Kevin Milligan

Professor, Vancouver School of Economics

Discussion on Basic Income: CEA 2019

Kevin Milligan
Professor of Economics
UBC Vancouver School of Economics

kevin.milligan@ubc.ca

May 31, 2019

Discussion of the papers in the CEA session “Promises and Prospects for a Guaranteed Basic Income in Canada / Promesses et perspectives d’un revenu de base garanti au Canada”

Basic Income: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Thanks to the presenters and to Kourtney Koebel and Diane Pohler for organizing this session.

I’ve organized my discussion of the presentations into three parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good:

Let’s start with the good.

The recent wave of advocacy and research on basic income has brought forward several things that I think are good, and you can see these good aspects in these papers.

Foremost in my mind is a focus on poverty alleviation; ensuring that those who are struggling have sufficient income to meet their reasonable needs and participate fully in society. You can see this focus on poverty alleviation in all four of the presentations here today.

Another good aspect is figuring out ways to consolidate and rationalize our existing tax and transfer system into more coherent structures. There is duplication and redundancy. This complexity and overlap can lead to unintended-harsh incentives and renders our system opaque to those who don’t have accountants to sort out the problems. Moreover, theoretical models of optimal income taxation often treat the tax and transfer system as a unified structure, so thinking about how to turn our system more into a negative income tax-like system can help to fill in the gap between theory and reality. All of the empirical work presented today does this in various ways, and it’s a solid contribution.

Finally, providing hard numbers is good. Having numbers on the structure of potential basic income programs and what they would cost is crucial for the public to evaluate whether they are worthwhile. The presentations today are all based on hard numbers, and these numbers that help to move the policy discussion onto firmer ground. That is good!

The Bad:

Many models of basic income foresee the basic income displacing social assistance, pensions, unemployment insurance, and other income supports. The idea is to take all of these programs and put them in one big basic income bucket. In the US, I’ve seen the Medicare and Medicaid health insurance expenditures lumped into the basic income bucket too.

The basic income models presented here have been much more of the Negative Income Tax style, and the Boadway Cuff and Koebel paper explicitly discusses the role of straight transfers vs social insurance, arguing that both should likely coexist beside each other.

I agree with BCK on this, because models of basic income that aim to put all social insurance programs into one basic income bucket are bad.

Why are they bad? For two reasons.

First, the different programs we have respond to different risks and different needs. It is hard to imagine one basic income bucket meeting all these needs. Moreover, if you tried to replace them all with one program and missed the mark, we’d soon enough see these programs sprouting anew to respond to the basic needs and demands of the population for social insurance. When observing the proliferation of programs, it may be wise to consider that at least some of that multitude exist for solid reasons; separate reasons.

The second reason why putting social insurance in the basic income bucket is bad is because insurance programs pay out based on need. You get EI if you are unemployed. You get disability supports if you are disabled. You get GIS if your life lasted longer than your savings. It is a very bad idea to replace these programs with a straight lump-sum transfer across all citizens independent of need—which is the basic premise of basic income.

To understand why, consider disability payments under provincial Social Assistance programs. For most (if not all) provinces, the disability component of SA has more recipients than the regular SA program. Right now, if you are a low-income kid with a disability, you can get a wheelchair if you need it. With a Rawlsian mindset, we should imagine that could happen to any of us or any of our kids. I think we want a world where a low-income disabled kid can get a wheelchair.

If you instead cancelled all Social Assistance payments and put them in a basic income bucket, that kid doesn’t get a wheelchair. He gets a cheque for his per-capita share of a wheelchair. He doesn’t need that cheque, he needs a wheelchair.

Cancelling social insurance to fund a basic income is the privatization of social insurance and would be a very bad move.

To repeat, the basic income models presented here today were not of this type, but many other basic income proposals do try to replace social insurance programs in order to fund them, and in my view such efforts should be treated with high skepticism.

The Ugly

I think there are three basic ugly truths that we must confront about any basic income schemes.

The first is that the numbers for basic income schemes are tough. And by ‘tough’ I mean that almost surely impossible to make work.  This is very clear in the numbers presented here today. We see large increases in transfers to the bottom three or four deciles, paid for by very large increases in taxes in the middle and upper deciles.

There is some appetite to ‘soak the rich’ to be sure, but these proposals presented today are funded more by heavily increasing taxes on the middle class than the rich. I think it is very hard to argue that a basic income program funded by cutting the incomes of families making only $55K a year by 5% or more is a good deal.

I don’t think this is the fault of the capable and smart researchers who wrote the papers we saw presented today. I think the task—to fund a massive increase in transfers to low income families without a massive increase in taxes—is almost impossible.

This doesn’t mean anyone should stop advocating for a massive increase in transfers to low income families. It does mean that calling the transfer program a ‘basic income’ doesn’t allow you to avoid the ugly math.

The second ugly truth is that designing and administering a basic income scheme is really, really hard.

The negative income tax proposals we saw today would all be delivered through the income tax system. That’s a good and feasible way to do things, and I think that is likely the best way to go.

But let’s be clear, there are challenges with using the tax system. There are nonfilers who would slip through the system. There is also timing: if you suffer a negative income shock today on May 31, 2019, you wouldn’t see any change to your basic income cheque until after your next tax filing; so perhaps one year later.

Another ugly design challenge is the definition of the family unit. This may strike you as trivial—and I didn’t see serious consideration of it in the papers presented today. But it is actually a central and vexing challenge for basic income models.

As I understand the proposals today, they would be focused on the tax-filing unit, being the parents and any under-18 children. But, families and people live in a variety of ways. If you focus on the tax-filing unit, that means that a 19 year old living with their parents would be an independent family unit for the purposes of the basic income.

If you are going to ask families in the 5th decile to take a 5% cut to their incomes in order to pay for a basic income, I think many of those 5th decile families would be interested to know if the recipients of the basic income is going to be 19 year olds living with their parents. This is not trivial—I ran some microdata simulations a few years ago suggesting that Ontario’s basic income pilot would pay out between half and 2/3rds of its funds to over-18 adults living with their parents. Maybe that’s a good idea—but also maybe many voters would find that to be a tough sell.

The third ugly truth is that the ‘pilot’ approach to learning about basic income is likely a dead end. It’s a dead end because what we learn from them is very limited compared to the cost. In Wayne Simpson’s presentation, note that sample sizes on many of these pilots. One has only 100 families! Why are the sample sizes so small? It’s because the pilot programs are very expensive. $1000/month for two years would cost $24 million for just 1000 people. And it is empirically very hard to learn much from just 1000 people. I don’t think more basic income pilots are going to yield very much useful information.

The path forward

Let me end on a more positive note. Here are four things I think would be a productive focus for research and policy advocacy.

First, we should continue the focus on poverty alleviation. This means targeting transfers based on family income and family situation.  It also means that we must continue to make the case that poverty alleviation is important.

Second, we should continue the work on NIT-style consolidation of credits and taxes into a more coherent system. The resulting amounts may not be enough to fully fund a ‘basic income’, but it is still worth doing.

Third, we should make use of quasi-experimental and non-experimental evidence where available to learn about the impact of income transfers.

Fourth, if we are doing experiments, they should be tightly focused on clear questions. They should aim to build a base of evidence brick by brick and not try to do everything at once.

Thank you and I look forward to the discussion.

Testimony for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance (FINA)

Kevin Milligan
Professor of Economics, University of British Columbia
Testimony to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance: Bill C-97
Opening Statement, via video conference
May 9, 2019

Merci pour m’avoir invité.  Je m’appelle Kevin Milligan, et je suis professeur d’économie a l’Université de la Colombie-Britannique ici à Vancouver.

I am going to direct my remarks to changes to the Guaranteed Income Supplement that are proposed in Bill C-97.

The GIS was introduced in 1967 and has grown into a vital part of Canada’s income security system for seniors. The GIS is focused on lower-income seniors, with over two million now receiving this benefit—about one third of all seniors.

The GIS is vital to poverty alleviation among seniors. Some arrive at retirement with too little income—maybe unemployment or health problems made it difficult to save while younger. Others start retirement on a solid footing, but end up outliving their savings and risk falling into poverty at older ages. In both these cases, the GIS tops up the incomes of low-income seniors and allows them to afford a dignified retirement.

A challenge for the GIS arises from how it is phased out with income. As someone earns more income, the GIS is reduced at rates of 50 and even 75 cents on the dollar. For low-income seniors who want to work after age 65, these phase-out rates impose a very high effective tax rate on earned income.

