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

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  • Thomas Piketty
  • Emmanuel Saez
  • Stefanie Stantcheva

Abstract

This paper presents a model of optimal labor income taxation where top incomes respond to marginal tax rates through three channels: (1) standard labor supply, (2) tax avoidance, (3) compensation bargaining. We derive the optimal top tax rate formula as a function of the three corresponding behavioral elasticities. The first elasticity (labor supply) 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. The optimal top tax rate increases with the third elasticity (bargaining) as bargaining efforts are zero-sum in aggregate. We provide evidence using cross-country times series macro-evidence and CEO pay micro-evidence. The macro-evidence from 18 OECD countries shows that there is a strong negative correlation between top tax rates and top 1% income shares since 1960, implying that the overall elasticity is large. However, top income share increases have not translated into higher economic growth. US CEO pay evidence shows that pay for luck is quantitatively more important when top tax rates are low. International CEO pay evidence shows that CEO pay is strongly negatively correlated with top tax rates even controlling for rm characteristics and performance, and this correlation is stronger in firms with poor governance. These results are consistent with bargaining effects playing a role in the link between top incomes and top tax rates. If bargaining effects in fact exist, optimal tax rates should be higher than commonly assumed.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17616.

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Date of creation: Nov 2011
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Publication status: published as Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez & Stefanie Stantcheva, 2014. "Optimal Taxation of Top Labor Incomes: A Tale of Three Elasticities," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 6(1), pages 230-71, February.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17616

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  1. Kleven, Henrik & Landais, Camille & Saez, Emmanuel, 2010. "Taxation and International Migration of Superstars: Evidence from the European Football Market," CEPR Discussion Papers 8134, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  2. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1981. "Self-Selection and Pareto Efficient Taxation," NBER Working Papers 0632, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Casey Rothschild, 2013. "Redistributive Taxation in the Roy Model," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 128(2), pages 623-668.
  4. Emmanuel Saez, 2002. "Direct or Indirect Tax Instruments for Redistribution: Short-run versus Long-run," NBER Working Papers 8833, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. A B Atkinson & Andrew Leigh, 2010. "The Distribution of Top Incomes in Five Anglo-Saxon Countries over the Twentieth Century," CEPR Discussion Papers 640, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Research School of Economics, Australian National University.
  6. Emmanuel Saez, 2002. "Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 117(3), pages 1039-1073, August.
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As found by EconAcademics.org, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
  1. Taxes & growth
    by chris dillow in Stumbling and Mumbling on 2014-01-27 14:49:16
  2. Inequality: a missing perspective
    by chris dillow in Stumbling and Mumbling on 2014-04-24 13:28:09
  3. 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
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