These are taxing times but our tax system promotes unsustainability and social inequity. We need radical tax reform to address the issues of externalisation of costs, increasing income gap and environmental degradation.

The benefits of tax

Taxes are an enforced way of sharing. Even though most people complain about having to pay taxes most realise that they also share in the benefits that taxes pay for such as infrastructure, amenities and services.

Taxes also have the added benefit of redistributing wealth from where it accumulates to where it is needed.

Taxation is also a very effective way of internalising costs which are caused by economic activity but not factored into prices. These include environmental costs such as climate change and social costs such as the health system.

The problem is that our tax system perpetuates an unsustainable economy because it taxes the wrong things and not the right things.

Taxing resources

Taxing good things like employment to subsidise bad things like environmental degradation just doesn’t make sense. A sustainable tax reform would shift taxes from incomes to environmentally destructive activities.

Across the board consumption taxes (GST) are often favoured by governments because they are easy to administer but they treat good consumption and bad consumption exactly the same. By using ecological taxes at the resource level the non-renewable and polluting resources will be more expensive and uncompetitive compared to recycled, renewable and clean resources.

If we taxed water use, land use, energy use, raw materials and pollution (at the same time as reducing income taxes) resource use and pollution would reduce rapidly. The problem is that labour is taxed as a resource which creates a tendency towards lower employment and higher resource use.

Tax shifting

Tax shifting has broad support by economists around the world and has been adopted in different ways by many governments in Europe and is beginning elsewhere.

In a column in Fortune Magazine, Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw succinctly sums up the idea of tax shifting:

“Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming–all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency. This may be the closest thing to a free lunch that economics has to offer.”

Tax shifting does not decrease the total amount of revenue for the Government. However shifting income taxes to ecological taxes will create jobs, improve resource efficiency and stimulate more sustainable business and consumption practices.

As Lester R. Brown says in his book Eco-economy

“If the world is to restructure the economy before environmental destruction leads to economic decline, tax restructuring almost certainly will be at the centre of the effort. No other set of policies can bring about the systemic changes needed quickly enough.”