Category: Tax Policy (page 1 of 2)

It was an (im)perfect illusion: Fiscal Illusion and You

Fiscal illusion, sounds catchy doesn’t it?  Does it sound more like something you would read about on an ophthalmology website than a blog on taxes?  Well, that is where you are wrong.  Fiscal illusion is a hypothesis surrounding the notion that citizens systematically misunderstand their true tax burdens and the benefits they receive from government-provided services. In other words, they do not understand how much they pay in taxes or the value of the services that government provides.

At the start of the last century, economist Amilcare Puviani hypothesized that the ruling class designs public tax and expenditure policies to minimize resistance from the dominated class. To do this, the ruling class intentionally overstates the benefits that the dominated class receives and tries to obscure the tax burden so that this dominated class will underestimate it. In democracies, this is usually born out when public officials try to make tax burdens appear lower than they actually are. Figure 1 shows what happens when citizens underestimate the cost of government and how much they pay for it.

As Figure 1 shows, if citizens are paying P1 for government and they know that P1 is their cost, then they demand X1 of services, landing them at point a.  However, if there is a fiscal illusion in place and they incorrectly believe that services cost P2, they will demand X2. Citizens believe they are on their demand curve at point c, but in reality they are off of their demand curve at point b.  Outcomes off the demand curve are suboptimal and inefficient.

Figure 1 – Fiscal illusion and demand for public services

Source: Wagner, 1976

Okay, so let’s translate that again.  Citizens think that their services cost less than they do.  Why does that matter?  Well, it matters because we consume more if it costs less-think groceries.  In this case, if we think government costs “P2” which is less than “P1” then we will demand more of it.  Think about this in practical terms.  If your government could add additional covered bus stops at a cost of $10,500 you may say let’s add four more.  However, if they really cost $17,000 you would likely add fewer and may not add any at all.  While citizens may not have an exact price in their mind, it is the same idea.  They do not understand the cost of government and leads to irrational and suboptimal preferences.

The literature generally finds that elected officials have in fact created, intentionally or not, fiscal illusions that cause citizens to underestimate their tax burdens and demand more public services than they would if they had a more accurate perception of their true cost. One primary cause of fiscal illusion is the high cost to citizens of compiling accurate information on their tax burdens and of government expenditures. This is especially true with less visible and indirect taxes; an oft-used example involves property taxes versus excise taxes. Property taxes are highly transparent. The amount that must be paid is clear, and citizens are able to easily understand their burden. In contrast, excise taxes (like gasoline taxes) are included in the cost of goods, and taxpayers may not know what portion of the price the tax constitutes or even that they are being taxed at all. Also, the overall expense of an excise tax is harder to track, as these taxes are paid over time in small increments.  This in part explains why property taxes are so much less popular than excise taxes, because people truly understand their burden.

Another contributing factor in fiscal illusion is that since a citizen’s tax burden is spread out through the entire year and over multiple tax instruments, it is difficult to keep track of the costs and therefore challenging to get a true sense of overall burdens. For example, today’s typical citizen pays income taxes (monthly/state and federal), sales taxes (daily/state, county, and municipal), excise taxes (weekly/federal and state), property taxes (annually/county, municipal, and school district), Social Security and Medicare (monthly/federal), and other taxes (e.g., inheritance taxes, user fees, license costs).

These underlying factors help to obscure the true tax burden of citizens and lead to an inefficiently high level of government expenditures. As a result of fiscal illusion, citizens pay more in taxes than they realize and would be willing to if the illusions did not exist. Tax burdens that are too high lead to excessive government expenditures.  This is why scholars offer fiscal illusion as an explanation for the dramatic expansion of the public sector during the twentieth century.

