Saturday, November 21, 2015

On the road again

I'm currently en route back to NYC from the NTA Annual Meeting. I decided to go by Acela since airports can be so unpleasant. Using the Acela between New York and Boston isn't quite as much of a no-brainer as doing so between New York and Washington, because the trip is an hour longer, but perhaps still marginally worth it, especially what with free Wifi on board Acela trains these days.

Since I used the Boston Back Bay station, closest to the conference hotel, this did give me the delight of spending almost an hour in an unheated, open-air station, just what one wants in upper New England at this time of year.  But then again each Acela station seems to have some angles one needs to know about when using them.

For example, in Washington they post the tracks for each train well in advance, so people start lining up for the Acelas at least 45 minutes early. By contrast, at Penn Station in New York they deliberately don't tell you until the train is in the station and ready to board. So everyone mills around in NYC trying to figure out what the track will be, so they can be near the front of the line (admittedly a bit of a mania for me, even more so of course in airports where you're worried about the limited overhead space).

I'm always convinced that the people who use Acela more regularly than I do will be better at reading the cues, so I try to keep my eyes open and use the oldest social media form of all (aka, talking to people you see standing near you).  They change the tracks around so that the regulars won't know for sure. But you can watch the redcaps (except you don't want to line up for the Washington train if you're heading to Boston), ask people who are exiting the trains, and compare notes with the regulars. This time around I got to cheat - someone in first class had been told by the station people which track it was. I told her she should sell the information and this would pay for the cost difference between business class and first class. (I don't entirely understand, by the way, why people bother to get first class on the Acelas - doesn't seem to have as much payoff as in the intensely hierarchical airline setting.)

OK, onto the sessions a bit. I will post the slides for my 3 talks (one on my own paper, two on a total of four papers by friends in the biz) once I'm back at my office and can create a link on the NYU website. Because my time at the conference was shortened by teaching obligations on Thursday, plus also a couple of scheduling quirks at the conference, I didn't get to attend any panels at which papers were presented, with the exception of those where I was a participant. I skipped a big-data session that the organizers intended for everyone - maybe a good idea, I suppose, but certainly not as interesting to me as hearing 3 or 4 papers that I had gotten to choose among 8 or 9 alternatives. I also missed Alan Auerbach's presidential address (I suggested that he should pattern it after Nixon presidential speeches, since we are both among Nixon's diminishing stock of still-living "fans" in the ironic sense).  And I missed a lunch talk, I believe by Jim Poterba, that I would have expected to be quite interesting.

I did get to hear a lunch talk by Martin Feldstein, addressing why he thinks we should change tax policy in the ways that he thinks we should change it. The problem was, this was a speech that he could have (and probably has, on multiple occasions) delivered at a National Bankers Association conference or some such venue. Everyone in the room knew too much about many or all of the topics that he was addressing in abbreviated broad-brush overview for the things that he said, whether one agrees with them or not, to be particularly interesting.  Too bad he didn't tailor the talk to us more, but then again we all (me too) have time tradeoffs to think about.

The session honoring Bill Andrews had some nice highlights, but as I'm feeling grumpy I'll just say that it possibly, at times, could have done just a bit more than it did to (a) personalize the occasion to the honoree, and (b) explain in detail, to the (mainly) economists in the audience, just why this older-generation law professor, whom not all of them know much about, richly deserves this honor. Without meaning to slight any of the other presenters, I will say that David Weisbach did a great job of explaining just exactly what Bill contributed to the income versus consumption tax debate (within the historical context of earlier writers such as Nicholas Kaldor), and why Bill's contributions were extremely important and influential, even if not everyone remembers today what his role was in creating what is now general knowledge in at least some circles.

One nice thing about the NTA these days is the extent to which younger-generation (by my standards) tax law professors have adopted it as a regular venue.  It's become a significant setting both for internal networking within the tax law professoriate, and for their meeting and interacting with economists who have overlapping interests. Achieving this was a goal of the NTA leadership some years ago, and they have succeeded beyond expectations (or at least mine). I'd like to think I helped in this process, if only to the same degree as the mythical old lady who spits in the ocean, when it is getting a bit low, and explains what she has done by saying "Every little bit helps."

Lastly, just a quick follow-up to the comment in my previous post that this was almost my last out-of-town conference, etc., appearance of the year.  I was about to rush off to class (and then travel to Boston) when I put up the previous post, and all I meant to say was that I will be participating in an AEI panel on OECD-BEPS on December 18, as further described here.

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