Ethics at Work: Efficiency vs. rights

Debate over child-care exemption is a dialogue of the deaf.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this week there was a government decision to propose a law establishing tax benefits for working mothers with children in paid child-care. It followed a court decision in January that ruled child care is considered a tax-deductible expense, since it is necessary to enable mothers to work. The Treasury complained that this policy would be too expensive, so the government has proposed a new law that provides much more modest benefits. Many representatives of women's interests protested the decision. What is interesting is not the difference of opinion, which is a normal part of the political process, but the difference in approach. The cases made for and against the exemption come from different universes of discourse: one from the discourse of efficiency, one from the discourse of rights. Efficiency An economist is trained to evaluate tax proposals from the view of efficiency and equity. Almost all taxes are inefficient, insofar as they discourage whatever economic activity is taxed. But taxes eliminated have to be made up elsewhere, so it only makes sense to eliminate unusually burdensome taxes. It is actually plausible that a tax on incomes of working mothers could be more inefficient than other taxes. Mothers who take care of their kids at home are working but not paying any taxes at all. So there is already a partial tax exemption on working mothers - those who work at home. Conceivably, the effect of the exemption would get mothers who are working at home to get paid jobs, in which case it would encourage more market activity without costing taxes. But in practice the Treasury estimated that the vast majority of the exemption would go to mothers who already have paid jobs. Equity As far as equity goes, it is likely that the exemption is regressive. Poorer mothers, especially single ones, don't benefit from the exemption for the simple reason that they don't make enough money to have to pay taxes in the first place. So this is a tax benefit that would disproportionately benefit better-off citizens - married women with good jobs. Efficiency get a D, equity gets an F - no wonder the Treasury opposed it. Empowering women But there is another way of looking at this issue. If we don't look at a paid job as a way of making money but rather as a route to status and independence, then we might view empowering women to get good jobs as an issue of rights, not of economic efficiency. There is no question that men obtain much status from having important jobs, so it is understandable that women want an equal opportunity. And many people believe that when a women has a job, and thus some degree of financial independence from the husband, she has a more equal status within the marriage. This approach could explain many things. It could explain, though not justify, the original court decision. As I wrote in an earlier column, there was no room for doubt regarding the intention of the legislature regarding this exemption. Many attempts were made to legislate a tax exemption for child-care expenses, and all failed to pass. Interpreting rights Justice Altuvia Magen's decision was definitely not a plausible interpretation of the law. However, judges are given more latitude in interpreting rights than they are in interpreting laws, so the rights approach might have emboldened the judge. This could also explain the response of Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who said, "A majority of men in the government cannot stop the revolution declared by the High Court." Wait a minute, that sounds backwards. In a democratic country only governments and legislatures can make revolutions, not High Courts. The correct approach is to insist that a majority of ultra-liberals in the High Court cannot stop the policy decisions of Israel's elected representatives. But given the extra latitude the courts have in interpreting constitutional rights, you can almost forgive Hotovely for her inversion. Better understanding This also explain why equity is a nonissue. If job status is the key issue, then it is especially the higher-income career women whose jobs need to be secured. So to some extent there is a dialogue of the deaf on this issue. I think that acknowledging this fact could create a little more understanding between the sides. The opponents of the child-care exemption are against it because, from a public-finance point of view, it is inefficient and regressive. The supporters don't necessarily disagree, but they would like to legislate an exemption to better empower women to achieve status and independence in the workplace, and they think this outcome is worth the economic cost. I personally am more inclined to the first approach, but I think the most important thing is to have a productive discourse. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).