The disturbing trends identified by academics who study fiscal illusion are echoed by public opinion.  Despite there being more data available to citizens today on government activities than at any other period in history, trust in government is nonetheless at a record low (19 percent), while citizens increasingly believe that their government spends too much (76 percent) and that the tax system needs a major overhaul (72 percent). Results like these suggest that government is systematically providing a level of services that is not in keeping with citizens’ preferences. But while numerous tax policies and structures currently in place create and exacerbate fiscal illusion, there are actions that citizens and elected officials can take to improve the situation. 

What to do? Over the long run, lawmakers may attempt to reduce the amount of fiscal illusion by simplifying the tax code, reducing deductions and exemptions, relying on more visible tax instruments, and mandating that different levels of government use particular sets of tax instruments. Not all of these actions are politically or economically feasible, however, and each would take time to implement. In the meanwhile, increasing transparency by providing citizens with information on governmental operations, policies, and management is a critical step toward rebuilding trust and promoting an efficient level of government. To be transparent, government must inform citizens as to (1) the scope of its services, (2) the reasons it provides those services and what their benefits are, and (3) how much those services cost and how they are financed. Such knowledge allows citizens to make well-informed decisions about their desired level of taxes and services.

Transparency and citizen education are not simple tasks, and there are no universal solutions. It is clear that merely “dumping data” will no longer suffice, and as a result governments are experimenting with better ways to relay information and engage taxpayers. Citizen academiestaxpayer receipts, partnerships with Code for America, and interactive tools like Budget Hero, are innovative examples of attempts at citizen engagement in an age where citizens appear averse to fiscal issues and fiscal illusions are pervasive in modern American tax policy and law. Continued development of such tools will go a long way in changing citizens’ views about the benefits and costs of their governments’ approach to taxes and services.

This article is based on the paper, ‘Fiscal Illusion in State and Local Finances: A Hindrance to Transparency‘, in State and Local Government Review and portions of it are taken from A lack of transparency is leading to a fiscal illusion where citizens underestimate their tax burdens and the cost of government that was written for the London School of Economics’ American Politics and Policies blog.

Communicating and Sharing Information

As this year’s North Carolina Association of Assessing Officers (NCAAO) President, I’ve tried to make good communication one of my priorities. Across North Carolina, we have received appeals from common taxpayers. There are a lot of them. We can call them multi-jurisdiction taxpayers and define them as individual taxpayers with real and personal property in more than one jurisdiction. It only makes sense for that taxpayer to keep track of how each of us responds to appeals. Which of us concede easily? Which of us have accurate data and can defend our values? Are there any counties that do not have the financial or other resources available to defend values? We know they care about keeping track of us because when those appellants contact us, they’ll let us know right away, “You do know that Durake County dropped their value to $47 per sq ft and New Catamance dropped their value to $52 per sq ft. Don’t you think $90 is a little high”? So to this end, we’ve established a Data Sharing Committee to research the best way we can share information before we get that appeal. Wouldn’t it be better for the counties at $47 per square ft to know other counties are much higher, and why? Wouldn’t it be better for our commercial appraisers to have a contact person in each county to talk with about the numbers, techniques, and resources? This certainly isn’t a game, we’re targeting fairness and equity, not “winning”. But we believe this is a way for our employees to be more proactive instead of feeling like we’re playing defense. If you would like to learn more about the Data Sharing Committee, please contact one of the committee members. A list of committee members can be found on our website here.

