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The Welfare Cost of Distortions in the United States Tax System: A General Equilibrium Approach

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  • Charles L. Ballard
  • John B. Shoven
  • John Whalley

Abstract

Using a general equilibrium model of the United States economy,we examine the combined welfare cost of all taxes in the U.S. revenue system.We find that the welfare losses caused by distortionary taxation can be very large, both on average and at the margin.The marginal welfare loss to consumers from raising an additional dollar of revenue is in the range of 34 cents to 48 cents, depending on certain elasticities. This has very important implications for cost-benefit analysis.If a public project must be financed by distortionary taxes which cause dead-weight loss, this excess burden must be taken into account when we decide whether to undertake the project. Our calculations indicate that the marginal deadweight loss is between one-third and one-half of marginal revenues. This large wedge could cause us to approve many fewer projects than we would approve if we were to use the simple condition that the sum of the marginal rates of substitution should equal the marginal rate of transformation.The average deadweight loss per dollar of revenue is smaller than the marginal deadweight loss, but it is still substantial. We estimate that the present value of the gain from replacing the distortionary tax system with certain lump sum taxes would be in the range of $1.8 trillion to $3.1 trillion,or 13 cents to 22 cents per dollar of revenue. The gains would be about 60 percent as great if the existing system were replaced with a proportional income tax. Replacing the existing system with a consumption-type value-added tax would give even greater gains than those from switching to a proportional income tax.

Suggested Citation

  • Charles L. Ballard & John B. Shoven & John Whalley, 1982. "The Welfare Cost of Distortions in the United States Tax System: A General Equilibrium Approach," NBER Working Papers 1043, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:1043
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    1. Auerbach, Alan J & Kotlikoff, Laurence J & Skinner, Jonathan, 1983. "The Efficiency Gains from Dynamic Tax Reform," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 24(1), pages 81-100, February.
    2. Charles L. Ballard & Don Fullerton & John B. Shoven & John Whalley, 1985. "General Equilibrium Analysis of Tax Policies," NBER Chapters,in: A General Equilibrium Model for Tax Policy Evaluation, pages 6-24 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Arnold C. Harberger, 1962. "The Incidence of the Corporation Income Tax," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 70, pages 215-215.
    4. Browning, Edgar K, 1976. "The Marginal Cost of Public Funds," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 84(2), pages 283-298, April.
    5. Summers, Lawrence H, 1981. "Capital Taxation and Accumulation in a Life Cycle Growth Model," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(4), pages 533-544, September.
    6. John B. Shoven & John Whalley, 1973. "General Equilibrium with Taxes: A Computational Procedure and an Existence Proof," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 40(4), pages 475-489.
    7. A. B. Atkinson & N. H. Stern, 1974. "Pigou, Taxation and Public Goods," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 41(1), pages 119-128.
    8. Fullerton, Don, et al, 1981. "Corporate Tax Integration in the United States: A General Equilibrium Approach," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(4), pages 677-691, September.
    9. Lawrence H. Goulder & John B. Shoven & John Whalley, 1982. "Domestic Tax Policy and the Foreign Sector: The Importance of Alternative Foreign Sector Formulations to Results from a General Equilibrium," NBER Working Papers 0919, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. George J. Borjas & James J. Heckman, 1978. "Labor Supply Estimates For Public Policy Evaluation," NBER Working Papers 0299, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. James R. Hines, 1999. "Three Sides of Harberger Triangles," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 13(2), pages 167-188, Spring.
    2. Cedric Sandford, 1992. "Worldwide Tax Reform 'How Does Australia Compare?'," Australian Economic Review, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, vol. 25(1), pages 22-32.
    3. Austan Goolsbee, 2002. "The Impact and Inefficiency of the Corporate Income Tax: Evidence from State Organizational Form Data," NBER Working Papers 9141, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. B.P.J. Rensburg, 1990. "Tax Reform Issues in South Africa in the 1990s," South African Journal of Economics, Economic Society of South Africa, vol. 58(1), pages 1-11, March.
    5. Becker, Gary S & Mulligan, Casey B, 2003. "Deadweight Costs and the Size of Government," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 46(2), pages 293-340, October.
    6. Blinder, Alan S & Rosen, Harvey S, 1985. "Notches," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(4), pages 736-747, September.
    7. Athiphat Muthitacharoen & George R. Zodrow, 2008. "The Efficiency Costs of Local Property Tax," International Center for Public Policy Working Paper Series, at AYSPS, GSU paper0815, International Center for Public Policy, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University.
    8. Blank, Rebecca M., 2002. "Can equity and efficiency complement each other?," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 9(4), pages 451-468, September.
    9. John Ataguba, 2012. "Alcohol policy and taxation in South Africa," Applied Health Economics and Health Policy, Springer, vol. 10(1), pages 65-76, January.
    10. Schimmelpfennig, David E. & Norton, George W., 2000. "What Value Is Agricultural Economics Research?," 2000 Annual meeting, July 30-August 2, Tampa, FL 21773, American Agricultural Economics Association (New Name 2008: Agricultural and Applied Economics Association).
    11. Joel Slemrod, 1985. "The Impact of Tax Reform on Households," NBER Working Papers 1765, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Cole, Rebel, 2011. "How do firms choose legal form of organization?," MPRA Paper 32591, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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