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Summary

A Simpler Theory of Optimal Capital Taxation
Author(s):
Emmanuel Saez, University of California, Berkeley and NBER
Stefanie Stantcheva, Harvard University and NBER
Summary:

This paper develops a theory of optimal capital taxation that expresses optimal tax formulas in sufficient statistics following the methodology of optimal labor income taxation. Saez and Stantcheva first consider a simple model with utility functions linear in consumption and featuring heterogeneous utility for wealth. In this case, there are no transitional dynamics, the steady-state is reached immediately and has finite elasticities of capital with respect to the net-of-tax rate. This allows for a simple and transparent optimal tax analysis with formulas expressed in terms of empirical elasticities and social preferences (as in the optimal labor income tax theory). These formulas have the advantage of being easily taken to the data to simulate optimal taxes, which the researchers do using U.S. tax return data on labor and capital incomes. Second, they show how these results can be extended to a much broader class of utility functions and models. The same types of formulas carry over.

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In addition to the conference paper, the research was distributed as NBER Working Paper w22664, which may be a more recent version.

Measuring Ex-Ante Welfare in Insurance Markets
Author(s):
Nathaniel Hendren, Harvard University and NBER
Summary:

Insurance has value by insuring against the realization of risk. Adverse selection occurs when a portion of this risk is already known at the time of contracting. This suggests demand estimates in adversely selected markets tend to understate the ex-ante willingness to pay for insurance. This paper provides new reduced-form methods to infer the ex-ante value of insurance from observed demand and cost curve estimates in markets with adverse selection. The slope of the demand and cost curves measure the quantity of information revealed; by combining with internal or external measures of risk aversion, one obtains ex-ante measures of willingness to pay. Applying the model to existing estimates in health and unemployment insurance contexts, Hendren shows an ex-ante welfare perspective can generate different conclusions about the optimal size of an insurance market, the size and desirability of insurance subsidies, and the desirability of mandates relative to competitive markets. The framework also provides guidance on optimal open-enrollment periods and characterizes when it is optimal to prefer contracting in the presence of adverse selection as opposed to behind the veil of ignorance. In general, policies that are optimal from an ex-ante perspective involve deadweight loss.

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In addition to the conference paper, the research was distributed as NBER Working Paper w24470, which may be a more recent version.

Mirrlees meets Diamond-Mirrlees: Simplifying Nonlinear Income Taxation
Author(s):
Florian Scheuer, University of Zurich
Iván Werning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NBER
Summary:

Scheuer and Werning show that the Diamond and Mirrlees (1971) linear tax model contains the Mirrlees (1971) nonlinear tax model as a special case. In this sense, the Mirrlees model is an application of Diamond-Mirrlees. The researchers also derive the optimal tax formula in Mirrlees from the Diamond-Mirrlees formula. In the Mirrlees model, the relevant compensated crossprice elasticities are zero, providing a situation where an inverse elasticity rule holds. The researchers provide four extensions that illustrate the power and ease of their approach, based on Diamond-Mirrlees, to study nonlinear taxation. First, they consider annual taxation in a lifecycle context. Second, they include human capital investments. Third, they incorporate more general forms of heterogeneity into the basic Mirrlees model. Fourth, they consider an extensive margin labor force participation decision, alongside the intensive margin choice. In all these cases, the relevant optimality condition is easily obtained as an application of the general Diamond-Mirrlees tax formula.

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Health Care Spending and Utilization in Public and Private Medicare
Author(s):
Vilsa Curto, Harvard University
Liran Einav, Stanford University and NBER
Amy Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NBER
Jonathan D. Levin, Stanford University and NBER
Jay Bhattacharya, Stanford University and NBER
Summary:

Curto, Einav, Finkelstein, Levin, and Bhattacharya compare healthcare spending in public and private Medicare using newly available private claims data from Medicare Advantage (MA) insurers. The researchers find that health care spending is 27 percent lower in MA than for individuals in the same county and same risk score enrolled in public, traditional Medicare (TM). Spending differences between MA and TM are similar across sub-populations of enrollees and subcategories of care. They primarily reflect differences in health care utilization. Average prices for an admission to a given hospital for a given diagnosis are virtually identical in MA and TM. The researchers present evidence consistent with MA employing various types of utilization management and encouraging substitution to relatively less expensive modes of care, such as use of primary care instead of specialists, and outpatient rather than inpatient surgery. Geographic variation in healthcare spending is larger in MA than in TM, although geographic variation in hospital prices is lower in MA than in TM.

