Taxation and inequality in the Americas: changing the fiscal contract?

Richard M. Bird (University of Toronto)
Eric M. Zolt (University of California, Los Angeles)

Times change. In the words of an old English ballad, some things seem to have “turned upside down” in recent years. Since 2000, Latin America has become less unequal, with lower levels of poverty and likely greater economic mobility (Lustig, Lopez-Calvo and Ortiz-Juarez 2012), assisted in part by more progressive fiscal policy (Mahon 2012). In contrast, the United States has become more unequal (Piketty and Saez 2003, 2013), while poverty has remained relatively constant (U.S. Census Bureau 2012), economic mobility has likely declined (Hungerford 2008), and tax and spending policies have become less effective in reducing inequality (Harris and Sammartino 2011).

This chapter examines whether the tide has really changed in Latin America or in the United States, and, if it has, what may lie ahead for these two regions of the Americas? Do recent events portend fortune or misery? Although the primary cause of the more equal income distribution in Latin America is probably the sharp increase in growth and employment following the challenging political and economic decade of the 1990s (Gasparini and Lustig 2011), fiscal policy played at least some role. Indeed, recent Latin American experience suggests that the pessimism prevalent since the 1970s about the extent to which taxation can affect income distribution has perhaps been misguided. Economic, social and political changes can and do give rise to new norms and power configurations, which sometimes result in important changes in the social and fiscal contract underlying governance structures.

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