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U.S. Inequality, Fiscal Progressivity, and Work Disincentives: An Intragenerational Accounting

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  • Alan J. Auerbach
  • Laurence J. Kotlikoff
  • Darryl R. Koehler

Abstract

This study combines the 2013 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances data and the Fiscal Analyzer, a highly detailed life-cycle consumption-smoothing program, to a) measure ultimate economic inequality – inequality in lifetime spending power – within cohorts, b) assess fiscal progressivity within cohorts, c) calculate marginal remaining lifetime net tax rates, taking into account all major federal and state tax and transfer policies, d) evaluate the ability of current income to correctly classify households as rich, middle class, and poor, e) determine whether current-year average net tax rates accurately capture actual fiscal progressivity, and f) determine whether current-year marginal tax rates on labor supply accurately capture actual remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates. We find far less inequality in spending power than in wealth or labor earnings due to the fiscal system’s high degree of progressivity. But U.S. fiscal redistribution generally comes at a price of very high work disincentives for households regardless of age and resource class. There is, however, very substantial dispersion in marginal net tax rates, which seems hard to reconcile with standard norms of optimal taxation. We also find that current income is a very poor proxy for remaining lifetime resources and that current-year net tax rates can provide a highly distorted picture of true fiscal progressivity and work disincentives.

Suggested Citation

  • Alan J. Auerbach & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Darryl R. Koehler, 2016. "U.S. Inequality, Fiscal Progressivity, and Work Disincentives: An Intragenerational Accounting," NBER Working Papers 22032, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22032
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Poterba, James M, 1989. "Lifetime Incidence and the Distributional Burden of Excise Taxes," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(2), pages 325-330, May.
    2. Alan J. Auerbach & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1991. "Generational Accounts: A Meaningful Alternative to Deficit Accounting," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 5, pages 55-110, 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. E. S. Phelps & R. A. Pollak, 1968. "On Second-Best National Saving and Game-Equilibrium Growth," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 35(2), pages 185-199.
    5. Feldstein, Martin S, 1974. "Social Security, Induced Retirement, and Aggregate Capital Accumulation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 82(5), pages 905-926, Sept./Oct.
    6. Acemoglu, Daron & Autor, David, 2011. "Skills, Tasks and Technologies: Implications for Employment and Earnings," Handbook of Labor Economics, in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.),Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 12, pages 1043-1171, Elsevier.
    7. Diamond, Peter A, 1998. "Optimal Income Taxation: An Example with a U-Shaped Pattern of Optimal Marginal Tax Rates," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(1), pages 83-95, March.
    8. David Laibson, 1997. "Golden Eggs and Hyperbolic Discounting," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 112(2), pages 443-478.
    9. Wojciech Kopczuk & Emmanuel Saez & Jae Song, 2010. "Earnings Inequality and Mobility in the United States: Evidence from Social Security Data Since 1937," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 125(1), pages 91-128.
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    Cited by:

    1. David Altig & Alan J. Auerbach & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Elias Ilin & Victor Ye, 2020. "Marginal Net Taxation of Americans’ Labor Supply," NBER Working Papers 27164, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Auerbach, Alan & Kueng, Lorenz & Lee, Ronald & Yatsynovich, Yury, 2018. "Propagation and smoothing of shocks in alternative social security systems," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 164(C), pages 91-105.
    3. Oguzhan Akgun & Boris Cournède & Jean-Marc Fournier, 2017. "The effects of the tax mix on inequality and growth," OECD Economics Department Working Papers 1447, OECD Publishing.
    4. Alan J. Auerbach & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Darryl Koehler & Manni Yu, 2017. "Is Uncle Sam Inducing the Elderly to Retire?," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 31(1), pages 1-42.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • A1 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics
    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making
    • E25 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Aggregate Factor Income Distribution
    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General
    • H21 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Efficiency; Optimal Taxation
    • H22 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Incidence
    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions

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