4 September 1998

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Equity and efficiency effects Of Food taxes

John Quiggin

Australian Research Council Senior Research Fellow

James Cook University





EMAIL John.Quiggin@anu.edu.au

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Equity and efficiency effects Of Food taxes


In the past fifteen years, Australia has experienced three major attempts at tax reform -- the Tax Summit of 1985, the Fightback! campaign of 1991-3 and the proposals put forward by the Howard government as the basis of its 1998 election campaign. In every case, the issue of the taxation of food has been at the centre of the debate.

In one sense, the focus on the taxation of food is paradoxical. Most supporters of tax reform have argued for the desirability of replacing the Wholesale Sales Tax (WST) with a Goods and Services Tax (GST), that is, a tax levied on services as well as goods, using a value-added tax mechanism in place of the single stage mechanism of the WST. Neither of these reforms implies the need to remove existing exemptions such as the exemption of food from WST. Further, most supporters of tax reform agree that the current special treatment of a range of goods and services, such as health, education, petroleum products, tobacco and alcohol should be maintained in a reformed system, though possibly in a modified form. Yet in each of the three campaigns for reform, the advocates of reform have begun by insisting that the existing exemption for food must be removed. Compensation packages have been produced, purporting to ensure that everyone is better off as a result of reform.

In each case, the reaction has been the same. Churches, social welfare groups such as the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and, to some extent, unions, have argued that a tax on food is necessarily regressive. The compensation package has been found wanting, because the calculations supporting the package have contained errors and because of doubts about whether compensation would be maintained. The opposition of these groups, combined with the fact that each package has been put forward by one party and rejected by its political opponents, has created powerful obstacles to large-scale tax reform.

1. Previous proposals to tax food

The Tax Summit 1985

The design of the Tax Summit held in 1985 was based on that of the highly successful Economic Summit of 1983. The government prepared a White Paper on Tax Reform which offered three options. Option A involved widening the income tax base to include capital gains, fringe benefits and income from foreign sources, along with the abolition of a number of concessions. The relatively modest revenue generated in this way was to be used to finance small reductions in income tax rates. Option B combined the existing system of wholesale sales taxes with a broad-based consumption tax, that is, a Goods and Services Tax (GST), levied at a rate of 5 per cent, used to finance a somewhat larger reduction in income tax rates. Option C combined the income tax base-broadening of Option A with a 12.5 per cent GST. It was proposed that the revenue from the GST would be used to finance abolition of the existing wholesale sales tax, measures to compensate low-income earners and recipients of social security for the impact of the consumption tax on prices, and cuts in marginal rates of income tax at all levels.

The political calculation was that Option A would prove unacceptable to business and to parts of the trade union movement, because of its lack of significant reductions in the top marginal rate of income tax, while Option B would prove unacceptable to the unions and other supporters of the Labor movement because of its regressive impact. This would permit the government to mobilise a consensus behind the preferred Option C, which would deliver a more efficient tax system while making everyone better off.

In the event, both the economic and political calculations behind Option C proved inadequate. The attempt to create a package which was fiscally neutral, left no-one worse off and delivered significant cuts in marginal tax rates was a failure. In the end the government had to concede that its claim that 'no one will be worse off' was unsustainable.

The failure of the political calculations was, perhaps, less predictable, but equally important. The representatives of business, the group which should have given the strongest backing to Option C, were unwilling to line up behind a Labor government. The representatives of the welfare lobby rejected the bait of increased welfare payments, being more concerned with the regressive effects of taxes on food and other essentials. The trade unions wanted some form of tax on wealth and remained wary of the consumption tax.

In the end, however, the government implemented a package very close to the original Option A, including a capital gains tax, fringe benefits tax, a foreign tax credit and an imputation scheme for dividends. A variety of special exemptions were eliminated or scaled back. Although the outcome of the Tax Summit was not what the government intended, it is hard to disagree with the assessment of the reforms by Mathews (1985, p. 10):

Whatever their shortcomings, they represent the most far-reaching and politically courageous shift in the direction of tax policy ever attempted in Australia.