Another communication focal point needs to be PTAX. PTAX has been one of our best communication tools since our tax offices, in whole, began widespread use of email. Joe Hunt and his resources at the School of Government introduced us to the idea of the PTAX listserv in 1999, so we’re getting close to 20 years using this same tool that allows one person’s idea or question to be shared with over 1,700 members with the click of a button. At times, either the School of Government or the NCAAO have needed to pull the reins back on PTAX usage. We’ve seen nice poetry and inspirational messages, and we’ve sometimes seen less than kind comments about legislative ideas. All of those things may have a place, but it’s not PTAX. Our NCAAO and NCTCA Legislative Committees and the NCDOR work hard to keep healthy lines of communication in place with legislators and the NC Association of County Commissioners. PTAX isn’t a forum for grumbling. When the send button is pressed, it becomes a public record. If we review the official description of PTAX, it’s technically for assessors and collectors to communicate with each other, but the list is open to all property tax officials, their staffs, and members of the NCAAO and NCTCA. But obviously resources for commercial appraiser and delinquent collector discussions are important too. We’re thinking we need to narrow the focus when using a “PTAX-type” communication tool. So to that end, we’ve already created a listserv limited in membership to the 100 appointed assessors, the NCDOR, and the SOG. It is called The stated purpose is to create a forum to discuss management level assessment issues open only to the appointed assessor in each county, the School of Government, and North Carolina Department of Revenue. If you are one of the 100 assessors, you’re already a member. Instructions will be sent soon. The creation of a listserv only for appointed collectors is also in the works. While doing this, it’s worth mentioning whether the SOG needs to be involved in the listserv management business anymore, or even if listservs are in our future. Kirk Boone at the SOG has volunteered to be the assessor listserv manager for now, but is it necessary? A listserv list can be managed from a number of web-based email providers for free. And, regardless of where a listserv is managed, it’s still a public record. If an email is made or received in connection with the transaction of public business, it is a public record. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a private server or sent from a private email address.

So what about the future of “ptax-type” communication for all of us? I’m talking from assessors, appraisers, and data collectors to the appointed collector and delinquent collection clerks. Certainly individual listservs are easy and free and we can do it ourselves. But there’s one more new resource out there that has been well received and it completely replaced the NC Finance Officers listserv. It’s called NC Finance Connect,

NC Finance Connect was launched around the beginning of 2017 in response to the vision of School of Government faculty and due to the 1,400-member finance officers listserv sometimes overloading email inboxes with questions and comments not directly related to their specific area. Members also found it difficult to find previously posted discussions and documents. Sound familiar? NC Finance Connect attempts to limit these problems, narrow discussions, plus add new features. There are already property tax discussion topics and I understand from the SOG that other categories can be created. We’ll need to go slow with this tool. There is a learning curve. But check it out. Could this replace PTAX and other listservs?

I hope all readers will continue to communicate, and even increase communication, about assessment and collection. We have some of the best tools ever to do this among jurisdictions. But please don’t forget to communicate internally first. Go to your supervisor. If you are the supervisor, go to the assessor or collector. If you are the assessor or collector, consider asking a colleague from another jurisdiction whether it would be appropriate on PTAX. If any of you need answers to assessment and collection questions, there should be a resource there in your jurisdiction to help. Let’s use PTAX with care and restraint. If there’s any thought about whether a PTAX post might be improper, slow down first. Proceed with caution. But please know that your question or comment is important. Let’s all work together to find the best forum for it.

Appraisal and Reappraisal. Just Do It?

In late 2014, just after joining the SOG, the NCDOR included me in the initial discussions among assessors about North Carolina’s reappraisal standards. This blog post includes some of the thoughts and questions that I shared with the group at that time. Please keep in mind that this post is written informally, from my perspective during late 2014. I was discussing with the committee, mainly through emails, whether the assessment system our taxpayers deserve was being delivered. On the other side of an inadequate reappraisal, I wasn’t sure our lawmakers in Raleigh would accept an excuse of, “We weren’t given the needed resources”.  I’ll refer again back to this related blog post on ways to request what is needed.

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Are you a Tax Administrator or a Tax Supervisor? Of course you aren’t

Try this online exercise. Go to Chapter 105 of the North Carolina General Statutes. Here’s a link. Once there, most browsers will allow a search feature. A common way to search in many software applications is to press the <Ctrl> key +F. Now search all of Chapter 105 for “tax administrator”. It doesn’t exist. But there are lots of tax administrators in North Carolina, right? Now search all of Chapter 105 for “tax supervisor”. The tax supervisor is referenced 9 times in the Machinery Act. And if you read the context of those references, there are a few important roles involved there. How many counties have a tax supervisor to fulfill these roles?


