Taxing Labor versus Taxing Consumption?
Europe’s welfare systems face substantial demographic headwinds. Increasing life expectancy and the approaching retirement of “Baby Boomers” will increase public expenditures for years to come. Rightfully, much attention is focused on containing additional spending needs for pensions, health and long term care. But how is all this being paid for?
Currently, the majority of social spending, including most importantly pension benefits, in most countries in Europe and Central Asia is financed through social security contributions, which are essentially taxes on labor. This has two important implications. First, in terms of fiscal sustainability, the growth in spending is only a concern if expenditures grow faster than the corresponding revenues. Since labor taxes are the predominant source of financing for most welfare systems in both EU and transition countries, aging will not only increase spending, but simultaneously exert pressure on revenues. With the exception of countries in Central Asia and Turkey, the labor force, and hence the number of taxpayers that pay labor taxes will decline by about 20 percent on average across the region. Second, already today, labor taxes, including both personal income taxes and social security contributions account on average for about 40 percent of total gross labor costs in Europe and Central Asia (including EU member states), compared to an average of 34 percent in the OECD. This means that for every US$ 1 received in net earnings, employers on average incur a labor cost of US$ 1.67. And out of the 67 cents that are paid in labor taxes, 43 cents (or 65 percent) are directly used to finance social security benefits. By increasing the cost of labor, the high tax burden potentially harms competitiveness, job creation, and growth in countries in the region.
Taxing Labor versus Taxing Consumption?
Giving Cash Unconditionally in Fragile States
There have been many recent press articles, a couple of potentially seminal journal papers, and some great blogs from leading economists at the World Bank on the topic of Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCTs). It remains a widely debated subject, and one with perhaps a couple of myths associated with it. For example, what is cash from UCTs used for? Do the transfers lead to permanent increases in income? Does it matter how the transfers are labelled or promoted? I am particularly interested in whether UCTs could be a useful instrument in countries with low institutional capacity, such as fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS).
Why UCTs in FCS? UCTs present a new approach to reducing poverty, stimulating growth and improving social welfare, that may be the most efficient and feasible mechanism in FCS. A recent evaluation of the World Bank’s work on FCS recognized, “where government responsiveness to citizens has been relatively weak, finding the right modality for reaching people with services is vital to avoiding further fragility and conflict”. Plus there is always the risk of desperately needed finances being “spirited away” when channeled through central governments. UCTs may present a mechanism for stimulating the provision of quality services, which are often lacking, while directly reducing poverty at the same time. As Shanta Devarajan’s blog puts it, “But when they (the poor) are given cash with which to “buy” these services, poor people can demand quality—and the provider must meet it or he won’t get paid.” We should explore more about this approach to tackling poverty: where and when it has worked, what made it work, and whether we can predict whether it will work in different contexts.
- unconditional cash transfers
- Cast Transfers
- Fragile and Conflict Afflicted States
- Social Development
- Public Sector and Governance
- South Asia
- Middle East and North Africa
- Latin America & Caribbean
- Europe and Central Asia
- East Asia and Pacific
- Syrian Arab Republic
Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Economic growth has returned to Central Europe and the Baltics. With the exception of Slovenia, all countries are expected to see positive growth in 2014 - ranging from a tepid 0.8% in Croatia, to more respectable growth rates of 2.2% in Romania and 2.8% in Poland, to highs of 3-4.5% percent in the Baltic Republics. Europe, more broadly, is also turning the corner and is expected to grow at around 1.5%.
Amidst this much welcome growth, however, one question remains: will economic growth be good for the bottom 40 percent and can they expect to see their incomes grow?
Shanta: Jishnu, your blog post and mine on cash transfers generated a lot of comments. Some people argued that giving poor people cash will not “work” because they will spend it on consumption rather than on their children’s education, which is something we care about. What do you have to say to that?
Jishnu: I don’t think the question “does giving cash to poor people work?” is well-defined. It can only be answered in the negative if we (the donors who give the cash) impose our preferences and judge what poor people spend on relative to those preferences. But if we give poor people cash so they will be better off, then—by definition—they are better off, regardless of how they choose to spend the extra money.
When confronted with financial distress or some other difficulty, over 80 percent of Tanzanian families say they count on relatives and friends for the support needed to get through it. This is to be expected in African culture which is shaped by a strong sense of affinity with family and tribal ties.
However, in a poll conducted by the World Bank and Twaweza by phone in November, almost half of Tanzanian households also expressed that they expect to receive some help from their Government (see details in the fourth Tanzania Economic Update). In a world characterized by rapid urbanization and structural changes, government assistance is increasingly viewed as critical. In cities, especially, traditional ties and safety nets are generally losing their force. With economic progress, income disparities tend to widen. For example, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (i.e. with barely enough resources to afford a 2,000 calorie diet) is only one percent in Dar es Salaam but over 15 percent in most rural areas.
