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Does Growing Inequality Reduce Tax Progressivity? Should It?

  • Joel Slemrod
  • Jon Bakija

This paper explores the links between two phenomena of the past two decades: striking increase in the inequality of pre-tax incomes, and the failure of tax-and-transfer progressivity to increase. We emphasize the causal links going from inequality to progressivity, noting that optimal taxation theory predicts that growing inequality should increase progressivity. We discuss public choice alternatives to the optimal progressivity framework. The paper also addresses the opposite causal direction: that it is changes in taxation that have caused an apparent increase in inequality. Finally, we discuss the non-event-study' offered by the large changes in the distribution of income--with no major tax changes-- since 1995, and discuss its implications for the link between progressivity and inequality.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7576.

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Date of creation: Mar 2000
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Hassett, K. and R. G. Hubbard (eds.) Inequality and Tax Policy. Washington, DC: The AEI Press for the American Enterprise Institute, 2001.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7576
Note: PE
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  1. Lindert, Peter H., 1996. "What Limits Social Spending?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 33(1), pages 1-34, January.
  2. Torsten Persson & Guido Tabellini, 1991. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth? Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 3599, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Dani Rodrik, 1996. "Why Do More Open Economies Have Bigger Governments?," NBER Working Papers 5537, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  6. Varian, Hal R., 1980. "Redistributive taxation as social insurance," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 14(1), pages 49-68, August.
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  8. Lindbeck, Assar, 1995. "Hazardous Welfare-State Dynamics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(2), pages 9-15, May.
  9. Rodrik, Dani & Alesina, Alberto, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," Scholarly Articles 4551798, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  10. Helpman, Elhanan & Sadka, Efraim, 1978. "The optimal income tax : Some comparative statics results," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 9(3), pages 383-393, June.
  11. Mirrlees, James A, 1971. "An Exploration in the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(114), pages 175-208, April.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Meltzer, Allan H & Richard, Scott F, 1981. "A Rational Theory of the Size of Government," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(5), pages 914-27, October.
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  16. 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.
  17. 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 1333-81, September.
  18. Kristov, Lorenzo & Lindert, Peter & McClelland, Robert, 1992. "Pressure groups and redistribution," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 48(2), pages 135-163, July.
  19. Cooter, Robert & Helpman, Elhanan, 1974. "Optimal Income Taxation for Transfer Payments under Different Social Welfare Criteria," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 88(4), pages 656-70, November.
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  21. Allen, Franklin, 1982. "Optimal linear income taxation with general equilibrium effects on wages," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 135-143, March.
  22. Peltzman, Sam, 1980. "The Growth of Government," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 23(2), pages 209-87, October.
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