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Senate Bill 126: You down with this SB? Yeah, you know me… So you know that it is complicated.

There has been a great deal of interest in the distribution of local sales tax revenue in North Carolina in the past few years.  I will admit that as a scholar of local sales tax policy and effects, it has been an interesting time to be in the state (and made me much more popular!).  Not surprisingly, I have been having a lot of conversations with people across the state about SB 126, so I thought I would put some of my thoughts down on proverbial paper.

First things first, over the past few years there have been proposals and changes to the distribution of local sales taxes.  Some of you may recall there was even talk of making all distributions on a per capita basis rather than a mix of per capita and point-of-distribution (for more on local sales taxes please see this, this, this, and this).  While we have seen quite a bit of activity, with particular goals in mind, this tinkering with distribution is nothing new to North Carolina.  Our local sales taxes, or what are commonly referred to as “Articles”, have been adjusted numerous times by eliminating particular Articles, introducing new ones, earmarking revenue from them, or even changing the distribution of revenue (more of the local sales tax revenue was distributed on a per capita basis in the past than is now!).

So why are we tinkering with them now?  Well, I will not say what is motivating our elected officials, but it is likely the concern over the revenue raising capacity, or lack thereof, of our rural communities in the state.  As with the previous proposals in recent years, and what we have actually changed, SB 126 primarily benefits our rural jurisdictions.  The concern is that it benefits our rural jurisdictions at the expense of our urban ones.

What are we actually talking about?

Well we are talking about changing the existing adjustment factors for Article 40 which were in place as a hold harmless from previous changes to that sales tax base to a different set of adjustment factors.  While this may not sound dramatic, it is for some jurisdictions.  Let’s talk about it from a county-wide perspective (so some of this revenue is the county’s and some is the municipalities within the county).  The proposed adjustment factor is not a reinvention, but instead using the area development tiers which have three levels; 0.9, 1.0, and 1.1.  The current adjustment factors give extra revenue to the counties with the greatest capacity for generating revenue, because it was a hold harmless.  These tiers are essentially/frequently the opposite of that, so in most cases if you have a high adjustment factor under the current system you are looking at a substantial decrease and vice versa. For example, Columbus County would benefit tremendously with a change in their adjustment factor of 0.29.  They currently receive 81.3% of the Article 40 revenue generated in their county and under the new system they would receive 110%.  On the flipside, Dare County will have a change in their adjustment factor of 0.49.  They currently receive 149% of the revenue generated in their county by Article 40 and would instead receive 100%.  My home county of Orange would go from 115.3% to 90%.  These are, in many cases, substantial changes.

In some cases these percentages may seem more extreme than they are and in other cases, perhaps less.  So in Orange County, using the county-wide numbers for FY16 that 25% percent change is a loss in revenue of just under $2.4 million.  For Dare County, which would experience a loss of 49% it is just under $1.2 million.  The gain for Columbus County, with its additional 29% is just over $1.1 million.  In contrast there are counties like Tyrell which would receive, county-wide, about $30,000 more.  And then there are Wake and Durham, which would have reductions of 24% and 6% respectively, and lose $4.8 and $4.2 million each.  ***These numbers are low estimates because of remaining Article 40 funds that would like be distributed in the same manner.***

Are other states doing this?

No not really, though that does not mean much.  Local sales tax laws vary tremendously from state to state and the issue of fairness or equity with regards to them is nothing new.  There are only three other states that, like North Carolina, distribute a portion of the local sales tax revenue on a per capita basis and there are other states where other local taxes are shared amongst jurisdictions.  Perhaps the most famous is Texas’s “Robin Hood” program which was just found to be constitutional again.  Robin Hood is probably what you imagine, redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.  In this case via school districts and property tax revenue.  Of course, the most common way that states redistribute wealth between jurisdictions is at the state level with state revenues.

