Optimal tax rate for top one per cent may be as high as 83%

Paper suggests cutting taxes may divert attention to wasteful bargaining

Via Daniel Elton, a new(ish) paper (pdf) by economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva makes the case for the optimal tax rate of the richest one per cent could be as high as 83 per cent.

The authors look at three possible ways in which top incomes respond to marginal tax rates.

The first is the "supply side" channel cited by Arthur Laffer when he developed his concept of the Laffer curve. Under this channel, marginal tax rates that are too high result in people doing less work than they otherwise would. Lower tax rates thus respond to more economic activity, and greater growth and higher tax revenue. Laffer's work was used by the Reagan administration to justify cutting the top rate in the US, from 70 per cent down to 28 per cent.

The second is the "tax avoidance" channel. This is the model cited by the Chancellor when he made the decision to cut the tax rate for top earners in Britain from 50 per cent to 45 per cent. The argument is that high tax rates increase tax avoidance, but the authors argue – in common with many of the Chancellors critics – that tax avoidance can be dealt with directly, writing that:

A better policy would be to first close loopholes so as to eliminate most tax avoidance opportunities and only then increase top tax rates.

The third is the "compensation bargaining" channel. The authors argue that:

While standard economic models assume that pay reflects productivity, there are strong reasons to be sceptical, especially at the top of the income distribution where the actual economic contribution of managers working in complex organisations is particularly difficult to measure.

As a result, top workers have ample opportunity to set their own pay, through bargaining harder or influencing compensation committees. The incentives for this economically wasteful activity are higher the lower tax rates are. Just as with the supply side model, tax cuts increase the wealth of the richest in society, but unlike that model they do not also increase growth; rather, the extra money for the rich comes from those poorer than them.

The authors, using their estimates of the elasticity of the various channels (that is, the magnitude of the effect), then calculate what the optimum rates would be. Under the first model, they find it to be roughly 57 per cent – 5 per cent higher than the top British tax rate is until the cut takes effect (National Insurance for top earners is 2per cent). Assessing the second model (Osborne's preferred argument), they find that the optimal tax rate would be 62 per cent, but argue that if the correct anti-avoidance and simplification measures were put in place, it would be 71 per cent.

The third model, however, outputs an optimal rate of 83 per cent. The authors still assume a minor supply-side effect, making up 40 per cent of the total elasticity, which is why it isn't higher. That is, they still assume that high tax rates will encourage the rich to work less, but they also assume that they will encourage the rich to put more of their effort into actual work, and less of it into "compensation bargaining".

How to decide between models one and three (the authors assume that once anti-avoidance measures are put in place, model two is the same as model one)? The former predicts that lower tax leads to more work, the latter that it merely leads to higher pay. As a result, tax cuts should be correlated with higher growth. Are they? Well, no:

As a result, the bargaining model can at least be said to be as realistic as the supply-side model; and if that's the case, the optimal top tax rate for most nations is likely to be far in excess of where it is set now.

For more, see the authors in the Boston Review, VoxEU, or their original paper (pdf).

Pictured: Laffer. No, wait, laughers. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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