Taxing Politics

Oxfam’s Duncan Green has responded to Matthew’s Tobin tax posts of yesterday and also to Owen Barder’s post, which raised concerns about whether financial transactions taxes might have a regressive impact. Duncan’s argument is that a narrow window of opportunity for a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions has been opened by the financial crisis which could raise cash for good causes. He urges Matthew and Owen to get behind the Robin Hood Tax campaign rather than proposing alternatives.

‘There’s usually a reason why the first best ones [solutions – a wealth tax, as Matthew proposes, for instance] are not already in place – it’s called politics,’ says Duncan. I feel sure Matthew will want to respond, but briefly – in my lunch break – my view is that arguing for a limited tax on wholesale currency transactions, which the literature seems to suggest would be transparent and probably not passed through to the banks’ customers, does not exclude arguing for other progressive climate and development taxes.

So, to push back a little on Duncan’s suggestion that Political Climate is displaying political naivety, it’s worth asking what the strategy of the Robin Hood Tax campaign is? In my view, the politics of taxation are about to be more negotiable than they have been for some time. Fiscal austerity in years to come should, if inequality campaigners are willing to go the distance, open up an opportunity to argue for more progressive taxation to offset some of the pain felt as a result of horrendously deep cuts in public services politicians are currently contemplating and, of concern from a climate change perspective, a slashing of government capital expenditure budgets.

It’s certainly not a bad thing to channel people’s anger at bankers towards a campaign for a financial transactions tax, but careful consideration of where the burden actually falls – one of the main points Matthew was making – is important, otherwise society’s victory will be short lived. Also, it would be a terrible shame if Robin Hood’s campaigners won the arguments for tax on wholesale currency transactions and didn’t translate this victory into a broader call for the taxation of wealth and,  fundamental to all tax proposals, a curbing of the tax avoidance industry so that wealth is held where it can be taxed.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Taxing Politics

  1. Rob

    Precisely what is so good about the Robin Hood Tax is its focus. It has a specific ask, and the push is focused on a specific opportunity of public and political outrage against bankers.

    I totally agree with Duncan – people should get behind the RHT, warts and all, rather than trying to pile in with their own pet taxes as worthy as they are. Campaigns need a specific ask, a specific target, and a specific time.

    Worse than this though would be standing at the sidelines grumbling that a) it’s impacts on volatility are unknown b) it’s not as progressive as other options c) bankers will just pass it on d) it doesn’t align incentives and outcomes e) it doesn’t make me a cup of tea in the morning.

    Sure the RHT isn’t perfect. As an environmentalist, I would like to see climate finance raised through a carbon pricing mechanism which better aligns incentives and outcomes. But that ain’t happening any time soon. And as all the economists (who grumble about the messy RHT where polluters don’t pay) know, the costs of climate change increase exponentially as action is delayed. I’ll take a messy solution with wonky incentives today over the perfect solution and 5 degrees of warming tomorrow!

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