Many seniors are happy to retire from the workplace; others are unable to work because of health or family needs. For those Canadians, the GIS is there for them to top up their incomes.

However, some older Canadians want to continue working. Perhaps a new Canadian who arrived in Canada at middle age and wants to build more savings before retiring. Perhaps someone who wants to continue to ply a trade part-time. For those Canadians who want to work, the phase out rates in the GIS can present a barrier to work.

In Budget 2008, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty established an exemption of $3,500 for earned income in the GIS. This exemption currently allows seniors to earn up to $3,500 per year before starting to lose their GIS payments through the phaseout.

In Budget 2019 and here in Bill C-97, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has proposed to extend and enhance this GIS exemption in three important ways.

  • The basic exemption is proposed to move to $5,000 per person.
  • A partial exemption will be applied on the next $10,000 of earnings
  • Self-employment earnings will now qualify for the exemption.

Combined, this means that a senior earning around $20,000 will now be further ahead by almost $3,000 per year.

In my assessment, this measure is well designed and should be supported for two main reasons.

First, the GIS is left in place for those who need it most—seniors at highest risk for poverty, and this proposal leaves every dollar now going to needy seniors in place.

Second, for those able to work, this measure allows them to keep more of their earnings and build a more secure income base for their own future retirement.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify, and I look forward to your questions.

Does Canada Need a Tax Commission?

Script for Presentation to Canada 2020 Tax Event
Monday October 22
Ottawa ON
—-

Does Canada need a tax commission?
——–

Let’s start with some history.

With Order in Council #1334, dated 25th September 1962, the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker nominated Kenneth Carter to be chairman of a Royal Commission on Taxation.

The Carter Commission had a broad 7-point mandate to study the impact of all forms of taxes on all aspects of the economy, and make recommendations to “achieve greater clarity, simplicity and effectiveness in the tax laws or their administration.”

In December 1966–four years later–the Commission turned over its report. It was made public in February 1967.

The government of the day–now Liberal–took two years to formulate a response, which eventually came out as a White Paper in 1969.

After two years of contentious debate the 1971 Budget introduced the final reforms, which were then implemented in 1972.

1962 to 1972. Ten years after the Royal Commission on Taxation started its work.

That was “Carter Commission 1.0”.

The last major tax reform in Canada was in 1988. Since then, we’ve seen incremental reforms and ad hoc responses to periodic challenges.

The question on the table today is this: Do we need a new Royal Commission on Taxation–a Carter Commission 2.0? Or should we continue with ad hoc incremental responses to tax issues that arise?

My answer is a hesitant and conditional ‘yes’ to Carter 2.0, but I have some serious reservations about what could be achieved.

Here’s how I’ll organize my thoughts.

I’ll start with three opportunities we have to do some good with a deep study of the tax system.

Following that, I’ll outline three areas where some magical thinking has raised false hopes about what a Carter 2.0 could deliver.

I’ll close with some thoughts on the path forward and hopefully we’ll have lots of time for questions.

**
Three opportunities
**

1) Framework

A tax commission can provide a framework; a blueprint for legislators to follow. A coherent framework provides two main benefits.

First, it gives guidance to government; a plan or a roadmap to handle situations and problems that arise. Rather than an ad hoc approach to each problem; problems are assessed systematically against an agreed-upon framework. Plan beats no plan.

Second, it gives support to politicians for tough decisions. Done well, a panel of outside and independent experts can give credibility and support to politicians by laying out principles and facts.

Think of the criminal justice system, as an analogy. From time to time, a particularly nasty criminal case may arise and generate large political pressure. A minister can withstand this pressure by leaning heavily on the principles of our justice system—principles like “everyone is entitled to a fair trial.”

A Carter 2.0 could contribute by providing an updated set of principles for our tax system, allowing a minister to draw some strength for tough tax decisions.

2) Technicalities

The second area where outside tax experts can contribute is in finding durable solutions to tax problems. This requires hard work by people who know the accounting and legal challenges and have deep experience with current practices. This avoids solutions that look good on the chalkboard but fail in implementation because of real-world details.

A tax commission could potentially contribute by bringing together experts to find solutions that work on the chalkboard *and* out in the real world.

3) Comprehensive

A great advantage of the Carter Commission approach was its comprehensiveness. It studied everything to do with taxation. This brings two advantages.

First, there are natural interactions of different parts of the tax system, and a comprehensive approach can incorporate these interactions. Dividends is a clear example–how do we tax funds as they flow from corporations to individuals; from profit to pocket?

Second, assessing fairness of the tax system is better done comprehensively. Some parts of the tax system matter a lot for efficiency and growth, while other parts are better at delivering balance and fairness to tax burdens. A comprehensive approach allows us to aim for both efficiency and fairness at the same time.

So, those are the three opportunities that I see could be delivered by a new study of the tax system: a coherent framework for reform, advice from the best technical experts, and a comprehensive viewpoint.

**
Three false hopes
**

So, I do agree a broad tax commission could do some good.

But, I’m more skeptical than some others about a Carter 2.0–I think the case can be oversold, and some magical thinking about Carter 2.0 is based on false hopes.

In particular, here are the three false hopes I see.

1) Timing

The first false hope is timing. If you really wanted to do a comprehensive process like in the 1960s, you’d need at least two years for research and writing. Then you’d need to spend a year or two in consultations and preparing legislation. I don’t know if we’d need the ten years taken by Carter 1.0 nose-to-tail, but you’d be very hard pressed to do a Carter 2.0 in under four years. If you think I’m wrong, show me your proposed timeline.

We have issues that require a fairly quick response–like the US tax reform. Many have already been complaining that Mr. Morneau has been too slow by taking 10 months to formulate his response to the US situation.

I don’t know if 10 months is too long, but I don’t think we can wait four or five years without touching anything.

2) Big-bang implementation

The second false hope is that we can have a Carter 2.0 followed by some kind of ‘big bang’ all-at-once tax reform.

Just think of the complications of implementation that arose in the private corporation tax reform one year ago.

What happens to the estate of someone who died 10 months before the reform was announced and was in the middle of a multi-million dollar set of transactions to pass business assets onto her heirs? You need to think through all such contingencies in advance and design fair and transparent transition rules. A neutral observer would say that this part of the private corporation tax reform was bungled last year.

Now imagine doing it all at once. Personal taxes. GST. Corporations big and small. The implementation complexities of doing all this at once don’t cancel each other out. The complications multiply. Exponentially.

So, I have strong concerns about our capacity to implement a ‘big bang’ reform because of the complexity of designing transition for so much at once.

3) Avoid politics

Finally, a third false hope is that a Carter 2.0 could avoid politics. As I said earlier, an external tax report can fortify the resolve of cabinet and help push through political opposition. I think that’s right. But politics cannot be completely avoided.

But let me offer two counterpoints

First, the political opposition to the *implementation* of Carter 1.0 through the 1969 White Paper was immense. This intense opposition spawned organizations that have lasted to this day–both the National Citizens Coalition and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business had their origins in the 1969-1971 tax wars.

After going through the political ringer, there were only threads left of the vision of the original 1967 report. And, for those who care about elections, you’ll note the Liberals were reduced to a minority in 1972.

I think the study of facts and identification of key challenges is something that an external panel can contribute. But the final reform choices and the implementation will always be political.

Second, the mandate of a Carter 2.0 is never going to be free from politics. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau has made clear from the start that the core of his economic vision is using government to push back against economic inequality. Another prime minister may have different core views. That’s fine–that’s democracy.

Me, I’d expect these core views of any prime minister to appear in the mandate of any commission. I sometimes think tax commission advocates have a dream that a tax commission will lead the Prime Minister to ‘see the light’ and change his core views. From my perspective, anyone hoping that this cabinet will do a 180 and go full “Ayn Rand” to make tax cuts for high earners its top priority is bound to be disappointed.

More generally, while a Carter 2.0 can help with the political side of taxation, it won’t make the politics of taxation evaporate.

***
A path forward
***

As I have discussed today, I see a lot of positive potential in a tax commission. But I think we have to be realistic in what we hope it can achieve. Here’s what I see as the best path forward.

I think the tax reform era of 1962-1972 should be separated into two different zones. The first zone was developing a ‘big picture’ structure for how a modern tax system should work. This was based on research, consultation, and deep thinking about how taxes affect fairness and economic growth. It identified challenges and provided ‘big picture’ responses to those challenges.

