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Identification of Preferences and Evaluation of Income Tax Policy


  • Charles F. Manski


The merits of alternative income tax policies depend on the population distribution of preferences for income, leisure, and public goods. Standard theory, which supposes that persons want more income and more leisure, does not predict how they resolve the tension between these desires. Empirical studies of labor supply have been numerous but have not shed much light on the matter. A persistent problem is that empirical researchers have imposed strong preference assumptions that lack foundation. This paper examines anew the problem of inference on preferences and considers the implications for comparison of tax policies. I first perform a basic revealed-preference analysis that imposes no assumptions on the preference distribution beyond the presumption that persons prefer more income and leisure. This shows that observation of a person's labor supply under a status quo tax policy may bound his labor supply under a proposed policy or may have no implications, depending on the shapes of the two tax schedules and the location of status quo labor supply. I next explore the identifying power of two assumptions restricting the population distribution of income-leisure preferences. One assumes that groups of persons who face different choice sets have the same distribution of preferences, while the other adds restrictions on the shape of this distribution. I then address utilitarian policy comparison with partial knowledge of preferences. Partial knowledge of preferences implies partial knowledge of the welfare function. Hence, it may not be possible to rank policies.

Suggested Citation

  • Charles F. Manski, 2012. "Identification of Preferences and Evaluation of Income Tax Policy," NBER Working Papers 17755, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17755
    Note: LS PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Keane, Michael & Moffitt, Robert, 1998. "A Structural Model of Multiple Welfare Program Participation and Labor Supply," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 39(3), pages 553-589, August.
    2. Blundell, Richard & Macurdy, Thomas, 1999. "Labor supply: A review of alternative approaches," Handbook of Labor Economics,in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 27, pages 1559-1695 Elsevier.
    3. Killingsworth, Mark R. & Heckman, James J., 1987. "Female labor supply: A survey," Handbook of Labor Economics,in: O. Ashenfelter & R. Layard (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 2, pages 103-204 Elsevier.
    4. Michael P. Keane, 2011. "Labor Supply and Taxes: A Survey," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 49(4), pages 961-1075, December.
    5. Richard Blundell & Antoine Bozio & Guy Laroque, 2011. "Extensive and intensive margins of labour supply: working hours in the US, UK and France," IFS Working Papers W11/01, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
    6. Asher A. Blass & Saul Lach & Charles F. Manski, 2010. "Using Elicited Choice Probabilities To Estimate Random Utility Models: Preferences For Electricity Reliability," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 51(2), pages 421-440, May.
    7. Emmanuel Saez & Joel Slemrod & Seth H. Giertz, 2012. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income with Respect to Marginal Tax Rates: A Critical Review," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 50(1), pages 3-50, March.
    8. Soren Blomquist & Whitney Newey, 2002. "Nonparametric Estimation with Nonlinear Budget Sets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(6), pages 2455-2480, November.
    9. Blundell, Richard & Ham, John & Meghir, Costas, 1987. "Unemployment and Female Labour Supply," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 97(388a), pages 44-64, Supplemen.
    10. Blomquist, Sören & Newey, Whitney, 1997. "Nonparametric Estimation of Labor Supply Functions Generated by Piece Wise Linear Budget Constraints," Working Paper Series 1997:24, Uppsala University, Department of Economics.
    11. Richard Blundell & Andrew Shephard, 2012. "Employment, Hours of Work and the Optimal Taxation of Low-Income Families," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 79(2), pages 481-510.
    12. Beggs, S. & Cardell, S. & Hausman, J., 1981. "Assessing the potential demand for electric cars," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 1-19, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. André Decoster & Peter Haan, 2015. "Empirical welfare analysis with preference heterogeneity," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 22(2), pages 224-251, April.
    2. Schröder, Melanie & Schmitt, Norma & Mantei, Britta & Brünn, Claudia, 2014. "Social Norms or Income Taxation - What Drives Couple's Labor Supply? Experimental Evidence," Annual Conference 2014 (Hamburg): Evidence-based Economic Policy 100375, Verein für Socialpolitik / German Economic Association.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C14 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Econometric and Statistical Methods and Methodology: General - - - Semiparametric and Nonparametric Methods: General
    • C25 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Single Equation Models; Single Variables - - - Discrete Regression and Qualitative Choice Models; Discrete Regressors; Proportions; Probabilities
    • H21 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Efficiency; Optimal Taxation
    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • J22 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Time Allocation and Labor Supply

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