Canada’s income tax at 100—milestone or tombstone?

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Appeared in the National Post, April 5, 2017

This week the country commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the glorious but bloody victory at Vimy Ridge, which tradition says marked Canada’s coming of age. Within months, it also helped lead to a ritual Canadians observe every year, the preparation of their income taxes.

In the budget he brought down only 12 days after Vimy, Conservative Finance Minister Sir Thomas White held off introducing the income tax many Canadians had been arguing for since the war started. But later that spring his boss, Sir Robert Borden, brought in a bill requiring compulsory military service, and not long after that bill was passed, in late July, Sir Thomas finally relented to the political agitation for “conscription of wealth.” Early the following year Canadians began paying income tax.

Folklore says the income tax was supposed to be temporary. The Business Profits War Tax brought in a year earlier had been time-limited and did expire (after an extension, of course) but Sir Thomas said of the income tax only that he hoped Parliament would consider it again after the war ended. It did. We still pay.

To observe the tax’s 100th anniversary—you don’t actually celebrate such a thing—Fraser Institute VP Jason Clemens and I have co-edited ten short essays on the income tax that the Institute is bringing out this week. We call the series “Zero to 50 in 100,” reflecting the income tax having gone from nothing in 1917 to half of federal revenues now.

It’s amazing how much times have changed. The 1917 tax form, which was for both personal and corporate income, has just 23 just lines for the taxpayer. Another 10 lines are filled out by “the officers of The Taxation Branch,” who calculate how much tax is owed. (Much of the processing was done by young women working in the East Block of Parliament.) Self-assessment came later. It wasn’t really needed to begin with: at first almost no Canadians paid income tax, as few as one in 50 in the early years (and not many more, just 2.3 per cent, as late as 1938). The personal exemption was $1,500 for single persons and $3,000 for families, which in today’s dollars was $26,291 and $52,581, respectively, that in an era when even after inflation adjustment incomes were a lot lower than they are now. True the top marginal rate in 1917 was 29 per cent, not much different from today’s 33 per cent. But it kicked in at an income of $1.6 million in today’s dollars vs. only $200,000 for today’s top rate.

The 1917 income tax act comprised just 3,999 words and was only six pages long, 10 if you put it on a standard Microsoft Word page with 11-point font. By contrast, the latest version of the act contains more than a million words and takes up 1,406 standard pages. The 1917 act didn’t even allow a deduction for children (which, OK, was probably a mistake). By 2014 the number of “tax expenditures” had risen to 128, including a 27-per cent increase in their number just since the mid-1990s.

Several of the essays in our series look forward rather than back. Their consensus is that at age 100 the income tax needs drastic reform. We might even make this milestone a tombstone by changing to something completely different.

The tax is too complex. That complexity distorts taxpayer incentives and raises the cost of just filling it out, which now averages more than $500 a family in time and outlay.

We’re too reliant on the income tax. In 2014 our governments got 36.2 per cent of their revenue from income taxes. The OECD average was 24 per cent. Only four of 35 OECD countries rely on it more than we do: the US, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.

The tax is economically toxic. Adding the indirect costs of distorted decision-making to the direct transfer of cash, increases in provincial income taxes cost more than $2 for the next $1 raised, while in Ontario that cost approaches a staggering $7 per $1.

To promote simplicity and efficiency, we should “broaden the base and lower the rate,” by eliminating all the special carve-outs and tax subsidies that have built up, like barnacles, over the last century. Or, as the University of Calgary’s Jack Mintz recommends, we should simply stop taxing income and tax consumption instead—not with a one-rate-for-everyone GST but with a personal consumption tax, where we each subtract any saving we do from our income and pay a low but progressively rising rate on our consumption.

A new century requires a new approach. Let’s not wait 100 years to make the change.

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