Fightback !

Tax reform returned to the forefront of the economic debate in 1991 with the release by Opposition Leader John Hewson of the Fightback! package (Hewson and Fischer 1991). Fightback! was easily the most elaborate specification of an alternative economic policy offered by an Opposition party in Australia. Its centrepiece was a set of tax reforms based on the abolition of most existing indirect taxes (wholesale sales taxes, payroll taxes, import tariffs, petroleum and other excises, except for the excise on alcohol and tobacco, and the training guarantee levy) and their replacement by a single goods and services tax (GST) levied at a rate of 15 per cent on most items of personal expenditure. In addition, Fightback! proposed large cuts in personal income tax funded partly by the excess of GST revenue over the revenue from existing indirect taxes, partly by proposed net expenditure cuts of $4 billion per year (1 per cent of GDP) and partly by bracket creep. The cuts were to be delivered, in two instalments, in 1994 and 1996. In keeping with the rigid economic rationalism that pervaded Fightback! , the timing of the tax cuts was set without any regard to the future state of the economy.

Fightback! was supported by calculations purporting to show that everyone would be better off as a result of the proposed reforms. However, once the effects of bracket creep were taken into account, lower income earners (those with incomes below $30 000 per year) were worse off. The adverse effect on lower income earners was greatly exacerbated by the effects of expenditure cuts (Quiggin 1992).

The most controversial element of Fightback! was the imposition of tax on food. Fearing that any modification of the package would 'open the floodgates' to interest group pressure, Hewson refused for more than a year to respond to the objections of churches, welfare groups and others. Finally, the pressure became too much and Hewson produced Fightback! Mark II (Hewson and Fischer 1992), in which the tax on food was scrapped and the income tax cuts for upper income earners were scaled back. The distributional effects of the tax measures in Fightback! Mark II were broadly neutral, and therefore preferable to the regressive measures in the alternative One Nation package, put forward by Paul Keating in 1992. However, the electoral damage had been done. Fear of the GST and of the radical reforms to labour markets and Medicare proposed as part of Fightback! resulted in Hewson's loss of the 'unlosable' 1993 election.

Lessons from previous debates

The first lesson from the Tax Summit and Fightback debates is what might be called The Fundamental Law Of Tax Reform:


This law is subject to some qualifications. There are some ways to mitigate the zero sum nature of tax reform. First, if 'everyone' is defined to mean 'everyone but tax avoiders', the government can close tax loopholes and share the proceeds among honest taxpayers. However, the continuing flow of innovations from the tax-avoidance industry means that governments have to run fairly hard to stay in the same place. The fight against tax avoidance and evasion is a routine part of the tax system, and the benefits from closure of individual loopholes should not be treated as part of a tax reform package. Only wholly new responses to avoidance such as the Fringe Benefits Tax introduced in 1985 can properly be regarded as tax reforms from which the additional revenue can be used to finance cuts in general tax rates.

The second possibility is that tax reform could generate efficiency gains that would potentially make everyone better off. The problem here, as with so much of microeconomic reform, is that it is much easier to postulate the existence of these efficiency gains than to capture any real benefits. If the projections of the advocates of microeconomic reform, such as the Industry Commission (1990, 1995) had been correct, GDP today would be about 10 per cent greater than it actually is (Quiggin 1995). The additional revenue of around $20 billion per year would be more than sufficient to finance the cuts in tax rates proposed in any of the packages put forward in the Australian tax debate.

The second main lesson from the Tax Summit and the Fightback! campaign is that it is very hard to convince the Australian people that a tax on food is desirable, no matter how appealing the use to which the resulting revenue is put. Policymakers seem to have derived the corollary that it is necessary to put more work into the design of 'compensation packages'. The alternative view, put by Quiggin (1993, 1998) is that proposals for tax reform will never succeed unless the idea of taxing food is abandoned.

