Matthew C. Weinzierl
Associate Professor of Business Administration
Matt Weinzierl completed his PhD in economics at Harvard University in 2008 and is an Associate Professor in the Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on the optimal design of economic policy, in particular taxation. Prior to completing his doctoral studies, Professor Weinzierl served as the Staff Economist for Macroeconomics on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and worked in the New York office of McKinsey & Company, specializing in financial services.
Matt Weinzierl completed his PhD in economics at Harvard University in 2008 and is an Associate Professor in the Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School. Prior to his doctoral studies, Professor Weinzierl worked in the New York office of McKinsey & Company, specializing in financial services. From 2003 to 2004, he served as the Staff Economist for Macroeconomics on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Professor Weinzierl has written on a range of topics in optimal taxation and optimal economic policy more generally. His most recent projects, associated with the idea of Positive Optimal Tax Theory, focus on identifying and formalizing the goals for tax policy that hold sway among the public, political and economic leaders, and leading tax thinkers, and then characterizing the implications of using those objectives in the analysis of optimal taxation. In other work, he has explored the potential value of age-dependent taxation, the dynamic feedback effects of tax changes, the use of fiscal policy to counteract recessions, the proper price-indexing of Social Security, and the impact of differences in beliefs and tastes across individuals on optimal tax design. His research has been published in Review of Economic Studies, Journal of Public Economics, American Economic Journals: Economic Policy, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Journal of Economic Perspectives, and has been discussed in the Economist, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. In 2008, he was selected to participate in the Review of Economic Studies tour. He is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Professor Weinzierl is married to Coventry Edwards-Pitt, a wealth advisor. Their family lives in the western suburbs of Boston and spends its free time enjoying music, the outdoors, and ice cream.
Revisiting the Classical View of Benefit-Based Taxation
This paper explores how the persistently popular "classical" logic of benefit based taxation, in which an individual's benefit from public goods is tied to his or her income-earning ability, can be incorporated into modern optimal tax theory. If Lindahl's methods are applied to that view of benefits, first-best optimal policy can be characterized analytically as depending on a few potentially estimable statistics, in particular the coefficient of complementarity between public goods and innate talent. Constrained optimal policy with a Pareto-efficient objective that strikes a balance-controlled by a single parameterñbetween this principle and the familiar utilitarian criterion can be simulated using conventional constraints and methods. A wide range of optimal policy outcomes can result, including those consistent with existing policies. To the extent that such an objective reflects the mixed normative reasoning behind prevailing policies, this model may offer a useful approach to a positive optimal tax theory.
The Potential of Positive Optimal Taxation
At the heart of modern optimal tax research is the assumption that the objective of taxation is Utilitarian. I present new survey evidence that most people disagree with this assumption, preferring tax policies based at least in part on a classic alternative objective: the principle of Equal Sacrifice. I generalize the standard model to accommodate this preference for a mixed objective, proposing a method by which to make disparate criteria commensurable while respecting Pareto efficiency. Then, I show that optimal policy in this generalized model, calibrated to the survey evidence and U.S. microdata, quantitatively matches several features of existing tax policy that are incompatible in the conventional model but widely endorsed in reality, including the coexistence of substantial redistribution and limited tagging. Together, these findings demonstrate the potential of a positive theory of optimal taxation.
The Roots of Our Tax Debates
Our fiscal debates are endlessly frustrating. The outlines of a compromise seem clear, yet both sides remain incapable of agreement. But is the proper balance between spending less and taxing more really so obvious? A look at what underlies the political wars over taxes reveals that the nation is not merely arguing about budgets: Americans are trying to reconcile deeply held, and often contradictory, beliefs about why we tax.
Why Do We Tax?
There is a mismatch between what many scholars assume is the purpose of taxes and what most people believe for themselves. That mismatch means that the advice experts offer to policymakers and citizens debating tax policy can sometimes seem to miss the point. We could all benefit from fixing this gap.
In this Q&A with HBS Working Knowledge, Prof. Weinzierl discusses his new research that updates the theory of taxation so that its predictions better match what we see in real-world policy.