NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

On the Optimal Progressivity of the Income Tax Code

Juan Carlos Conesa, Dirk Krueger

NBER Working Paper No. 11044
Issued in January 2005
NBER Program(s):   PE

This paper computes the optimal progressivity of the income tax code in a dynamic general equilibrium model with household heterogeneity in which uninsurable labor productivity risk gives rise to a nontrivial income and wealth distribution. A progressive tax system serves as a partial substitute for missing insurance markets and enhances an equal distribution of economic welfare. These beneficial effects of a progressive tax system have to be traded off against the efficiency loss arising from distorting endogenous labor supply and capital accumulation decisions.

Using a utilitarian steady state social welfare criterion we find that the optimal US income tax is well approximated by a flat tax rate of 17.2% and a fixed deduction of about $9,400. The steady state welfare gains from a fundamental tax reform towards this tax system are equivalent to 1.7% higher consumption in each state of the world. An explicit computation of the transition path induced by a reform of the current towards the optimal tax system indicates that a majority of the population currently alive (roughly 62%) would experience welfare gains, suggesting that such fundamental income tax reform is not only desirable, but may also be politically feasible.

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Published: Conesa, Juan Carlos & Krueger, Dirk, 2006. "On the optimal progressivity of the income tax code," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(7), pages 1425-1450, October.

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