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Environmental Levies and Distortionary Taxation: Pigou, Taxation, and Pollution

  • Gilbert E. Metcalf

Bovenberg and de Mooij (1994) showed that, in the presence of preexisting distorting taxes, the optimal pollution tax typically lies below social marginal damages. Many have viewed this result as a refutation of the so-called double dividend hypothesis,' which suggests that a tax on pollution can both improve the environment and reduce distortions in the tax system. Bovenberg and de Mooij's paper triggered a large literature on optimal environmental tax rates in a second-best world. In this note, I argue that the emphasis on tax rates is misguided. Using an analytical general equilibrium model, I show that for reasonable parameter values, an increase in tax distortions (arising from an increase in required tax revenues) leads to a fall in the optimal Pigouvian tax rate even while environmental quality improves. In general, knowledge of the direction of changes in optimal environmental tax rates due to changes in the economy is not sufficient for understanding the impact on environmental quality.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7917.

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Date of creation: Sep 2000
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Publication status: published as Journal of Public Economics, 87(2002): 313-322.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7917
Note: PE EEE
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  1. Fullerton, Don & Metcalf, Gilbert E., 2001. "Environmental controls, scarcity rents, and pre-existing distortions," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 80(2), pages 249-267, May.
  2. Ronnie Schöb, 1997. "Environmental Taxes and Pre-Existing Distortions: The Normalization Trap," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer, vol. 4(2), pages 167-176, May.
  3. Bovenberg, A.L. & Van Der Ploeg, F., 1992. "Environmental Policy, Public Finance and the Labour Market in a Second- Best World," Papers 9243, Tilburg - Center for Economic Research.
  4. Bovenberg, A.L. & de Mooij, R.A., 1994. "Environmental levies and distortionary taxation," Other publications TiSEM 4b32deaa-ec2f-4de7-b59b-9, Tilburg University, School of Economics and Management.
  5. Don Fullerton & Inkee Hong & Gilbert E. Metcalf, 1999. "A Tax on Output of the Polluting Industry is Not a Tax on Pollution: The Importance of Hitting the Target," Discussion Papers Series, Department of Economics, Tufts University 9908, Department of Economics, Tufts University.
  6. Bovenberg, A Lans & de Mooij, Ruud A, 1997. "Environmental Levies and Distortionary Taxation: Reply," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(1), pages 252-53, March.
  7. Atkinson, Anthony B & Stern, N H, 1974. "Pigou, Taxation and Public Goods," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 41(1), pages 119-28, January.
  8. Fullerton, Don, 1997. "Environmental Levies and Distortionary Taxes: Comment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(1), pages 245-51, March.
  9. Gaube, Thomas, 1998. "Distortionary Taxes Preserve the Environment," Discussion Paper Serie A 579, University of Bonn, Germany.
  10. Arnold C. Harberger, 1962. "The Incidence of the Corporation Income Tax," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 70, pages 215.
  11. Lee, Dwight R. & Misiolek, Walter S., 1986. "Substituting pollution taxation for general taxation: Some implications for efficiency in pollutions taxation," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 13(4), pages 338-347, December.
  12. Lawrence H. Goulder & Roberton C. Williams III, 1999. "The Usual Excess-Burden Approximation Usually Doesn't Come Close," NBER Working Papers 7034, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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