تتصدى دول التحول العربي التي تضم تونس ومصر واليمن وليبيا حاليا لقضايا معقدة تتعلق بالقيم الفردية، ومدى حرية التعبير، والحقوق الشخصية، والأمور العائلية التي تدور جميعا حول القضايا الجوهرية المتمثلة في الهوية والأدوار التي يلعبها الفرد والدولة والمجتمع. وهذه الحوارات الاجتماعية بناءة من حيث إنها تعكس ثراء الرؤى وتعددها في مجتمعات كانت مسايرة الموجة هي السمة السائدة في كنف النظم الديكتاتورية. لكن للأسف، تؤدي هذه الحوارات إلى الاستقطاب في المجتمع بما يؤدي إلى العنف والتهديد بالفوضى واحتمال العودة إلى الاستبداد. في الحقيقة، يعكس الاستقطاب الاجتماعي الحالي إلى حد بعيد محاولات السياسيين استغلال الانقسامات الاجتماعية، بل وتأجيجها، بطريقة تذكي حماس أنصارهم المحتملين لملء الفراغ السياسي الذي نجم عن رحيل طغاة العصر. وتختلف حالات الحراك التي يشهدها المغرب والأردن والجزائر ولبنان بعض الشيء، إلا أنه في هذه الحالة أيضا يؤدي التركيز المكثف والاستثنائي على الهوية إلى تزاحم التحديات الاجتماعية والاقتصادية بطريقة أكثر أهمية وأكثر سرعة.
The Arab transition countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, are grappling with complex issues relating to personal values, the extent of freedom of speech, individual rights, family matters, that all orbit around deep issues of identity and the respective roles of the individual, the state and society. These social conversations are constructive in that they reflect a rich pluralism of views in societies where conformity was the rule under dictatorship. But unfortunately, these dialogues are polarizing society, leading to violence and threatening chaos and a possible return to authoritarianism. In fact, the current social polarization to a large extent reflects attempts by political entrepreneurs to use existing social fault lines, and even exacerbate them, in ways that mobilize passions among possible supporters, driven to over-reach by the political vacuum created by the departure of the historical autocrats. The dynamics in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Lebanon are slightly different, but here too, the intense and exclusive focus on identity is crowding out more important and immediate social and economic challenges.
About a year back the Economist had an editorial piece titled "Out of the basket" and subtitled “Lessons from the achievements – yes, really, achievements – of Bangladesh.” The more in-depth piece that followed appeared somewhat bemused at how a country once labeled a ‘test case for development’ could have made such striking gains in development outcomes over the past two decades (see table 1). These gains were hard to reconcile amidst Bangladesh’s natural and Rana Plaza-type disasters, volatile politics and unfavorable rankings on governance indicators – themes which the Economist has often covered before, and after, this “achievements” piece.
This past week the Lancet has come out with a special issue on Bangladesh which the journal editors say is in order to “investigate one of the great mysteries of global health.” Specifically the published papers are meant to explore how “Bangladesh has made enormous health advances and now has the longest life expectancy, lowest fertility rate and lowest infant and under-5 mortality rates in South Asia despite spending less on health care than several neighbouring countries.” Both these publications help explain the various ‘Bangladesh paradoxes’ but they also overlook, or underplay, a few critical factors.
The issue of social inclusion in Turkey is a controversial one. In this blog, I want to present some data that suggest Turkey experienced inclusive growth over the past decade or so. My colleagues and I have shared this basic story with a number of audiences in Turkey and often the reaction is disbelief. So what does the data say?
The bottom 40 percent can look up
I use three pieces of evidence to make my case. The first is based on recent work by Joao Pedro Azevedo and Aziz Atamanov of the World Bank on shared prosperity. Joao Pedro and Aziz’s work is ongoing and much richer than what I want to present here. So let me just focus on the following chart, which shows the growth of consumption of the bottom 40 percent in Turkey between 2006-2011 and in a number of other countries during roughly the same period. Turkey looks reasonably good albeit not exceptional. The rate of consumption growth of the bottom 40 percent was just over 5 percent, around 0.2 points below the rate of growth for the average. What this means is that during this period of significant global economic turbulence the average welfare of the bottom 40 percent improved by more than one quarter. This was better than India, Indonesia, or Mexico, albeit worse than Brazil, China and Russia.
The Sunday before last I woke up to a couple of articles in the New York Times Magazine and The Economist. In the first article, the New York Times ethicist was asked a question about Halloween candy: Are dentists who purchase candy from kids (thus protecting their teeth) and donate it to poor families engaging in “thoughtless, unethical and unprofessional” behavior? The Economist article summarized research on cash transfers to the poor, concluding that “Giving money to poor people works surprisingly well. But it cannot deal with the deeper causes of poverty”. In both articles, the fundamental question is how we measure and judge improvements in welfare based on what people consume. But while the ethicist takes the question head on, The Economist does not even get the question right.
To see this, recall that in welfare economics there are two rationales for government interventions to make people better off. First, governments fix market failures. If the market does not produce efficient outcomes, the government can use taxes and subsidies to make things better. Externalities are classic examples. I don’t worry that my pollution makes others worse off and therefore “over pollute”. But the government can tax that pollution to the point where I behave “as if” I care about others.
Second, governments redistribute income by giving cash to the poor. If, in society’s judgment, an alternate distribution of consumption is better, government could achieve that distribution by redistributing “endowments” or cash from one party to another.