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Taxpayers Union: Teaparty wingnuts or rational economists?

Today saw the launch of the strangely named Taxpayer’s Union, a lobby group aimed at “giving taxpayers a voice in the corridors of power.”

Given the taxpayers, that’s all of us, already have a voice each three years and through various processes, the Taxpayer’s Union deserves a bit more scrutiny. Are they rational economists looking to help make government more efficient, or is it a right wing shop looking to promote the selfish interests of wealthy people?

From their Q&A page:

Our objectives and aims include:

To give taxpayers a voice in the corridors of power;
To educate New Zealanders against excessive and wasteful government spending;
To scrutinise government spending;
To publicise government waste;
To promote an efficient tax system; and
To increase transparency and accountability of government spending.

None of that sounds too bad at first read, but “excessive and wasteful government spending” could mean being smart about the details, or it could be code for “no more welfare but yes more roads”. Similarly “promote an efficient tax system” could mean reduce all taxes to rich people, or it could mean reduce the administrative burden of collecting tax. Or, as @farmgeek mentioned, it could be making sure that we are collecting our fair tax from offshore based corporations indulging in tax jurisdiction dancing.

The first initiatives of Taxpayers’ Union may give some clues:

Promote an ‘Armchair Auditors Act’, modelled on legislation enacted in some U.S. states, where all transactions over a de minimis amount are searchable on an online database;

Promote legislation strengthening the Official Information Act.

These are great. They may lead to petty chasing of ministerial expenses, but overall the more government data we can get into the public domain the better. (It seems they already have ours.)

Identify and expose the most flagrant examples of government waste;
End taxpayer funded corporate and union welfare;

The language here is problematic with “flagrant examples” and “corporate and union welfare” smelling a little inflammatory and feel-good stuff for the right, but not really adding to the overarching goal of evidence-based lawmaking. This is potentially very selfish stuff, but a lot depends on the cases they bring forward.

Expose and halt the significant public funding that lobby groups receive to campaign and lobby government for pet policy and law changes;
Promote legislation requiring local referenda for any increase in real per capita rates

These feel more selfish. I’m guessing that the money funding campaign and lobby groups is generally primarily for NZ’s social benefit, and that the TaxPayers Union has some specific targets in mind. The details matter, but just as we provide defence lawyers, so should we also give those without a voice the ability to be articulate in the halls of power. Lose the voices, and sooner or later the laws will swing in the direction of the hard right.

And local referenda are simply dumb dumb economics, as a cursory glance at the USA’s State of California will show. We elect politicians to make tough decisions on tax, and our system works as it removes the personal incentive to pay less tax in favour of ensuring that the long term benefits and public goods are delivered. This is short sighted selfish wingnuttery and is deal killer for me as it implies a lack of rigour.

A quick search found this record of requests received under the Official Information Act, from the Clutha District Council Agenda for August 2013.

What’s interesting (and credit open data from the council for this) are the other names surrounding David Farrar, Stephanie Morrison and Jordan Williams, all of whom are part of the Taxpayers Union crew. But also on that page are Matthew Beveridge, the ex VicNats Deputy Chair and executive member for Lower North Young Nationals and Aaron Letcher, a National Party aligned member of the University of Waikato Council and Waikato Student Union president. I suspect Aaron, asking about travel costs for an area well away from his purview and Matthew, who is fishing for spend on fireworks displays and flower arrangements amongst other things, are part of the wider team. Also on the page were Jamie Morton of the NZ Herald, who is based in Tauranga looking for rates changes and Vanessa Forrest, a producer from Campbell live, was asking about churches. we will give them a pass, and wait for their articles to emerge. On the next page was a Rebecca Green, asking about post 1940 buildings on the heritage list, so we will see where that ends up.

I will note that the burden placed on that little council by the team is quite high, and hope they are aware of their impact. I wholeheartedly agree with the approach that all government data should be online (including our housing data that is currently sold) so that government bodies are saved from the burden of OIA data collection.

Overall I’m willing to wait and see what the Taxpayers Union comes up with, but with a core aim to “lower the tax burden on New Zealanders” and a focus on uncovering scandals it feels like a economically lightweight single cause group. It seems to lack people from parties other than National, accepts anonymous donations (giving instructions as to how) but has a $5 joining fee – which smells potentially of rich people paying for astroturfing. I really hope this is not be the case, but that’s what I’m seeing at the moment. Sorry David Farrar.

However compared to the craziness in the USA this very mild (not that it makes it right). For comparison here are the Tea Party’s 15 Non-Negotiable Beliefs. Imagine having this lot in control of parliament, and remember that they started out as an astroturf organisation that sounded almost rational.

  1. Illegal aliens are here illegally.
  2. Pro-domestic employment is indispensable.
  3. A strong military is essential.
  4. Special interests must be eliminated.
  5. Gun ownership is sacred.
  6. Government must be downsized.
  7. The national budget must be balanced.
  8. Deficit spending must end.
  9. Bailout and stimulus plans are illegal.
  10. Reducing personal income taxes is a must.
  11. Reducing business income taxes is mandatory.
  12. Political offices must be available to average citizens.
  13. Intrusive government must be stopped.
  14. English as our core language is required.
  15. Traditional family values are encouraged.

Lance Wiggs is an independent consultant providing management, strategy, growth and valuation consulting to industrial, media and internet based businesses. He blogs at Lancewiggs.com

Comments and questions
22

Lance, for some of us tax is still a significant wedge that means a pay rise that equals the rate of inflation means we are worse off. You are somewhat isolated from those sort of concerns I imagine!

