Department of Economics Research Reports

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Working Paper

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How does wealth taxation differ from capital income taxation? When the return on investment is equal across individuals, a well-known result is that the two tax systems are equivalent. Motivated by recent empirical evidence documenting persistent return heterogeneity, we revisit this question. With heterogeneity, the two tax systems typically have opposite implications for both efficiency and inequality. Under capital income taxation, entrepreneurs who are more productive and therefore generate more income pay higher taxes. Under wealth taxation, entrepreneurs who have similar wealth levels pay similar taxes regardless of their productivity, which expands the tax base, shifts the tax burden toward unproductive entrepreneurs, and raises the savings rate of productive ones. This reallocation increases aggregate productivity and output. In the simulated model parameterized to match the US data, replacing the capital income tax with a wealth tax in a revenue-neutral fashion delivers a significantly higher average welfare. Turning to optimal taxation, the optimal wealth tax (OWT) is positive and yields large welfare gains by raising efficiency and lowering inequality. In contrast, the optimal capital income tax (OKIT) is negative—a subsidy—and delivers lower welfare gains than OWT, owing to the welfare losses from higher inequality. Furthermore, when the transition path is considered, the gains from OKIT turn into significant welfare losses for existing cohorts, whereas OWT continues to deliver robust welfare gains. These results suggest that moderate wealth taxation may be a more appealing alternative than capital income taxation, which can be significantly more distorting under return heterogeneity than under the equal-returns assumption.

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