratbase-ADRi.

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Presentation at Ateneo Ignite’s Tax Exchange

I made this presentation at Ateneo  more than two months ago. The 24-slides presentation is available at my slideshare account. I will show a few slides here.

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I got this photo from Mon Abrea, a famous tax consultant and tax simplification advocate. This  is after the event.

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Our tax system is among  the highest, most envy-inspired in Asia. Data from WB-PWC’s Paying Taxes 2016 Report.

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These + other tables mean…

Tax wise, PH is NOT an attractive place to do business in the ASEAN. Highest total tax rate (TTR) in the region plus complicated and bureaucratic procedures. Only developed welfare countries Australia and Japan, and socialist China have higher TTR than PH.

Although in number of hours, VN proves it is indeed a socialist and bureaucratic state; in number of payments, ID’s bureaucracies are most notable.

Tax competition among ASEAN countries is happening. BR, SG and CM keeping  their low TTR, MM significantly cut its TTR last year. Only MY is dueling  with PH in high TTR.

The time to cut the PH’s (a) number of taxes and forced contributions, and (b) income tax rates, was yesterday. So we need to move fast today and tomorrow.

So if we can not significantly cut income taxes, one alternative is…

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Proposal 3: National income tax is zero, allow provinces to impose income tax.

“No tax on work.” Survival and prosperity of societies are based on work of people. Work should not be penalized and discouraged with taxes, the way governments discourage smoking and drinking with more taxes.

National income tax is zero, or 5% max. National government to keep collecting consumption-based taxes (VAT, excise, franchise, vehicle registration, other taxes) and regulatory fees, while devolving more functions to provincial governments.

Provinces can impose income tax. Let there be tax competition, governance competition among them.

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Concluding Notes

Tax and governance competition, infrastructure and security competition among provinces will empower the people and companies to vote with their feet.

Of 3 proposals, most feasible is #1, cut income tax rates to 20% or lower. Higher Q, wider tax base, will compensate for the reduction and propel higher TR.

Proposal #3 will attract the advocates of federalism and more decentralization and denationalization.

Proposal #2 will attract the more daring politicians, business and civil society leaders. Long-term view.

All 3 proposals can lead to more individual freedom, freer markets and limited government.

Tax competition in the ASEAN

* This is my article in BusinessWorld yesterday.

01In two weeks, it will be the deadline for the filing of income tax by individuals and corporations. April 15 each year is a reminder for many people of how much of their monthly or annual income goes to the government, aside from the various consumption-based taxes (VAT, excise tax, vehicle registration tax, and so on) that they pay.

With the ASEAN economic integration that occurred at the start of 2016, there is both business competition and complementation among firms and individuals that are based in the 10 member-countries. And tax competition is among such factors that people look up to. They can put up their manufacturing plants in country/ies which have (1) lower and simpler taxes, (2) lower cost of electricity, (3) lower cost of labor relative to skills, among others. And then sell the products to other ASEAN countries at zero tariff.

How competitive and business-friendly, or non-competitive is the Philippines compared to its neighbors in taxation policy? Let us review the most recent numbers (see Table 1).

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Of the 189 countries covered in the 2016 PWC report, the Philippines ranked 126th or in the third quartile, which is not really a good position. Compare the numbers for the Philippines vs those of Hong Kong and Singapore, which indicate that they are most business-friendly and hence, most attractive to investors.

* 36 payments of taxes and mandatory contributions vs only 3 and 6 for HK ang Singapore.

* 193 hours per year to pay for all those steps and procedures vs only 74 and 84 hours for HK and Singapore.

* 43% of commercial profit goes to paying various taxes to government (local and national) and social insurance state corporations (SSS, PhilHealth, Pag-IBIG) vs only 23% and 18% for HK and Singapore.

In total tax rate alone, here are the numbers for the 10 ASEAN countries for the 4 PWC Reports. The Philippines has the highest rate in the region, followed by Malaysia and Vietnam. Very prominent are the huge improvement or reduction of tax rates for Brunei and Myanmar (see Table 2).

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Tax wise, the Philippines is NOT an attractive place to do business in the ASEAN. It has the highest total tax rate (TTR) in the region plus complicated and bureaucratic procedures. Although in number of hours, Vietnam proves it is indeed a socialist and bureaucratic state; in number of payments, Indonesia’s bureaucracies are most notable.

The time to cut the Philippine’s number of taxes and forced contributions, and income tax rates was yesterday. So we need to move fast today and tomorrow.

Among the significant reform measures are the following:

One is to cut the income tax rate (currently it is 32% for individuals and 30% for corporations) to a flat rate of only 20% or less. Recall an earlier paper of this column where it was shown that

Tax revenues (TR) is a product of tax rate (t) multiplied by the quantity (Q) or number of taxpayers, individuals and corporate.

TR = t x Q.

If there is only one form of tax, the income tax, then there are two ways to raise TR:

(i) raise t or keep it at a high rate and wait for Q to rise because of increase in population and number of private enterprises, or

(ii) reduce t and watch Q to expand faster than the decline in t.

The second measure is to allow the island-provinces and other far flung provinces to become new countries, and encourage tax competition and governance competition with one another. They should compete with Metro Manila, Cebu, and other big provincial centers.

The third proposal is to have zero national income tax, “No tax on work” proposal, and allow the provinces to impose income tax on top of other local taxes that they collect like real property taxes and business permits. The national government can continue collecting various consumption-based taxes like VAT, excise tax, and franchise tax. The key is to have provincial tax competition without disintegrating the country into many new island-nations. Many social services done by the national government should also be devolved further to the provinces and cities.

Lower tax rates, good governance, quality of infrastructure, and peace and order will prompt provinces to compete with one another, which, in turn, will help empower people to vote with their feet. Companies meanwhile, will be encouraged to go to areas and provinces that give them more peace and order, better roads and cheaper electricity, low or reasonable tax rates that are commensurate with the services that they receive.

By shrinking the national government bureaucracies and empowering the local and provincial governments under the spirit of tax and economic competition, the public will be better served because the leaders know that beyond voting by the ballot, the people are also voting with their feet.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers, and a Fellow of South East Asia Network for Development (SEANET). minimalgovernment@gmail.com