The second zone was ‘implementation’. This was partially tackled by the Carter Commission, which did go deep into very specific recommendations. But it also carried through to the 1969 White paper and the eventual 1971 tax legislation.

In my view, if we are going to have a Carter 2.0, it should look a lot more like Zone 1–‘big picture’ research, identification of challenges, and scoping of potential responses. I could see a lot of good coming out of it. Imagine putting together a set of diverse commissioners that looked like the recent NAFTA advisory council put together by Minister Freeland, including everyone from former Conservative cabinet ministers to leaders from organized labour.

Of course, a tax commission should have tax experts as commissioners not politicians. But a report from the tax equivalent of that kind of diverse commission could provide guidance and a roadmap for future tax reforms.

That’s Zone 1. But what about Zone 2–implementation? To me, this is the danger zone. I think implementation is best handled outside a Royal Commission framework. This might take the form of ad hoc technical committees that can address and resolve issues in a reasonable amount of time.

So, to conclude: some good could come out of a tax commission. It could identify problems and challenges and provide a roadmap to the future. I do think we need to be careful not to expect too much magic though–taxes will not and should not be free of politics.

I’m happy to take your questions.

Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform

Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform

Kevin Milligan
Vancouver School of Economics
University of British Columbia

Notes prepared for Northern Policy Institute “State of the North” conference
September 26, 2018
North Bay, ON

Powerpoint slides here.
PDF of notes here.


slide1

Why do we have corporations? Why does society have corporations? What is their function; the benefit they give us?

We don’t have corporations to provide tax shelters for the rich.

We don’t have corporations to act as a cash cow for the government.

We don’t have corporations to employ lawyers, nor accountants, nor tax collectors.

Now, some of these things may be side-products of the way corporations work in today’s society, but none of these things is at the core of why corporations exist.

A main reason we have corporations, at the core, is to facilitate productive investment in the future capacity of our economy.

We want to ensure a vibrant and flourishing economy for our children. To reach that goal, we need investment in the productive capacity of our economy.

Now, when we have ample investment, that’s clearly good for business owners. More investment means more economic activity, more profit, and more GDP.

In principle, more investment is also good for workers. In a competitive and well-functioning labour market, we expect workers get higher pay when they have access to the best machines, equipment, tools, and software.

As investment grows, GDP is going to grow. And we might hope we’ll see wages growing too.

But over the last generation, this fundamental economic relationship has fundamentally failed to deliver for average workers in Ontario.

slide3

CANSIM Table 11-10-0239-01, median employment income            

In this chart, I show median inflation-adjusted employment earnings for Ontario workers. If you line up everyone with employment income and pick the person in the middle of the lineup, that’s what I’m graphing here. This is the earnings for the typical Ontario worker.

There’s no cherry-picking of the data here. If you separate out men and women, you’d see women growing a bit and men shrinking a bit. If you look at full-time full-year workers, the story is pretty much the same.

For forty years, employment earnings has barely moved in Ontario.

 

slide4

GDP data: Table: 36-10-0222-01 (formerly CANSIM 384-0038)                  

If you now plot Ontario’s GDP in the same figure, you can see that the economy has more than doubled in size over this period.

The economy has doubled in size, but the typical worker is not getting any further ahead.

What’s going on?

Economists have been studying this stagnation of earnings around the world, looking at factors like the pace of technological change, shifts in trade patterns, the slide in unionization, and a decrease of employee bargaining power. The exact reason for the stagnation isn’t the focus of my talk here today.

The point I want to draw out here is simply this: in a global economy that’s throwing tough challenges at Canadian workers, the very last thing we want to do is to make it hard for Canadian firms to invest in their companies, their future, and their workers.

We need that investment to boost our companies and our economy; to give us a fighting chance against the global trends pushing down on Canadian workers.

On this front, our tax system plays a role. The environment for investment depends in part on how we tax the return to investment by corporations.

But if you’re a typical worker and you look at this chart, you might find it hard to get energized for reforming corporate taxes if all that happens is GDP goes up without any boost for average workers.

You may be wondering why we should care what median-earning workers think about corporate tax reform and economic growth.

I think everyone should care, and here’s why.

There are many Canadians who care a lot about inequality: what’s happening to those who are struggling economically, and also those in the middle of the pack.

Many understand that some people through no fault of their own are held back from reaching their potential. Factors like discrimination, lost schooling opportunities, and plain bad luck can keep many people from achieving their highest potential.

For people who focus a lot on inequality, you can naturally see how they might want to understand how corporate tax reform affects everyone in the economy.

But not everyone thinks about inequality in the same way. Our economy works best when hard work is rewarded, and some part of the inequality of economic rewards may reflect inequality in economic effort.

That’s fine—people have different views about inequality.  I can tell you I know some people who don’t care at all about inequality. They think Robin Hood belongs in fairy tale books, socialists belong in Venezuela, and every person should eat only what he or she can kill.

But I think these folks—even the ‘eat what you kill’ capitalists—should care about the overall impact of a pro-growth corporate tax reform too.

The reason is that in a democracy, if you don’t keep your growth policy focused on middle workers, then you’re not going to get a chance to implement your policy. You’re just not going to get much support for reforms if people in the middle feel they’re left out.

Again, just look at the chart. Some people argue that if a tax reform increases GDP, we can just let the rest sort itself out.

Forty years of experience in Ontario says that’s not enough anymore.

If your argument for a corporate tax reform is that it boosts GDP and you ignore everything else, many Canadians will respond that this isn’t enough anymore.

We do need investment. We do need growth. And we do need to improve our tax system as part of that effort. But how?

 

slide5

How do we construct a policy of tax reform that has a better shot at helping all workers?

Here’s what I think: we need to embrace Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform. There are two elements to Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform.

The first is to keep the focus on investment. Remember, the reason we have corporations is to facilitate productive investment in the capacity of our economy.

It just makes sense to align our tax system with the core reason we have corporations in the first place: investment.

Investment at the centre of corporate tax reform means that we focus less on rewarding profits from past investments, and emphasize tax benefits for investing more for the future.

Investment at the centre of corporate tax reform means we work hard to shut down tax planning structures that waste energy and talent on accounting tricks, and refocus that energy on delivering efficient investment in productive capacity.

Workers know that a company that is growing and investing in its future will provide the best shot for the workers to thrive in the future too.

Restoring investment to the centre of the tax system is the best way to align our tax system with what we want corporations to do for our economy.

 

slide6

The first element of Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform is investment.

The second is to be sure to include everyone.

If we cut the tax burden on the corporate sector, that revenue will need to be made up somewhere else.

An inclusive approach to corporate tax reform doesn’t ignore this need to fund the tax cuts; instead the need to fund the tax cuts is embraced.

This means paying attention to who pays how much tax, and ensuring that the tax reform doesn’t tilt the system to put more burden on the people in the middle.

You can make tax reform inclusive by enforcing existing rules on tax avoidance and tax evasion, while simplifying and tightening administration.

You can make tax reform inclusive by adjusting the tax system to ensure that the progressivity of the tax system—the tax balance between rich and poor—isn’t thrown askew by any tax reform.

An Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform pays attention to ‘who pays what’ in our tax system, so that everyone can be included and have a stake in the success of our economy.

These are the two elements of an Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform. Investment, and including everyone.

In my view, we should assess potential corporate tax reforms against these two criteria because looking at GDP alone simply isn’t enough anymore.

But what kind of policies fit the bill? Here are a few ideas.

Right now, when a company invests, the investment is written off over many years, so the tax benefit is spread out.

With full expensing, the tax benefit is front-loaded. This kind of structure can maximize the boost given by our tax system to investment.

But how would we make up the revenue? Here are two ideas.

We could increase the capital gains inclusion rate from today’s 50% to 2/3rds. Right now, the capital gains rate is out of whack with how dividends are taxed, giving too much of a break for the liquidation of corporate cash into corporate stock buybacks. By restoring the balance of capital gains with dividend taxation, we can remove this mis-incentive and also raise more revenue.

Another idea is to revisit the full exemption of capital gains on housing. In other countries like the US, the capital gains exemption for the principal residence is capped. In Canada, it is completely uncapped, creating a major tax loophole for those with millions of dollars to speculate on housing.  Canada should look at capping this tax loophole.

Now, maybe you don’t like these ideas. That’s fine—I won’t push these particular ideas too hard here today.

