Kath Noble

The limits of the budget debate

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 17, 2012

What sloganeering misses about the budget and what the budget tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity

chamal rajapaksaParliament has become a place where its members go for a free lunch when they have no better offer. And it would seem that MPs receive plenty of attractive invitations, since most of them are rarely to be seen in the chamber, even for a nap on the comfy recliners the Sri Lankan people have so thoughtfully funded, assuming that their representatives would be spending long hours debating the future of the nation.

The Speaker admitted as much last week. There is no point in holding the budget debate, he said, when the responsible ministers are not present.

In principle, he was quite right. Why bother to ask questions about the allocation for higher education when SB Dissanayake is not there to answer or at least to hear what is being said? Suggestions cannot be taken into account in formulating policy if the person taking the decisions is ignorant that they have even been made. And on the day Chamal Rajapaksa made his statement, only four out of the scheduled twenty-two ministries were represented!

However, practically speaking, we should probably breathe a sigh of relief when ministers stay away.

Consider the Parliamentary Select Committee that has been impeaching the Chief Justice. Ministers enthusiastically attended every one of its sittings. But what did they contribute? When they were not calling Shirani Bandaranayake names, they were justifying a very obviously unjustifiable process on the pathetically simplistic grounds that what Parliament says goes. There was no debate about the decision to require the Chief Justice to reply to more than 1,000 pages of ‘evidence’ literally overnight. It was simply declared by the ministers present. Likewise, once she had walked out of the proceedings in protest at her treatment, there was no debate about calling the ‘witnesses’ they had previously said would not be available for cross-examination. They arrived within minutes, once the coast was clear. And by the following day, the Parliamentary Select Committee had managed to finish its ‘deliberations’ and prepare a lengthy report (including references to cases from as long ago as 1852!) – more work than any of the ministers had done in the previous year.

But what Parliament says goes. And in this case it said that it didn’t care to give the Chief Justice a fair trial according to the principles that Sri Lanka applies to everybody else (including ministers!).

In any case, the budget debate is generally used by MPs not so much for commenting on the Government’s plan for the following year as for presenting what they hope will be a headline-catching soundbite, on whatever subject happens to take their fancy.

And this time was little different.

The Opposition quickly latched onto a catchy slogan. The budget was summed up with the phrase ‘lamborghinis for politicians, badagini for the people’, which no doubt resonates with the middle class in Colombo. However, it is not really accurate. If things were that simple, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be a lot less popular than he is with the masses.

Of course the war victory is important in explaining the support he enjoys among the majority Sinhalese, but it can no longer be the only factor.

We need to understand the secret of his success. For if the President were even somewhat more unpopular, his capacity to use the powers that he has won would be considerably restricted. He would not be able to control Parliament to the extent that he does today.

And then the Chief Justice might just stand a chance.

As the Government’s plan for the following year, no matter how many changes are bound to be made later, when nobody is paying attention, the budget gives us an idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal.

The lamborghini-badagini slogan is not really accurate, but it is not completely inaccurate either. As the UNP’s chief economist MP Harsha de Silva pointed out, the budget maintains taxes on food such as milk powder and tins of salmon while exempting racing cars. He called it a budget for the 0.1%, no doubt consciously evoking parallels with the popular campaign of the Occupy Movement in the United States and elsewhere that talks about 1% of the population controlling an ever greater share of the country’s wealth. His point was that only the richest of the rich can afford racing cars, which are now going to be cheaper thanks to the Government’s proposals, while the price of basic food items is of most concern to the poor.

The Treasury issued a totally ridiculous statement in response to this criticism. It seems that it is not lamborghinis but go-karts that are being exempted from tax. Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? People are constantly complaining about the cost of go-karts!

Of course tax exemptions for racing cars of whatever kind are completely misguided.

The proliferation of such random concessions is one of the many things that are wrong with the Government’s tax policy. The more complicated the system, the easier it is to avoid paying one’s dues. At the same time, exemptions mean less revenue for the Government.

Far too little attention is paid to the appallingly low level of tax revenue being collected in Sri Lanka. Taxes amounted to only 12% of GDP in 2011, far below the international benchmarks of 25% for a Middle Income Country and 18% for a Low Income Country, as noted by Anushka Wijesinha in a recent article on the Institute for Policy Studies ‘Talking Economics’ blog. And rather than improving with average incomes, the ratio is getting worse. This is a massive anomaly.

In the absence of sufficient tax revenue, the Government resorts to borrowing, which tends to push the country ever further into debt.

Another huge problem is the extraordinary dependence on indirect taxes, meaning taxes that fall not directly on incomes but indirectly through consumption.

