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.

Little: ACC levies need to come down

Most of the attention on today’s episode of Q&A focused on the two biggest issues in NZ politics at the moment – the Northland by-election and Nicky Hager’s most recent GCSB revelations.

But in Andrew Little’s interview with Heather du Plessis-Allan – amongst her blatant, failed attempts to get him to say “I’m telling people to vote for Winston” and “I support 90-day trials” – he raised another issue which highlights some of the weird hypocrisies of our present government.

Labour has an independent report which estimates that business and workers are being collectively overcharged about $350 million every year in ACC levies. ACC is currently running robust reserves, much of which is invested overseas. If some of that unneeded cash were returned to the pockets of people and businesses, it would create enough economic activity to generate 700 new jobs.

For workers at the bottom of the heap, or small businesses running on tight margins, even a few hundred dollars extra per year could be a significant factor in keeping their heads above water.

The irony is this: the Government’s repeatedly had advice – from that well-know communist thinktank, the Treasury – that ACC levies are too high. They’ve taken baby steps towards it, with cuts totalling about $115 million coming into force in April.

This is the National Party – the party which slashed the top tax rate during a recession so its wealthy backers could buy more investment properties, the party which campaigned hard on the idea that Labour wanted to introduce “FIVE NEW TAXES!!!!” – refusing to cut an unnecessary cost which would actually help families, businesses and the wider economy. Purely by coincidence, those unnecessary levies (as Grant Robertson did back in February) are probably helping to keep the Government’s books in surplus.

It kind of tells you everything about their priorities, doesn’t it?