Among the nations in the developed world that follow in the Westminster parliamentary tradition, the most eagerly anticipated policy speech by the government is not the state of the nation address but the budget speech.
The budget tackles not only the spending side, you see, but the tax side as well. On budget night, citizens find out if they are to get some form of tax relief. They also look for any additional spending on things they directly benefit from, like schools, hospitals or infrastructure.
The rich nations that make up the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) have varying levels of taxation. The Scandinavians typically tax more and provide a high degree of social insurance and welfare. The Anglo-American nations of the UK, US and Ireland tend to have lower taxes but provide a smaller safety net for their people.
Australia, the nation I am most familiar with seems to have the best of both worlds, with a tax take much lower compared to the Nordic countries but providing a level of social insurance and welfare comparable to them. That is because its tax and spend policies are some of the most progressive in the world.
Australia spends about 16 per cent of GDP on cash benefits (pensions, unemployment insurance, healthcare and community services) compared to an OECD average of just over 19 per cent. It is able to keep this expenditure down by means-testing benefits enabling it to target spending on those that most need it. Its tax take is about 27 per cent of GDP compared to an OECD average of close to 35 per cent. It is the sixth lowest-taxing country in that group.
Rich country, poor country
It is perhaps in this light that we need to focus on the Philippine tax and spend situation. Most poor countries are able to generate only as much as 20% of GDP from their tax systems. Yet the demand for public service is much higher than in advanced economies. The Philippines is no exception.
In 2012, the government projects it will generate about 1.5 trillion pesos worth of revenue out of a domestic economy that is expected to reach 11 trillion or about 13.6% of GDP. In the current year 2011, the government projects to earn 1.4 trillion out of an economy of 9.9 trillion or 14.2% of GDP. In 2010, the ratio was 13.3% (based on DBM papers).
In 2012, due to its low tax take and with a budget of 1.8 trillion, the government will incur a deficit of 286 Billion (up from the original 260 B) or 2.6% of GDP. That is compared to its projected deficit in 2011 of 300 Billion worth 3% of GDP and 314.5 Billion for 2010 or 3.5% of GDP.
Social services which include education, health, housing and land distribution are programmed to consume 556.2 billion pesos or 30% in 2012. That compares with 529 Billion in the current year equal to 31% of the budget in 2011 and 399.3 billion in 2010 worth 26.2% of that year’s total spend.
Among the social services, education takes the largest share. Next year it will amount to 309 billion or about 2.8% of GDP. This is up slightly from 2011 which was 272 Billion or 2.7% of GDP and from 2010 which was 225 billion or 2.5% of GDP. By contrast, Singapore and Thailand spend anywhere from 3.5-4% of GDP on education. Malaysia spends from 5-6%. If we were to match Thailand’s education to GDP ratio, we would need to spend an additional 70 billion on education.
As for health, next year’s budget includes 59 billion or 0.5% of GDP, up from 48 billion in the current year (0.48%) and 36 billion last year (0.39%). In contrast, Singapore spends about 0.9-1.5% of GDP, while Malaysia spends 1.8%, and Thailand 1.2-3%. If we were to match Singapore’s ratio, we would need to spend about 40 billion more on health.
Finally in housing, the 2012 budget contains 14.5 billion worth of spending or 0.13% of GDP compared to the current year’s 21 billion (0.2%) and 12 billion (0.13%) from 2010. Singapore by contrast spends about 1.8-2.5% on housing. Malaysia spends 0.3-0.6%, and Thailand spends 0.5-1%. If we were to simply match Malaysia, we would need to double our current spend by another 14 billion.
Living within our means
Judging from the magnitudes and ratios alone, we can plainly see that the country will continue to lag behind its neighbors in the region when it comes to providing basic social services for its citizens. As a result, it has much higher levels of poverty and inequality and lower levels of human development among the ASEAN-5.
If you take out the possibility of tax reform, “living within our means” confines the budget department to look for savings and improve the structure or mix of spending to improve the quality of the spend rather than the quantity. Past studies have shown that our education spending is already quite progressive, while that of our health sector tends to be regressive with its focus on the tertiary hospitals in urban centers rather than on primary healthcare in the community.
Certainly, there are opportunities to improve the progressivity of our spending program in health. One problem is that our health system follows the model in the US, Europe and Japan which relies of specific contributions. Those who earn more tend to receive higher reimbursements. While in Australia, health expenditures are financed from income taxes, but then are spent in a more egalitarian way by means-testing recipients so that those who earn more tend to pay more out of pockets than those who earn less.
Can afford more
The orthodoxy of constraining the budget because we have to live within our means can of course be challenged by simply asking the question, can society afford to pay more?
From his State of the Nation Address, the president hinted that we probably could afford to pay more when he cited to his own disbelief the close to two million self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals who declare incomes beneath the minimum wage. The BIR has said subsequently that it believes that the current 10 billion raised from these individuals should actually be about 100 billion.
Aside from professionals and self-employed individuals, the corporate sector might also afford to pay more. That is according to a five year old study by Dr. Renato Reside. His work showed that a very low correlation between investments approved by the BOI and PEZA with actual capital formation in all regions except Regions 4 and 7. He concluded that since investments did not materialize companies were simply using their fiscal incentive privileges to engage in tax avoidance. The recipients of such incentives read like a who’s who of Philippine business elite according to Dr Ben Diokno.
Because companies under this scheme are also allowed to sell as much as 50% of the goods they produce to the domestic market, Dr Reside also believes that much revenue is lost. According to him, back in 2004, we were losing as much as 59 billion pesos from revenues on imported capital goods, 135 billion on imported raw materials, 10.5 billion on the use of domestic capital goods, and 44 billion on income tax holidays provided to these so called exporters. If even half of these were recoverd, it would be an additional 125 billion in revenues.
Another form of tax incentive is provided to sin products because of the non-indexation of taxes imposed on them. It is an incentive because every year the prices of these products go up, but the taxes imposed on them don’t. Government revenues are eroded over time. By gradually increasing the taxes along with the rise of prices in general, the additional revenues from sin products estimated to be as much as 70 billion annually could help beef up our infrastructure which in 2012 will be 270 billion a mere 2.5% of expected GDP.
Indeed, from the combined tax breaks given to entrepreneurs, professionals and corporations, our society could afford to bridge the gap in social as well as economic infrastructure. We could become a more inclusive society. With a combination of better policies and stricter enforcement in revenue and incentive granting agencies, by renovating our economic bureaucracy, we could produce a more progressive tax and spend system.