Taxes, greed and David Seymour

Fleshing out one of my recent Twitter rants, kicked off by this tragic bit of capitalist propaganda from the “leader” of the ACT “Party”:

Here’s the thing about taxes. Taxes are schools. Taxes are hospitals. Taxes are protecting our natural environment and biosecurity at our borders. Taxes support small business. Taxes support tourism. Taxes pay for the inspectors who keep our food safe and protect our export industries.

Taxes do all the important things “the market” won’t do because there’s no profit in it.

Parties like ACT exist to funnel money away from those important things via tax cuts, privatisation, and diverting public money to funding private organisations like charter schools.

That’s why they want you to think of tax as a burden, not the contribution we all make to keeping our society healthy and just. They want to pretend that “taxes” and “public services” aren’t one and the same thing. That’s why we have to change the frame on taxes. Not as a burden we need relief from, and not as the price that we begrudgingly pay for social stability and decent public services. Taxes are the way we all chip in to take care of the basics. Taxes are how we all share in building a stronger, happier, healthier, fairer country.

I’m a “net taxpayer”. And I love paying taxes.


And here’s the thing about the way David Seymour and the right glorify “net taxpayers”: it’s the clearest demonstration you need that what they truly value, in their hearts, is greed. They represent, and promote the interests of, people who already have plenty – have more than enough to live good lives – and who resent the contribution they have to make to society (because, as I had to explain to a “taxation is theft!!!” troll, we have democracy. We elect governments to pass laws, and you don’t get to opt out of them just because you’re selfish and narrow-minded.)

But this simply isn’t how the vast majority of human beings work. Look at the way lower/middle-income people give higher proportions of their income to charities, or give up their time to help local organisations. Look at the cultural importance we place on welcoming people, on hospitality, on caring for those who are more vulnerable. It’s not a bland calculation of disbursing surplus resources to guarantee returns. Many people who give their time and money to charity are struggling themselves, but are driven by wanting to support and care for others in even worse positions.

In contrast, politicians like David Seymour (who really has no grounds to complain about “net taxpayers” given where his pay comes from) belong to a bizarre fringe group who treat all human interactions as a cut-throat business negotiation: “what am I getting out of this? Where is the return on investment for this small talk?” This is not normal.

He must be great fun on dates.

People like Seymour don’t understand what a community is, so they refuse to see the benefits we all reap from supporting each other. They look at it like: I don’t have kids. Why should my taxpayer dollars go towards schools?

Because a well-educated population is happier and healthier and more stable and less likely to fall into goddamned fascism, that’s why.

That’s what betrays them as defenders of greed. It’s not ~enlightened self-interest~ or whatever marketing slogan they’re using these days. A strong civil society is in everyone’s self-interest! Whatever “extra” or “net” tax I pay is being returned to me in the ability to turn on my tap and drink clean water, or have proper roads for the bus to drive on to get me to work in the morning, or know that the food I buy for lunch is safe to eat.

It’s no surprise a lot of people buy into the idea that ~greed is good~ – that’s what decades of capitalist/neoliberal propaganda will do to you. But if there is a “natural state” of humanity, it is not the cold, jealous, suspicious attitude which the David Seymours of the world hold up as an ideal.

The right know this. That’s one of the reasons the ACT Party is still alive, aside from allowing National to distort the rightwing vote share in Parliament to hold on to power. ACT provide an excuse to National to bring in policies of greed like charter schools or letting property developers build slums on conservation land (just not in Epsom, because #epsomvalues). National knows it has to pretend to be friendly and relaxed and “just like Labour, only with a few tax cuts!”, because not even 1% of people vote for greed when it’s marketed honestly.

Tax is awesome. Greed is ugly. Let’s make that the conversation for 2017.

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How we talk about tax: the shiftless hordes and the hard-working rich

This is how Stuff chose to headline an article about the way income tax is paid in New Zealand:

tax brunt
On the Facebook thumbnail, it was even worse:

tax hordes
(Congratulations, baby, you’re part of a horde!)

There are many ways to debunk the entire premise of “some feckless baby-makers just want to live in luxury off the rest of us”, like:

You could point out that “just counting income tax and not GST” is a Kiwiblog standard tactic as old as the dinosaurs.

You could ask why “an economist at Infometrics” doesn’t understand that literally every country has “a top 1%” because that’s how percentages work.

