Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Some motherly advice on deficit reduction

Posted by Rich Sweeney on May 20, 2008

Over on EconomistMom, Diane Lim Rogers notes that economists of all political and ideological stripes appear to support pricing carbon, which, by itself, amounts to increasing taxes. She then muses that part of the appeal comes from the fact that a carbon tax is an efficient tax, and the revenue could go towards alleviating other less efficient taxes. In particular, Rogers’ main interest is in deficit reduction. Now as I noted in the comments, it seems pretty unlikely (at least in my reading of the current political climate) that deficit reduction will garner much, if any, of America’s newly created carbon permit pie. My guess is that it’ll be eaten up by some combination of giveaways to industry (a la McCain), giveaways to the people (a la Boyce and Riddle), and spending on R&D (a la Joseph Romm). These three spending options all have obvious political constituencies, but it wasn’t obvious to me who the deficit reduction constituency is (except the unborn, who, for obvious reasons, don’t seem to carry much political clout). Nevertheless, deficit reduction is obviously a reasonable option, so I decided to check out the Brookings Paper Rogers links to.

Here’s is the comment I left for Diane after reading her paper, in which I show my ignorance of public finance,

I’m curious about the distributional implications of using this revenue to pay down our national debt. In your paper, you say, “Even if one interprets the benefits of deficit reduction as distributed broadly across the current population, i.e., as a fixed dollar amount of benefit to each American, this benefit will be progressive relative to income (a higher percentage of a lower income).”

But why would one interpret the benefits this way? Wouldn’t the benefit be proportional to each person’s share of future taxation? And given that wealthier Americans have higher average tax rates and pay taxes on a much larger ammount of income, it seems to me that reducing future tax burdens would be really regressive.

Diane replied,

Rich, there are debates on this—what is the burden of budget deficits across the income distribution? (It’s easy to figure out the intergenerational burden, not so easy to speculate on the inTRAgenerational burden among rich vs. poor.) Obviously it depends on what we think the form of the future burden will take–higher taxes or reduced government services, or some combination of both. The more it’s higher taxes, the more it depends on how we think taxes would be raised. If taxes would be raised proportionate to the current (progressive) federal tax distribution, then you’re right, that would be a more progressive change, so reducing the deficit and avoiding such future tax increases would be a regressive change. In my paper I was making the assumption that the future tax increases and/or benefit decreases associated with deficits would be distributed fairly evenly across the population, which would mean that relative to income, avoiding deficits would be a progressive change

So there you have it. I’m not surprised to hear that the distributional implications of deficit reduction are highly dependent on how you assume future tax increases were going to be financed. Given this, the real question I have is not “Under what assumptions is deficit reduction progressive?”, but instead, “What are the most realistic assumptions we can make about where future deficit driven tax increases/ decreases are likely to come from?” I know this is basically unanswerable, but any evidence (even anecdotal) or hypotheses would be welcome. I’m currently working on a paper analyzing the incidence of US climate policy, and it seems to me that this is the million dollar question when it comes to deficit reduction.

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