Tax Policy and the Economy. (Conferences)

NBER Reporter, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Tax Policy and the Economy. (Conferences)


The NBER's Sixteenth Annual Conference on TAX POLICY and the Economy, organized by James M. Poterba of NBER and MIT, took place in Washington, D.C. on October 30. These papers were discussed:

Robert Moffitt, NBER and Johns Hopkins University, "The Economic Effects of Means-Tested Transfer Programs"

James J. Choi, Harvard University; David Laibson, NBER and Harvard University; Brigitte Madrian, NBER and University of Chicago; and Andrew Metrick, NBER and University of Pennsylvania, "Defined Contribution Pensions: Plan Rules, Participant Choices, and the Path of Least Resistance"

Jonathan Gruber, NBER and MIT, "Taxes and Health Insurance"

Charles E. McLure, Jr., NBER and Stanford University, "Thinking Straight About the Taxation of Electronic Commerce: Tax Principles, Compliance Problems, and Nexus"

Ryan Edwards and Ronald Lee, University of California at Berkeley, "The Fiscal Impact of Population Aging in the United States: Assessing the Uncertainties"

Martin S. Feldstein, NBER and Harvard University, and Andrew A. Samwick, NBER and Dartmouth College, "Potential Paths of Social Security Reform"

The system of means-tested transfers in the United States has evolved in important ways over the last decade: the Medicaid program and the Earned Income Tax Credit program have expanded significantly and the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, now titled the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, has contracted. Further, AFDC has undergone a significant restructuring, with an increased emphasis on work requirements. These trends, as well as others in earlier decades, represent a gradual movement toward a categorical transfer system in which specific low-income groups are offered different packages of benefits and services. This represents a decisive rejection of the negative income tax philosophy. Moffitt reviews the trends in the structure of the major means-tested programs and what economic research has to say about their effects on behavior.

Choi, Laibson, Madrian, and Metrick analyze a new micro-level dataset that contains a number of natural experiments on institutional variation in 401(k) plan rules. They measure the impact of 401(k) plan features, including investment defaults, rollovers, employer matching contributions, eligibility requirements, and financial education. They also present new survey evidence on savings adequacy. Their analysis identifies a key behavioral principle that should partially guide the design of 401(k) plans: employees often follow "the path of least resistance." For better or worse, plan administrators can manipulate the path of least resistance to powerfully influence the savings and investment choices of their employees.

Gruber lays Out a framework for researchers and policymakers to think about how tax policies might affect the level and distribution of health insurance coverage in the United States. He begins by reviewing the key relevant facts about health insurance policy. Then he discusses the central parameters that we need to know about in order to fully model both the impact of the existing tax subsidy and the effects of tax-based approaches to increasing insurance coverage in the United States. Next, he describes what we know about these parameters. Finally, Gruber considers the implications of the facts and our existing knowledge for the design of tax policy towards health insurance in the United States.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which imposes a moratorium on state and local taxes on Internet access and prohibits "multiple and discriminatory" state and local taxes on electronic commerce, has been extended until November 1, 2003. The debate on whether and how to tax electronic commerce has not ended, though. McLure notes that under an economically efficient sales tax, all sales to consumers would be taxed, all sales to business would be exempt, and sales by local merchants and by remote (out-of-state) vendors would be taxed equally. …

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