But what I do ask you to consider is the idea of Inclusive Corporate Tax Reform and putting investment and inclusivity at the centre of our tax reform discussion.

Too many tax reform proposals anchor their arguments in boosts to GDP. If you want a reform that is better for all Canadians—and also has a better chance of becoming law—I think we need to take Inclusive Tax Reform seriously.

Thank you!

 

FINA Testimony: Canada Workers Benefit

Notes prepared for House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance
April 30, 2018
Kevin Milligan
Professor of Economics
Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia

Topic: Bill C-74. “An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on February 27, 2018 and other measures.”

(PDF copy of these notes can be downloaded here.)

My name is Kevin Milligan and I am a Professor of Economics at UBC’s Vancouver School of Economics.  I’ve been asked to speak specifically about the new Canada Workers Benefit.

I’ve been studying the impact of tax benefits for modest income workers for 15 years, and the evidence from around the world is unusually strong and consistent. Benefits that are focused on providing an incentive for modest income workers to join the workforce have led to increased labour market attachment in the US, the UK, and Canada.

The existing Working Income Tax Benefit (or WITB) suffers from two major shortcomings.

First, it is too small. The maximum benefit for a single worker under the 2017 configuration was only $1,043, and that person would see no benefit if income is above $18,792. That means that a full-time full-year minimum wage worker in most provinces would see zero benefit from the WITB. In my view, this meant that the WITB was missing its proper target because it was too small.

Second, the WITB lacks salience. It is hidden away on the tax form, requiring the filing of a special supplemental schedule so people might not even be aware of it.  This has resulted in a substantial number of people who are eligible for the WITB not actually receiving it.

The proposed transition to the Canada Workers Benefit makes substantial and important progress in ameliorating both of these shortcomings.

The new CWB is larger.  The maximum benefit is 30% bigger for singles and 24% bigger for couples or those with children. As important, the income range now covered by the CWB is much larger—extending up to $24,112 for unattached singles and $36,483 for couples and those with children. This will mean a much larger proportion of modest-income workers will see the CWB increase the attractiveness of work compared to the old WITB.

The new CWB will also be easier to access. In a new and very important initiative, the Canada Revenue Agency will check tax forms that are filed to see if the taxfiler is eligible for the CWB. If the CWB schedule is not filled in, starting in 2019 the CRA will do so on behalf of the taxfiler automatically. Moreover, the government has committed to explore ways to pay out the CWB on a monthly basis rather than keeping it buried in the tax form.

Both of these measures—higher benefits and making benefits easier to access—are important advances. However, there is still more work to do. Here, briefly, are three ideas.

First, I think benefits still need to be larger, and extend up to $30,000 of income. Full time full year work is 2000 hours a year, and with the minimum wage heading to $15 an hour in some provinces, that’s $30,000 of annual earnings. In my view, the target should be to ensure a full-time full-year workers sees some benefit from the CWB so that we can help reward those who work.

Second, the government should continue efforts to make the benefit more salient. Economists spend a lot of time designing policies with good incentives to encourage positive responses from Canadian workers. But if those incentives are buried deep in complexity we can’t expect to realize the full positive response.  Separate notification and payment of the CWB outside the tax forms would be a step forward in furthering this needed salience.

Third, the government should undertake a study of the feasibility of “individualizing” the CWB as advocated by Professor Tammy Schirle of Wilfrid Laurier University. Individualizing means that the benefit is phased out based on individual income rather than couple income.  This would have an important impact on the work incentives for married women, which would give women a boost within the economy and our society.

 

Speaking Notes: Canada 2020 Event on Response to US Tax Cuts

Here are my notes prepared for today’s event on Canada’s response to the US tax cuts. It was hosted by Canada 2020 in Ottawa.

Should Canada Respond to the US Tax Cuts?
Kevin Milligan
Vancouver School of Economics
University of British Columbia

Notes prepared for Canada 2020 event

April 10, 2018
Ottawa, ON

The US Tax Cut became law at the beginning of the year. Canada’s response has been cautious, but the Finance Minister seems serious about looking at responses. Should Canada respond? If so, how?

What changed

To start, let’s review what happened with the US tax cut. I see four main elements relevant to the Canadian discussion.

  • The headline federal corporate tax rate was cut from 35% to 21%. When combined with state tax rates, this brings the US down to Canadian corporate tax levels. It depends what industry and state you look at, but they are within a point or two. This removed—but did not substantially reverse—Canada’s corporate tax advantage.
  • They created a so-called ‘pass through’ regime which gives a very strong tax incentive for many professionals to set up a special type of corporation to avoid taxes. Sounds familiar to us here in Canada, and we know how hard it is to reverse such tax avoidance structures.
  • Allowed some full expensing of corporate investment for the first five years of the reform period. Also cut back on allowable interest expense deduction. This is a move toward what economists call ‘cash flow’ taxation, which in its pure form completely removes interest deductibility and drawn-out CCA schedules.
  • Personal income tax cuts which lowered the top federal rate to 37% and capped some tax expenditures (such as state and local deductibility and the mortgage interest deduction)

Does it matter?

What will be the impact of the US tax reform on Canada? I see three areas to consider.

  • Corporate revenue: Between 2000 and 2015, Canada cut its main corporate tax rate nearly in half, but the tax revenue stayed constant as a share of GDP. This is remarkable. One factor contributing to this was shifting of corporate income into Canada from the United States—think of the corporate inversion that led to Burger King setting their headquarters in Mississauga a few years ago.. That’s been nice while it lasted, but that’s now over—there is no gain to shifting corporate income to Canada any more.
  • Corporate investment. With effective rates fairly close to those in the US, Canada no longer has a corporate tax advantage. Corporate investment decisions depend on a lot of things—workforce, resources, stable governments and legal systems. But investment also depends on taxes, so it’s reasonable to expect some measure of real investment shifting to the US—although I think some of the talk of a “tsunami” of corporate investment leaving Canada is overblown.
  • Personal mobility. The personal tax cuts now available in the US have led some to suggest that rich Canadians will move abroad. I’m sure some will. But taxes aren’t the only thing that matters for deciding where to live, and for every anecdote you hear about a rich Canadian who has decided he’s rather live in Trump’s America I can find you an anecdote of a young and talented immigrant who has chosen to move to Canada. We have seen this on the ground in our graduate students at the Vancouver School of Economics. On net, I don’t find this risk to be worth a policy response.

Overall, the potential loss of corporate tax revenue and investment is concerning. But whether action should be taken requires some more thought.

Is the US tax reform sustainable?

There is serious reason to doubt the sustainability of the US tax reform. There are two reasons for this.

  • It is not fiscally sustainable. The US deficit in 2019 is projected to be 5.6%. Even in a booming economy, this is an unsustainable fiscal situation. For Canada to match the US tax cuts, we’d have to plunge ourselves into deficit. Many people already seem concerned about our current tiny federal deficits, but I don’t think it would make our public finances better to do a deficit-financed corporate tax cut.
  • It is not politically sustainable. Unlike the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the 2017 tax bill was mostly a party-line vote in the US Congress—no Democrats voted for it in either House or Senate. If we see a Democratic White House and Congress in 2020, my political prediction is that the first place it would go to raise money to fund its new priorities would be to reverse the corporate tax cuts. That’s just my political guess; so yours may be different. But I think I’m on pretty solid ground to wonder what this all looks like after 2020.

If Canada acts what should we do?

If Canada decides to act, I think the priority should be to focus on realigning our corporate tax system to do one thing: encourage corporate investment. The reason we, as a society, have corporations is to facilitate long-run investment in our productive capacity. That’s why corporations exist, so that is a great place to start.

What’s the right way to refocus our corporate tax system on investment?

Some have argued we should cut the corporate tax rate in order to leapfrog over the United States. I think this is the wrong approach. It is wrong because it is scattershot and wastes our fiscal effort. Cutting corporate taxes does improve the return on future investment, but it also lowers taxes on past investments and monopoly profits. That’s a waste.

Instead, we should focus on rewarding new investment. We should do this by following the US lead on expensing investments. Right now, most investments in new plant or equipment are deducted from profit over time, according to a Capital Cost Allowance depreciation schedule that varies by the type of asset.

Instead, full expensing means that the tax effort is front loaded; the full investment amount is deductible in year 1. This rewards firms that make new investments without wasting resources by throwing money at sunk decisions that were made in the past.

There are many details that need to be worked out, but I think the case for moving toward full expensing of investment is strong because it resets our corporate tax system to do exactly what we want corporations to do—make productive investments in the future capacity of our economy.