2. The Howard government's tax package

The tax reform package proposed by the Howard government is closely similar to Fightback! Mark 1. In both cases, food is included in the base of a GST, despite the exemption of numerous other commodities. In both cases, the revenue from the food tax is used to finance regressive cuts in income tax. Finally, in both cases, the compensation offered to low-income households is insufficient to offset the costs of the food tax and the expenditure tax cuts used to finance the cuts in income tax seen as necessary to 'sell' tax reform.

There are some important differences between the packages. Most notably, whereas most of the income tax cuts in Fightback! Mark 1 were to be funded by somewhat vaguely specified cuts in public expenditure, the Howard government has already made its expenditure cuts in the 1996 Budget. These cuts, which violated clear election promises, were justified by the claim, associated with the alleged 'Black Hole' that the Budget was in severe structural deficit. If the 1996 expenditure cuts and the fiscal drag expected between 1996 and the proposed implementation of the package in 2000 are taken into account, the government's package may be regarded as roughly fiscally neutral. However, the reduction in the structural deficit achieved in 1996 is completely eliminated. The fact that expenditure cuts have already been made helps to clarify the choices facing the community. Voters can make their own judgement as to whether they would prefer the restoration of the services eliminated through cuts to a reduction in income tax.

Nevertheless, the similarities between Fightback! Mark 1 and the 1998 package outweigh the differences. Quiggin (1992) showed that, despite claims to the contrary, the impact of Fightback was regressive, particularly when the effects of expenditure cuts were taken into account. ACOSS (1998) and others have similarly demonstrated the regressive effects of the government's package.

The similarity between Fightback! Mark 1 and the 1998 package raises the questionof whether the adverse effects of the package could be overcome by an adjustment similar to that used to produce Fightback! Mark 2, eliminating the food tax and offering smaller income tax cuts for upper income earners.

2.1 Labor's tax package - an aside

Labor's alternative tax package consists of some modest but worthwhile improvements to the income tax system, financed by a combination of fiscal drag and some anti-avoidance measures, mostly borrowed from the government's package. The modest scale of the package is dictated partly by the desire to present a fiscally sustainable package and partly by the need to finance expenditure proposals, most of which involve reversing cuts made by the Howard government or, in some cases, its Labor predecessor.

A disappointing aspect of the package is the absence of any reform of the indirect tax system, beyond the gimmickry of tax on caviar and four-wheel drive vehicles. Labor's campaign against the GST proposal has focused primarily on objections to the taxation of food. These objections would have been more convincing if they had been combined with proposals for the taxation of services, or at least with a coherent analysis of the issues. Labor's argument that taxes should not be applied to rapidly growing sectors of the economy is fallacious, except perhaps as part of a Brennan-Buchanan () strategy for crippling the Leviathan of government by narrowing the tax base.

2. The case against taxing food

The case against taxing food has two main elements. First, a tax on food is highly regressive. Second, because the demand for food is inelastic, exempting or zero-rating food will have little effect on allocative efficiency.


The removal of the existing exemption for food would be a highly regressive step, whether undertaken in isolation or as part of a move from wholesale sales tax to a GST. Expenditure per person on food, excluding restaurant meals, scarcely varies with household income. This point is illustrated by Table 1, derived from the ABS Household Expenditure Survey 1993-94. The final row of the table shows expenditure per person on food and non-alcoholic beverages excluding restaurant meals and take-aways. The differences are within the range of sampling error for the survey.

Table 1: Household expenditure on food

Source: ABS Household Expenditure Survey 1993-94

That is, a tax on food is effectively equivalent to a poll tax, which is the most regressive of all taxes.

Similar results are implied by the detailed disaggregation of household types presented by ACOSS (1998) and the Johnson et al. (1998) showing that low-income households allocate up to 24 per cent of total expenditure to food, compared to 13 per cent for wealthy households. The proportional disparity is even greater when restaurant meals are taken into account.

