Main menu:

History of RPE Thought

Posts by Tag

RSS New from the CCPA

  • Help us build a better Ontario September 14, 2017
    If you live in Ontario, you may have recently been selected to receive our 2017 grassroots poll on vital issues affecting the province. Your answers to these and other essential questions will help us decide what issues to focus on as we head towards the June 2018 election in Ontario. For decades, the CCPA has […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Does the Site C dam make economic sense for BC? August 31, 2017
    Today CCPC-BC senior economist Marc Lee submitted an analysis to the BC Utilities Commission in response to their consultation on the economics of the Site C dam. You can read it here. In short, the submission discussses how the economic case for Site C assumes that industrial demand for electricity—in particular for natural gas extraction […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Ontario's middle and working class families are losing ground August 15, 2017
    Ontario is becoming more polarized as middle and working class families see their share of the income pie shrinking while upper middle and rich families take home even more. New research from CCPA-Ontario Senior Economist Sheila Block reveals a staggering divide between two labour markets in the province: the top half of families continue to pile […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Join us in October for the CCPA-BC fundraising gala, featuring Senator Murray Sinclair August 14, 2017
    We are incredibly honoured to announce that Senator Murray Sinclair will address our 2017 Annual Gala as keynote speaker, on Thursday, October 19 in Vancouver. Tickets are now on sale. Will you join us? Senator Sinclair has served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), was the first Indigenous judge appointed in Manitoba, […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • How to make NAFTA sustainable, equitable July 19, 2017
    Global Affairs Canada is consulting Canadians on their priorities for, and concerns about, the planned renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In CCPA’s submission to this process, Scott Sinclair, Stuart Trew and Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood point out how NAFTA has failed to live up to its promise with respect to job and productivity […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Progressive Bloggers


Recent Blog Posts

Posts by Author

Recent Blog Comments

The Progressive Economics Forum

Tax shifting: A gimmick with legs

While I admire Green Party leader Elizabeth May as a committed environmentalist, I have a big problem with her pushing “tax shifting”, which goes by the slogans “tax the bad things like pollution not the good things like employment and work” and “getting the market prices right”. This makes for a great political campaign but one that promises more than it can deliver. Slogans generally make for bad economics (remember “tax cuts pay for themselves” last seen in the 2001 BC election).

Don’t get me wrong. By all means I think we should impose ecological taxes on bad things we do not like. But the idea that these can replace income, sales and other taxes as a legitimate base to fund social programs, income transfers and all the other good stuff we like from governments (and the the right hates) is nonsense.

Here’s why: Low levels of the tax do not much affect behaviour but bring in decent and stable revenue; but at high levels of the tax, this does affect behaviour (which is what we want) but revenue drops. If the tax is truly successful at its environmental aims, it will raise little or no revenue. So this puts policy makers in a conflict of interest, of sorts, because environmental “bads” are not stable revenue sources over time. You cannot bank your health care system on pollution taxes because if pollution taxes really did the promised job, there would be no or few revenues to the government.

So tax shifting fails the test of being a good revenue base. Again, this is not to say that we should not use eco-taxes as part of the broader public policy mix in achieving our environmental goals. They definitely belong in the arsenal. But sometimes good ol’ regulation is what we want to clean the air and the water. Rules that prohibit certain adverse behaviours. Why put a tax on toxic discharges on the belief that funds will be used for clean-up when we can just ban them in the first place?

The same holds true for existing taxes like alcohol and tobacco taxes or gas taxes – and for other proposed taxes like the Tobin tax on financial transactions. In fact, look at the impact of high gas prices on behaviour. Gas prices are currently far in excess of what many would have proposed for a gas tax increase several years ago back when gas was much cheaper. The impact has been negligible: some behaviour change on the margin like less new SUV purchases, but no notable reduction in congestion on our city streets. Ultimately, the behavioural response is all about the elasticity, and gas is highly inelastic.

Some readers may recognize the depiction of behavioural response as the Laffer curve, which became popular in right-wing circles in the 1980s in regards to income taxes, and still crops up in the occasional political campaign these days. The idea is that people are so overtaxed that reducing the taxes will make people work harder and invest more, so that revenue will actually go up on the basis of this new economic growth. But the assumption was that we were on the backward bending side of the Laffer curve and this has not proven to be the case. For the range of recent historical tax rates, the elasticity of labour effort is close to zero (it is inelastic as most people have little choice over the number of hours they work and whether they will or will not get a job).

Enjoy and share:


Comment from Darwin O’Connor
Time: September 29, 2006, 6:28 am

Setting the tax rate to pay repair the environmental damage and health costs of an activity would be a fair an effective way to handle it. It helps decourage activities that do real damage, rather then the hysteria and how much PR different environmental causes get.

I agree these environmental taxes should not pay for social programs, only to repair the damage caused by the activity.

Comment from Lawrence Boxall
Time: September 29, 2006, 10:02 am

If we are prepared to interfere with the market mechanism by adding in the external costs that are currently ignored in the form of increased taxes that will pay for the damage, why not go to the next logical step. Instead of stopping at taxing cars to pay for the damage they cause why not prevent the damage in the first place.

Work out what are society’s transportation needs and then supply them free of charge to the user in the most harmless way possible. Then ban the use of cars progressively until they are eliminated. Free and efficient transportation within cities and for suburban commuters would be a beginning. The savings on car related infrastructure alone should be able to pay for the public transit costs.

Arguments that this is a restriction on freedom are decidedly disingenuous when you consider that what is being asked for is the freedom to destroy our only habitat. I don’t have the freedom to wilfully go about harming people and I should not have the freedom to go about carelessly destroying the earth for my short-term comfort.

Comment from Victor Lau
Time: November 18, 2006, 3:13 pm

I think, marc, that in general you make very good points toward defending the status quo, however the reason why “tax shifting” is becoming popular is because people want to try and do things differently. If we could assemble popular meetings with the citizenry to discuss Participatory Budgets and the like, then we could really get somewhere… 🙂

I think tax shifting would work; how effectively remains to be seen If and When it gets implemented by a popular government.

Cheers, vic.

Write a comment

Related articles