Notes from address to Vancouver Rotary Club luncheon

Notes for talk to Rotary Business Luncheon
March 13, 2018
Kevin Milligan, UBC Vancouver School of Economics

With the big US tax reform now law, many are wondering what Canada should do in response. Minister Morneau has taken a cautious approach so far. I think that’s appropriate. But do think there is a strong case for action.  And I will soon tell you why I think that. But first, let’s review what has happened in the US and the likely impacts.

The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” does several things on several fronts: for personal taxes, corporate taxes, and overall fiscal stance.

  • On the personal tax side, some cuts to rates and limiting of deductions and exemptions.
  • On the corporate side, many initiatives:
    • Dramatic lowering of the federal statutory rate from 35% to 21%.
    • Opening of ‘pass-through’ special tax rates for partnerships and S-corps. 20% discount; top rate of 29.6%.
    • Introduction of immediate expensing of investment for some asset classes for 5 years; along with limits on interest deductibility.
  • Blows a hole in the budget. Projected 2019 deficit is 5.6% of GDP.

What are the impacts on Canada of each of these items?

On the personal tax side, high earners in the US will now pay less tax. Some have expressed concern that Canada will see an outflow of high earners. I’m dubious that the net outflow will be noticeable. Moving to another country involves not just your marginal tax rate, but the full social context of living in one country or another. For every high earner who moves to the US to save a few dollars in taxes I can find you a tech worker or a grad student choosing Canada because of our more internationally-open social environment.

For business taxes, Canada has enjoyed a substantial advantage in combined federal state/provincial tax rate for the last 20 years. The change in statutory rates means that Canada’s statutory tax advantage has been removed. It differs by a point or two, depending on what province/state you’re looking at, but it’s essentially tied. When you crunch through the effective tax rates on investment (see Philip Bazel and Jack Mintz from the University of Calgary) you’ll find that the US is a few points under Canada, but it varies by industry.

What impacts should we expect? Two fronts to consider: the statutory rates and the effective rates.

The statutory rate advantage over the last 20 years has meant that Canada has benefited by extra revenue from US corporations booking profit here and costs in the US, to the extent that accounting allows. As Canada dropped the corporate tax rate by nearly half, revenues as a share of GDP stayed constant. That was remarkable. But that era is now over.

The effective tax rate on investment is what matters more for the marginal investment decision. Here, the US now has a very slight advantage of a point or two. This is certainly going to push some more investment into the US, but I’m not one to panic over a difference of a point or two.

Two final notes assessing the US position.

First, the pass-through part of the reform is a large invitation to tax avoidance. We’ve just gone through some effort in Canada to tighten up tax avoidance among high earners. The US is going the opposite direction.

Second, it is highly doubtful the US reform is sustainable for more than a few years. Not just the deficit of 5.6% of GDP, but also the lack of bi-partisan support that characterized previous tax reform bills. Should the Democrats regain control of Congress in the future, recouping tax revenue through taxing corporations and high earners will be high on their agenda.

So, that’s where the US stands and how I see the impact on Canada.

What should Canada do in response? Minister Morneau has taken a cautious approach so far. I think that’s appropriate. But I do think there is a case for action.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why do we have corporations at all? The answer is that we have corporations to facilitate productive investment.  If society’s goal for corporations is investment, it makes sense to structure our fiscal system around investment.  We can do that by changing our tax system to focus on growing investment, rather than taxing profits.

Over the last forty years, economists have worked on alternatives to the corporate income tax to do just that—focus on growing investment rather than taxing profits. One of these alternatives is known to economists as a ‘cash flow’ tax. In a pure cash flow tax, the deductibility of interest is eliminated, but corporate investment is fully deductible in the year of investment—full expensing of investment. This tax system grows investment rather than taxing profits.

An investment-focused corporate tax eliminates three major problems with traditional income taxation.

The taxation of the normal return to investment is eliminated. For the breakeven investment project, the discounted flow of future returns exactly equals the cost of the investment—that’s the very definition of a breakeven project. So, by fully exempting investment you’re effectively fully exempting the future normal return to investment. Again, for the breakeven project the net present value of the flow of income exactly equals the cost outlay. Excess profits will still be taxed. But normal returns are not.

Second, CCA depreciation schedules are eliminated. This removes an investment distortion across types of assets, which improves the efficiency of investment.

Third, because there is no longer an interest deduction, both debt and equity are put on an equal footing. We don’t want the tax system pushing corporate finance decisions one way or the other, so this is good because it eliminates the debt-bias of the current system.

As a bonus, an investment-focused business tax can also can reduce the administrative burden by cutting back on CCA schedules, which is a step in the right direction for the simplicity of the system.

Of course—there are many details that need to be worked out. Among the most pressing:

  • How important is tax refundability for losses?
  • What to do about the SBD?
  • How should interest deductibility be restricted?
  • Which assets should move to full expensing?
  • What are the international tax implications?
  • How to make up revenue loss—should revenue neutrality be a goal?

So, there is lots of work to do. But I think now is the time to do this work. Building the policy case helps to build the political case for action.

That’s important because in my view the biggest barrier to corporate tax reform is the politics. Cutting corporate tax rates in today’s political environment is not going to be popular no matter how many charts and tables that we wonks print out. But, I think that an investment-focused corporate tax is different—I believe there is a much broader available constituency because the case is so strong.

Here’s the case. Our corporate tax system should be built around one thing: growing investment. That’s why society has corporations in the first place. That’s what our tax system should support.

Increasing investment is popular in union halls, in the tech sector, in corporate board rooms, and on Main St. Canada. Everyone likes investment! Since everyone likes investment, refocusing our discussion of corporate taxation directly and explicitly on investment can build broader support, from unions to the corporate sector, and everyone in between.

Another alternative is simply cutting corporate tax rates. The problem with rate cuts is that it rewards the return to past investments and to windfall profits. That’s a scattershot approach since rewarding past investments doesn’t grow future investment. In contrast, every milligram of fiscal effort put into an investment-focused business tax improves forward-looking investment. That’s what should be our goal. I think we need a business tax system that prioritizes investment, and full expensing is a great way to achieve that goal.

So, as Minister Morneau contemplates what Canada should do in response to the US tax reform, it is a fertile time to talk about Canadian corporate tax reform.

Thank you for inviting me to help spark that conversation here in Vancouver.

Notes from C.D. Howe: Investment-focused corporate taxation

Notes for talk to C.D. Howe Institute, National Council Meeting
March 7, 2018
Kevin Milligan, UBC Vancouver School of Economics

(Printable PDF version here.)

With the big US tax reform now law, many are wondering what Canada should do in response. Minister Morneau has taken a cautious approach so far. I think that’s appropriate. But do think there is a strong case for action.  Let me tell you why.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why do we have corporations at all? The answer is that we have corporations to facilitate productive investment.  If society’s goal for corporations is investment, it makes sense to structure our fiscal system around investment.  Let’s grow investment, rather than taxing profits.

The current corporate income tax has four problems, from an economist’s point of view.

First is that it imposes tax on the normal return to investment when there is equity financing, which discourages investment.

Second is the distortions of CCA depreciation schedules, which only work efficiently when they exactly match true economic depreciation—a very tough goal to achieve. Otherwise, they distort investment across asset classes.

Third, the current corporate income tax favours debt financing over other sources, which leads to inefficient capital structures and increases the risk of debt-induced bankruptcy.

Finally, today’s corporate income tax is complex, devouring too many resources in administration both in firms trying to comply with the rules, and with the CRA trying to administer them.

Over the last forty years, economists have worked on alternatives to the corporate income tax that can eliminate these problems. One of these alternatives is known to economists as a ‘cash flow’ tax. In a pure cash flow tax, the deductibility of interest is eliminated, but corporate investment is fully deductible in the year of investment—full expensing of investment. This tax system grows investment rather than taxing profits.

An investment-focused corporate tax eliminates three of the problems with income taxation, and cuts down on the fourth.

The taxation of the normal return to investment is eliminated. For the marginal breakeven investment project, the discounted flow of future returns exactly equals the cost of the investment—that’s the very definition of a breakeven project. So, by fully exempting investment you’re effectively fully exempting the future normal return to investment. Again, for the breakeven project the net present value of the flow of income exactly equals the cost outlay. That’s the magic. Excess profits will still be taxed. But normal returns are not.

