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Taxation and Inequality: A Time-Exposure Perspective

In: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 6


  • Joel B. Slemrod


Conclusions about inequality based on cross-sectional snapshots of annual income can give a misleading picture of the inequality of a more permanent notion of income, due to the mobility of individuals across annual income classes. This paper reassesses some of the issues about taxation and inequality using two longitudinal tax return data bases. Replacing annual income with "time-exposure" income, defined as average real income over the period, does not significantly reduce the measured degree of inequality in the 1979-1985 period, although the fraction of income received by the lowest increase substantially. The procedure does, though, reduce the contribution to inequality of certain sources of income such as capital gains and increase the contribution of other sources such as interest and dividends. There is no systematic evidence that the comparison of snapshots between the 1967-1973 and 1979-1985 periods overstates the growth in inequality of a more permanent notion of income. The inequality of pre-tax income has been increasing steadily in the past two decades. Changes in income taxation have neither stemmed nor contributed significantly to this trend; since 1980 the contribution of the income tax to decreasing inequality has declined slightly.
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Suggested Citation

  • Joel B. Slemrod, 1992. "Taxation and Inequality: A Time-Exposure Perspective," NBER Chapters,in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 6, pages 105-128 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:10841

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Poterba, James M, 1989. "Lifetime Incidence and the Distributional Burden of Excise Taxes," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(2), pages 325-330, May.
    2. Danziger, Sheldon & Gottschalk, Peter & Smolensky, Eugene, 1989. "How the Rich Have Fared, 1973-87," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(2), pages 310-314, May.
    3. Christian, Charles W. & Frischmann, Peter J., 1989. "Attrition in the Statistics of Income Panel of Individual Returns," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 42(4), pages 495-501, December.
    4. Shorrocks, Anthony, 1978. "Income inequality and income mobility," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 19(2), pages 376-393, December.
    5. Charles M. Beach, 1989. "Review: Dollars and Dreams: A Reduced Middle Class? Alternative Explanations," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 24(1), pages 162-193.
    6. John Fitzgerald & Tim Maloney, 1990. "The Impact of Federal Income Taxes and Cash Transfers On the Distribution of Lifetime Household Income, 1969-1981," Public Finance Review, , vol. 18(2), pages 182-197, April.
    7. Varian, Hal R., 1980. "Redistributive taxation as social insurance," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 14(1), pages 49-68, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Joseph H. Haslag & Lori L. Taylor, 1993. "A look at long-term developments in the distribution of income," Economic and Financial Policy Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, issue Jan, pages 19-30.
    2. James B. Davies, 1995. "Distributional Effects of the Lifetime Capital Gains Exemption: Single vs. Multi-Year Analysis," Canadian Public Policy, University of Toronto Press, vol. 21(s1), pages 159-173, November.
    3. Daniel R. Feenberg & Andrew W. Mitrusi & James M. Poterba, 1997. "Distributional Effects of Adopting a National Retail Sales Tax," NBER Chapters,in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 11, pages 49-90 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Fullerton, Don & Metcalf, Gilbert E., 2002. "Tax incidence," Handbook of Public Economics,in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 26, pages 1787-1872 Elsevier.
    5. Gary Fields, 2010. "Does income mobility equalize longer-term incomes? New measures of an old concept," The Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer;Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, vol. 8(4), pages 409-427, December.
    6. Bargain, Olivier & Dolls, Mathias & Immervoll, Herwig & Neumann, Dirk & Peichl, Andreas & Pestel, Nico & Siegloch, Sebastian, 2011. "Tax Policy and Income Inequality in the U.S., 1978-2009: A Decomposition Approach," IZA Discussion Papers 5910, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    7. Sara LaLumia & James Sallee, 2013. "The value of honesty: empirical estimates from the case of the missing children," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 20(2), pages 192-224, April.
    8. Erik Norrman & Charles E. McLure Jr., 1997. "Tax Policy in Sweden," NBER Chapters,in: The Welfare State in Transition: Reforming the Swedish Model, pages 109-154 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Thomas Otter, 2009. "Does Inequality Harm Income Mobility and Growth? An Assessment of the Growth Impact of Income and Education Inequality in Paraguay 1992-2002," Ibero America Institute for Econ. Research (IAI) Discussion Papers 188, Ibero-America Institute for Economic Research.
    10. Georgia Kaplanoglou, 2004. "Household Consumption Patterns, Indirect Tax Structures and Implications for Indirect Tax Harmonisation - A Three Country Perspective," The Economic and Social Review, Economic and Social Studies, vol. 35(1), pages 83-107.
    11. Joel Slemrod, 1996. "High-Income Families and the Tax Changes of the 1980s: The Anatomy of Behavioral Response," NBER Chapters,in: Empirical Foundations of Household Taxation, pages 169-192 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. John Bishop & K. Chow & John Formby & Chih-Chin Ho, 1997. "Did Tax Reform Reduce Actual US Progressivity? Evidence from the Taxpayer Compliance Measurement Program," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 4(2), pages 177-197, May.
    13. Saez, Emmanuel, 2003. "The effect of marginal tax rates on income: a panel study of 'bracket creep'," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(5-6), pages 1231-1258, May.
    14. Nora Lustig, 2016. "Commitment to Equity Handbook. A Guide to Estimating the Impact of Fiscal Policy on Inequality and Poverty," Commitment to Equity (CEQ) Working Paper Series 1301, Tulane University, Department of Economics.
    15. Greselin, Francesca & Zitikis, Ricardas, 2015. "Measuring economic inequality and risk: a unifying approach based on personal gambles, societal preferences and references," MPRA Paper 65892, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    16. repec:gam:jecnmx:v:6:y:2018:i:1:p:4-:d:128699 is not listed on IDEAS
    17. Michael Haliassos & Andrew B. Lyon, 1993. "Progressivity of Capital Gains Taxation with Optimal Portfolio Selection," NBER Working Papers 4253, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Joel Slemrod, 1998. "The Economics of Taxing the Rich," NBER Working Papers 6584, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. Otter, Thomas, 2007. "Does Inequality Harm Income Mobility and Growth? An Assessment of the Growth Impact of Income and Education Inequality in Paraguay 1992: 2002," Proceedings of the German Development Economics Conference, Göttingen 2007 25, Verein für Socialpolitik, Research Committee Development Economics.

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