From the urban or tourism rich county perspective.

Many of you are frustrated.  You feel like you are being penalized from being a growing, if not thriving, area.  You understand that you do not (typically) just have bags of money laying around and that being more urban or having a robust tourism industry comes with costs too.  Some of you are acutely aware that you have made choices about zoning and development to build up your sales tax base and this feels like you are now being penalized for that choice because you would not receive the local sales tax revenue that you had been expecting.

Urban/Tourism Rich perspective:

  • That urban and tourism rich communities have a lot of non-residents visit or work there. While this generates additional local sales tax dollars (and other benefits) it also comes with additional costs for roads, police, etc.  These communities have people using their goods and services that do not pay for them in the traditional avenue (property taxes).  Thus, local sales taxes allow you to capture some revenue from these non-residents and offset the costs of having them commute or visit.
  • These communities often have actively recruited zoned, incentivized businesses that add to their local sales tax base based on the assumption that the law would not change and they would receive the status quo share of revenue.

From the rural county perspective.

Many of you are also frustrated, you commonly have high property tax rates, often high utility rates, and no more ability to raise local sales taxes.  You feel like you are maxed out on the capacity side, and yet you still do not have enough revenue.  You look to your urban neighbors and watch your citizens go shop and spend their money in those counties.

Rural perspective:

  • Tax leakage. This is the most powerful argument about why we can or even should tinker with local sales tax distributions.  Tax leakage occurs when people travel outside of their jurisdiction to purchase goods and thus their sales tax dollars go to a jurisdiction other than their home jurisdiction.  It happens for many reasons like working in other jurisdictions or preferring the shopping options in another jurisdiction (typically because there are better and more options available).  When this occurs it is typically rural dollars leaking into urban areas, so is arguably the rural areas subsidizing their urban neighbors.
  • It is not just about sales taxes it is about revenue raising capacity. Many rural jurisdictions are losing population and wealth is migrating out of those areas, leaving the jurisdiction in a hard spot to provide mandatory and important services.
    • On a side note about this, we know from the income tax literature that the people that are most able to move (migrate) are the wealthy. So what we expect and observe is that the people left behind are the ones who cannot move either because of their job or their wealth.  Of course there are people who choose to stay, but there are others with fewer and more difficult options.

  • While for local budget and finance officers it is easy to just see the different revenue raising capacities of different counties across the state, it is important to remember that our urban and tourism rich counties doing well and being successful is advantageous to all of us because of state level taxation and expenditures. This is not an “us versus them” issue though it may feel that way at times.

  • Saving grace. I will also note that the fact that we tax food in North Carolina helps all counties generate stable local sales tax receipts and additional revenue.  It especially helps rural counties.  Your citizens may do their shopping in other counties, but they likely do their grocery shopping in your county.  Also, like I said it is the most stable part of the sales tax base and the least sensitive to income levels.  Of course, there are concerns about the fairness of taxing food from the citizen perspective.

Like I said there are no answers to be found in this week’s blog post, just more questions and considerations.  What are you all thinking about with regard to SB 126?  What other factors should be on this list?



Mirror, Mirror on the wall, How much revenue will we generate this fall?

Yup, you guessed it, today’s blog post is on revenue forecasting!  My current blog series is about some of the non-legal finance issues that are out there and revenue forecasting, while required by law, is a really important one!  There are many people that are involved with revenue forecasting in local governments. While many outside of government may just assume that there is some accountant or budget wonk sitting in a back room who is somehow magically able (or has some very scientific formula) to predict how much money is going to be coming in next year, we know better.

There are many reasons to forecast revenues including planning for the future (are we going to have enough money coming to support our expenditures in five years) and to balance this year’s budget, but in North Carolina local governments are also required by law to forecast revenues.  Our forecasted revenues set the parameters on the budget, they define how much we can spend this year and may cause policy choices on both the expenditure and finance side (like setting the property tax rate).

