Myths vs evidence: Tax cuts for the 10%

[From the Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(4)]

Do tax cuts targeted at different parts of the income distribution produce different effects in terms of employment growth? This is the question addressed in a new NBER paper by Owen Zidar, an economist at Chicago (not known historically for progressive analysis). But the paper (ungated version; and slides) has had a good deal of US media coverage, largely because of the progressive tax implications.

Zidar 2015 fig5The main innovation of the paper is to overcome the scarcity of time series data by exploit US data on state-level income distributions, which differ widely, in order to view each state-year response to a national tax policy change as a separate observation.

The main result is not, intuitively, surprising: but it is not a question that has been commonly posed, nor this well answered before. The result is that tax cuts are least likely to generate benefits when targeted to the top 10% of households; and most likely to generate benefits when targeted to the bottom 90% – or as in figure 5, the bottom 50%.

Overall, tax cuts for the bottom 90% tend to result in more output, employment, consumption and investment growth than equivalently sized cuts for the top 10% over a business cycle frequency.

Why would we ever cut taxes for the top 10% as a stimulus, I hear you ask? Because they’re in charge, say the cynics. Or perhaps because policymakers and/or the public have bought a series of economic myths. Like:

  • the top 10% drive the economy;
  • the top 10%’s economic decisions respond strongly to marginal incentives rather than broader factors like aggregate demand, or the availability of sound infrastructure and a healthy, well-educated workforce; so
  • progressive taxation is bad for growth, and ultimately bad for the poor as well as the rich.

One fairly clear implication of the findings is: the opposite.

The employment growth impact of a tax change for the top 10% is impossible to distinguish from zero, so it follows that a revenue-neutral change in tax structure that deliberately reduces the Palma measure of inequality (that is, the ratio of incomes of the top 10% to the bottom 40%) will not only be progressive but will have the effect of increasing employment growth.

Zidar 2015 slide36