Friday, 3 June 2011
Madhouse economics with lunatics in charge
Where has all the wealth of this country actually gone?
by Prem Sikka
Friday, June 3rd, 2011
Britain’s economic landscape is blighted by economic misery and social exclusion. Nearly 2.5 million people are officially unemployed and 1.5 million are working part-time but would like a full-time job. Youth unemployment is heading towards the one million mark and graduate unemployment is around 20 per cent. Approximately 13.2 million people, including 2.8 million children and 1.8 million pensioners, are living in poverty. Britain’s state pension, as a percentage of average earnings, is the lowest in western Europe. Some 15 per cent of high street shops are empty and the Government’s austerity measures are set to deepen the misery. This is the stark reality of the world’s sixth largest economy and the third largest in Europe. So where does all the wealth go? The answer to this question is crucial because it has a bearing on the possibilities of building a sustainable economy and society.
This country’s gross domestic product has grown from the 1976 figure of £621.22 billion to a current estimate of £1,318.31 billion, but has not been accompanied by equitable share for working people. In 1976, salaries and wages paid to workers accounted for 65.1 per cent of GDP. Following mass privatisations, the demise of skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector and the weakening of trade unions, this declined to 52.6 per cent of GDP in 1996. Following the introduction of the national minimum wage and expansion of the public sector, workers’ share rose. It is now in decline again and stands at 54.8 per cent of GDP. The indications are that, at some companies, the workers’ share of value added is running at less than 50 per cent. Many are facing wage freezes and loss of pension rights. The Government is reviewing employment laws which will inevitably further shrink workers’ share. Of the 200,000 new jobs created in the last year, only 3 per cent are full-time and many do not give employees statutory rights to pension, sick pay or holidays.
All this tells only a partial story, because corporate executives have taken the largest slice of the shrinking share. A recent report by the High Pay Commission shows that, between 1997 and 2008 when Labour was in power, income for the top 0.1 per cent of the population grew by 64.2 per cent, while that of an average earner increased by just 7.2 per cent. A typical FTSE 100 executive receives a pay package of £3.7 million – nearly 145 times more than the average worker.
These trends have resulted in 50 per cent of the population owning less than 1 per cent of the national wealth. The Sunday Times 2011 Rich List shows that the 1,000 richest people in the country have amassed wealth of £395.8 billion, an increase of £60.2 billion since 2010. With wealth of £4.2 billion, Sir Philip Green is listed as the 13th richest person. Many of his employees still receive the minimum wage.
The state has not collected a higher share of the GDP in taxes to enable it to redistribute wealth. In 1976-77, taxation took 43 per cent of GDP. By 1995-96, the tax take declined to 37.2 per cent of the GDP, rising to 38.6 per cent in 2007-08 and back to 37.2 per cent in 2010-11. This decline is one of the reasons behind the brutal public expenditure cuts and loss of welfare rights. The state, or the public share, of taxes has declined even though more people are in work, there are more billionaires than ever before and the corporate sector enjoyed, before the recession, record rates of profitability.
Corporations have been the biggest beneficiaries of government policies, as successive governments have shifted taxes away from capital to labour, consumption and savings. Hikes in VAT and National Insurance contributions are a reminder of this major shift in policy. Income tax personal allowances have not kept pace with inflation and more individuals have become liable to higher rates of income tax at middle earnings. For example, the freezing of personal allowances in the 2011 Budget may result in another 750,000 people paying the 40 per cent higher rate of income tax.
Successive governments have been engaged in a race to the bottom and have appeased the corporate lobby by reducing corporate taxes. In 1982, the rate was 52 per cent of taxable profits. By 2007, it declined to 30 per cent. It is set to be further reduced to 23 per cent by 2014 and corporations are demanding even lower taxes.
The supporters of corporations will point to the fact that, in 1979, corporation tax receipts of £4.6 billion accounted for 5.4 per cent of total tax revenues. Last year, they rose to £38.5 billion and accounted for 7 per cent of the total tax revenues. However, this does not tell us the amounts that they should be paying, as corporations and wealthy elites have become very adept at shifting incomes and profits by using opaque structures and schemes to avoid taxes. For example, Boots, the high street chemist, now has its headquarters in Switzerland to enable it to avoid British taxes. Google dominates the internet and its revenues from this county have soared to £6.35 billion over six years, but the company is estimated to have paid only £8 million in corporate tax.
The United Kingdom is the home of a destructive global tax avoidance industry, headed by major accountancy firms: KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young. Various economic models suggest that, due to organised tax avoidance, we may be losing around £100 billion tax revenues each year. Inevitably, this has reduced the tax take, increased the national debt and threatened hard-won welfare rights.
The claim is that reducing corporate taxes somehow stimulates investment and creates jobs. Such a thesis is very simplistic and ignores the availability of skilled labour, education, training, infrastructure and disposable income of ordinary people. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded that: “As a means of stimulating growth, employment and even private business spending, the historical evidence suggests that business tax cuts are both economically ineffective and distributionally regressive.”
The reduction in workers’ share and the state’s share of GDP means that more is available to corporations and their shareholders in dividends. This does not mean that their resources necessarily stimulate the UK economy. According to a government study, individuals in Britain own around 10 per cent of the shares listed on the London Stock Exchange. Investors from outside this country own 42 per cent of the shares listed on the London Stock Exchange and a variety of insurance companies, pension funds, unit trusts and investment trusts. Banks own the other 48 per cent. This means that a vast amount of dividends flow out of Britain and are not subject to UK tax.
A few years ago, Sir Philip Green’s business empire paid a dividend of £1.3 billion. Of this, £1.2 billion was paid to his wife who was resident in Monaco and thus escaped a tax of around £285 million, which would have been payable if she resided in the UK. Many private finance initiative companies use tax havens to avoid taxes on payments made to them by British taxpayers.
The current distribution of income and wealth will not facilitate a sustainable economic recovery. Ordinary people spend money on everyday things such as food, transport and clothing and thus generate a greater multiplier effect compared to the concentration of wealth in relatively fewer hands. Yet the UK trend has been in the wrong direction. There is no evidence to support the contention that feeding fat cats somehow percolates wealth downwards. The obsession with reducing corporate taxes has not been matched by any boom in private sector investment and jobs.
Too many people already make ends meet by borrowing and that was one of the factors behind the banking crisis. Yet the Government has learned nothing from that. Rather than redistributing wealth or pursuing progressive taxation policies, it expects ordinary people to take on even more borrowing to stimulate demand. Personal household debt is already £1.62 trillion, bigger than Britain’s GDP and the largest per capita in Europe. The Government expects it to reach £2.13 trillion by 2015. These are the economics of a madhouse. There is so sign of any sustained attack on organised tax avoidance or broadening of the tax base by considering financial transactions tax, mansion tax, wealth tax, monopolies or land value tax.
Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex
This article first appeared in Tribune magazine