Paying for the energy price guarantee has highlighted a deep political cleavage around tax ideology. Reframing windfall as emergency will be critical to leverage a change in direction.
Tax is always contentious. Debates surrounding who should pay, how much, and where the revenues are redistributed to are the heart of state power and national and global political economies. No one likes paying taxes but seeing tax only through the lens of either powerful interest groups or electoral politics misses the extent to which the contemporary tax debate in the UK, in particular in relation to so-called ‘windfall’ taxes on energy companies is driven by ideology. Ideas of tax – which ones should be levied, at what rate, to whom – are embedded in wider ideas of state and the role of government in socio-economic life. In the UK, political parties that call for higher taxes are associated with an interventionalist and redistributive state, while those who argue for low taxes believe in individual responsibility and markets. But the UK is currently facing an unprecedented economic crisis and the decision not to backdate taxes on the extraordinary profits energy companies have been making to pay for state intervention in energy markets in September 2022 has been based on ideology, underpinned by a set of ideals and ideas, when what is needed is a pragmatic response to an emergency. If opposition parties could move away from the language of ‘windfall’ that suggests the need to ‘punish’ companies for excess profits and speak instead of the need to come together to respond a national emergency, it might have helped them cut through the government’s ideology approach. To do so, there are lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, in this case Latin America.
In this post we show that an increase in aggregate demand first generates an increase in the use of productive equipment and then an increase in productive capacity. This suggests we do not need to worry about inflation after a fiscal or monetary stimulus to boost aggregate demand, but can rather expect higher investment in the long term along with utilisation returning to its pre-shock levels.
A stylised fact that characterises modern economies is that part of the installed productive capacity is persistently idle. By productive capacity I mean the productive equipment (mostly fixed capital goods) in existence, together with that part of the workforce which is required to operate it. As we can see in Figure 1, in countries as diverse as Belgium, Finland or Lithuania, the effective utilisation of installed capacity often gravitates below 100%, and around 80% on average worldwide.
Figure 1. Installed capacity utilisation by country (1998Q1-2017Q4).
Source: see Appendix I.
The academic consensus is that there are large margins of idle capacity planned by entrepreneurs. The reasons why entrepreneurs plan to operate with idle capacity vary according to the school of thought considered. At the risk of making a drastic simplification, we can say that while some authors think that entrepreneurs do so in order not to lose market share in the face of changes in demand, others tend to think that there is a rate of utilisation of installed capacity that does not accelerate inflation (Non-accelerating inflation rate of capacity utilisation, NAICU).
In April 2021, Ivan Duque’s administration presented a tax reform bill labeled “Law of Sustainable Solidarity” to Congress. The bill contemplated an increment of the VAT on basic goods in conjunction with an increase in the marginal tax rates on the income of the so-called Colombian middle class. The vast majority of whom earns monthly less than 4,000,000 Colombian pesos (around 1,065 U.S. dollars). Although the bill put on the table contained some crucial elements for discussion, such as implementing a “basic monthly income” of 21 U.S. dollars (by far less than the current minimum wage). It contained little or nothing to effectively tackle Colombia’s high social and income inequality (with an official GINI of 0.526 for 2019).
The tax reform bill was presented in the mid of a severe economic and social crisis that had worsened due to the pandemic and against which the Colombian government has done hitherto little beyond the orthodox recipes. This triggered a general strike and nationwide social mobilizations that have already lasted over more than two weeks without any clarity as to their resolution as yet. The current social protest can be considered a continuation of a general strike that erupted at the end of 2019 and got into a rest due to the pandemic.
Yet, many elements behind the social movement go beyond dissatisfaction with the tax reform bill. Since 2016 after the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, which used to be the oldest and biggest guerrilla in Colombia, the government hasn’t implemented most of the elements contemplated in the peace agreement. Also, although Colombia has had macroeconomic stability for more than 20 years, an indicator such as the official unemployment rate has consistently been above 10%. The level of poverty before the COVID-19 shock was near 32%.
Thus, the following question arises, what does it mean to have macroeconomic stability to the population? A call to think outside the box on what the government can or can’t do must be considered under other lenses. In view of the worsening of the social, political, and economic crisis in Colombia and the need to develop economic policy alternatives to the government’s orthodox position, a group of citizens and academicians wrote the open letter below to respond to those who argue the TINA mantra and believe that there’s a consensus in economics to support tax reforms amidst the COVID-19 epidemic.
“Defund the Police” is a powerful slogan. It articulates a vision of a better world that so many of us on the left want to live in. A world free from the arbitrary state violence on display in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. At the same time, either implicitly or explicitly, it also expresses a strong desire to address the problems that afflict American society with redistribution instead of violence through the provisioning of public goods such as education, health care, housing, and the like. To be sure, I want more than anything to live in this world, one without policing and with robust social democratic programs like universal single-payer health care and guaranteed housing. However, the politics of defund the police is not how we get from here to there.
With modern money theory (MMT) receiving impressive attention, the implications this theory has for developing countries have also been discussed more intensely. Emphasizing both its strengths and gaps provides a great chance to further develop macroeconomic strategies for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.
In brief, the theory starts from the statement that money is issued by the government and brought into circulation via its expenditures. The government does not rely on taxes to fund expenditures when it is itself the source of money. Therefore, money can be created upon demand, is not limited, and can be used by the government to finance all expenditures it considers necessary to achieve policy goals such as full employment or a Green New Deal. The reason why agents in the economy accepts this money only consisting of numbers without any intrinsic value is the obligation to pay taxes. Since the state has the power to impose taxes, individuals need to get hold of money as this is the only way to meet their obligations; this is how the currency is accepted as a means of payments. The government thus has the power to run unlimited deficits because the fact that money is needed to pay taxes guarantees its acceptance even if those taxes do not cover expenditures. In fact, the government should run deficits because it creates the demand required for full employment while a balanced budget constrains it. The government cannot go bankrupt because there is no lack of currency it issues itself. The conditions identified by MMT for the system to work are the following: 1) the country must be sovereign of its own currency and 2) inflation needs to be kept under control. Once the latter starts accelerating due to increased nominal demand stemming from government expenditures, taxes can be increased in order to withdraw money from circulation. However, as long as full employment is not achieved, prices are argued to remain stable.