Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Three books

Though I continue to careen from one task to the next, a bit like a human pinball equipped with word processor, I wanted to pause here to briefly mention and praise three books that have crossed my desk recently.

1) Bruce Bartlett, THE BENEFIT AND THE BURDEN: TAX REFORM, WHY WE NEED IT AND WHAT IT WILL TAKE - This is an excellent, wide-ranging guide to what matters about the U.S. federal income tax system, its history and problems, and where it might go next. Bartlett, who has been a favorite commentator of mine for many years, does a really excellent job of providing a lucid review that deserves (and I think will get) broad readership. Well-designed for citizens and voters without special expertise, but I could also imagine suggesting that students, say in an introductory Tax Policy class, dip into it, as they would learn a lot.

2) Edward J. McCaffery, THE OXFORD INTRODUCTIONS TO U.S. LAW: INCOME TAX LAW, EXPLORING THE CAPITAL-LABOR DIVIDE - Some guy named Shaviro is quoted on the back cover as saying the following: "This is a really excellent guide to the U.S. income tax that combines a powerful theoretical scaffolding with attention to important practical details. Ed McCaffery has the flair to explain clearly and entertainingly both the forest and the trees of our ill-functioning system. I will definitely recommend it to my students." On further review, let me re-endorse these comments. For my students in Tax I the next time I teach it (which will very likely be this fall), I will definitely be asking the bookstore to stock it as recommended reading, and perhaps even taking the view on my syllabus that the time has come to last to give it pride of place as recommended side reading, relative even to the Marvin Chirelstein "blue book" that has been rightly considered indispensable for so many decades (including back when I was a law student).

3) Stephen Leeb, RED ALERT: HOW CHINA'S GROWING PROSPERITY THREATENS THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE - This book is out of my area of expertise, and came to my attention through friends. The argument is that natural resource scarcity is a huge threat to the economic future of our country. China enters into the equation in a sense indirectly, on the view that (a) its rising prosperity means that it will be using far larger quantities of scarce and depleting natural resources (such as rare metals) than previously - just as the rise of the Chinese and Indian economies may affect global carbon emissions - and (b) that China, unlike the U.S., is farsightedly taking steps to ensure its own long-term access to these resources, which necessarily comes at the expense of others' access. Leeb argues that China's economic rise is likely to be sustainable, and that its government has been serious and capable in pursuing its population's long-term interest in material betterment. (This is not a conspiracy-theory book about the Chinese, although it does portray their government as surprisingly capable, perhaps a la Singapore on a much larger scale.) With enough terrible things to occupy us already - e.g., global warming, the threats of nuclear weapons dissemination and terrorism, the risk of more financial crises, the long-term U.S. fiscal gap , concerns about whether the U.S. political system is still able to function, etc. - it is hardly welcome to learn that we might have something else to worry about as well. But Leeb makes a serious case that deserves attention, in particular from people who are probably better situated than I am to offer their own judgments about the underlying issues. He makes a powerful and lucid case for his views.

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