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The Optimal Size of Public Spending and the Distortionary Cost of Taxation

Listed author(s):
  • Yew-Kwang Ng

Feldstein (1997) reviews his and others' contributions in the distortionary costs of taxation, arriving at a remarkable estimate that the cost per incremental dollar of government spending is a very high $2.65. Kaplow (1996) argues that it is optimal to supply a public good whenever the benefit/cost ratio exceeds one, contrary to the orthodox position since Pigou (1928) that the benefits of public goods must exceed their direct costs by an amount sufficient to outweigh the distortionary costs of taxation. This paper largely reconciles these two apparently opposing positions. The large distortionary costs exist on the revenue side but is largely offset by the negative distortionary costs or distributional gain on the spending side. However, both Kaplow's and Feldstein's arguments have to be subject to important qualifications. Additional arguments relevant to the central public finance question "How big should the public spending be?" are also reviewed. The prevalence of environmental disruption effects, the existence of burden-free taxes on diamond goods, and the importance of relative-income effects all favor the lowering of the required benefit/cost ratio for public goods and, as a rule, more public spending. The reason for the difference between the existence of distortion (in comparison to a lumpsum tax) as emphasized by Browning and Liu (1998) and the unitary marginal cost of public fund is also explained graphically.

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Paper provided by Monash University, Department of Economics in its series Monash Economics Working Papers with number archive-19.

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Length: 20 pages
Date of creation: 2000
Publication status: Published in National Tax Journal 53:2 (June 2000) pp 253-72.
Handle: RePEc:mos:moswps:archive-19
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Department of Economics, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

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  1. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1977. "Towards a Theory of Third-Best," Public Finance = Finances publiques, , vol. 32(1), pages 1-15.
  2. Martin Feldstein, 1999. "Tax Avoidance And The Deadweight Loss Of The Income Tax," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 81(4), pages 674-680, November.
  3. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1975. "Non-Economic Activities, Indirect Externalities, and Third-Best Politics," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 28(3), pages 507-525.
  4. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1987. "Diamonds Are a Government's Best Friend: Burden-Free Taxes on Goods Valued for Their Values," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(1), pages 186-191, March.
  5. Ballard, Charles L & Shoven, John B & Whalley, John, 1985. "General Equilibrium Computations of the Marginal Welfare Costs of Taxes in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 128-138, March.
  6. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1987. "Relative-Income Effects and the Appropriate Level of Public Expenditure," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 39(2), pages 293-300, June.
  7. Ng, Yew-Kwang & Wang, Jianguo, 1993. "Relative income, aspiration, environmental quality, individual and political myopia : Why may the rat-race for material growth be welfare-reducing?," Mathematical Social Sciences, Elsevier, vol. 26(1), pages 3-23, July.
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