This is why it is explicitly required in the Local Government Budget and Fiscal Control Act or simply the Fiscal Control Act.  The Fiscal Control Act requires that the budget is balanced and that the estimated revenue for the following year, used to create the balanced budget, be reasonable, reliable, and justifiable.  The question is, how do we do that?

In this blog post I am going to discuss forecasting methods broadly, if this is something you are more interested in and you want more details (and math!) please see my chapter in the Introduction to Local Government Finance textbook.

First, of all what do we need to successfully forecast our revenues? We need: data, institutional insight, and judgement.  We need data on the revenues we have collected in the past, policy changes, changes to our tax base, and whatever else we think may be important to know about past revenues and future revenues.  For example, beyond just property tax collections it is important to have data on property tax rate changes, reassessment cycles, etc.

Data is foundational, but without institutional insight it would be easy to misinterpret that data.  Institutional insight and knowledge helps a forecaster know what data needs to be collected, what effect changes have had on your community, what population or demographic changes may be occurring, whether firms are entering or exiting, etc.  Institutional insight provides the context for the data.  In a course I was teaching, I had the opportunity to talk with a budget officer from Fayetteville and we were talking about unexpected shocks to budgets.  She mentioned how the federal government shut down that occurred in 2013 really hit them hard because of the importance of Fort Bragg to their community.  They were affected by the shutdown in ways that most jurisdictions outside of metro D.C. were not.  If you had no context and were looking at their revenue receipts for that period and comparing them to other jurisdictions you would not only be confused but you would also let that shock affect your forecast in inappropriate ways.

Lastly, you have to always use your judgement.  You need to make sense of the numbers, look at the trends, and not rely exclusively on the numbers spit out of models.  I sometimes refer to this as the “gut check.”  You can use real numbers and reasonable forecasting methods and get unrealistic forecasts.  There are a lot of reasons this may happen and we are going to discuss some of them below!

There are two main categories of forecasting methods: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative forecasting relies on expert judgement.  The experts can be internal (like budget directors) or external (like local economists).  This is extremely common and can be very reliable when the expert understands the revenue source, the economy, and the community.  Can’t decide on just one expert? You can also use a panel of experts who bring different knowledge and perspectives to the process.  This often means internal experts as well as economists, business owners, bankers, etc.  There are many strengths to qualitative forecasting such as it is typically low cost, straightforward, and not too data intensive.  ***Note: This does not mean that our experts do not use data though!***  However, it has its share of weaknesses too.  You need to identify the correct experts, it is not as transparent a process, and it is hard to avoid forecaster bias.  Forecaster bias comes in many shapes and sizes but an example of it is that your expert remembers last time there was a downturn and it took your community 5 years to get back to previous sales tax collections, never mind that the previous economic downturn was the Great Recession and the next downturn will likely (hopefully!) be much less dramatic.  Or they know that this new box store coming in is going to generate tons of revenue, they just know it!

Quantitative judgement relies on data very heavily and there are numerous ways it can be accomplished.  For some tax sources, like property taxes, they can be forecasted through formulas because you have all the data you need (like tax base, rate, and collection rate) to calculate it.  Unfortunately this information is not available for the majority of taxes and fees.  A common method of quantitative forecasting is trend analysis, where the forecaster uses previous collections (and the changes from year to year) to estimate future collections.  There are many ways to forecast using trends including applying the average growth over the period to the previous year’s revenue.  The issue you here is that trend analysis is always backward looking and will lag behind changes to the economy.

A final way that is more common in larger jurisdictions is causal modeling where not just previous revenue is used, but also other economic drivers.  The advantage is that it can be forward looking and it incorporates the “why” of changing revenue collections.  It requires a lot of data though and for most local governments that data is not available, at least not for the most recent time periods.  And when it comes to data you should always remember GIGO: Garbage in, Garbage out.