The income figures in the Household Expenditure survey are not very reliable since they are affected by weekly fluctations. However, the analysis of Johnson et al. (1998) suggests that low-income households spend more than they earn (about 120 per cent of income) while high income households spend as little as 60 per cent of income. It follows that expenditure on food, expressed as a proportion of income, is four as high for the poor as for the rich. A tax on food will bear four times as heavily on the poor as on the rich. A 10 per cent tax on food amounts to a 2.8 per cent tax on income for members of the lowest income households and a 0.7 per cent tax for high income households. Exempting food from taxation greatly increases the progressivity of the tax system.

The argument for exempting food does not extend to other commodities, such as clothing, housing and fuel, sometimes classed with food as 'necessities of life'. In a study of the effects on inequality of consumption taxes levied at differential rates, Creedy (1993, p.93) found that 'the exemption of food has the largest effect on the inequality of net income; the subsequent introduction of further exemptions or of a higher rate applied to some commodity groups has little effect'.

Similarly, there is no benefit from exempting restaurant meals. Ideally, it would be desirable to maintain the tax-free status of food while taxing the service component of restaurant meals. This could be achieved by zero-rating food, taxing restaurant meals at the standard rate and allowing restaurants to claim an input rebate for purchases of food. A second-best option would be to tax restaurant meals at a concessional rate,

Minimal efficiency losses

An important general argument against exemptions from consumption taxes is based on the fact that such exemptions distort the pattern of consumption and thereby reduce consumer welfare. This effect is referred to as a loss in allocative efficiency. The loss in allocative efficiency associated with a given variation in tax rates can be approximated using a 'welfare triangle' measure developed by Harberger (1964), which expresses the welfare loss as a proportion of total expenditure on the item in question, depending on the variation in tax rates and the elasticity of demand for the good in question. Because the elasticity of demand for food is low, the loss in allocative efficiency from an exemption is correspondingly small. The allocative efficiency cost is almost certainly less than 0.1 per cent of total expenditure on food, or 1 per cent of the tax revenue that would be raised by a 10 per cent tax

A different kind of argument for taxes on goods for which demand is inelastic is based on the theory of optimal commodity taxation (Ramsey 1927). Ramsey showed that the efficiency cost of raising a given amount of revenue through commodity taxes would be minimised if the tax rates were inversely proportional to the demand for the goods in question.

The optimal tax argument is irrelevant here, for two reasons. First, it is inconsistent with the general design principle for the GST, which is based on a uniform rate of tax. Second, and more importantly, the Ramsey argument applies only in the context of a system based purely on commodity taxes. In the present case, the revenue raised through the food tax is being returned through social welfare payments and cuts in income taxes. The net efficiency effects of these payments are considered below.

Political economy arguments

The analysis presented below suggests that it is not possible to design a package consisting of a food tax and compensation measures which eliminates the regressive effect of the food tax avoids introducing new distortions and still yields significant net revenue. Suppose, however, that such a package were feasible. Taxation of food would still be undesirable unless it could be shown that the necessary compensation measures would in fact be introduced and maintained over time.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that this condition will not be satisfied. All Australian proposals for the taxation of food, including the 1998 package, have been incorporated in larger packages for which the aggregate effects have been regressive. The New Zealand tax reform package of 1987, under which food was taxed at the full GST rate, included some compensation measures for recipients of welfare benefits, but it does not appear that these measures were sufficient to offset the regressive impact of the package as a whole. The issue is academic since the compensation measures were more than wiped out by across-the-board cuts in welfare benefits introduced in 1991. Since the New Zealand reforms were also associated with slow economic growth and increasing inequality in market incomes, there can be no doubt that low-income households were made worse off.

The difficulty of preserving compensation measures may also be illustrated by the debate over the adequacy of compensation provided to pensioners for the impact of the GST in the 1998 tax package. The government has proposed a 4 per cent increase in the value of pensions which, it is argued is more than adequate to offset the impact of an estimated 1.9 per cent increase in the Consumer Price Index arising from the GST. Among other criticisms, Labor has argued that an increase in excess of the CPI was due to be provided in any event because of the policy of adjusting the pension to a value equal to 25 per cent of Average Weekly Ordinary Time Earnings (AWOTE).

