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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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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17616

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  1. 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.
  2. Henrik Jacobsen Kleven & Camille Landais & Emmanuel Saez, 2013. "Taxation and International Migration of Superstars: Evidence from the European Football Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(5), pages 1892-1924, August.
  3. 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.
  4. Stiglitz, Joseph E., 1982. "Self-selection and Pareto efficient taxation," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 213-240, March.
  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.
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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
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Cited by:
  1. Bach, Stefan & Corneo, Giacomo & Steiner, Viktor, 2012. "Optimal top marginal tax rates under income splitting for couples," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 56(6), pages 1055-1069.
  2. A. B. Atkinson & J. E. Søgaard, 2013. "The long-run history of income inequality in Denmark: Top incomes from 1870 to 2010," EPRU Working Paper Series 2013-01, Economic Policy Research Unit (EPRU), University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics.
  3. Bargain, Olivier & Dolls, Mathias & Immervoll, Herwig & Neumann, Dirk & Peichl, Andreas & Pestel, Nico & Siegloch, Sebastian, 2013. "Partisan Tax Policy and Income Inequality in the U.S., 1979-2007," IZA Discussion Papers 7190, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  4. Balazs Egert, 2013. "The Efficiency and Equity of the Tax and Transfer System in France," CESifo Working Paper Series 4210, CESifo Group Munich.
  5. Doerrenberg, Philipp & Duncan, Denvil, 2012. "Experimental Evidence on the Relationship between Tax Evasion Opportunities and Labor Supply," IZA Discussion Papers 6914, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  6. Jarkko Harju & Tuomas Matikka, 2013. "Entrepreneurs and income-shifting: Empirical evidence from a Finnish tax reform," Working Papers 43, Government Institute for Economic Research Finland (VATT).
  7. Eric Weyl & Charles Nathanson & Ben Lockwood, 2013. "Taxation and the Allocation of Talent," 2013 Meeting Papers 56, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  8. Hermle, Johannes & Peichl, Andreas, 2013. "Ist die Antwort wirklich 42? Die Frage nach dem optimalen Spitzensteuersatz für Deutschland," IZA Standpunkte 60, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  9. Brian Bell & John Van Reenen, 2013. "Bankers and their bonuses," CEP Occasional Papers 35, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  10. Santo Milasi, 2012. "Top Income Shares and Budget Deficits," CEIS Research Paper 249, Tor Vergata University, CEIS, revised 08 Aug 2013.
  11. Jäntti, Markus & Pirttilä, Jukka & Selin, Håkan, 2013. "Estimating labour supply elasticities based on cross-country micro data: A bridge between micro and macro estimates?," Working Paper Series, Center for Fiscal Studies 2013:1, Uppsala University, Department of Economics.
  12. Fairfield, Tasha, 2013. "Going Where the Money Is: Strategies for Taxing Economic Elites in Unequal Democracies," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 47(C), pages 42-57.

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