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

  • Thomas Piketty
  • Emmanuel Saez
  • Stefanie Stantcheva

This paper derives optimal top tax rate formulas in a model where top earners respond to taxes through three channels: labor supply, tax avoidance, and compensation bargaining. The optimal top tax rate increases when there are zero-sum compensation-bargaining effects. We present empirical evidence consistent with bargaining effects. Top tax rate cuts are associated with top one percent pretax income shares increases but not higher economic growth. US CEO "pay for luck" is quantitatively more prevalent when top tax rates are low. International CEO pay levels are negatively correlated with top tax rates, even controlling for firms' characteristics and performance.

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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Volume (Year): 6 (2014)
Issue (Month): 1 (February)
Pages: 230-71

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Handle: RePEc:aea:aejpol:v:6:y:2014:i:1:p:230-71
Note: DOI: 10.1257/pol.6.1.230
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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Atkinson, A. B. & Piketty, Thomas (ed.), 2010. "Top Incomes: A Global Perspective," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199286898, March.
  4. Casey Rothschild & Florian Scheuer, 2013. "Redistributive Taxation in the Roy Model," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 128(2), pages 623-668.
  5. Christopher A. Pissarides, 2000. "Equilibrium Unemployment Theory, 2nd Edition," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262161877, June.
  6. Stiglitz, Joseph E., 1982. "Self-selection and Pareto efficient taxation," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 213-240, March.
  7. Garvey, Gerald T. & Milbourn, Todd T., 2006. "Asymmetric benchmarking in compensation: Executives are rewarded for good luck but not penalized for bad," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 82(1), pages 197-225, October.
  8. Randall A. Heron & Erik Lie, 2009. "What Fraction of Stock Option Grants to Top Executives Have Been Backdated or Manipulated?," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 55(4), pages 513-525, April.
  9. Emmanuel Saez, 2000. "Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses," NBER Working Papers 7708, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Lindsey, Lawrence B., 1987. "Individual taxpayer response to tax cuts: 1982-1984 : With implications for the revenue maximizing tax rate," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 33(2), pages 173-206, July.
  11. Atkinson, Tony & 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).
  12. Henrik Jacobsen Kleven & Claus Thustrup Kreiner & Emmanuel Saez, 2009. "Why Can Modern Governments Tax So Much? An Agency Model of Firms as Fiscal Intermediaries," NBER Working Papers 15218, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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