Another way of making the same point would be to observe that following a switch from direct to indirect taxation, maintenance of a given ratio between the real disposable income of pensioners and that of wage-earners would require an increase in the ratio of pensions to pretax earnings. This is a rather complex argument. It is correspondingly easy for a government to rearrange pensions and benefits in a way that negates the effect of a seemingly generous compensation package. Low-income households can be assured that they will bear the brunt of any tax on food. It is much harder to ensure that compensation will be adequate or that it will be maintained in the long term.

3. Arguments for taxing food

A food tax is not regressive

It is frequently claimed that a tax on food is not really regressive, because high income households spend two or three times as much on food as low-income households. This claim, involves a misinterpretation of the term 'regressive'. Even though upper income households may spend a greater absolute amount on a given commodity, a tax on that commodity is regressive whenever the proportion of income spent on the commodity is greater for low income than for high income households.

The suggestion that the absolute benefit ased on casual inspection of the results of the Household Expenditure Survey, However, as shown in Table 1, this superficial impression is misleading. The claim that a tax on food is not regressive is based on an aggregate of food, a necessary good and restaurant meals, a luxury service. Moreover, the fact that high income households are, on average, larger is not taken into account. As was shown above, expenditure per person on food, excluding restaurant meals is virtually identical for high-income and low-income households. Claims that a food tax is not regressive do not stand up under examination.

Definitional difficulties

In rejecting proposals to zero-rate food while taxing restaurant meals, the government has made much of the definitional difficulties such proposals would raise. The Treasurer, Peter Costello has justified taxing food on the basis that the alternative would be to have government inspectors with thermometers testing the temperature of goods to determine whether they should be classed as meals or groceries. Such cheap point-scoring on a serious policy issue does Costello little credit.

The claim that to be effective a GST must be uniform can be refuted by the observation that every such tax ever proposed has incorporated many deviations from uniformity. A partial list of the goods given differential treatment in the current tax package includes:

Alcoholic beverages (excises + GST)

Banking services (exempt)

Education, private (zero-rated)

Gambling (subject to state taxes and GST)

Health care, private (zero-rated)

Housing (no GST on sale of existing houses)

Insurance (exempt)

Luxury cars (special surtax)

Overseas holidays for Australians (zero-rated)

Road use (unspecified tax or charging system)

Tobacco (excises + GST)

Foreign tourists' expenditures (subject to GST unlike other exports).

The list of exemptions and differential taxes involves a wide range of different rationales including externality arguments (alcohol and tobacco users should pay for the costs they impose on the community), second-best arguments (the claim that since public education and health are provided free or at subsidised prices, private providers should not be taxed), considerations of practicality (the difficulty of taxing financial services and overseas holidays), revenue considerations (the desire to levy charges on foreign tourists for their use of public resources).

As a result of these special categories, the new system of indirect taxation will involve at least five different categories of goods (zero rated, exempt, 10% GST, GST + excise, special luxury car tax), compared to the six categories under the existing WST. However food is treated under the GST, definitional difficulties will arise. Under the government's proposal for example, health services are zero-rated while food is taxed at 10 per cent. How ,then, should 'health food', such as vitamin supplements be treated? What about food supplied to hospital patients? And so on.

None of these difficulties are insuperable. Under both the GST/VAT prevailing in Most European countries and the retail sales tax in the United States, groceries are either tax-free or differentially taxed while restaurant meals are taxed (Table 2). The claim that low-income households should pay billions of dollars in food taxes because the government is incapable of distinguishing between a bag of groceries and a restaurant meal is not worthy of serious consideration.


Table 2: VAT Rates applied in the Member States of the European Community

(Situation at 1st May 1998_



Source: European Commission, Directorate General XXI, Customs and Indirect Taxation, XXI/900/98-EN, Brussel 1998



The floodgates argument

Some advocates of a GST, including the Prime Minister, justify the inclusion of food with the claim that an exemption would 'open the floodgates' to an unlimited set of claims for special treatment. This political judgement is contradicted by the experience of Fightback!. After more than a year of resisting pressure to exempt food from the proposed GST, John. Hewson introduced the Fightback! (Mark II) package in December 1992. In this packag,e food was exempted and the income tax cuts of Fightback! (Mark I) were scaled back. No other exemptions from GST were announced, and no further concessions were made in the three months between the announcement of Fightback! (Mark II) and the election of March 1993.

