Who Pays a Sales Tax?

Economists and state legislators disagree about who pays a sales tax, the business ringing up the sale or the shopper handing over the cash.  Economists think that, if the legislators increase a sales tax rate, then the burden of the tax can fall on either party, depending on the nature of the market for the good being sold.

Model LinkWho Pays a Sales Tax?
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Printable PDF Exercises

The EconModel analysis of this issue has the following steps:

  • Draw the Diagram

Draw and explain the demand curve, the supply curve, and the supply curve plus tax.

  • Find the Equilibrium

Explain why the equilibrium quantity is where the demand curve intersects with the supply curve plus tax.

  • Who Pays a Sales Tax?

Show that sales tax is effectively split between the supplier and the purchaser. 

Something to Think About
Nominally, the employer and employee each pay one-half of the Social Security taxes associated with an employee.  Who really pays Social Security taxes?  Would it change the effective burden of a 6% sales tax if it were divided into two 3% taxes, one "paid by the purchaser" and one "paid by the merchant"?

  • Analyze the Slopes

Show that the split of the tax between the supplier and the purchaser depends on the slopes of the demand and supply curves.

  • Revenue Maximizing Tax

Find the tax rate that maximizes tax revenues.

  • The Laffer Curve

Show that tax revenues can actually increase when tax rates are cut.