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Optimal Taxation of Top Labor Incomes: A Tale of Three Elasticities

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  • Piketty, Thomas
  • Saez, Emmanuel
  • Stantcheva, Stefanie

Abstract

This paper analyzes the problem of optimal taxation of top labour incomes. We develop a model where top incomes respond to marginal tax rates through three channels: (1) the standard supply-side channel through reduced economic activity, (2) the tax avoidance channel, (3) the compensation bargaining channel through efforts in influencing own pay setting. We derive the optimal top tax rate formula as a function of the three elasticities corresponding to those three channels of responses. The first elasticity (supply side) is the sole real factor limiting optimal top tax rates. The optimal tax system should be designed to minimize the second elasticity (avoidance) through tax enforcement and tax neutrality across income forms, in which case the second elasticity becomes irrelevant. The optimal top tax rate increases with the third elasticity (bargaining) as bargaining efforts are zero-sum in aggregate. We then analyze top income and top tax rate data in 18 OECD countries. There is a strong correlation between cuts in top tax rates and increases in top 1% income shares since 1975, implying that the overall elasticity is large. But top income share increases have not translated into higher economic growth, consistent with the zero-sum bargaining model. This suggests that the first elasticity is modest in size and that the overall effect comes mostly from the third elasticity. Consequently, socially optimal top tax rates might possibly be much higher than what is commonly assumed.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 8675.

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Date of creation: Nov 2011
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:8675

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Keywords: optimal income taxation;

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  1. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1981. "Self-Selection and Pareto Efficient Taxation," NBER Working Papers 0632, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Henrik Kleven & Camille Landais & Emmanuel Saez, 2010. "Taxation and International Migration of Superstars: Evidence from the European Football Market," NBER Working Papers 16545, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Emmanuel Saez, 2000. "Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses," NBER Working Papers 7708, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Casey Rothschild, 2013. "Redistributive Taxation in the Roy Model," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 128(2), pages 623-668.
  5. Saez, Emmanuel, 2004. "Direct or indirect tax instruments for redistribution: short-run versus long-run," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(3-4), pages 503-518, March.
  6. Atkinson, Anthony B. & Leigh, Andrew, 2010. "The Distribution of Top Incomes in Five Anglo-Saxon Countries over the Twentieth Century," IZA Discussion Papers 4937, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
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  1. Given the enormity of the short- and long-run fiscal challenges facing the US, the lack of policy detail from both presidential candidates is disappointing
    by Blog Admin in British Politics and Policy at LSE on 2012-10-25 13:00:36
  2. Taxes & growth
    by chris dillow in Stumbling and Mumbling on 2014-01-27 14:49:16
  3. Inequality: a missing perspective
    by chris dillow in Stumbling and Mumbling on 2014-04-24 13:28:09
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