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Distortionary Taxes and the Provision of Public Goods

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  • Charles L. Ballard
  • Don Fullerton

Abstract

Economists have long been concerned with finding an efficient level of public expenditure. The classic statement of the problem was given by Paul Samuelson (1954). An optimal level of expenditure is where the sum of the marginal rates of substitution between the public good and a reference good equals the marginal rate of transformation between the public good and the reference good (?MRS = MRT). However, Samuelson's formula assumes that all of the revenue needed to finance public goods can be raised with lump-sum taxes. Since this is not generally possible, the formula must be modified to account for the distortionary effects of the tax system. An appropriate modification is to multiply the cost side of the equation by a term that is commonly called the marginal cost of public funds (MCF). In the case of Samuelson's formula, where government is entirely financed with lump-sum taxes, the MCF would be exactly 1.0. In the traditional view of economists, distortionary taxes cause the MCF to be greater than one, thus raising the cost of providing public goods. In this paper, we discuss some cases where the MCF may be less than one. We will illustrate this possibility using numerical examples for labor taxes.

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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 6 (1992)
Issue (Month): 3 (Summer)
Pages: 117-131

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:6:y:1992:i:3:p:117-31

Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.6.3.117
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  1. Stiglitz, Joseph E & Dasgupta, P, 1971. "Differential Taxation, Public Goods and Economic Efficiency," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(114), pages 151-74, April.
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  3. Kay, J. A., 1980. "The deadweight loss from a tax system," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 13(1), pages 111-119, February.
  4. Wildasin, David E., 1979. "Public good provision with optimal and non-optimal commodity taxation : The single-consumer case," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 4(1), pages 59-64.
  5. Atkinson, Anthony B & Stern, N H, 1974. "Pigou, Taxation and Public Goods," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 41(1), pages 119-28, January.
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  8. Don Fullerton, 1989. "If Labor is Inelastic, Are Taxes Still Distorting?," NBER Working Papers 2810, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  10. Browning, Edgar K, 1987. "On the Marginal Welfare Cost of Taxation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(1), pages 11-23, March.
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  12. Hansson, Ingemar & Stuart, Charles, 1985. "Tax revenue and the marginal cost of public funds in Sweden," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(3), pages 331-353, August.
  13. Alan J. Auerbach & Harvey S. Rosen, 1980. "Will the Real Excess Burden Please Stand Up? (Or, Seven Measures in Search of a Concept)," NBER Working Papers 0495, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  15. Wilson, John Douglas, 1991. "Optimal Public Good Provision with Limited Lump-Sum Taxation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(1), pages 153-66, March.
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  17. Ballard, Charles L & Shoven, John B & Whalley, John, 1985. "General Equilibrium Computations of the Marginal Welfare Costs of Taxes in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 128-38, March.
  18. Stuart, Charles E, 1984. "Welfare Costs per Dollar of Additional Tax Revenue in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 352-62, June.
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