CCA depreciation schedules are eliminated. This removes an investment distortion across types of assets.

Because there is no longer an interest deduction, both debt and equity are put on an equal footing. This eliminates the capital structure distortion.

So, an investment-focused business tax can solve three big problems with the current income tax approach. On the fourth problem—complexity—we can reduce the administrative burden of CCA schedules, which is a step in the right direction.

Of course—there are many details that need to be worked out. Among the most pressing:

  • How important is tax refundability for losses?
  • What to do about the SBD?
  • How should interest deductibility be restricted?
  • Which assets should move to full expensing?
  • What are the international tax implications?
  • How to make up revenue loss—should revenue neutrality be a goal?

So, there is lots of work to do.

Economists have been working on these questions for years. Why do I think that now is the right time for action?

Three reasons.

One reason is the US tax reform. The US reform included full expensing for many types of investment and restricts the deductibility of interest. Both of these are in line with the cash-flow tax model.

How sustainable are these changes—do we need to pay attention? Two reasons why I say “yes”. In my view, structural changes are harder to undo than rate cuts. Moreover, key Democratic economists support cash-flow taxation, so expensing has a good chance to survive for the long run, in my view.

The second reason is that it’s simply good policy for Canada. We want investment and the jobs that it brings, so a refocus of the tax system to one that centres on investment is the right thing to do no matter what is going on elsewhere.

Finally, in my view the biggest barrier to corporate tax reform is the politics. Cutting corporate tax rates in today’s political environment is not going to be popular no matter how many charts and tables that we wonks print out. But, I think that an investment-focused corporate tax is different—I believe there is a much broader available constituency because the case is so strong.

Here’s the case. Our corporate tax system should be built around one thing: growing investment. That’s why society has corporations in the first place. That’s what our tax system should support.

Increasing investment is popular in union halls, in the tech-sector, in corporate board rooms, and on Main St. Canada. Everyone likes investment! Since everyone likes investment, refocusing our discussion of corporate taxation directly and explicitly on investment can build broader support, from unions to the corporate sector, and everyone in between.

Another alternative is simply cutting corporate tax rates. The problem with rate cuts is that it rewards the return to past investments and to supernormal profits. That’s a scattershot approach since rewarding past investments doesn’t grow future investment. In contrast, every milligram of fiscal effort put into an investment-focused business tax improves forward-looking investment. That’s what should be our goal.

Over the next few months, I will be working on a new research project using Statscan company tax filing records to investigate how the structure and costing of a cash flow tax might work for Canada. I’m hoping to publish some of this work here with C.D. Howe, so I look forward to your guidance and feedback as this project progresses.

Thank you!

The Graham Lecture: Canada’s Fiscal Federation for the next 50 years

Canada’s Fiscal Federation: The Next 50 Years

Kevin Milligan
UBC Vancouver School of Economics

John F. Graham Memorial Lecture 2017
Dalhousie University
November 30, 2017
Draft Script

Slides can be found here.

A PDF of this script can be found here.

  1. Introduction

Slide 1: Title slide

Thank you for the introduction.

Slide 2: Pier 21: The Canada we Choose

My grandfather worked here back in the 50s and 60s in the Pathology lab over on University Avenue. One of his jobs was food safety testing for a local dairy. Sometimes, on a Friday, he would take a brick of ice cream home to his family across the ferry in Dartmouth. It’s one of my mother’s cherished memories of childhood. One question I always had about this family story though—were the ice cream bricks my grandfather got to take home the ones that passed the test, or the other ones?

My mother’s family arrived here in Halifax in January 1945 by plane and train from Bermuda.   So many other immigrant families arrived here down on the Harbour on Pier 21. All of them chose Canada; any many chose Nova Scotia.

Think back to what they saw 50 years ago.

Looking forward: a country of opportunity. A good place to settle and raise a family. They chose Canada; they chose Nova Scotia. What kind of place did they build over the next decades?

Now consider us, here in this room. What kind of country will we build over the next 50 years?

A society is composed of many parts, but what we do together as a society through government represents about 40 percent of our economic activity. I’m a public finance economist, so I’ll focus on that 40 percent this afternoon.

The namesake of this lecture, Professor John Graham, was a scholar of municipal and provincial public finance. Today, my lecture will take inspiration from Professor Graham’s legacy and consider how we organize our public finances across different orders of government.

I will start by pointing out what we’ve built over the last 50 years. I will argue that we have chosen to build a radical federation, and that we have done it well.

Next, I will focus on the great challenge our radical fiscal federation faces over the next 50 years, driven by provincial responsibility for healthcare spending.

I’ll then offer an economic framework for addressing this great challenge, and finally present my preferred policy solution.

2. A Radical Federation

Slide 3: Get Radical Canada!

We Canadians are radical. Over the last 50 years, we choose to create a radically-decentralized fiscal federation.

When my family arrived in 1945, provincial governments in Canada collected less than 10 percent of total government revenues, with the other 90 percent split between federal and municipal governments.

Slide 4: OECD subnational spending shares.

On this chart, you can see that by 2014, the spending share of subnational governments in Canada had risen to 78%. In the United States, it’s just 48%. The average across high-income OECD countries is 32%, and France is way down there at 21%.

This presents a mystery. How is it that we can maintain a modern welfare state mostly run by little provinces; some with only a few hundred thousand people? This looks terribly inefficient to people from any other country. How can we efficiently raise the taxes to do so? Why are we so different?  Let’s now dig into this mystery to see if we can figure out how Canada can ‘get away’ with such radical decentralization that no other OECD country seems able to do.

Some argue that it is our constitution. The division of powers in the original British North America Act gave responsibility for hospitals and schooling to provinces. So, it is true the constitution provides a starting place for understanding the shape of our fiscal federation.

But, in my view, the constitution is insufficient as a complete explanation. When economic forces pushed against the constitutional division of powers, we adjusted the constitution to allow it. We did this for Unemployment Insurance in 1940 after a previous federal unemployment relief program was struck down as unconstitutional.  Again in 1951 for Old Age Security, and one more time for the Canada Pension Plan in 1964.

In all of these cases, the economic argument overran the constitutional status quo. So, it can’t be just constitutional forces leading to our decentralization. Economic forces dominated constitutional ones at key points for large government spending programs in the past.

Is it our people that makes us so radical compared to any other OECD country? Do we lack a sufficiently strong sense of national economic purpose and national solidarity? I don’t know. But there are many other modern nation states on this chart cobbled together from historically independent and culturally diverse regions. Germany. Spain. Italy. Switzerland. Belgium. Are we really lacking in national solidarity compared to all of those places? One might argue that Belgium barely exists as a national cultural entity, yet their central government has a spending share twice Canada’s. So, it seems unlikely that what underlies our radical decentralization is a lack of national solidarity.

What other force shapes a federation? What about the structures of fiscal accountability? Some argue that democratic transparency and accountability demands taxes be raised at the level of government that spends them. But, in Canada, there are vast mismatches between what provincial governments spend and what they raise in taxes. PEI gets 38 percent of its total revenue from federal transfers. For Nova Scotia and New Brunswick it is 35 percent.. For BC it is 18 percent.  That’s a lot of other people’s money that is spent.

Have we developed some magical and secret formula of political accountability that allows us to get away with these vast fiscal mismatches when other OECD countries can’t? I don’t think that’s true. While concerns about accountability are important to keep in mind, it’s not evident this mismatch has cost us yet. Perhaps it’s enough that provincial governments still feel at present they have enough ‘skin in the game’ to control costs.

So, we have a radically decentralized federation unlike any other in the world. I’ve argued so far that it can’t be explained easily with arguments based on our constitution, our national solidarity, or structures of political accountability. What then explains our ability to ‘get away’ with our radical federation?

Slide 5: Efficient Decentralization

In my view, it is economic efficiency that underpins the radical decentralization of our fiscal federation. We can do what we do because we found a way to do it pretty efficiently.

There are two elements.

The first is our system of intergovernmental transfers. They have constitutional origins, and are certainly held aloft by national sentiments of solidarity—as strained as those sentiments might be from time to time. Both the constitutional and solidarity arguments are important, to be sure. But to me the strongest argument for our transfer system comes from the cold logic of economic efficiency.

Let’s consider the economic argument for our transfer system.

The scope and scale for efficient production of government-provided goods varies. For some goods, like education or parks, local or provincial governments can manage the spending efficiently.

