Monday, May 24, 2010

Rumble in the jungle?

Muhammad Ali famously dubbed his 1974 heavyweight championship fight with George Foreman the "Rumble in the Jungle."

I, by contrast, am participating later this week in the "Showdown in the Medieval University Town." This Wednesday night I take the red eye to Brussels, Belgium. Then a train the next morning will bring me to Leuven, home of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which was founded in 1425 and remains one of Europe's premier research universities. This year (May 27-29) it is the site of the European Association of Tax Law Professors (EATLP) 2010 Annual Congress.

The main festivities will be on Friday, May 28, with a number of sessions addressing tax law retroactivity in one setting or another (e.g., ECJ Judgments, different kinds of statutes). The format for each session is to have a "thesis" introduced, supported by one speaker for a period of time, then opposed by another, followed by general debate.

My panel is the final one, "Retroactivity in Law and Economics," which I take to mean welfare economics with some reference to the so-called new view from work by Graetz, Kaplow, myself, and others in similar spirit. I have 25 minutes to speak in favor of the thesis, which after multi-party negotiations states as follows: "When disadvantageous changes in tax rules are introduced, taxpayers should not receive transition relief."

I will interpret this as meaning that taxpayers should not generally, as a matter of right, etc., be offered grandfathering, since obviously no general rule would be correct in all cases. More specifically, I view the thesis as rejecting the conventional counter-thesis, which holds: "When a tax preference is repealed, existing assets or asset-holders generally should get transition relief (such as grandfathering)."

Once I'm done, Charlotte Crane gets 15 minutes to oppose the thesis I'm defending, after which there's general debate in the room. If I am right about the audience's general stance on retroactivity issues, I will unfortunately (for me) be cast in the George Foreman role, not as Ali. I will try to smile gamely as shouts of "Crane, bomaye" sweep the arena.

At the end, there's an audience vote, pro and con, on the thesis. But there will also have been an audience vote at the beginning. Thus, my preferred strategy of being able to shrug off defeat on the ground that the audience was predisposed the other way (and that I would have won, say, at ALEA) will be unavailing if my vote totals get worse during the 90 minutes.

Basic outlines of our arguments, presumably to be distributed to the audience before the session, can be viewed here.