So how do we choose? Well resources are the first hurdle.  What capacity do you have on staff (not just skill set but time)? Do you have the money to hire consultants?  Do you have the data?  The second consideration is to think about the revenue being forecasted, you should not be using the same (quantitative) forecasting technique for all your revenue sources.  ***See the book chapter for more on this.*** The third consideration is what works on previous data?  I suggest you forecast for previous years using a few different methods.  You know what the actual revenue collections are, so you will be able to identify which quantitative methods work best for different revenue sources.

Final thoughts on revenue forecasting.

  • All forecasts are wrong. The goal is to minimize how wrong they are.
  • Be cautious, but not too cautious. It is prudent to air on the conservative side of forecasting but too conservative and you are either taxing people too much or you are missing opportunities by not budgeting your revenues.
  • Expert judgement should always be incorporated, even when doing quantitative forecasting. The gut check of “does this make sense” is valuable.  I suggest you graph your estimate against the previous years to eyeball your forecast to help inform that gut check.



Journey to Assessment Excellence

All great journeys start by asking three questions:

  1. Where do I want to go?
  2. What is my current location?
  3. What path do I need to take to arrive at my desired location?

In instructing IAAO and Excel classes throughout North Carolina, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many great assessment professionals. This article seeks to assist assessing professionals and assessing offices to chart their journey.  I hope you find this article helpful as you plan your journey to assessing excellence!

David Cornell, 2017: Journey to Assessment Excellence: Using the Assessor’s Maturity Curve Model as a Guide [PDF]

This article was published in the IAAO’s January edition of “Fair and Equitable”.

To Lower, or Not to Lower, That is the Question

Although there are no deaths to avenge in this story, it can be a tragedy to lower a  business personal assessment when it is not warranted. Reducing a value, is a de facto exemption. It is an expense to the county. Accounts (parcels) with the highest value in local governments are quite often business personal property accounts. When a BPP assessment is reduced without proper reason, it can create de facto classifications. This means your largest taxpayers could be assessed at a lower assessment ratio than the smallest residential taxpayers. That doesn’t sit well with me. There are certainly many variables to consider when faced with a request to lower an assessed value. Read on for this 5 act, I mean 5 question, blog post.

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Let’s play “Who’s Paying That Tax?”

In my last blog I talked about the limitations that we all have on decision making and how we satisfice and make decisions based on incomplete information.  That is all true, but it does not mean that we should not strive to have a more robust understanding of the landscape we are working in.  To that end, I am going to be devoting some of my blogs to topics that are both interesting and important to understand for those working in government, especially those in budget and finance positions.  This week: tax incidence!


Hopefully I have not lost you already.  Tax incidence is just the fancy way of saying “who pays the tax” or “who bears the burden of the tax.”  As you may have already guessed who pays and who bears the burden may not be the same person (or party).  These are actually the two types of tax incidence: statutory incidence and economic incidence.

Statutory incidence is determined by who actually remits the tax to the government or who pays the tax.

Economic incidence is who bears the burden of the tax or in econ-speak whose resources (money mostly) are affected by the tax.

So let’s use a quick example to make this a bit clearer.  Let’s look at property taxes.  Imagine you have a small home in your community that is owned by the Smiths and occupied by renters, the Baldwins.


The Smiths are the ones who write a check to the county every year for property taxes—so they bear the statutory incidence of the property tax.  Does that mean that they bear the burden of the tax though?  Not necessarily.  Under the right conditions the Smiths may be able to charge a high enough rent that they are pushing the burden of the tax onto the Baldwins. In that case the Baldwins may be bearing (or a portion of) the economic incidence.



Hopefully that makes intuitive sense to you.  For those of you who like visual aids (or graphs!) let’s go back to the microeconomics you took in school.

  This is the standard graph used to teach economic incidence (which I will just be referring to as incidence from now on).  What you can see is that the consumer is now paying more (the difference between P and P1) for the good and the producer is now receiving less money for the good (the difference between P and the lower line).  AND there is less of the good being consumed.

