Latin America: Is COVID Creating Space for Tax Reform?

By Tasha Fairfield*

National strike in Colombia against the Duque administration’s proposed tax reform/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic and associated fiscal stress have pushed taxation to the forefront of national political agendas in Latin America and beyond, but leaders need to learn from past failures to achieve success. The question of taxing the rich has gained salience, giving rise to multiple proposals for wealth taxes around the globe. Debate over raising revenue to finance social spending and other pandemic-related priorities by taxing economic elites is particularly important in Latin America, given its staggering inequality.

  • Economically, raising revenue from the upper crust of the income and wealth distribution can actually be optimal and efficient, as Piketty and Saez have shown. From a normative perspective, almost everyone agrees that, in principle, those with more should bear a larger portion of the tax burden. Taxing the rich should be especially popular in highly unequal countries, where the rich are a tiny fraction of the populations and the vast majority would stand to benefit.  

The politics of taxing economic elites tend to be more complicated, however. On the one hand, big business conglomerates and wealthy individuals often enjoy multiple sources of power that end up mattering more than public opinion during the policymaking process. On the other hand, while the majority may approve of progressive taxation, neither voters nor social movements have given priority to demanding that economic elites be taxed more heavily. They tend to see taxation as not directly affecting average citizens, and the technical details of reform initiatives can be difficult. Public support can nevertheless play an important role in counterbalancing the power of economic elites – especially during electoral periods, when politicians tend to be more concerned about what voters want.

  • When progressive tax initiatives do not visibly and narrowly target economic elites – as occurred in Bolivia’s attempt to reinstate an individual income tax in 2003 – the public may reject them. In the Bolivian case, Finance Ministry experts designed a technically appealing flat tax that would be easy to administer yet progressive in practice, thanks to a threshold exemption that produced higher effective tax rates for higher income earners. But the flat marginal tax rate sparked widespread misperception that the proposal was regressive.
  • Inconsistent government messaging also fostered misperceptions that the tax would affect a wide swath of Bolivians. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada at one point asked the “middle class” to “assume this sacrifice,” even though in reality that “middle class” was only a tiny, privileged group of highly paid wage-earners and independent professionals. The proposed reform ended up provoking popular protests, despite the fact that most participants would have been exempt from the tax, and the reform was quickly abandoned. 

The pandemic era increases the opportunity that a strategy linking tax reform to social spending – an approach that has been used successfully in many previous instances – will gain momentum. Programs that provide tangible benefits naturally draw greater interest and support from popular sectors than taxes targeting economic elites.

  • The more immediate and visible the associated benefits, such as expanded and more generous cash transfers, the more effective this strategy can be. In Chile, for example, center-left governments in the 1990s and 2000s made popular social spending initiatives contingent on tax increases, leaving the rightwing opposition exposed to popular wrath if they the chose to vote against the package. An analogous approach is earmarking tax increases to finance social programs. Technocrats dislike earmarking because it creates budget rigidities, but the political advantages are clear.
  • The pandemic has greatly augmented social need and threatens to exacerbate inequality. Colombia’s experience last May, however, shows that linking spending to taxes alone may not be enough. The Duque administration’s proposed tax reform was explicitly intended to finance expansion of basic income support for poor Colombians, and the measures were presented together within a single reform package. Yet the initiative failed because the tax measures were not adequately targeted at economic elites. A second effort later in the year fared better because the sales tax measures and a proposed income tax threshold reduction were removed.

October 13, 2021

* Tasha Fairfield is an associate professor in development studies at the London School of Economics. Her book, Private Wealth and Public Revenue in Latin America: Business Power and Tax Politics, examines how and when the interests of economic elites prevail in unequal democracies through comparative analysis of tax reform in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia after economic liberalization.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: