Laurence J. Kotlikoff is a William Fairfield Warren Professor at Boston University, a Professor of Economics at Boston University, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Econometric Society, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, President of Economic Security Planning, Inc., a company specializing in financial planning software, and the Director of the Tax Analysis Center. Professor Kotlikoff received his B.A. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and his Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University in 1977.
Each of us must decide how to build and invest our savings. People need to ensure that they have enough income and assets to maintain their living standard at a desired level through time. Traditional financial planning and portfolio management tools tend to focus on the tradeoff between expected returns and risk at a point in time. While these traditional tools provide important investing insights, we demonstrate that a more holistic life-cycle financial planning framework can help form better spending, saving and investment decisions and reduce living-standard risk through time.
This study combines the 2013 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances data and the Fiscal Analyzer, a highly detailed life-cycle consumption-smoothing program, to a) measure ultimate economic inequality – inequality in lifetime spending power – within cohorts, b) assess fiscal progressivity within cohorts, c) calculate marginal remaining lifetime net tax rates, taking into account all major federal and state tax and transfer policies, d) evaluate the ability of current income to correctly classify households as rich, middle class, and poor, e) determine whether current-year average net tax rates accurately capture actual fiscal progressivity, and f) determine whether current-year marginal tax rates on labor supply accurately capture actual remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates.
We find far less inequality in spending power than in wealth or labor earnings due to the fiscal system’s high degree of progressivity. But U.S. fiscal redistribution generally comes with very high work disincentives for households of all ages, regardless of income class. There is, however, substantial dispersion in marginal net tax rates, which seems hard to reconcile with standard norms of optimal taxation. We also find that current income is a very poor proxy for remaining lifetime resources and that current-year net tax rates can provide a highly distorted picture of true fiscal progressivity and work disincentives.