A bellyful of taxes!

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

By Dilshani N Ranawaka

With Avurudu week just coming to an end, you have probably realised that the total for your food bill is quite exorbitant. You may have attributed this to the festive season, and the fact that food really is quite expensive in Sri Lanka. However, have you questioned why this is the case? Why do we pay so much for something as essential as food?

Did you know that for every meal your family buys, you are paying the price of a second meal (for an individual) back to the government? You might not be aware but most of the daily consumed food items that you buy for your family are exorbitantly taxed! How informed are we of the indirect taxes we are paying with every purchase we make?

Let’s take a look at the grocery list for a balanced meal of four in a family (Quantities recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Balanced Meal tax figures

When one delves into these statistics, it is interesting to see that we pay around Rs.150+ to the government in the form of taxes, just on this small basket of grocery items. That's the equivalent to one rice packet you could have bought for lunch!  

Taxes are imposed for two main reasons; they are the main source of government revenue, and they can protect local producers from import competition.

In the case of Sri Lanka, 80% of government revenue is collected through indirect taxes. Indirect taxes are imposed on goods and services as opposed to taxes levied on income.

One argument to justify such heavy taxes on consumer items is attributed to the government’s objective of protecting and strengthening local producers. When a tariff is imposed on imports, the price of imports increases, giving local producers the opportunity to compete against what would otherwise be a much cheaper alternative. For example, green beans per kg is taxed 101% on the border of the country (CIF price). This means that if you buy imported green beans, you have to pay double the price of the true value of the good.

This is appealing to local producers as they can offer comparatively lower prices for the same good. Even though these policies can be seen as helpful to local producers, it truly does not help in the long-run.

Consumer loses out

When tariffs are imposed in order to help local producers compete against cheaper imports, the government effectively removes all market incentives for local producers to stay efficient and productive. The tariffs on imported goods guarantees that their main competition is priced higher than that of the local good.

The result is that you and I, the local consumers lose out on two counts. First, if we wish to buy local products, there is no reason for local producers to provide us with a high-quality, appealing good. Secondly, if we are dissatisfied with the local product and wish to buy an imported alternative, we have to pay a much higher price as this good is subjected to high rates of tariff.

This loss to the consumer is compounded by the fact that the high price of imports creates a large gap between the final price of the imported good and at-cost price of the local good. This gap can be transformed into a profit margin for local producers as they can increase the price of their good without improving quality thanks to the high tariff imposed on the imported alternative.

Should we continue to protect?

Our producers get accustomed to inefficient production due to a lack of incentives. In this case should the government protect local producers further? If so, are we carefully considering the trade-offs; the costs incurred for the consumers?

Protectionism is a heated topic in the country. Ever since the Sri Lankan economy opened up in 1977, various campaigns were implemented in order to protect local industries. Moving on to 40 years after opening up the economy, the first ever to do so in the South Asian region, we still lag behind.

Alternatively, what the government could tap into are technological investments with other countries, which would help in exchange of technology and innovation for low-yield, less efficient, protected industries in the country. This involves in opening up the economy for foreign investment and creating an investor friendly environment - relaxing most of the heavily taxed and regulated policies by the government.

Given that this regime of protectionism has failed, are we still going to ask the government to shield our producers from foreign competition?