And you could focus on the comments from Drs Susan St John and Deborah Russell – experts in tax and inequality who understand the world is far more complex than “income tax in, Working for Families out”. Dr St John says:

“We are all in a negative position when you look at what the state provides. If you have an individual on a given income with no children and someone else with the same income and multiple children, they are not in the same position to pay tax. This gives some degree of horizontal equity.”

And Dr Russell:

“Everyone regards superannuation as an entitlement – they think older people are entitled to support because they cannot work any more.

“But why not apply the same thinking to children as well? They can’t go out and earn money. Children do not choose their parents. They are not possessions or commodity items. We need to think in terms of supporting vulnerable citizens – the sick, elderly and children.”

The article redeems itself somewhat with these quotes – right at the end. But what does the headline tell you? Hordes of people aren’t really paying any tax. A small number of good, industrious people are bearing the brunt of tax. When that’s the way the issue is framed from the get-go, it reinforces a terrible set of ideas we have about tax, society, welfare and community: from “people receiving benefits are bludgers leeching off the rest of us” to “the rich are rich because they work hard and don’t expect handouts” to “tax is a terrible thing and wouldn’t it be great if none of us paid it?”

These ideas have become ingrained, reflexive assumptions, thanks to a concerted, decades-in-the-making effort from the right, but also a failure to provide an alternative set of ideas from the left. We oppose National when it promises tax cuts and spins surpluses out of thin air to make them look reasonable, but we also accept that a government must “live within its means”.

We have tacitly supported the idea that tax is a burden, that government spending should be reined in, that we must avoid at all costs getting hit with the “tax and spend” label. We’ve abandoned the good old socialist rhetoric about where wealth comes from – labour – and why government exists – to ensure wealth is distributed more fairly and support everyone in our society to live a good life. Instead we propose minimal-cost policies and fiscally-neutral spending.

It can feel like an insurmountable challenge, I know! The rightwing rhetoric is so pervasive we don’t even see it as a political statement any more, to say “business creates jobs” or “goverments must deliver surplus”. But we can be bold and challenging and forthright about the principles that matter to us.

We can offer an alternative. It’s what people are crying out for.

How we got here

When I saw this article about the Takapuna Kathmandu store deliberately destroying clothing, sleeping bags and tents before disposing of them, I started thinking about how the hell we got into this situation.

To give full credit to Kathmandu, they responded quickly on social media saying they would look into the practice and disavowing that it was company policy. But someone, somewhere along the line decided this was an OK thing to do. And as the story spread, people talked about other incidents – shoe stores slashing apart unwanted items, supermarkets discarding perfectly edible food and pouring bleach on it to stop desperate, hungry people from raiding their rubbish bins.

Right now, New Zealand is a country where families are living in cars and kids are going to school hungry. To have retailers destroying perfectly good, but “unsaleable” stock, especially food or clothing, is just unconscionable.

On the other side of things we have organisations like Kaibosh and Te Puea marae providing amazing, inspiring care and support for people in need – but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And it didn’t used to be.

A long time ago in New Zealand we all, through public services run by the government, ensured every family had enough money to feed their kids and a safe house to live in. We used to make people’s jobs secure and support people who weren’t able to work.

We knew some things were too important to leave in the hands of private companies whose first priority was profit. We knew together, as people who are part of a community, we could help each other. And the government, or the state, was the best instrument of that – because it wasn’t driven by making a quick buck, because it was accountable to the people.

We lost that. But we didn’t lose it by accident. It was by design.

Blame whoever you want, the point is that we were told, and began to believe, that the private sector was more efficient that the government. That the motivation of monety – the very reason we had taken these essential services off the market in the first place – would deliver “efficiencies” and “better targeted services” and “more responsive organisations.”

We have case after case showing how untrue this is. Serco. Compass. Telecom. Tranz Rail. Bank of New Zealand. New Zealanders end up paying more and more, either directly or through goverment bonuses, for less and less.

Yet it’s still the received wisdom, ingrained further and further as the National Party undermine the public services we have left, deliberately underfunding and straining them to breaking point so they can triumphantly declare, “See? The government can’t provide these services! Best sell them off.”

The end result? Someone overseas is making a lot of money, and children here in Aotearoa are living in cars, going to school not with empty lunchboxes – with no lunchboxes at all.

And because New Zealanders are caring, compassionate people, we step up. We open our doors and put our hands in our pockets

Imagine if we could pool all those resources across the country and had a single organisation with the knowledge and leverage to ensure every kid gets breakfast and every family has a home. An organisation motivated by providing good lives for people, not payouts for shareholders.

We could call the organisation, “government”. We could call those resources we all chip in, “tax”. We used to know what those things meant, before we got to where we are now. Together, we can decide to go somewhere else.

~

Related reading: Simon Louisson at The Spinoff on why the left has to stop being apologetic about taxes.

Recommended reading on the Panama Papers

I’ll admit, the Panama Papers issue is a teensy bit over my head. Fortunately the internet is full of smart intelligent people, and we’ve all got our own areas of expertise – so I humbly direct you to two excellent pieces of writing on the matter.

At Corner Politics: A note on the Panama Papers

Effectively most of the world is in slavery – forced to work for low wages, no benefits, no holidays, no education because apparently companies cannot afford to pay them.

Don’t forget that by spending up to 90% of our income on goods and services, we are enabling these people to horde incredible amounts of wealth. Those born into this wealth will never have to work as hard as we do and we will forever be chastised for not working hard enough and for being jealous and envious.

And at Scoop, Gordon Campbell writes on the political tokenism of the government’s response to the Panama Papers

Let me make a wild guess. When he reports back on June 30, we can be pretty sure that Shewan will find that there is much to admire and few causes for concern in the New Zealand rules to do with foreign trusts. Let me also bet that Shewan’s analysis will limit itself entirely to the formal framework – it will be an “on paper” evaluation – and will not examine how the system works in practice. How the system actually works is the sort of thing that can emerge only if and when a public inquiry was held, and people were invited to come out of the woodwork.

Click on through and read both posts in full.

Make the bludgers pay their fair share

Few things in this world make me eyeroll as strongly as the quibblers who jump up whenever you point out the discrepancy between the amount of money lost to benefit fraud – which our government pursues like a greyhound hopped up on E – and the amount lost to tax evasion – which isn’t nearly such a big deal, unless you’re a tradie, in which case you get doomsday language like “HIDDEN ECONOMY” slapped on you.

“But it’s different!” the quibblers cry. “Tax evasion is legal!”

As though “legal” is the same as “ethical”.

As though this doesn’t just prove how strongly the system is rigged – as though the loopholes aren’t there for a reason. As though the grey areas just evolved naturally.

As though all those just-legal-enough mechanisms are coincidentally only accessible to the people who are already wealthy.

As though the way we talk about tax and welfare aren’t designed to make this all seem okay.

That’s why I got a bit cheeky in the title of this post. When you saw it, who did you think I was talking about? Who do we usually frame as “bludgers”, and who do we usually assume isn’t paying their “fair share”? When politicians talk about people “taking responsibility”, do they mean the people with money? Or the people without?

Here’s the radical idea. Tax isn’t a burden. It’s one of the contributions we all make (yes, including people on state benefits) towards maintaining our society. Towards having strong infrastructure and free healthcare and education and a social safety net for people who need it.

The right like to scream and moan about the wealthiest 15% paying 75% of taxes – but it’s rubbish. What they love to avoid mentioning is that 1% of people in this country own 16% of everything while 50% of people own 5% – and they’d die before acknowledging that the 50% are the ones doing the actual work, while the 1% drain off the profits like leeches.

When it comes to lamenting the poor little rich boy who has to pay tax, there’s plenty of numbers and statistics to justify the status quo. When you ask the government how many kids they are letting go hungry because there aren’t enough jobs for their parents, and the jobs that do exist are paid poverty wages – oh no, that’s too difficult to measure, they say, we can’t do anything about that.

The truth is this. The rich aren’t paying their fair share to keep our country running. And even if they stopped using their wealth and power to dodge the spirit of tax law, if not the letter, they still wouldn’t be paying their fair share, because the tax system has been set up to benefit them.

This is a conversation the left desperately need to stop running away from, especially if we keep letting the first question for any progressive policy be “but what will it cost?”

Let’s just stand up and say it. Yes. It will cost a hell of a lot to institute a universal basic income, or raise benefits to a survivable level, or rebuild our health system. But we won’t be paying for it – those dickheads over there, who have been bludging off other people’s hard work and living the high life through fancy accounting tricks will. Because for too long they’ve dodged paying their fair share and it’s time they took some responsibility.

Let’s stop the bludging. The filthy rich have spent decades stockpiling the wealth other people worked to create, exploiting our country’s social support systems to enrich themselves. It’s their turn to pay the price for a strong, healthy democratic society. They won’t be impoverished by having to sell off one of their yachts or settling for just two investment properties. And they’ll benefit, as they always have done, from being able to do business in a country of healthy, educated, happy, productive people.

It’s really that easy. We just have to change the conversation.