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The Case for a Progressive Tax: From Basic Research to Policy Recommendations

  • Peter A. Diamond
  • Emmanuel Saez

This paper presents the case for tax progressivity based on recent results in optimal tax theory. We consider the optimal progressivity of earnings taxation and whether capital income should be taxed. We critically discuss the academic research on these topics and when and how the results can be used for policy recommendations. We argue that a result from basic research is relevant for policy only if (a) it is based on economic mechanisms that are empirically relevant and first order to the problem, (b) it is reasonably robust to changes in the modeling assumptions, (c) the policy prescription is implementable (i.e., is socially acceptable and is not too complex). We obtain three policy recommendations from basic research that satisfy these criteria reasonably well. First, very high earners should be subject to high and rising marginal tax rates on earnings. Second, low income families should be encouraged to work with earnings subsidies, which should then be phased-out with high implicit marginal tax rates. Third, capital income should be taxed. We explain why the famous zero marginal tax rate result for the top earner in the Mirrlees model and the zero capital income tax rate results of Chamley-Judd and Atkinson-Stiglitz are not policy relevant in our view.

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Paper provided by CESifo Group Munich in its series CESifo Working Paper Series with number 3548.

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Date of creation: 2011
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Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_3548
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  8. Mikhail Golosov & Aleh Tsyvinski, 2006. "Designing Optimal Disability Insurance: A Case for Asset Testing," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(2), pages 257-279, April.
  9. Emmanuel Saez & Joel B. Slemrod & Seth H. Giertz, 2009. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income with Respect to Marginal Tax Rates: A Critical Review," NBER Working Papers 15012, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  12. 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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  24. Diamond, Peter A & Mirrlees, James A, 1971. "Optimal Taxation and Public Production: I--Production Efficiency," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 61(1), pages 8-27, March.
  25. Kaplow, Louis, 2006. "On the undesirability of commodity taxation even when income taxation is not optimal," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(6-7), pages 1235-1250, August.
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  38. Diamond, Peter A & Mirrlees, James A, 1986. " Payroll-Tax Financed Social Insurance with Variable Retirement," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 88(1), pages 25-50.
  39. Alan J. Auerbach, 1988. "Capital Gains Taxation in the United States: Realizations, Revenue, and Rhetoric," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 19(2), pages 595-638.
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