What a Fair (and Socially and Environmentally Responsible) Tax System Might Look Like

tax returnIt was 2035, five years after the end of the India-Pakistan nuclear war, two years after the horrific Chinese Drought, and ten years after the Second Great Depression finally drew to a tenuous close. A third consecutive year of disastrous hurricanes, tsunamis and coastal flooding, the Oil Riots, and the Water Wars had everyone on edge, and the international emergency coalition government headed by Karenna Gore had finally achieved consensus on a Global Tax Charter that would put an end to the social and environmental devastation caused by global corporations’ shifting of resources and profits to wherever regulations were most lax.

Jo’s Laser Products was a typical entrepreneurial business in 2034: It offshored material purchases and labour in order to be ‘competitive’ with global corporations in its industry. It used non-reusable materials and non-renewable energy when it was cheaper. It sold about a million lasers per year at a price of $200 each, and had after-tax income of $27M. Its ten-person management team earned a total of $23M after tax, and the company reinvested $7M in new capital equipment.

But the Global Tax Charter of 2035 replaced personal and corporate income, commodity and payroll taxes with two new taxes designed to reduce the impact of global warming and to redistribute some of the massive inequities of wealth that had led to the international Class Riots of 2034. The first new tax was a 100% tax on the cost of ‘imported’ (transported over a certain number of km from source to consumer) and non-reusable materials, a 200% tax on the cost of ‘imported’ materials that were also non-reusable, a 100% tax on offshored labour, and a 100% tax on non-renewable energy and other polluting production costs. The second new tax was a graduated tax on appraised personal wealth in excess of $2M.

Jo’s management team was delighted at the elimination of income, commodity and payroll taxes, but they began to realize that they weren’t as ‘green’, or as socially responsible, as they thought, when they totalled up the new taxes they would have to pay in 2035. In fact, they calculated that, to be profitable under the new scheme, they would have to increase their prices by 40%. The combination of these price increases and comparable increases of other corporations reduced consumer spending power to the point that Jo’s 2035 sales fell by half, to 500,000 units. Profits were eliminated, and the new Excess Wealth Tax exceeded management’s take-home pay. Even worse, Jo’s total investment in the domestic economy, money that would be spent on other goods and services and keep the economy healthy, fell from nearly $120M to barely half that amount:

2034 2035 2036 2038
Price/unit ($) 200 280 250 220
Units sold (M) 1 0.5 0.8 1.1
Total revenue 200 140 200 242
Materials – domestic reusable 20 10 55 100
Materials – domestic non-reusable 20 10 5 0
Materials – imported reusable 20 10 5 0
Materials – imported non-reusable 20 10 5 0
Labour – domestic 32 16 34 47
Labour – offshored 8 4 2 0
Overhead – non-renewable energy 10 5 3 0
Overhead – other (fixed cost) 20 20 26 32
Total costs 150 85 135 179
Management salaries 10 5 10 10
Pre-tax income 40 50 55 53
Corporate income tax 3 0 0 0
Value-added tax (15%) 6 0 0 0
Payroll tax (10% of labour) 4 0 0 0
Purchasing/production tax on ‘bads’ (100%) 0 49 25 0
Total corporate taxes 13 49 25 0
After-tax income 27 1 30 53
Dividends paid to management 20 0 20 40
Profits reinvested in the company 7 1 10 13
Personal income and taxes:
Management salaries 10 5 10 10
Dividends paid to management 20 0 20 40
Personal tax on salaries (30%) 3 0 0 0
Personal tax on dividends (20%) 4 0 0 0
Excess wealth tax 0 6 15 20
After-tax personal income 23 -1 15 30
Total of all taxes 20 55 40 20
After-tax personal income +
profits reinvested in the company 30 0 25 43
Total domestic investment 119 67 143 202
Total ‘green’ investment 117 66 142 202

Something had to change. Early in 2036, Jo’s management scrambled to ‘inshore’ labour and materials, even though this increased costs somewhat. And they switched to more expensive reusable materials and renewable energy sources.

