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It's Not About the Money: Why Natural Experiments Don't Work on the Rich

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  • Austan Goolsbee

Abstract

An influential literature on the effects of marginal tax rates on the behavior of the rich has claimed that the elasticity of taxable income with respect to the net of tax share is very high possibly exceeding one. These high estimated elasticities imply that cutting taxes on the rich does not lose much revenue possibly increases it and that progressivity generates a large amount of deadweight loss. To identify this elasticity, these studies have conducted natural experiments' comparing the rich to other income groups and assuming that they are the same except for changes in their tax rates. This paper tests the natural experiment assumption using alternative data on the compensation of a panel of several thousand corporate executives and finds it to be false. Relatively, the very rich have incomes which trend upward at a faster rate are more sensitive to economic conditions, and are more likely to be in a form whose timing can be shifted in the short run. Interpreted broadly, these facts might reduce existing elasticity estimates by as much as 75%. The paper also suggests ways of improving existing methods.

Suggested Citation

  • Austan Goolsbee, 1998. "It's Not About the Money: Why Natural Experiments Don't Work on the Rich," NBER Working Papers 6395, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6395
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    1. Martin Feldstein, 1999. "Tax Avoidance And The Deadweight Loss Of The Income Tax," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 81(4), pages 674-680, November.
    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. Levy, Frank & Murnane, Richard J, 1992. "U.S. Earnings Levels and Earnings Inequality: A Review of Recent Trends and Proposed Explanations," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 30(3), pages 1333-1381, September.
    4. David M. Cutler & Lawrence F. Katz, 1991. "Macroeconomic Performance and the Disadvantaged," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 22(2), pages 1-74.
    5. Heckman, James J, 1993. "What Has Been Learned about Labor Supply in the Past Twenty Years?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(2), pages 116-121, May.
    6. Daniel R. Feenberg & James M. Poterba, 1993. "Income Inequality and the Incomes of Very High-Income Taxpayers: Evidence from Tax Returns," NBER Chapters,in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 7, pages 145-177 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Hansson, Åsa, 2004. "Taxpayers Responsiveness to Tax Rate Changes and Implications for the Cost of Taxation," Working Papers 2004:5, Lund University, Department of Economics.
    2. Neisser, Carina, 2017. "The elasticity of taxable income: A meta-regression analysis," ZEW Discussion Papers 17-032, ZEW - Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung / Center for European Economic Research.
    3. Aarbu, Karl O. & Thoresen, Thor O., 2001. "Income Responses to Tax Changes--Evidence From the Norwegian Tax Reform," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 54(2), pages 319-338, June.
    4. Selén, Jan, 2002. "Taxable Income Responses to Tax Changes - A Panel Analysis of the 1990/91 Swedish Reform," Working Paper Series 177, Trade Union Institute for Economic Research.
    5. Åsa Hansson, 2007. "Taxpayers' responsiveness to tax rate changes and implications for the cost of taxation in Sweden," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 14(5), pages 563-582, October.
    6. Peter Haan & Viktor Steiner, 2004. "Distributional and Fiscal Effects of the German Tax Reform 2000: A Behavioral Microsimulation Analysis," Discussion Papers of DIW Berlin 419, DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.
    7. Joel Slemrod & Jon Bakija, 2000. "Does Growing Inequality Reduce Tax Progressivity? Should It?," NBER Working Papers 7576, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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