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.

No shit: money alleviates poverty

It’s understandable why we’ve generally accepted the rightwing line that “you can’t just throw money at the problem” of poverty. It seems far too simple: people do not have enough money, ergo give them money.

So we end up kind-of-agreeing with the idea that it’s all a big complicated systemic mess which needs to be handled in a number of different ways, which conveniently enough always end up funnelling money into the hands of private business (so they’ll “create jobs”) and making life even harder for the people who have the least (to ensure they’re “deserving”).

The thing is … money basically does fix the problem. Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw of the Morgan Foundation writes at the DomPost:

Boost the incomes of the poor with no conditions attached? Cups of tea will be spat onto the newspaper across New Zealand. However, when we brought together the highest quality evidence, the science was clear. Many will claim there is no silver bullet for fixing child poverty, but the evidence suggests they are not quite right. The best evidence we have tells us that boosting the incomes (without strings attached) for our poorest families will close about half of the gap in health, education, and employment between the haves and the have nots.

The research shows it. The Economist says it. And it does simply make sense, because we live in a capitalist society. In Simpsons quotes, this means:

simpsons money goods and services

Money, and having it, and utilising it to get the basic necessities of life, is basically the central pillar of human life in a capitalist society. (It shouldn’t be, but that’s a whole other post.) Poverty is the specific lack of money. And it’s not like there isn’t enough money to go around: it’s simply being funnelled into the hands of a few. I may sound a little leftwing here, but you know what the obvious conclusion is to me?

We fix poverty by redistributing the wealth of the nation more fairly.

italian spiderman

For the NZ left in 2015, however, there’s a few challenges to face. We’ve accepted a lot of rightwing framing about the deserving poor, the undeserving poor, and the supremacy of paid work as the be-all and end-all of human value. It’s not a simple matter of taking this research and saying “see? Money does fix the problem!” Because it’s been a very long time since Labour, at least, was the party of raising benefits and supporting the poorest New Zealanders unconditionally.

Berentson-Shaw also says:

Pushing parents into work simply shifts them from welfare poor to working poor; between 40 and 50 per cent of our kids in poverty have working parents. The only time in recent years New Zealand reduced child poverty was when we gave cash to some poor via Working for Families.

And Working for Families was explicitly denied to parents on benefits. It was a step in the right direction – but one only taken by reinforcing the idea that the children of beneficiaries can be used as leverage to force their parents into paid work. By accepting that beneficiaries must be forced into paid work. Even when its simply not available.

I’m looking forward to seeing the next two articles on poverty in the DomPost. New Zealanders already agree that inequality is a massive issue and needs to be addressed. Hopefully we can change the conversation from the mean-spirited rightwing frame and get the basic message out there: we are a nation of people who care for each other. We can ensure that every family has the basics of life, and a life with dignity. That means a great public education system, healthcare, state-provided housing, feeding the kids, and giving everyone enough to live on.

~

It may be that giving people money is “only” a short term fix for their situation. But I care about people, so here’s what it comes down to: right now, there are kids going hungry in our country. Paying their parents enough to put food on the table means those kids aren’t going hungry. If your preferred solution is “let those kids continue to go hungry while we address the Wider Issues” I am not going to be subscribing to your newsletter.

2014 in review – weetbix and elections

I started Boots Theory on 1 February this year, and since then it’s seen nearly 71 posts (72 now!), 5,000 visitors, and 7,500 pageviews. Not a bad start for a year which got pretty busy offline!

But what really staggered me was finding out that over at The Standard, I somehow managed to post the most-read article of the entire year!

The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix (reposted at Boots Theory here) took a look at one of those really corrosive memes in NZ politics – the idea that poverty isn’t real because “a bowl of Weet-Bix and milk” is cheap.

The financial breakdown isn’t perfect. Commenters pointed out that I didn’t include some aspects of the Working for Families scheme which beneficiary parents might be able to get, for example. But a big part of the problem of poverty in NZ is how difficult it is for beneficiaries to know, much less get, their full entitlements. Navigating our social welfare system is downright nightmarish for many people, and the fact that WINZ’s website doesn’t even mention you might be entitled to a Family Tax Credit illustrates that.

I also got the tenth-most-read post on The Standard, on Three more years of National in government, and I’m going to give myself half-marks for contributions to the ninth-most-read post, announcing the election of Andrew Little as Labour leader.

On that high note, onwards into 2015!