I'd like to see some kind of statement from this group confirming that one of their top priorities will be exposing and calling to account people who dodge or try to dodge paying their taxes.

That's what a real Taxpayers' Union would do.

You mean the 50%+ who pay no net tax I presume? Hard to beat that for successful tax dodging.

You will of course be refering to the 55% whose nett contribution is nothing.

I take it you are both referring to the myth that the over-privileged pay "more than their fare share"?

http://www.pundit.co.nz/content/tax-burdens-some-facts-for-a-change

in answer to your opening question: wingnuts. Definitely wingnuts.

I am most interested in the "against excessive and wasteful government spending;" part of their manifesto. At this very moment I am watching out my office window a breath taking example of waste and idiocy by an Auckland Transport contractor repeating unnecessary work already done by Auckland City several times over the last couple of years which were a repeat of the very same work done by the old North Shore City repeated times all because I predict, one department doesn't talk to another. Someone needs to look very closely at Auckland Transport contracting jobs line by line.

Let's see. It's a group offering a completely free service to hold bureaucracies and politicians to account for their spending.

Possible harm? None.

Possible good? Holding bureaucracies to account. savings of taxpayer money as officials know they're being monitored.

No downside I can see.

Agree totally , Mark.

Actually, despite your dismissive comments, Lance, I think such a group could be very worthwhile.
There is little doubt that our recent governments, be they National or Labour,have become increasingly secretive and arrogant;any means of holding them to account would have to be necessary and welcome.
paleo

You say: "local referenda are simply dumb dumb economics, as a cursory glance at the USA’s State of California will show."

Funny, the same system in Switzerland works a charm (there, competition between regions to attract wealthy residents and profitable businesses keeps tax rates low, while binding citizen-initiated referenda on just about anything helps to prevent wasteful spending, which helps keep budgets balanced despite low tax rates).

Don't blame the referenda, blame the politicians who play party politics rather than focusing on what's best for the region, blame the media who egg on the politicians, and blame the voters who don't make the effort to see through them.

Superficial nonsense from Wiggs. There is no discipline on tax gathering when those who effectively pay the tax are a minority and those who benefit are the majority.

The article reeks of a preconceived ideological position from someone who is anyway heavily involved in trying to spend other people's money.

You obviously think that the role of government is just to tax and spend as much as possible.

Lance, I am more interested in your apparent demonisation of the US tea-partiers.

Maybe you could, point by point, itemise exactly what is wrong with each of those 15 points, followed by what you think should happen in each case.

You obviously think that the role of government is just to tax and spend as much as possible.

Lance, I am more interested in your apparent demonisation of the US tea-partiers.

Maybe you could, point by point, itemise exactly what is wrong with each of those 15 points, followed by what you think should happen in each case.

Hi Lance, great work on this piece. Rather than go to all the trouble you have though, you should have just called me. The phone number is on the Taxpayers’ Union website. I would have told you that Steph is my girlfriend and Matthew and Aaron are friends of mine. You would have avoided all the trouble you’ve been to :)
David and I have made no secret of the fact that setting up the Union has been personal project and passion of ours. Glad to see you’ve come to the same conclusion though comparisons with the Tea Party are a bit unfair given that David and I are both on the record that the Union will never become political party.
Cheers.
Jordan Williams
Executive Director, New Zealand Taxayers’ Union

As there are already four or five parties in government strongly advocating for the 'selfish interests of the poor' (or is that financially illiterate?) despite the cost to the country (e.g. the catastrophic costs of the central buyer electricity policy to taxpayers (as they still 'own' 51% of shares in Meridian and MRP) of the crazy 'central buyer electricity plan seeking to penalise 'market gouging' that is totally invisible on the company balance sheets) perhaps it is time to restore some equilibrium?

Well, no one said the Tea Party was a party in its own right, as any vague hope it might be a new insurgent party was quickly dashed by its close and deep alliance with the Republican party and long time Republican politicians and funders.

So any assurance that this new union will never be any sort of party is both hollow and disingenuous as no one was ever really worried you would be. It seems that you will be some sort of closely, but only informally aligned National party pressure group, made up of media types. In other words, you want to use your media presence in order to influence National party policy. There is no shame in that, but it isn't like you will be providing any sort of public service

Crikey Lance, are you brushing up on your CV for an application to Woman's Weekly? The sensationalism you have applied in your article is looking for capitalists under every bed. My reading of the Taxpayers Union document was "let's promote more transparency and identify waste". I failed to see a political party manifesto or reduction of essential services.

If it is a burden for a small council to respond to OIA requests, then it would likely be cheaper for that Council to simply publish the details of its budget. Some of us would expect that as a matter of course.

Open tender for all local authority contracts, complete transparency of the financials.

What I don't get is how anyone can see taking other peoples money by force (income tax) and giving some of that to the poor as altruistic.

The state doesn't teach empathy it teaches us to just hand over caring for those who don't see that care as charity to seeing it as a right.

The state well eventually blow up but the longer it lasts the more psychopath and sociopaths it will create.

Give us a bell when you've learned all about words, and the wondrous world of meaningful communication.

Great idea. Where to begin?

As a tax paying employer of the government, I'm concerned that:

- Revenues from viable assets are being slashed to 49% of what they would be if us taxpayers continued to own them

- Alternative revenue streams are being established at sources which are both unsustainable and dangerous

- Employers (low tax source) are receiving entitlements to drive down wages (high tax source)

- The difference between high incomes and low incomes is increasing, which is strongly correlated with low prosperity (and therefore compromised tax revenue)

I guess we could also look at a string of appalling decisions in education and welfare, resulting in decimated communities and fewer educational opportunities. And the ongoing deterioration of our global brand.