We don’t want the federal government picking the right style of park bench to put in the Public Gardens. If you’ve been watching the news, the feds don’t appear to be great at skating rinks either. Those decisions seem best made locally.

Other goods seem well-suited to the provincial level. We don’t need every town developing its own education curriculum, but different provinces have different needs and may be best-positioned to deliver the mix of education that fits their provinces’ citizens.

Moreover, provincial control over education allows for a vital ‘laboratory’ of federalism. For example, in recent years, Quebec has introduced a new math curriculum that has met with some success. Other provinces have observed this, and should be learning from Quebec’s example. So, some goods seem properly situated in the provincial sphere.

For other kind of publicly-provided goods, like transportation or environment, a national or even global viewpoint is necessary to provide government services efficiently. Federal governments can best co-ordinate spending that has impact on the national economic space.

That’s how we might divvy up the responsibilities efficiently on the spending side. Different orders of government efficiently matched to the scope of each good.

What about the taxation side?

We can do a similar exploration on the tax side of the public ledger. Which order of government is best-suited to handle different kinds of taxation?

A key consideration here is the mobility of different tax bases.

Sales and consumption taxes can vary across local jurisdictions without much economic cost. It simply costs more for most people to drive across a border to make their weekly purchases than they save in sales taxes. Now, there are exceptions. Myself, I’ve been known to make a shopping run now and again to Seattle. And I bet the folks in Amherst know which things have lower taxes across the Tantramar Marsh in Sackville and vice versa. But for the large part of consumption spending, provinces have a lot of leeway to set their own consumption tax rates without upsetting economic efficiency too sharply.

At the other end of the tax spectrum, the corporate income tax base is much more mobile. By booking costs in places with high taxes and revenue in places with low taxes, a company active across different jurisdictions can try to shift profit to where it is taxed the least. With the modern tech economy, this is made even easier, as a big company like Google can park its intellectual property in a low-tax place like Ireland and then licence the use of that technology to the high-tax places, thus siphoning the taxable income to where it is taxed least.

Similar challenges affect provincial corporate taxation in Canada. There are apportionment rules that limit the ability of companies to shift profits around in Canada, but evidence suggests it still happens.

Let’s now put this together. Imagine if we assigned spending responsibilities on the principles of economic efficiency, and then did the same for taxes. What would that look like?

Economist Albert Breton noticed 50 years ago that it would be a great coincidence if efficient spending and tax assignment resulted in balanced budgets for each order of government. Professor Breton then argued that intergovernmental grants must be in place to maintain economic efficiency.

Applied to modern Canada, Breton’s insight tells us that if we did not have a strong system of intergovernmental grants, either spending or taxation in Canada would be set inefficiently. Our system of intergovernmental grants is not there to foil or frustrate efficiency. We have intergovernmental grants to maintain economic efficiency.

So, the efficiency of our system of intergovernmental grants is one big factor in explaining the mystery of our radically-decentralized fiscal federation.

The second main factor is our system of tax collection agreements. For GST; for corporate and for personal taxes, most provinces allow the federal government to collect taxes on their behalf. The provinces have scope to choose rates and some degree of exemptions, but it is the federal government that does the actual collecting and the administration. Provinces just have to cash the cheques they receive from Ottawa.

This arrangement allows decentralized decisions about the level and type of taxes. It aligns spending with taxes to the degree possible, which bolsters fiscal clarity and accountability. It saves private taxpayers money by creating a national economic space with comparable rules and administration, rather than a balkanized system that is hard to comply with. Finally, it saves money by avoiding the replication of a separate tax administration apparatus in every province and territory. Our system of central tax administration but provincial tax rate setting is efficient, and contributes to our ability to sustain a radical fiscal federation.

So, what is the resolution to the great mystery of Canada’s radically-decentralized fiscal federation?  I don’t think it is the constitution. Neither are we an outlier in national solidarity, nor in political structures for fiscal accountability.

I’ve argued here that we have been able to operate a radically-decentralized fiscal federation because we have found an economically efficient way to do so.

3. Trouble Ahead

This is the country that my grandparents and my parents’ generations have delivered to us as we sit here in 2017. There have certainly been some bumps and bruises along the way, but arguably we’ve been passed a working federation.

That’s where we are.

Where will our fiscal federation be 50 years from now, in our bicentennial year of 2067?

Slide 6: PBO projections

The Parliamentary Budget Officer produces an annual projection of fiscal sustainability for the federal and the provincial governments.

The chart shows the projected path of the debt to GDP ratio over the next fifty years. The federal government on its current trajectory will fully pay off its net debt by 2060. Federal government program spending and transfers to children, the unemployed, and the elderly aren’t projected to be a long-run problem. Old age pensions for the baby boom generation should hit its peak in 2031 and decline thereafter. The federal government is in a sustainable fiscal position.

The provinces, on the other hand, are not. The PBO projects debt to increase starting in the mid-2020s and the follow an explosive path. The reason is well-known: health spending.

As a caveat, there have been at least two decades of economists warning that health costs would “soon” rise substantially and some have noticed that dog hasn’t really yet barked. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reports that the annual real increase over the five years from 2010-2014 was negative 0.2%.

Provinces have been working hard at implementing innovations to the delivery and management of health services. In some places like British Columbia, there have been innovations on the structure of public-sector wage settlements. Other places like Ontario have experimented with the delivery of core services. I’m sure the government of Nova Scotia has made efforts as well.

Slide 7: Age 75+ across the country.

But, the problem is about to start accelerating. Health spending rises substantially at older ages—especially after age 75.  The average health spending on 40 year olds is $2,400 per year. For 75 year olds it is $11,600. Five times as much.

The 75+ population share starts to rise in the 2020s and by the 2040s will be double the current share nationally. In some places, it will almost triple. These are demographic realities fixed into our population structure and they are unlikely to vary much.

Slide 8: LucilleBall.gif

Again, provinces may be able to innovate their way through this. Economists have made bad projections before, and maybe we will be wrong this time too. But this time may really be different—the pace of demographic change is picking up and innovative health reforms will need to step up the pace substantially in order to keep up with the pace of demographic change.

To my mind, the most likely case is that provincial budgets will be strained over the next twenty years.

To take the example of Nova Scotia, the C.D. Howe Institute projects health spending will increase by four percentage points of GDP in the next 15 years. As a reference point, HST revenue in Nova Scotia is about 4.2% of GDP. So, you’d have to double the provincial part of the HST to raise enough revenue, taking the rate up to 25%. And that’s just the next 15 years. It gets worse after that.

Now, the Parliamentary Budget Office also does provincial projections, and their projections are milder than the C.D Howe ones. The PBO says Nova Scotia health spending will only rise 2 points of GDP in the next fifteen years. But that’s still a substantial challenge that can’t be ignored.

To summarize, the numbers look scary. This problem also looks unavoidable. Is there a solution?

4. An Economic Framework

Slide 9: A framework: Musgrave, Oates, Milligan & Smart

To figure out a way forward for our fiscal federation requires a framework. Let’s put together a framework starting with the work of Richard Musgrave.

In 1959, Harvard economist Richard Musgrave published a path-breaking textbook The Theory of Public Finance. This book transformed the field from what resembled more a branch of accounting featuring ad hoc principles and rules toward a field built systematically on the foundations of modern economic theory. One of his contributions was to consider the economic underpinnings of federations, and how we ought to assign taxes to different levels of government.

We’ve seen his argument earlier in the lecture, when we grappled with the mismatch between the efficient assignment of spending responsibilities and the efficient assignment of tax responsibilities across orders of government in a federation. |The thinking on efficient assignment of taxation is straight out of Professor Musgrave’s writings.

The key consideration for efficiency is the mobility of the tax base. I argued earlier that the sales tax base can be efficiently handled locally, while corporate taxes are more mobile and might best be handled centrally.

But we need to add to Musgrave’s analysis the framework of economist Wallace Oates, from his 1972 book Fiscal Federalism. Oates argues that central governments are good at things requiring co-ordination across subnational boundaries—when decisions in one place affect people in other places. But Oates also recognizes the advantages of subnational governments. Subnational governments can account for local circumstances much better than a far-away central government.

So, the Oates model rests on a tension between these two factors. Central governments are better at co-ordinating when decisions in one place affect people in other places, but subnational governments can account for local circumstances.

In a recent research paper I’ve written with Michael Smart, we combine the frameworks of Musgrave and Oates to reconsider tax assignment in a federation, with particular attention to personal income taxation.