The pink and green rectangles are the tax revenue.  The pink rectangle is the portion of the tax paid by consumers (or in the example of property taxes the renter) and the green rectangle is the portion of the tax paid by producers (or in the example of property taxes the owner).  You can see that the incidence is shared by both groups.  This is the expected outcome for most goods.

***Note: the white triangle to the left of the tax burden (between the Q1 and Q lines) is what is called in econ-speak dead weight loss.  This means that the tax has created a loss for both consumer and producers that the government does not get in revenue.  This is bad and we want to minimize this loss as much as possible.***

However, it should not be assumed that most taxes are split evenly.  This goes to the idea of elasticity.  I am not talking about the importance of elasticity in your sweats after the holiday season is over, but instead the elasticity of the supply and demand of goods.  In normal (non-econ) speak this just means how sensitive you are to changes in price of a good.  ***Inelastic means less sensitive to changes in price and elastic means more sensitive to changes in price.***  So if consumers are very sensitive to the change in the price of the good then more of the burden will be shifted to the producer.  If the consumer is less sensitive to the price (i.e., they will buy it at similar rates even when it costs more) then more of the incidence will be passed to them.

Here you can see that the demand line (D) is more up and down.  This means that no matter the price most consumers that were going to buy it before the tax was imposed are still going to buy it.  Under this inelastic demand (not sensitive to price) consumers will end up paying more of the tax burden, thus the pink box is bigger.  In the property tax example, this may mean that there are a lot of people looking to rent a home and not buy.  So the Smiths can charge a higher amount because of the insensitive or inelastic demand for rental properties, leaving the Baldwins with higher rent.  The opposite would be true if there were a lot of rental properties and not many prospective renters.  Then renters/consumers would be sensitive to changes in price and property owners would be less sensitive and bear the larger portion of the tax incidence.

This issue of elasticity is the heart of tax incidence.  The question of who is most sensitive to price is what determines the incidence.  It is natural to ask “what if both groups are sensitive to price” is a fair question.  The answer is that the amount consumed of that good will drop a lot, not much tax revenue will be generated, and there will be a lot of dead weight loss.  The burden will still be greater on the more sensitive one though.  The flip side is what if neither party is sensitive to price?  Well then there will not be much dead weight loss (yay!) and as always the less sensitive party will bear greater burden.

So what if we want to tax one group (let’s call them Team A) more than another group (Team B)?  Well, then you have to find a good that Team A is less sensitive to changes in price than Team B.  This may be different in different jurisdictions.  It is not as simple as shifting the statutory incidence because it does not matter which side of the market you tax, the burden will end up on the same party either way.


There are almost no universal rules about who bears the burden for normal (typical) goods.  There are exceptions of course.  The classic being cigarettes.  Cigarettes are addictive and therefore the demand for them by the consumer is not very sensitive to changes in price.  Therefore the cigarette tax falls largely, if not completely, on consumers.



Are you thinking, well my community is going to depend on property taxes and it does not really matter if the burden is being passed on to renters or staying with property owners (or businesses/their employees).  Fair enough, but if you are living in a community and you believe that the burden is being passed on to one group, you may be able to change other fees and taxes to not disproportionately affect the same group.  It is also always valuable to understand how your taxes affect your citizens and if they affect different populations unequally.

In brief: What do you need to know about tax incidence?

  • That the person who remits the tax may not be the person who bears the burden of the tax.
  • The person who is least sensitive to changes in price is going to bear a greater portion of the tax burden.
  • The side of the market that the tax is imposed on (e.g., producer versus consumer) does not affect who bears the burden.




Planning for success (Part 2)

Last month, I started the discussion with Part 1 of this topic. Near the conclusion of Part 1, I hoped for some questions and what-ifs. I got ‘em, and I hope this month’s post will provide some insight.

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