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A Theory of Optimal Capital Taxation

  • Piketty, Thomas
  • Saez, Emmanuel

This paper develops a realistic, tractable normative theory of socially-optimal capital taxation. We present a dynamic model of savings and bequests with heterogeneous random tastes for bequests to children and for wealth per se. We derive formulas for optimal tax rates on capitalized inheritance expressed in terms of estimable parameters and social preferences. The long-run optimal tax rate increases with the aggregate steady-state flow of inheritances to output, decreases with the elasticity of bequests to the net-of-tax rate, and decreases with the strength of preferences for leaving bequests. For realistic parameters, the optimal tax rate on capitalized inheritance should be as high as 50%-60% - or even higher for top wealth holders - if the government has meritocratic preferences (i.e., puts higher welfare weights on those receiving little inheritance) and if capital is highly concentrated (as it is in the real world). In contrast to the Atkinson-Stiglitz result, bequest taxation remains desirable in our model even with optimal labor taxation because inequality is two-dimensional: with inheritances, labor income is no longer the unique determinant of lifetime resources. In contrast to Chamley-Judd, positive capital taxation is desirable because our preferences allow for finite long run elasticities of inheritance to tax rates. Finally, we discuss how capital market imperfections and uninsurable shocks to rates of return can justify shifting one-off inheritance taxation toward lifetime capital taxation, and can account for the actual structure and mix of inheritance and capital taxation.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 8946.

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Date of creation: Apr 2012
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:8946
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  1. Roger Guesnerie, 2004. "Calcul économique et développement durable," DELTA Working Papers 2004-02, DELTA (Ecole normale supérieure).
  2. Abel, Andrew B, et al, 1989. "Assessing Dynamic Efficiency: Theory and Evidence," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 56(1), pages 1-19, January.
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  6. (IFS), Institute for Fiscal Studies & Mirrlees, James (ed.), 2011. "Tax By Design: The Mirrlees Review," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199553747.
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  8. Bourguignon, Francois, 1981. "Pareto Superiority of Unegalitarian Equilibria in Stiglitz' Model of Wealth Distribution with Convex Saving Function," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 49(6), pages 1469-75, November.
  9. Nirei, Makoto, 2009. "Pareto Distributions in Economic Growth Models," IIR Working Paper 09-05, Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University.
  10. Hopenhayn, Hugo A & Prescott, Edward C, 1992. "Stochastic Monotonicity and Stationary Distributions for Dynamic Economies," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 60(6), pages 1387-406, November.
  11. Piketty, Thomas, 1997. "The Dynamics of the Wealth Distribution and the Interest Rate with Credit Rationing," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 64(2), pages 173-89, April.
  12. Olivier Jean Blanchard & Stanley Fischer, 1989. "Lectures on Macroeconomics," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262022834, June.
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