We start with the Musgrave argument—that mobile factors are likely best taxed centrally. In previous work, we have examined the case of high income earners. We have shown that taxation of high-earners at the provincial level seems fairly inefficient, as taxpayers have some ability to respond to higher provincial taxation by shifting income to lower-taxed provinces through mechanisms like family trusts resident in a low-tax province.

But in our new research we add an Oatesian perspective. Provinces have vastly different situations. In some places, the income distribution is highly skewed with a large proportion of earnings going to the highest earners. In other places, the distribution of income is less skewed.  When considering high-income taxation, it seems efficient to have different taxation of high-income people in different provinces, depending on the shape of the income distribution in different places.

Our theoretical model grapples with this tradeoff. Central government income taxation can limit cross-province income shifting while provincial income taxation can address local situations. Our main result: the best way is to share responsibility for income taxation between the federal and provincial governments.

This economic framework delivers clear guidance on how we might assign taxation efficiently in our Canadian federation. Let’s now turn to some policy solutions.

5. Radical solutions

Slide 10:  Get radical Canada!

Let’s recap where we stand.

We have a radical federation. We are facing a large and daunting problem. I think we need some radical solutions. I think we’re up for it—our parents built this radical federation, it’s up to us to keep pushing it forward. We can do this.

Slide 11:  Solutions

I will consider three options, taking into account the arguments and framework developed in this lecture.

First is simply to continue the status quo. The status quo does involve the Canada Health Transfer and Equalization transfers, but on the current trajectory these federal transfer programs are not going to be sufficient to fund the large-scale increase in health spending brought about by population aging. So, the status quo means provinces will be left on their own to raise substantial new funds, starting a few short years from now.

The problem with this solution is the ability of provincial governments to raise new taxes. The provinces where the aging and health problems are most acute—places like Nova Scotia—already have the highest personal taxes, the highest corporate taxes, and the highest sales taxes. How can these provinces raise substantially more revenue—on the order of 3 or 4 percent of GDP just 15 years from now—in a federation with mobile factors? I think this is a poor solution.

The next option is to federalize the coming health costs. Using Musgrave’s logic on the mobility of tax bases, the federal government is best equipped to levy taxes on mobile factors that can balance the need for efficient tax sources with the desire for fairness in the tax system where high earners pay an appropriate share of the tax burden.

This option would certainly require a major rethinking and change of mindset about the level of federal taxes. By the late 2030s, we’d need something on the order of six more points on the GST or a 40% increase of federal personal income taxes.

But, the coming wave of health spending means we do need to rethink our fiscal federation, so we can’t be deterred by whether it is a hard thing to do. We do need to be radical. Instead, the right question is whether we can do better than this option.

I see two weaknesses with the approach of federalizing health spending.

First, is fiscal accountability. I argued earlier that Canada likely does not have any special advantage in fiscal accountability over other countries, but the efficient transfer system we have built has handled the federal-provincial fiscal mismatch adequately so far. That said, I do have concerns how far this can be pushed. If provincial health ministries are funded only by cashing cheques written in Ottawa, I begin to wonder whether attention to proper cost control will be maintained.

Second is the efficiency of the tax assignment mix. Yes, it is true that the Musgravian logic assigns taxation of mobile factors to the federal government. However, my work with Michael Smart points out that the local circumstances need to be considered for efficiency as well.

So, I think we can do better for efficiency than to further centralize the tax decisions in Ottawa while leaving spending decisions in provincial capitals.

Here’s my third option: we flip the table on the current assignment of taxes, guided by our efficient economic framework. Currently, provincial governments raise about $26 billion in corporate taxes. Corporate income is relatively mobile.

Why not hand over taxation of corporate income to the federal government? In exchange, the federal government could shrink the federal GST, handing over the GST tax room to the provinces. On an approximately revenue neutral basis, this swap would cost 4 out of the 5 current federal GST points.

Then, as funding needs grow in the decades to come, provinces can raise their HST rates as required by their provincial needs.

The final piece of this proposal is the maintenance of a robust and strong equalization grant, so that provinces without large resource revenues can maintain their relative position within the federation.

So, this is a three-part plan. One, provinces vacate corporate taxation. Two, the federal government vacates the GST space—but continues the efficient central collection through the CRA. Three, maintain a robust equalization grant.

Let me lay out five advantages of this plan, and then close by addressing some weaknesses.

The first advantage is efficient assignment based on the Musgrave principle of tax base mobility. The sales tax base is not mobile, and can stay provincial. The corporate tax base is mobile, and therefore should be taxed centrally.

The second advantage is the continued shared responsibility for the personal income tax. As my work with Michael Smart shows, allowing the personal income tax to reflect provincial circumstances can be efficient. Importantly, the provincial income tax is an important tool for fairness. It will be needed to adjust the overall sharing of the tax burden generated by higher GST rates in the provinces.

The third advantage is efficient administration. Canada’s system of tax collection agreements would continue, with the federal government setting the structure for the GST and personal income taxes while provinces set the rates.

The fourth advantage is ensuring adequate fiscal accountability. If a province doesn’t pay enough attention to continuous innovation in the efficient delivery of health services, voters in that province will notice that higher GST rates that would be required.

The fifth advantage is the volatility of incomes. Corporate income tax is a very volatile source whereas sales tax is much more stable. Health spending does not vary substantially through the business cycle, so it makes sense to match that spending with a stable financing source.

Of course, this reform would not be easy. While the revenue implications of swapping corporate taxes for GST might be made to balance overall, some provinces might gain and others lose in such a swap. On precedent, Quebec may refuse to participate in such a swap. Finally, provinces facing a particularly large increase in the elderly population share may still find it difficult to raise their HST rates substantially higher than other provinces.

I don’t argue this would be easy. But I do think it is necessary. Our radical federation needs a radical solution to meet the needs of Canada’s next 50 years. Funding for future health spending increases in Canada should come from provincially-set but federally-collected GST increases, tempered by continued sharing of the personal income tax base to adjust for local conditions and for tax fairness.

6, Conclusion

To wrap up, I began by showing that Canada’s fiscal federation is radically decentralized from an international perspective. I argued that there is a strong economic foundation for our radical federation, but that we may soon face a tremendous challenge because of provincial responsibility for health spending.

I proposed a radical reform of tax responsibility, with the federal government taking over all corporate taxation in exchange for provincial control over GST revenues. Future health costs can be covered through provincial sales tax increases, balanced by income tax adjustments and a robust equalization transfer.

We’ve inherited a strong Canada from those who’ve built it. It will take some work, but we can pass a stable and thriving federation on to the next generation.

Thank you.

Comments on Ontario PC Policy Platform

UPDATE March 12, 2018:

Because of the change in leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, my words below no longer represent my current views. I wish the voters of Ontario good luck with their choices. KM

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I am Kevin Milligan, Professor of Economics at the Vancouver School of Economics. My disclosure information is here.  Below are some comments about the recently-released Ontario Progressive Conservative platform. These are my words and my opinions, and I have received no compensation. See my FAQ #5 for why I’m making these comments.

I have comments on two aspects of the Ontario PC policy platform: the proposed Ontario Child Care Refund and cost management through a value for money audit.

Ontario Child Care Refund

The proposed childcare measure takes the existing deduction for childcare and replaces it with a credit that refunds up to 75 percent of the cost of childcare.  This proposal has two main advantages. First, it delivers the largest benefit to lower and middle income families who most need help with childcare expenses. Second, it supports flexibility for those families who need part-time care, shiftwork, or irregular care arrangements. The Ontario PC proposal is similar to what was proposed in this paper by Alexandre Laurin and me, based on the existing policy in Quebec. More background on the justification for a refundable childcare credit policy can be found here.

I was contacted a few months ago by members of the Ontario PC policy team who informed me of the childcare policy plans. They were interested in my views on how to properly assess the potential costs of their proposal. I have had several conversations with the Ontario PC policy team, and I have reviewed their final costing in detail. I think the quality of their costing analysis attains the standard I expect, and the cost estimates are reasonable.

To summarize, the Ontario PC childcare proposal offers improved, flexible benefits for all Ontario families. The costing analysis follows standard practice and gives reasonable estimates.

Value for Money and Cost Management

The Ontario PC policy platform proposes to find 2.8 billion in savings by 2021. Controlling costs for a provincial government in Canada depends mainly on the organization and compensation of public sector workers. In my view, a government with firm attention to cost management can achieve savings in the range proposed by the Ontario PC platform.

 

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