Consumption Taxation Is Still Superior to Income Taxation

Article excerpt


   A. Basic Argument
   B. Qualifications


   A. Imperfections in the Credit Market
   B. Inadequate Insurance Markets
   C. Myopic Savings Behavior
   D. Savings as Signal of Ability


We appreciate the opportunity to comment on Dan Shaviro's important piece on how the permanent income hypothesis relates to tax policy. (1) In this piece, Shaviro points out that the arguments in favor of a consumption tax on the one hand, and income averaging on the other, raise significantly related issues. As far as we know, Shaviro is the first person writing in the legal literature to make this connection, and his insightful work is sure to inspire further explorations of the issue. (2)

Shaviro's basic claim is that the permanent income hypothesis is a central underpinning of both the arguments for income averaging and consumption taxation. Market or rationality imperfections that limit the permanent income hypothesis similarly weaken the case for income averaging and consumption taxation. In particular, Shaviro raises a number of important complexities regarding the choice between an income tax and a consumption tax that are related to how capital markets work and how individuals choose their consumption patterns. He claims that these complexities make the efficiency and distributional case for a consumption tax sufficiently nuanced and dependent on empirical assumptions that the choice of tax base is better made on administrative grounds. On administrative grounds, however, Shaviro strongly prefers a consumption tax, notwithstanding the title of his article.

We agree with three of the central points of Shaviro's argument: that more complex models of behavior are likely to weaken the strong conclusions one gets from simple models; that administrative concerns may well be dominant; and that a consumption tax remains the preferred tax base. Like Professor Shaviro, we think that additional research into administering consumption taxes should be given a high priority.

The fact that we are in broad agreement on these issues may surprise readers of his article. Shaviro writes that his analysis "refute[s] the conclusion of a recent leading article," and it is our article he cites. (3) The structure of his article is to cite our article for its presentation of the core argument in favor of a consumption tax, and then to critically discuss the assumptions on which that argument relies. The implication is that our article ignores these assumptions. In fact, the bulk of our article is devoted not to presenting the core argument in favor of a consumption tax, but to critically discussing the assumptions on which it relies. We discussed in detail no less than ten such assumptions and we concluded that "a complete, optimal tax analysis could produce exotic taxes that look like neither a pure consumption tax nor a pure income tax." (4) This conclusion is similar to the conclusion reached by Professor Shaviro.

In other respects, however, our papers and analyses differ. Shaviro's primary goal is to show the connections between the permanent income hypothesis, income averaging, and the consumption tax debate. A secondary goal is to show the divergence between an ideal welfarist tax and a consumption (or income) tax. Flaws in the consumption (or income) tax matter to him even if they don't clearly alter the relative merits of the consumption tax over the income tax.

Our paper focuses on the choice between an income tax and a consumption tax. We focus on this choice, rather than the possibility of exotic taxes suggested by some of the optimal tax literature, for two reasons. First, these are the two leading tax bases, and real world reforms will be aimed at moving the tax system toward one of those two bases. Second, relatively simple and transparent taxes reduce political economy problems, such as rent seeking, that more complex taxes create. …