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.

5 Replies to “How we talk about tax: the shiftless hordes and the hard-working rich”

  1. One faintly reassuring thing: in the nearly 200 comments on Stuff, there were plenty of people arguing about the need to support children, and rejecting the net tax idea.

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