GST and food. Why I’m against exempting the tax

Via Dim Post, No Right Turn mentions an article from by Gordon Campbell.  The article supports the idea of exempting GST on food. There were a number of interesting facts, I definitely enjoyed the articles.

However, even if all the premises are correct and even given significant social justice goals, I think we have to be clear regarding why we think an exemption is the way to go – and in the end I still disagree regarding any exemption.

Lets assume there is a negligible administration cost from removing the tax on certain types of food.  Even given the lack of a cost why are we taxing one good differently to another here?

The justification used is that GST is a regressive tax – well it isn’t in standard terms.  In fact it punishes those with more volatile income, not with lower lifetime income.  The more apt justification used is the fact that the poor spend more of their income on food.  However, in this case we are merely saying we want to give more money to the poor directly rather than indirectly.  If we think the income of our lowest citizen is too low as a society, we should transfer income to them – not fiddle with prices.  As a result, I do not agree with doing this on the basis of social justice – if this is what society wants just increase income transfers!

Fat tax

The only reason we would want to cut the GST off food is if we decided we wanted the relative price of food to be lower.  In the piece it is mentioned that if we cut the price of supermarket food the consumption of healthy food goes up.  Accepting the strong relationship they find (although, I would like to see the study directly – given the magnitude of the lift) we could justify some cut in the GST on supermarket food if we felt there was an externality from the consumption of healthy food.  Essentially this is the a fat tax vs non-supermarket, fattier foods.

Now for a fat tax (or non-fat subsidy) to work, we need an incredible amount of targeting.  This will either lead to a much larger administration cost (and the govt. hires people to look around and check things) or a significant increase in tax avoidance (by “recategorising” foods).  In order to adjust the relative price of food types, we have to accept that administration issues will become important!

As mentioned earlier, the fat tax is at best a second best option – in reality the problem stems from the governments refusal to make hospital policy in line with social values.

Given this, I would be against arbitrarily imposing a “anti-fat subsidy” through the guise of a cut of GST on some foods even if the administration cost was very small.

Not a fat tax?

Now it doesn’t appear that the study actually looked at a fat tax.  From the article we have:

The main findings from the survey? People, Blakely explained, kept on buying almost the same amount of saturated fats, regardless of the price and regardless of the educational material they were given. However, they used their 12.5% price discount to buy a significantly higher amount of healthier foods, and were still doing so at the end of the survey.

So a 12.5% drop in the price of supermarket goods lead people to buy A LOT more healthy stuff.  Four things:

  1. This does not take into account what people spent their “higher income” on outside the supermarket.  Could it be that higher real income lead to more takeaways.  Without a more detailed look at incomes this is tough.
  2. What income group were these shoppers?  Given that the relative price of goods INSIDE the supermarket were unchanged, why doesn’t a standard boost in income lead to this sort of massive increase in healthy food consumption (makes me suspect) – and why don’t we see these huge benefits overseas when they do have lower GST on food.
  3. Incidence of tax.  If demand for healthy foods rises on the back of a cut in price, we will see the price of healthy food fall LESS than the price of unhealthy food.  This will cancel out some of these gains (even if they actually attempt to occur).
  4. I would seriously like to take a closer look at the data in this study, as it is hard to tell exactly what they did solely from an article that mentions it.

Now, even if these huge estimates of the benefits of moving GST away from food are true I am forced to ask, what is the social benefit of the individuals actions here?  I understand that eating better is great for the person, however this choice set for the person could be achieved by giving them more money in the first place.

If a person then decides to spend any additional income on an xbox instead of healthy food THEY ARE SAYING they value Halo more than a longer healthier life.  Good for them – if it is that good maybe I should play Halo one day too.

The government should only subsidise if there is a social benefit – and again we come down to the second (at least) best world of it being like a fat tax.

And as I said earlier, I would be against arbitrarily imposing a “anti-fat subsidy” through the guise of a cut of GST on some foods even if the administration cost was very small.

  • I’m curious whether the folks in the study could have stored the healthy food, in which case it’s the time pattern of purchase and not consumption that changes.

    In any case, still a bad idea. Folks have all kinds of different production functions for healthy outcomes. Why not just tax the outcome rather than the inputs?

  • “The purchases that were studied were limited to the 3,000 top selling items on the industry’s Shop’n’Go computerized product catalogue, and these were matched, for nutritional evaluation, against 1,000 items from the Heart Foundation’s “Pick the Tick” roster of healthy foods, which are essentially defined by their tolerable levels of salt, sugar and fats.”

    The more I look at this the more suspect I get. It is a pretty weak definition for “healthy”, and if there is anything I know about the tick items it is that they are definitely “normal goods” compared to a number of the other items that will be inferior goods – both legitimately and not.

    Regards outcome vs inputs – I believe the difference in treatment comes from a view of “luck”. Society wants everyone to share in the “genetic luck cost” from obesity, but they also want people to pay for choices – by targeting inputs you are closer to the “choice” component.

    I digress – I am still against the fiddling of GST based on this specific evidence, and I would like to look at the evidence in more detail as I have severe concerns regarding its interpretation.

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  • steve

    what about the “social benefit” of lower healthcare costs for the taxpayer? since we already pay for healthcare in this country shouldn’t a fat tax pay a portion of these costs? the same as taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. I’m not sure if this is the right answer, but this is the only justification I can see for a “fat tax”.

  • @steve

    Agreed. That is why I keep calling it a “second best at best” solution. It is one area where I has so little faith for policy that I’m willing to allow a pecunary tax 😛

    However, if we are going to do it as an externality tax, then we should do it in a seperate fund with the money going to hospitals for transperancy – rather than as an arbitrary break in GST rates.

    Ultimately, I would prefer it if we had a system with user pays health care BUT public transfers on the basis of whatever society feels is based on “luck”. Such a discussion would probably just end up with a lot of people getting upset with each other though, rather than trying to think about what is fair – hell that is why the university still pays far to much for teritary education …

  • EbolaCola

    <3 Dworkin

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  • swan

    If healthy foods are more likely to be basic commodities like fruit and vegetables, could it simply be that people are more likely to notice the price drop on these items. In other words, a cheap orange is a good deal, but a cheap box of ice-cream might be just that. Or, if you have $1 to spend on oranges you will buy more oranges, whereas with your $1 for ice cream you will buy better quality ice cream

  • @steve: on that basis, should we tax people by number of sexual partners to cover the costs of STIs on the public health system?

  • @Eric Crampton

    Lets do it.

  • steve

    @Eric Crampton
    if there is an efficient and not so costly way of doing it. but if you think about it we do encourage actions which reduce the costs of STI’s on the healthcare system, like subsidising condoms, this would just be one step further.

  • Well, suppose we have two potential systems. The first monitors everything you do – costlessly somehow – but some bureaucrat can check every single last thing about you to tax or subsidise you appropriately. The second gives poor people money and requires that everyone buy private health insurance. I put two hands up for the latter over the former….

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