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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.

Suggested Citation

  • Piketty, Thomas & Saez, Emmanuel, 2012. "A Theory of Optimal Capital Taxation," CEPR Discussion Papers 8946, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:8946

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    Cited by:

    1. Alessandro Riboni & Facundo Piguillem, 2011. "Dynamic Bargaining over Redistribution in Legislatures," 2011 Meeting Papers 1320, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    2. Alvaro Rodriguez, 2014. "Does growth promote Equality? A Note on Piketty's capital on the twenty-first century," Economics Bulletin, AccessEcon, vol. 34(3), pages 2044-2050.
    3. Clausing, Kimberly A., 2013. "Who Pays the Corporate Tax in a Global Economy?," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 66(1), pages 151-184, March.
    4. Chahrour, Ryan & Svec, Justin, 2014. "Optimal capital taxation and consumer uncertainty," Journal of Macroeconomics, Elsevier, vol. 41(C), pages 178-198.
    5. Sanz Labrador, Ismael & Sanz-Sanz, José Félix, 2013. "Política fiscal y crecimiento económico: consideraciones microeconómicas y relaciones macroeconómicas," Macroeconomía del Desarrollo 134, Naciones Unidas Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL).
    6. Saez, Emmanuel, 2013. "Optimal progressive capital income taxes in the infinite horizon model," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 97(C), pages 61-74.
    7. Florian Wöhlbier & Caterina Astarita & Gilles Mourre, 2014. "Consolidation on the revenue side and growth-friendly tax structures: an indicator based approach," European Economy - Economic Papers 2008 - 2015 513, Directorate General Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), European Commission.
    8. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2015. "In Praise of Frank Ramsey's Contribution to the Theory of Taxation," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 0(583), pages 235-268, March.
    9. Oliver Denk & Robert P. Hagemann & Patrick Lenain & Valentin Somma, 2013. "Inequality and Poverty in the United States: Public Policies for Inclusive Growth," OECD Economics Department Working Papers 1052, OECD Publishing.
    10. Lambert Peter J. & Thoresen Thor O., 2012. "The Inequality Effects of a Dual Income Tax System," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 12(1), pages 1-17, July.
    11. Brunner Johann K., 2014. "Die Erbschaftsteuer – Bestandteil eines optimalen Steuersystems?," Perspektiven der Wirtschaftspolitik, De Gruyter, vol. 15(3), pages 199-218, October.
    12. Gahvari, Firouz & Micheletto, Luca, 2016. "Capital income taxation and the Atkinson–Stiglitz theorem," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 147(C), pages 86-89.
    13. Michel Strawczynski, 2014. "The optimal inheritance tax in the presence of investment in education," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 21(4), pages 768-795, August.
    14. Bruno Bises & Antonio Scialà, 2014. "The Erosion of the Personal Income Tax Base in Italy: Equity Aspects," ECONOMIA PUBBLICA, FrancoAngeli Editore, vol. 2014(3), pages 145-166.
    15. repec:ifs:fistud:v:37:y:2016:i::p:821-849 is not listed on IDEAS
    16. Alena Bachleitner, 2017. "Abolishing the Wealth Tax. A Case Study for Germany," WIFO Working Papers 545, WIFO.

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    optimal taxation;

    JEL classification:

    • H10 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - General

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