Do Taxes Matter? Lessons From the 1980s

Joel Slemrod

NBER Working Paper No. 4008
Issued in March 1992
NBER Program(s):   PE

The response of the economy to two major -- although in important respects offsetting -- tax reforms has been much smaller than ardent supply-side revolutionaries expected, thus suggesting that a reassessment of the grounds for revolt is in order. This paper offers such a reassessment by first discussing how the evidence from the tax reforms of 1981 and 1986 reflects on our understanding of the response to taxation -- with particular reference to savings and capital gains realizations. I then reconstruct a 1992 view about how taxes affect behavior. A unifying theme is that the tax system does much more than alter the relative prices of real variables -- it also provides incentives to misreport income, restructure financial claims, time transactions, change the legal form of organization, and so on. For this reason, observed low tax elasticities of real variables may be due to either low elasticities of substitution or the fact that tax policy changes opportunity sets in complex ways. Disentangling these explanations requires an emphasis on the transaction-based nature of the tax system and the administration and enforcement of tax laws.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w4008

Published: American Economic Review, Volume 82, Number 2, pp. 250-6, May 1992 citation courtesy of

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