A central assumption in public finance is that individuals optimize fully with respect to the incentives created by tax policies. In this paper, we test this assumption using two empirical strategies. First, we conducted an experiment at a grocery store where we posted tax-inclusive prices for 750 products subject to sales tax for a three week period. Using scanner data, we find that posting tax-inclusive prices reduced demand by roughly 8 percent among the treated products relative to control products and nearby control stores. Second, we find that state-level increases in excise taxes (which are included in posted prices) reduce aggregate alcohol consumption significantly more than increases in sales taxes (which are added at the register and hence less salient). Both sets of results indicate that tax salience affects behavioral responses. We propose a bounded rationality model to explain why salience matters, and show that it matches our evidence as well as several additional stylized facts. In the model, agents incur second-order (small) utility losses from ignoring some taxes, even though these taxes have first-order (large) effects on social welfare and government revenue. Using this theoretical framework, we develop elasticity-based formulas for the efficiency cost and incidence of commodity taxes when agents do not optimize fully.
A revised version of this paper with new theoretical results may be downloaded here: http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~chetty/papers/taxsalience_aer.pdf
This paper presents evidence that consumers underreact to taxes that are not salient and characterizes the welfare consequences of tax policies when agents make such optimization errors. The empirical evidence is based on two complementary strategies. First, we conducted an experiment at a grocery store posting tax inclusive prices for 750 products subject to sales tax for a three week period. Scanner data show that this intervention reduced demand for the treated products by 8 percent. Second, we find that state-level increases in excise taxes (which are included in posted prices) reduce alcohol consumption significantly more than increases in sales taxes (which are added at the register and are hence less salient). We develop simple, empirically implementable formulas for the incidence and efficiency costs of taxation that account for salience effects as well as other optimization errors. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the formulas imply that the economic incidence of a tax depends on its statutory incidence and that a tax can create deadweight loss even if it induces no change in demand. Our method of welfare analysis yields robust results because it does not require specification of a positive theory for why agents fail to optimize with respect to tax policies.
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