There are two issues here. First, the two forms of taxation are not substitutes. Indirect taxes create inflation, since they add to costs – if a company has to pay taxes on its inputs, it will simply increase the price of its output to compensate. By contrast, direct taxes have no inflationary effect. And so long as the Government spends the money it collects, taxing corporate profits actually increases the level of profits in the economy and thus also the national income. This is counterintuitive, but non-economists should try to understand that this is often the case in economics. Something that is true at the level of an individual is often not true at the level of the economy as a whole. A company might believe that taxes reduce its profits, but it does not exist in a vacuum – the effect of spending by the Government increases economic activity and generates increased profits, albeit not necessarily for that particular company. (This idea should be more easily accepted now, since it was such a fallacy of composition that Keynes pointed out at the time of the Great Depression, saying that if individuals all saved more then aggregate demand would fall, which would mean a lower national income and thus less savings in the aggregate – the ‘paradox of thrift’. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath have repopularised his ideas regarding the need for what is now called a ‘fiscal stimulus’ to get out of an economic downturn.)

Secondly, the poor bear more of a burden than the rich when taxes are collected indirectly rather than directly, since consumption forms a larger share of their income. They may spend half of what they earn on food, but it would be physically impossible for Bill Gates to do likewise – even throwing so much food away would be a challenge!

In Sri Lanka, direct taxes constitute only 20% of the total, with the remaining 80% being indirect taxes. This compares extremely badly with other countries.

Totally ignored by just about everybody, the Government is busy making things worse. Last year, when it finally restored income tax liability to public servants, it managed to ensure that this resulted in no overall increase in tax collection by significantly reducing tax rates and doubling the tax-free allowance. And this year it has introduced a whole range of additional concessions, such as reducing the income tax rate for IT professionals to 16%, organic tea exporters to 12% and large scale poultry farmers to 10%. Meanwhile, companies that list on the stock exchange are to be given a three year half tax holiday. And these are just the new measures. Some time ago, the Institute of Policy Studies estimated that concessions offered by the Board of Investment to foreign companies cost Sri Lanka 1% of GDP, in the process of attracting investment that amounts to no more than 1.5% of GDP – and this money would likely have come anyway, since foreign companies openly state that they are not primarily interested in the level of taxation. Soon it will cost the Government more to administer the tax system than it actually collects!

Many of these issues were undoubtedly highlighted by the Presidential Commission on Taxation, which spent about a year working solidly on the issue, submitting its report in October 2010. But Mahinda Rajapaksa has declined to publish it.

When presenting the budget, he highlighted the fact that the Government has not resorted to privatisation, a recruitment freeze in the public sector, cuts in subsidies or neglect of infrastructure development, even though it is short of revenue. But what the President was hiding is that he has nevertheless cut expenditure. Or rather he has prevented expenditure on certain items – education and health in particular – from going up in line with the national income.

Why? Because he wants to meet the fiscal deficit target set by the IMF.

I would argue that there is absolutely no need to follow the advice of the IMF, but even doing so would not have been a problem if Mahinda Rajapaksa had got a grip of tax policy.

All that said, even if we limit ourselves to discussing tax policy, Harsha de Silva’s analysis of the budget is tellingly off the mark.

He wants to abolish taxes on milk powder and tins of salmon, but these are not just a matter of revenue. They are an integral part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s programme for the development of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Backed up by a whole range of other interventions, including through the much criticised (including by me) Divi Neguma, they provide incentives to farmers and fishers to boost production, since they increase the price of imported goods. And they are working.

Sri Lanka has become self-sufficient in rice, maize and black gram, and will soon be in green gram, onion, sugar and milk.

This is a good thing, since the prices of food on the international market are now subject to speculation by financiers, who regard it as just another commodity. They are volatile and increasing at a faster rate than ever before.

It is also one of the reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular with the Sinhala masses. For he has put a lot of money into rural areas.

Rural areas have also benefited from what I would describe as his other major economic policy – maintaining a large army and putting them to work in all manner of ways. I have written at length against this on political grounds, but economically speaking it has been a key source of growth. And the budget shows that there will be no change in approach. It justifies a significant increase in spending on the police on the basis that they will take on some of the responsibilities that the army handled during the war, while making no proposal to reduce spending on the army.

An addition this year is the plan to establish twenty technical colleges catering to the requirements of jobs in other countries.

Of course there are many other things to be said about the budget, but they will have to be left for another opportunity. For the moment, let us simply realise that things are not as clear cut as Harsha de Silva made out.

The UNP’s problem is that it has no coherent alternative to present to the people. Its policies under Ranil Wickremasinghe were tremendously unpopular, and he does not appear to have changed his mind about them. What is worse, the UNP does not appear to have changed its mind about him. He has been given another six years to accomplish what he could not do in the last eighteen. And the country’s problem is how to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa in check when the Opposition seems so determined to remain ineffective.

Until that question is answered, any debate in Parliament is bound to be a waste of time.

This article was published in The Island on 17th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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