The Last Best Hope for Progressivity in Tax
88 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2009 Last revised: 12 Nov 2013
Date Written: February 22, 2010
We argue that a spending tax, as opposed to an income or wage tax, is the “last best hope” for a return to significantly more progressive marginal tax rates than obtain today. The simple explanation for this central claim looks to incentive effects, especially for “rich people,” as both economists and commentators are inclined to focus. High marginal tax rates under an income tax fall on and hence deter the socially productive activities of work and savings. High marginal rates under a wage tax fall on and hence deter the socially productive activity of work alone. But high marginal rates under a spending tax fall on and hence deter high-end spending, which is arguably a social “bad,” and do not necessarily deter the social goods of work and savings. This is a possible empirical result. In this Article, we present the analytic arguments for it and sketch out a research agenda that might verify it. The idea is that because one can escape or defer paying taxes under a progressive spending tax by saving, an activity with positive social externalities, the efficiency costs of high marginal rates under a spending tax can be mitigated. Unless people work only in order to be able to spend on themselves, and even then only if they fully internalize in their present labor supply decisions the ultimate tax they will pay - and we argue that each of these assumptions is unlikely to hold in the extreme - a spending tax can bear more steeply progressive rates with less cost in efficiency or social wealth than can an income or wage tax. A progressive spending tax also holds out the possibility of sorting the rich or high ability into two groups, elastic savers and inelastic spenders, which could yield welfare gains unavailable under income or wage taxes, which under current technologies can only sort the high ability into workers and non-workers. Progressive spending taxes also fall on consumption financed by windfall gains, as to which unexpected good fortune ex ante incentive effects are likely to be weak.
Most of the Article sets out analytic possibilities. In the final Section, we add a sketch of a welfarist and a fairness-based argument for progressive spending taxes, and conclude with a call for a major new research agenda.
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