Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Positive and Normative Judgments Implicit in U.S. Tax Policy, and the Costs of Unequal Growth and Recessions

by Benjamin B. Lockwood and Matthew Weinzierl

Abstract

Calculating the welfare implications of changes to economic policy or shocks to the economy requires economists to decide on a normative criterion. One way to make that decision is to elicit the relevant moral criteria from real-world policy choices, converting a normative decision into a positive inference exercise as in, for example, the recent surge of so-called "inverse-optimum" research. We find that capitalizing on the potential of this approach is not as straightforward as we might hope. We perform the inverse-optimum inference on U.S. tax policy from 1979 through 2010 and identify two broad explanations for its evolution. These explanations, however, either undermine the reliability of the inference exercise's conclusions or challenge conventional assumptions upon which economists routinely rely when performing welfare evaluations. We emphasize the need for better evidence on society's positive and normative judgments in order to resolve the questions these findings raise.

Keywords: Equality and Inequality; Taxation; Policy; Welfare or Wellbeing; Public Administration Industry; United States;

Citation:

Lockwood, Benjamin B., and Matthew Weinzierl. "Positive and Normative Judgments Implicit in U.S. Tax Policy, and the Costs of Unequal Growth and Recessions." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-119, June 2014. (Revised October 2014.)