Taxation of Human Capital and Wage Inequality: A Cross-Country Analysis
University of Minnesota - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
University of Toronto - Department of Economics
Federal Reserve Board
August 17, 2011
Wage inequality has been significantly higher in the United States than in con- tinental European countries (CEU) since the 1970s. Moreover, this inequality gap has further widened during this period as the US has experienced a large increase in wage inequality, whereas the CEU has seen only modest changes. This paper stud- ies the role of labor income tax policies for understanding these facts, focusing on male workers. We construct a life cycle model in which individuals decide each period whether to go to school, work, or stay non-employed. Individuals can accumulate skills either in school or while working. Wage inequality arises from differences across individuals in their ability to learn new skills as well as from idiosyncratic shocks. Progressive taxation compresses the (after-tax) wage structure, thereby distorting the incentives to accumulate human capital, in turn reducing the cross-sectional disper- sion of (before-tax) wages. Consistent with the model, we empirically document that countries with more progressive labor income tax schedules have (i) significantly lower before-tax wage inequality at different points in time and (ii) experienced a smaller rise in wage inequality since the early 1980s. We then study the calibrated model and find that these policies can account for half of the difference between the US and the CEU in overall wage inequality and 84% of the difference in inequality at the upper end (log 90-50 differential). In a two-country comparison between the US and Ger- many, the combination of skill-biased technical change and changing progressivity of tax schedules explains all the difference between the evolution of inequality in these two countries since the early 1980s.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 64
Keywords: Wage Inequality, Human Capital, Skill-Biased Technical Change, Tax Policies
JEL Classification: E62, H20, J24, J31
Date posted: November 10, 2009 ; Last revised: October 27, 2012
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