The Flypaper Theory of Taxation

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

Here’s a very interesting post by Stephen Gordon on what seems like a dull subject, namely tax incidence:

One of the more important things that distinguishes economists from non-economists is a familiarity with the notion of tax incidence. The statutory incidence of a tax (who sends the cheque to the Receiver-General?) is usually very different from its economic incidence (who is out of pocket?).

The basic intuition is simple enough. We all understand that if the government chooses to impose a tax on gasoline retailers of $0.50 per litre, customers can expect to see a similar increase in gas prices. Even if the statutory incidence falls on the sellers, the economic incidence is borne by the consumers.

The question of who ultimately bears the burden of the tax is almost entirely separate from the question of statutory incidence. (There’s even a pejorative term – the ‘flypaper theory’ – for the claim that taxes stick to those who are first touched by it.) So what does determine the economic incidence of a tax?

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