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Can State Taxes Redistribute Income?

  • Martin Feldstein
  • Marian Vaillant

The evidence presented in this paper supports the basic theoretical presumption that state and local governments cannot redistribute income. Since individuals can avoid unfavorable taxes by migrating to jurisdictions that offer more favorable tax conditions, a relatively unfavorable tax will cause gross wages to adjust until the resulting net wage is equal to that available elsewhere. The current empirical findings go beyond confirming this long-run tendency and show that gross wages adjust rapidly to the changing tax environment. Thus, states cannot redistribute income for a period of even a few years. The adjustment of gross wages to tax rates implies that a more progressive tax system raises the cost to firms of hiring more highly skilled employees and reduces the cost of lower skilled labor. A more progressive tax thus induces firms to hire fewer high skilled employees and to hire more low skilled employees. Since state taxes cannot alter net wages, there can be no trade- off at the state level between distribution goals and economic efficiency. Shifts in state tax progressivity, by altering the structure of employment in the state and distorting the mix of labor inputs used by firms in the state, create deadweight efficiency losses without achieving any net redistribution of income.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 4785.

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Date of creation: Jun 1994
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Journal of Public Economics, vol. 68, no. 2, pp. 369-396, 1998.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4785
Note: PE
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  1. Gordon, Roger H, 1986. "Taxation of Investment and Savings in a World Economy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(5), pages 1086-1102, December.
  2. Feldstein, Martin S & Metcalf, Gilbert E, 1987. "The Effect of Federal Tax Deductibility on State and Local Taxes and Spending," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 95(4), pages 710-36, August.
  3. David Card, 1992. "The Effect of Unions on the Distribution of Wages: Redistribution or Relabelling?," NBER Working Papers 4195, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Olivier Jean Blanchard & Lawrence F. Katz, 1992. "Regional Evolutions," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 23(1), pages 1-76.
  5. Joseph Gyourko & Joseph S. Tracy, 1986. "The Importance of Local Fiscal Conditions in Analyzing Local Labor Markets," NBER Working Papers 2040, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Wallace, Sally, 1993. "The effects of state personal income tax differentials on wages," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(5), pages 611-628, November.
  7. Douglas Staiger & James H. Stock, 1997. "Instrumental Variables Regression with Weak Instruments," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 65(3), pages 557-586, May.
  8. 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.
  9. Charles M. Tiebout, 1956. "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 64, pages 416.
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