The strategy worked: The tax saving more than offset the increased cost of more socially and environmentally responsible purchasing and production. Jo’s was able to roll back almost half of the previous year’s price increases, and by getting the jump on competitors, they increased their market share back to 800,000 units. Management was able to reinvest $10M in capital spending in the company and still take home $15M in total after-tax income. They were now doing almost as well as before the new tax regime, and were paying twice as much tax, which was being invested by the government in major renewable energy, anti-pollution and reusable materials projects and research. And their total investment in the domestic economy more than doubled to over $140M.

Over the next two years, Jo’s completed the transition of its purchasing and production processes, getting their facilities upgraded to the new Cradle to Cradle certified standard. Their purchasing and production taxes were eliminated entirely, so that by 2038 they were reinvesting more in the company than ever, taking home more than ever, and investing twice as much as before in the domestic and ‘green’ economy. The tax shift had produced dramatic, fast behaviour change and a win-win for the company, the shareholders, the economy and the environment.

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In real life we probably would need to phase this in over several years to allow companies to make the change more gradually. And having a single global tax scheme is nice to dream about, but without it this tax system would be harder to implement — opportunistic corporations would simply move operations to countries with more lax tax regimes.

But it’s still a good idea, and one whose time has come. It makes no sense to tax income rather than wealth, and even less sense to tax payrolls and essential purchases, while leaving socially and environmentallyirresponsible activities untaxed.

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5 Responses to What a Fair (and Socially and Environmentally Responsible) Tax System Might Look Like

  1. Doug Alder says:

    This is very interesting Dave. Not 3 hours ago i was musing to myself a similar scheme – synchronicity I guess. What I was thinking is that governments could set this in motion through a relatively simple tax scheme. So long as no one in your tax area is manufacturing a product then imports are not penalized, As soon as someone starts to manufacture that product locally then imported products are tariffed in such a way as to make the locally produced product much cheaper. Add in further incentives to produce things in a green manner. This way you do not “punish” the consumer only off shored producers.

  2. Ian Blyth says:

    Politicians live off the producers without producing any values themselves. They can not even agree in a single country let alone internationally. Today is the anniversary of “Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith. You should read it before letting politicians tax everything.http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/index.php/blog/the_wealth_of_nations/

  3. Tim Davies says:

    This looks a really interesting idea.Two things though that strike me:1) Relevant resources are unequally distributed across the planet, so to tax heavily transfers from one area to another would lead to resource-rich areas prospering where resource-poor areas suffer more. Trade between areas in-and-of-itself shouldn’t then be taxed heavily – but the social bad in particular should (as Doug suggests above for the bad of replacing local production with outsourced production – and as should happen for the costs of transport etc.)2) Sometimes outsourcing labour etc. has a strong positive redistributive effect – where it is carried out under fair conditions (as is approximated in some Fair Trade models) – so that, in global terms, is a good better not taxed perhaps?

  4. Bharat says:

    Hi Dave, interesting post. Thank you. Iam assuming you are in favor of imposting tax on offshore items for environmental reasons (transport related pollution), and not with political protectionist reasons. Given that assumption, there is the issue of how to define “offshore”. Is it with political boundaries ? Suppose there is a Aluminum plant in San Diego. It might be environmentally benign to import bauxite ore from across the mexican border than from somewhere in east coast. So, it seems that the tax should not be on “offshore” sites from political point of view, but on sites which are located farthest to production site. The same logic applies to finished goods as well. Importing fresh fruit from-canada-to-seattle makes more sense than from-florida-to-seattle. Only if the tax is based on location, the economy is truly localized. Now, the implementation will be a nightmare, because the tax has to be location specific. There is a middle ground solution which is to consider “offshore” from a continental basis. That is trade within north american block will not be taxed as much as trade across the continents. An energy tax also tends to localize the economy a bit, however, if the cost advantages of offshore trade are overwhelming, it may not help much.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Doug: that’s a great idea! Bharat: I acknowledge that there are pros and cons to tax-incentivizing both social and environmental goods (and vice versa) and it’s true that sometimes they’re at odds. At this point if there’s a conflict I think we need to lean towards reducing environmental harm even if that doesn’t address social inequity. But to some extent they’re inseparable — social grievances often lead to or are exploited to the detriment of the environment.

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