Thursday, April 12, 2007

Frank needs to read more widely

In today's NY Times, Robert Frank says there is little point to cutting marginal tax rates of high-income individuals:

Trickle-down theorists are quick to object that higher taxes would cause top earners to work less and take fewer risks, thereby stifling economic growth. In their familiar rhetorical flourish, they insist that a more progressive tax system would kill the geese that lay the golden eggs. On close examination, however, this claim is supported neither by economic theory nor by empirical evidence.
Apparently, Bob has not read this survey by Stiglitz and come to grips with this theoretical conclusion (from page 35 of the working paper):
Pareto efficient taxation requires that the marginal tax rate on the most able individual should be negative.
The reason for this conclusion is that a negative marginal tax rate on the most skilled worker induces him to work more, and if skilled and unskilled labor are complementary inputs, the wage for unskilled labor rises in general equilibrium.

Nor does it seem that Bob has read this empirical work by Gruber and Saez:

A central tax policy parameter that has recently received much attention, but about which there is substantial uncertainty, is the overall elasticity of taxable income. We provide new estimates of this elasticity...We estimate that this overall elasticity is primarily due to a very elastic response of taxable income for taxpayers who have incomes above $100,000 per year, who have an elasticity of 0.57, while for those with incomes below $100,000 per year the elasticity is less than one-third as large....We then derive optimal income tax structures using these elasticities. Our estimates suggest that the optimal system for most redistributional preferences consists of a large demogrant that is rapidly taxed away for low income taxpayers, with lower marginal rates at higher income levels.
Bob is perfectly free to believe whatever he likes and to advocate increasing the top marginal tax rate. But to suggest that there is neither theory nor evidence to support the beneficial effects of lower marginal tax rates on high-income taxpayers indicates a lack of appreciation of the academic literature in public finance.

Bob also makes this argument:
If lower real wages induce people to work shorter hours, then the opposite should be true when real wages increase. According to trickle-down theory, then, the cumulative effect of the last century’s sharp rise in real wages should have been a significant increase in hours worked. In fact, however, the workweek is much shorter now than in 1900.

This seems just wrong to me, if the goal is to analyze tax policy. When comparing work hours today versus a century ago, you have to consider both income and substitution effects of wages on labor supply, which are offsetting to a large degree. But, according to standard theory, the distortionary effect of taxes depends only on the substitution effect. The evidence cited suggests that income effects are larger than substitution effects, not that substitution effects are small.