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On the (Ir)Relevence of Distribution and Labor Supply Distortion of Government Policy

  • Louis Kaplow

Should the assessment of government policies, such as the provision of public goods and the control of externalities, deviate from first-best principles to account for distributive effects and for the distortionary cost of labor income taxation? For example, is the optimal extent of public goods provision smaller than indicated by the Samuelson rule because finance is distortionary? Or should environmental regulations fail to internalize externalities fully if the incidence of the regulations is regressive? It is suggested that these questions are best addressed by considering distribution-neutral implementation, in which budget balance is achieved by choosing an adjustment to the income tax that offsets the distributive impact of the policy in question. In basic cases, both distribution and labor supply distortion are moot because the target policy and the tax adjustment produce offsetting effects on each. Thus, traditional first-best principles provide good benchmarks for policy analysis after all. Moreover, even when actual implementation will not be distribution neutral in aggregate, distribution-neutral policy analysis has many conceptual and practical virtues that render it quite useful to investigators.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 10490.

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Date of creation: May 2004
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Publication status: published as Kaplow, Louis. "On The (Ir)Relevance Of Distribution and Labor Supply Distortion To Government Policy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2004, v18(4,Fall), 159-175.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10490
Note: LE PE EEE
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  7. Joel Slemrod & Shlomo Yitzhaki, 2001. "Integrating Expenditure and Tax Decisions: The Marginal Cost of Funds and the Marginal Benefit of Projects," NBER Working Papers 8196, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Lawrence H. Goulder & Ian W. H. Parry & Roberton C. Williams III & Dallas Burtraw, 1998. "The Cost-Effectiveness of Alternative Instruments for Environmental Protection in a Second-Best Setting," NBER Working Papers 6464, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Mirrlees, J. A., 1976. "Optimal tax theory : A synthesis," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 6(4), pages 327-358, November.
  10. Kaplow, Louis, 2006. "Public goods and the distribution of income," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 50(7), pages 1627-1660, October.
  11. Charles L. Ballard & Don Fullerton, 1992. "Distortionary Taxes and the Provision of Public Goods," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 6(3), pages 117-131, Summer.
  12. Dreze, Jean & Stern, Nicholas, 1987. "The theory of cost-benefit analysis," Handbook of Public Economics, in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 14, pages 909-989 Elsevier.
  13. Bovenberg, A. Lans & Goulder, Lawrence H., 2002. "Environmental taxation and regulation," Handbook of Public Economics, in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 23, pages 1471-1545 Elsevier.
  14. Yew-Kwang Ng, 2000. "The Optimal Size of Public Spending and the Distortionary Cost of Taxation," Monash Economics Working Papers archive-19, Monash University, Department of Economics.
  15. Boadway, Robin & Keen, Michael, 1993. "Public Goods, Self-Selection and Optimal Income Taxation," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 34(3), pages 463-78, August.
  16. Stiglitz, Joseph E., 1987. "Pareto efficient and optimal taxation and the new new welfare economics," Handbook of Public Economics, in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 15, pages 991-1042 Elsevier.
  17. 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.
  18. Stiglitz, Joseph E & Dasgupta, P, 1971. "Differential Taxation, Public Goods and Economic Efficiency," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(114), pages 151-74, April.
  19. Konishi, Hideo, 1995. "A Pareto-improving commodity tax reform under a smooth nonlinear income tax," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 56(3), pages 413-446, March.
  20. Ballard, Charles L. & Medema, Steven G., 1993. "The marginal efficiency effects of taxes and subsidies in the presence of externalities : A computational general equilibrium approach," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 52(2), pages 199-216, September.
  21. Atkinson, A. B. & Stiglitz, J. E., 1976. "The design of tax structure: Direct versus indirect taxation," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 6(1-2), pages 55-75.
  22. Hylland, Aanund & Zeckhauser, Richard, 1979. " Distributional Objectives Should Affect Taxes but not Program Choice or Design," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 81(2), pages 264-84.
  23. Shavell, Steven, 1981. "A Note on Efficiency vs. Distributional Equity in Legal Rulemaking: Should Distributional Equity Matter Given Optimal Income Taxation?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(2), pages 414-18, May.
  24. Christiansen, Vidar, 1981. "Evaluation of Public Projects under Optimal Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 48(3), pages 447-57, July.
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