Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Korea should rethink trickle-down policies

First published in The Korea Herald.

It is no secret that the Park Geun-hye administration and the ruling Saenuri Party are vehemently against raising corporate taxes, arguing that higher taxes could affect economic growth. They instead want to go easy on the corporate sector and the wealthy, all in the name of trickle-down economics ― a theory closely identified with Reaganomics, which states that decreasing tax rates especially for corporations, investors and entrepreneurs can stimulate production in the overall economy.

So it may come as a surprise to them that the latest OECD working paper released on Dec. 9 strongly denounced the trickle-down theory while pushing for higher taxes on the rich and policies aimed at improving the lot of the bottom 40 percent of the population. Coming from an organization of the “elite” countries, it must really mean something for the Korean policymakers.

Drawing on harmonized data covering the 34 OECD countries over the past three decades, the econometric analysis in “Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth” suggests that income inequality has a sizable and statistically significant negative impact on growth, and that redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income have no adverse growth consequences.

Further, it suggests that it is inequality at the bottom of the distribution that hampers growth. Additional analysis suggests that one key channel through which inequality negatively affects economic performance is through lowering investment opportunities ― particularly in education ― of the poorer segments of the population.

These findings have relevant implications for Korea, which is grappling with slow economic growth.

“On one hand, it points to the importance of carefully assessing the potential consequences of pro-growth policies on inequality: focusing exclusively on growth and assuming that its benefits will automatically trickle down to the different segments of the population may undermine growth in the long run inasmuch as inequality actually increases. On the other hand it indicates that policies that help limiting the long-run rise in inequality would not only make societies less unfair, but also richer,” according to the report.

“In particular, the analysis highlights the importance of two pillars of a policy strategy for tackling rising inequalities and promoting equality of opportunities. One policy avenue to reduce inequality involves reforms to tax and benefit policies,” the paper notes.

“As top earners now have a greater capacity to pay taxes than before, governments may consider reexamining their tax systems to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden.”

It adds that the unequal tax treatment of income from different asset classes increases inequality in some cases and distorts the allocation of capital.

Undoubtedly, this is very valuable advice for Korean policymakers, and something they should heed.

That is not all. A recent survey by Statistics Korea found that from 2011 to 2013, more than 3 million people fell into relative poverty, with their households earning less than half of the median income. In addition, according to the OECD Economic Survey 2014, Korea’s middle class is shrinking and its relative poverty rate is the eighth highest among the 34 member countries.

As some experts have noted, the major sources of rising income inequality are closely related to the neoliberal transformation of the Korean economy. The neoliberal reform of the labor market over the past decade and a half produced a sharp cleavage between regularly employed workers and nonregular workers. The Korean working class, which used to be relatively homogeneous in terms of the job market and wage conditions, has become internally divided, and this reflects growing income inequality in the country. It is therefore essential to address the underlying causes by reducing the share of nonregular workers.

Furthermore, in recent years, the significant income disparities that have long existed between the chaebol and SMEs have become even greater.

Due to economic structural problems, the rigidity of the regular labor market and an environment that favors temporary employment, the creation rate of stable, decent jobs has waned.

Also, factors pushing fundamental inequalities are increasing while Korea’s redistribution remains poor due to weak welfare policies. Although the government has long talked about redistribution, and President Park has long touted her welfare pledges, the pace at the ground level is really slow.

Ignoring the widening income inequalities in Korea, the government appears to be only paying lip service to income redistribution and social welfare while focusing on efforts to reinvigorate the economy.

Park recently pledged to expand social welfare programs without raising taxes, something that is not feasible. The government and the ruling party should not be afraid that introducing excessive welfare measures and tampering with tax rates will rein in economic growth.

Korea should focus on inequality at the bottom income bracket in an earnest way. As has been widely acknowledged, the size and nature of the Korean welfare system is currently unsatisfactory, and there certainly is a need to expand and improve it. This should go hand in hand with strengthening the progressive tax and expanding the sources of taxation ― not just by raising taxes for the poor smokers.

Public welfare spending takes up 10 percent of GDP, close to half of the 21 percent average among OECD members. The prospects for declining economic inequality in Korea in the near future are very dim and over the years the welfare cost will increase. On the other hand, the tax rate is equal to 20 percent of the GDP, lower than the OECD average of 25 percent.

Clearly, it is time the government took a hard look at its trickle-down policies.


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