In the current context, the fate of the GST will be decided in the few weeks of an election campaign. A claim that the government would be unable to exempt food without making other concessions appears to be an admission of incapacity to govern. Like the argument about definitional difficulties, the 'floodgates' argument does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Problems can be solved by compensation

A more plausible argument in support of the food tax is that the regressive effects of such a tax can be offset by compensation measures, such as income tax cuts and increases in pensions. The difficulty here is that, unless it is targeted to households with low incomes such compensation may be so expensive that it wipes out all or most of the revenue raised by the tax. If compensation is targeted, the result is an increase in the effective marginal tax rate faced by those households that have their compensation withdrawn as their income increases. The efficiency costs of such high effective marginal tax rates may be greater than the cost of other methods raising the same revenue as that generated by the food tax net of the cost of compensation.

Consider first, the possibility of providing a fixed payment to every member of the community, which would be sufficient to compensate households in the bottom quintile of the income distribution for the costs of a food tax. We have already seen that households in the bottom quintile spend almost as much, per person, on food, as those in the top quintile. That is, a compensation scheme of this kind would wipe out nearly all of the revenue raised by the food tax. To guarantee that all low-income earners were better off, it would be necessary to provide a safety margin. This would probably mean that the cost of compensation would exceed the revenue raised by the tax.

Next consider a compensation package which would provide full compensation for the bottom three quintiles of the distribution of household incomes, and no compensation for those in the top quintile, with compensation phasing out between the 60th and 80th percentiles of the distribution. For couples without children, this is an income range of $20 000, roughly from household incomes of $50 000 to $70000. Compensation of this kind would cost about 70 per cent of the $5.5 billion in revenue raised by the tax, leaving net revenue of $1.6 billion. This would be sufficient to reduce the general rate of GST or of income tax by around 0.5 percentage points.

The compensation required would be around $250 per person per year or $500 per year for couples without children. Phasing this compensation in over an income range of $20000 would imply raising the effective marginal tax rate over this range by 2.5 percentage points, which would be offset by a general reduction of 0.5 percentage points across the entire income distribution.

It is difficult to estimate with precision the effects of changes in tax rates on allocative efficiency. However, it seems doubtful that substantial efficiency gains would be achieved by a general reduction of only 0.5 percentage points in the income tax rates, accompanied by a net increase of 2 percentage points for a large group of households.

Moreover, in view of the close similarity between a food tax and a poll tax, any net gain that could be achieved in this way could be obtained more simply through changes to the income tax system. The effect of the package described above is essentially identical to that of an increase in marginal tax rates for households in the fourth quintile of the income distribution with the proceeds being used to reduce all other marginal rates.

In summary, any non-targeted package compensating low-income households for the regressive impact of the food tax would cost so much as to eliminate any net revenue from the tax. A targeted compensation package would generate distortions sufficient to offset the beneficial effect of reductions in other taxes financed by net revenue from the food tax. The net effect, taking account of the costs of collecting and complying with the food tax and of distributing and administering the compensation package, would be negative.

4. Conclusion

Proposals for the reform of indirect taxes in Australia have met with little success over the past fifteen years. The main reason for this is the fact that relatively uncontroversial proposals to include services in the tax base and to use a value-added mechanism for collecting indirect taxes have been combined with politically unsalable and economically regressive proposals to abolish the existing tax exemption for food.

Even if the Coalition government is re-elected, it is unlikely to have a majority in the Senate. The removal of the tax on food should be a precondition for passage of any legislation on tax reform proposed by the government. If Labor is elected, tax reformers should learn the lesson of three successive failures and look for reforms of the indirect tax system that do not involve a tax on food.





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