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The Incentive Effects of Marginal Tax Rates: Evidence from the Interwar Era

  • Christina D. Romer
  • David H. Romer

This paper uses the interwar period in the United States as a laboratory for investigating the incentive effects of changes in marginal income tax rates. Marginal rates changed frequently and drastically in the 1920s and 1930s, and the changes varied greatly across income groups at the top of the income distribution. We examine the effect of these changes on taxable income using time-series/cross-section analysis of data on income and taxes by small slices of the income distribution. We find that the elasticity of taxable income to changes in the log after-tax share (one minus the marginal rate) is positive but small (approximately 0.2) and precisely estimated (a t-statistic over 6). The estimate is highly robust. We also examine the time-series response of available indicators of investment and entrepreneurial activity to changes in marginal rates. We find suggestive evidence of an impact on business formation, but no evidence of an important impact on other indicators.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17860.

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Date of creation: Feb 2012
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Publication status: published as “The Incentive Effects of Marginal Tax Rates: Evidence from the Interwar Era” (with David H. Romer), American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, forthcoming.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17860
Note: DAE EFG ME PE
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  1. Austan Goolsbee, 2000. "What Happens When You Tax the Rich? Evidence from Executive Compensation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 108(2), pages 352-378, April.
  2. Giertz, Seth H., 2007. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income over the 1980s and 1990s," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 60(4), pages 743-68, December.
  3. Emmanuel Saez & Joel B. Slemrod & Seth H. Giertz, 2009. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income with Respect to Marginal Tax Rates: A Critical Review," NBER Working Papers 15012, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Robert J. Barro & Chaipat Sahasakul, 1983. "Measuring the Average Marginal Tax Rate from the Individual Income Tax," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 26, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
  5. Kopczuk, Wojciech, 2005. "Tax bases, tax rates and the elasticity of reported income," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(11-12), pages 2093-2119, December.
  6. Feldstein, Martin, 1995. "Effect of Marginal Tax Rates on Taxable Income: A Panel Study of the 1986 Tax Reform Act," Scholarly Articles 2766676, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  7. Lindsey, Lawrence B., 1987. "Individual taxpayer response to tax cuts: 1982-1984 : With implications for the revenue maximizing tax rate," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 33(2), pages 173-206, July.
  8. Robert J. Barro & Chaipat Sahasakul, 1983. "Measuring the Average Marginal Tax Rates from Social Security and the Individual Income Tax," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 29, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
  9. Raj Chetty, 2009. "Bounds on Elasticities with Optimization Frictions: A Synthesis of Micro and Macro Evidence on Labor Supply," NBER Working Papers 15616, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Martin Feldstein, 1993. "The Effect of Marginal Tax Rates on Taxable Income: A Panel Study of the1986 Tax Reform Act," NBER Working Papers 4496, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Gruber, Jon & Saez, Emmanuel, 2002. "The elasticity of taxable income: evidence and implications," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 84(1), pages 1-32, April.
  12. Goolsbee, Austan, 1998. "Taxes, organizational form, and the deadweight loss of the corporate income tax," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 69(1), pages 143-152, July.
  13. Smiley, Gene & Keehn, Richard H., 1995. "Federal Personal Income Tax Policy in the 1920s," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 55(02), pages 285-303, June.
  14. Saez, Emmanuel, 2001. "Using Elasticities to Derive Optimal Income Tax Rates," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 68(1), pages 205-29, January.
  15. Austan Goolsbee, 1999. "Evidence on the High-Income Laffer Curve from Six Decades of Tax Reform," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 30(2), pages 1-64.
  16. Slemrod, Joel, 1998. "Methodological Issues in Measuring and Interpreting Taxable Income Elasticities," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 51(n. 4), pages 773-88, December.
  17. Robert E. Lipsey & Doris Preston, 1966. "Source Book of Statistics Relating to Construction," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number lips66-1, 07.
  18. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "Income Inequality In The United States, 1913-1998," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-39, February.
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