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How Big Should Government Be?


  • Martin Feldstein


The appropriate size and role of government depends on the deadweight burden caused by incremental transfers of funds from the private sector. The magnitude of that burden depends on the increases in tax rates required to raise incremental revenue and on the deadweight loss that results from higher tax rates. Both components depend on the full range of behavioral responses of taxpayers to increases in tax rates. The first part of this paper explains why the official method of revenue estimation used by the Treasury and the Congress underestimates the tax rate increases required to raise additional revenue. This is closely related to the on-going debate about the use of `dynamic' revenue estimation. The second part of the paper emphasizes that the deadweight burden caused by a tax rate increase depends not just on the response of labor force participation and average working hours but also on other dimensions of labor supply, on the forms in which compensation is paid, on the individuals' spending on tax favored (deductible or excludable) forms of consumption, and on the intertemporal allocation of consumption. Recent econometric work implies that the deadweight burden caused by incremental taxation (the marginal excess burden) may exceed one dollar per dollar of revenue raised, making the cost of incremental government spending more than two dollars for each dollar of government spending.

Suggested Citation

  • Martin Feldstein, 1996. "How Big Should Government Be?," NBER Working Papers 5868, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5868
    Note: PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Browning, Edgar K, 1987. "On the Marginal Welfare Cost of Taxation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(1), pages 11-23, March.
    2. Martin Feldstein, 1978. "The Welfare Cost of Capital Income Taxation," NBER Chapters,in: Research in Taxation, pages 29-51 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Joel Slemrod & Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1995. "The Costs of Taxation and the Marginal Cost of Funds," IMF Working Papers 95/83, International Monetary Fund.
    4. Alan J. Auerbach, 1996. "Dynamic Revenue Estimation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 10(1), pages 141-157, Winter.
    5. James M. Poterba & Andrew A. Samwick, 1995. "Stock Ownership Patterns, Stock Market Fluctuations, and Consumption," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 26(2), pages 295-372.
    6. Arnold Harberger, 1964. "Taxation, Resource Allocation, and Welfare," NBER Chapters,in: The Role of Direct and Indirect Taxes in the Federal Reserve System, pages 25-80 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Ballard, Charles L & Shoven, John B & Whalley, John, 1985. "General Equilibrium Computations of the Marginal Welfare Costs of Taxes in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 128-138, March.
    8. Stuart, Charles E, 1984. "Welfare Costs per Dollar of Additional Tax Revenue in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 352-362, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Slemrod, Joel & Yitzhaki, Shlomo, 2001. "Integrating Expenditure and Tax Decisions: The Marginal Cost of Funds and the Marginal Benefit of Projects," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 54(2), pages 189-202, June.
    2. 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.
    3. Carlos Esteban Posada & José Fernando Escobar, 2004. "Crecimiento económico y gasto público: experiencias internacionales y el caso colombiano, 1982-99," Monetaria, Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos, vol. 0(2), pages 131-167, abril-jun.
    4. Carlos Esteban Posada & José Fernando Escobar, 2003. "Crecimiento Económico y Gasto Público: Una Interpretación de las Experiencias Internacionales y del Caso Colombiano (1982-1999)," BORRADORES DE ECONOMIA 002219, BANCO DE LA REPÚBLICA.
    5. Richard M. bird, 2003. "Taxation in Latin America: Reflections on Sustainability and the Balance between Equity and Efficiency," International Tax Program Papers 0306, International Tax Program, Institute for International Business, Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.
    6. Parry, Ian W. H. & Bento, Antonio M., 2000. "Tax Deductions, Environmental Policy, and the "Double Dividend" Hypothesis," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 67-96, January.
    7. Carlos Esteban Posada & Jorge Andres Tamayo, 2008. "La transición hacia una economía urbana y el aumento del producto per cápita: el caso colombiano del siglo XX desde la perspectiva de Lucas," Borradores de Economia 534, Banco de la Republica de Colombia.
    8. Elmendorf, Douglas W. & Gregory Mankiw, N., 1999. "Government debt," Handbook of Macroeconomics,in: J. B. Taylor & M. Woodford (ed.), Handbook of Macroeconomics, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 25, pages 1615-1669 Elsevier.
    9. Ana Buisán & Juan Carlos Caballero & José Manuel Campa & Noelia Jiménez, 2004. "La importancia de la histéresis en las exportaciones de manufacturas de los países de la UEM," Monetaria, Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos, vol. 0(2), pages 169-222, abril-jun.
    10. Will Martin & James E. Anderson, 2005. "Costs of Taxation and the Benefits of Public Goods: The Role of Income Effects," Boston College Working Papers in Economics 617, Boston College Department of Economics.
    11. John C. Driscoll & Steinar Holden, 2004. "Coordinación, trato justo y persistencia de la inflación," Monetaria, Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos, vol. 0(2), pages 97-129, abril-jun.
    12. Parry, Ian, 2000. "Comparing the Marginal Excess Burden of Labor, Gasoline, Cigarette and Alcohol Taxes: An Application to the United Kingdom," Discussion Papers dp-00-33-rev, Resources For the Future.
    13. George Manliev, 2013. "From Fiscal Crisis to Fiscal Stabilization and Optimization: the Case of Bulgaria 1998-2012," Economic Alternatives, University of National and World Economy, Sofia, Bulgaria, issue 2, pages 32-49, April.

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    JEL classification:

    • H2 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue


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