Three golden rules for discussing progressivity

What does it mean for a policy to be progressive? The way this question is addressed by the media (and often by government) can be infuriating. It’s got to the point where I am tempted to say the term should be banned, but instead I am going to make one last attempt to clarify it by proposing three golden rules.

I was reminded of this issue when reading Jo Maugham’s analysis* of the impact of the new “social care precept”. This is essentially a £2bn rise in council tax, a significant proportion of which will be paid by poorer households. Here are the figures that Jo gives:

Who pays what in council tax

So is this tax progressive or not? Well, rich people pay more, and for some that’s good enough. Fraser Nelson, for example, likes to point out that “the top 3,000 taxpayers in Britain stump up more income tax than the lowest-paid 9 million”. It is more common to look at how paying tax affects the living standards of different groups by comparing tax paid as a proportion of income. By this measure, council tax is regressive.

This is as far as the discussion usually goes. But both of these comparisons have no basis in reality – unless that reality involves collecting these taxes and throwing the money in the sea. The fact is that this money will show up somewhere else, either as increased spending or lower taxes. Which brings me to my first golden rule: the distributional effect of a policy change can’t be assessed without looking at both sides of the equation.

Since this is called the “social care precept”, we might think that it will lead to increased spending on social care. It’s not easy to find numbers on how social care spending is split between income groups, but modelling done in 2011 for the Dilnot Commission (see figure 11 here) made some estimates. Reading the numbers off the chart, I get something like this.

Council tax and social care by income group

Social care spending is more heavily weighted towards poor people than council tax collection, so lower income groups make a net gain from this policy. That is, the introduction of this policy increases the total amount of redistribution that the government does, which is the only sensible definition I can think of for the word “progressive”, with reference to a change in policy.

Gain from spending council tax on social care

But is higher spending on social care really the effect of this policy? That is, if it weren’t for the social care precept, would we see lower social care spending? You could argue that social care spending is going to rise either way, since we’ve got more old people than ever. If it’s not paid for by council tax rises it will be paid for by higher taxes elsewhere, higher borrowing, or cuts to other services.

So this is my second golden rule: identify a realistic counterfactual. We need to know whether the policy leads to more redistribution than what would otherwise have happened. That “what” can have a huge impact on how we view the distributional consequences.

Let’s say we believe that without the social care precept higher social care spending would have to be funded through an increase in income tax – or perhaps higher borrowing now, funded by future increases in council tax. As Jo points out, income tax is much more targeted on rich people than council tax. Here’s the net effect of raising £2bn through council tax instead of income tax.

Gain from raising council tax vs income tax

This policy change would give money to the richest 20% at the expense of everyone else. I think we can all agree that’s regressive. So depending on the counterfactual, the social care precept is either highly progressive or highly regressive. Take your pick. We need to decide which counterfactual is more realistic. In this case, the first one is probably closer to the truth (raising income tax and borrowing more are not top of this government’s agenda) so I’d argue that the policy is probably progressive.

But there’s another more fundamental question here: how much redistribution do we want? Requiring all policy changes to be “progressive” implies that we think we don’t currently have enough. But at some point, if we were to go on increasing redistribution, we’d have too much. Views will differ wildly as to what the optimal level is, but in principle there must be one. I imagine few people think that there should be no redistribution and few think that redistribution should fully equalise living standards.

And even if we want more redistribution, we might not care if a policy is regressive if its effect on the overall level of redistribution is small and it achieves some other aims. The state does not exist solely for the purpose of moving money from the rich to the poor. My third golden rule is therefore this: the overall level of government redistribution is what matters. We need to know whether we want to increase or decrease it, and how much we care about small changes relative to other policy aims.

These rules really are essential. It is impossible to say anything about whether a policy change is progressive without considering both sides of the equation and being clear about what you think the alternative scenario is. It is impossible to know whether you actually want the policy to be progressive, or whether you care, without considering the overall level of redistribution.

These are not new insights and many organisations (the IFS, the OBR, sometimes even the Treasury) are quite diligent about doing distributional analysis properly. But much of the public discussion of “progressivity” fails to follow a single one of these rules, giving us a rather poor standard of debate on the state’s role in reducing inequalities.


* I’m not picking on Jo’s analysis because it is a particularly egregious example. On the contrary, I am picking on it because is one of the better examples of someone tackling this question, so Jo has done most of my work for me.

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