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Popular Acceptance of Inequality due to Brute Luck and Support for Classical Benefit-Based Taxation
Author(s):
Matthew C. Weinzierl, Harvard University and NBER
Summary:

Weinzierl studies how U.S. survey respondents’ views on distributive justice are shown to differ in two specific, related ways from what is conventionally assumed in modern optimal tax research. A large share of respondents, and in some cases a large majority, resist the full equalization of inequality due to brute luck that standard analyses would recommend. Related, a similar share prefer a classical benefit-based logic for the assignment of taxes over the conventional logic of diminishing marginal social welfare. Moreover, these two views are linked: respondents who more strongly resist equalization are more likely to prefer the classical benefit-based principle. Together, these results suggest that a large share of the American public views the allocation of pre-tax incomes as relevant to optimal tax policy and—at least in part—justly deserved unless proven otherwise, judgments that are inconsistent with standard welfarist objectives.

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Attention Variation and Welfare: Theory and Evidence from a Tax Salience Experiment
Author(s):
Dmitry Taubinsky, University of California, Berkeley and NBER
Alex Rees-Jones, University of Pennsylvania and NBER
Summary:

This paper shows that accounting for variation in mistakes can be crucial for welfare analysis. Focusing on consumer underreaction to not-fully-salient sales taxes, Taubinsky and Rees-Jones show theoretically that the efficiency costs of taxation are amplified by 1) individual differences in underreaction and 2) the degree to which attention is increasing with the size of the tax rate. To empirically assess the importance of these issues, the researchers implement an online shopping experiment in which 2,998 consumers — matching the U.S. adult population on key demographics — purchase common household products, facing tax rates that vary in size and salience. The researchers find that: 1) there are significant individual differences in underreaction to taxes. Accounting for this heterogeneity increases the efficiency cost of taxation estimates by at least 200%, as compared to estimates generated from a representative agent model. 2) Tripling existing sales tax rates roughly doubles consumers’ attention to taxes. The results provide new insights into the mechanisms and determinants of boundedly rational processing of not-fully-salient incentives, and the researchers' general approach provides a framework for robust behavioral welfare analysis.

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In addition to the conference paper, the research was distributed as NBER Working Paper w22545, which may be a more recent version.

Dynamic Analysis, Welfare, and Implications for Tax Reform
Author(s):
Jason Furman, Harvard University
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Optimal Illiquidity
Author(s):
John Beshears, Harvard University and NBER
James J. Choi, Yale University and NBER
Christopher Clayton, Yale University
Christopher Harris, Cambridge University
David Laibson, Harvard University and NBER
Brigitte C. Madrian, Brigham Young University and NBER
Summary:

Beshears, Choi, Clayton, Harris, Laibson, and Madrian calculate the socially optimal level of illiquidity in a stylized retirement savings system. They solve the planner’s problem in an economy in which time-inconsistent households face a tradeoff between commitment and flexibility (Amador, Werning and Angeletos, 2006). The researchers assume that the planner can set up multiple accounts for households: a perfectly liquid account and/or partially illiquid retirement savings accounts with early withdrawal penalties. Revenue from penalties is collected by the government and redistributed through the tax system. The researchers solve for the socially optimal values of these penalties, and the socially optimal allocations to these accounts. When agents have heterogeneous present-biased preferences, the socially optimal system has three accounts: (i) a liquid account, (ii) an account with an early withdrawal penalty of about 100%, and (iii) an account with an early withdrawal penalty of about 10%. With heterogeneous preferences, the socially optimal retirement savings system in our stylized model looks surprisingly like the existing U.S. system: (i) a liquid account, (ii) an illiquid Social Security account (and defined benefit pensions), and (iii) a 401(k)/IRA account with a 10% penalty. The socially optimal allocations to these accounts and the predicted equilibrium flows of early withdrawals — “leakage” — also match the U.S. system.

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In addition to the conference paper, the research was distributed as NBER Working Paper w27459, which may be a more recent version.

The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility in the U.S.
Author(s):
Raj Chetty, Harvard University and NBER
David Grusky, Stanford University
Maximilian Hell, Stanford University
Nathaniel Hendren, Harvard University and NBER
Robert Manduca, Harvard University
Jimmy Narang, University of California at Berkeley
The Out of State Tuition Distortion
Author(s):
Brian G. Knight, Brown University and NBER
Nathan M. Schiff, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics
Summary:

Public universities in the United States typically charge much higher tuition to non-residents. Perhaps due, at least in part, to these differences in tuition, roughly 75 percent of students nationwide attend in-state institutions. While distinguishing between residents and non-residents is consistent with welfare maximization by state governments, it may lead to economic inefficiencies from a national perspective, with potential welfare gains associated with reducing the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition. Knight and Schiff first formalize this idea in a simple model. While a social planner maximizing national welfare does not distinguish between residents and non-residents, state governments set higher tuition for non-residents. The welfare gains from reducing this tuition gap can be characterized by a sufficient statistic relating out-of-state enrollment to the tuition gap. The researchers then estimate this sufficient statistic via a border discontinuity design using data on the geographic distribution of student residences by institution.

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