Wednesday, October 23, 2019

NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, week 8 - paper by Oei and Ring

Yesterday at the colloquium, Diane Ring presented her paper (coauthored with Shu-Yi Oei), Falling Short in the Data Age. This is not a tax paper as such, although it touches on tax topics, but grows out of the authors' interest in the rise of ubiquitous data that governments or firms can increasingly access and analyze, possibly in relation to their work, for example, on "leak-driven law" and on recent workplace shifts that are epitomized by the rise of Uber et al.

The particular angle they explore here is that technological shifts may reduce the "fall-short spaces" that people have long had as a practical matter. Here's an example that I find convenient for purposes of thinking about what they have in mind, although it isn't actually mentioned in the paper. In New York, jaywalking, while illegal, is the norm. This isn't rulelessness - there is a rule, although not everyone always follows it. The rule is that a red light is a yield sign. (I would say check-and-yield, but given how bicyclists operate in NYC you must always check in all directions even if the light is in your favor, and indeed even if you're crossing a one-way street in which no one is coming from the mandated direction.)

This is more than just a fall-short space, in the sense that New Yorkers jaywalk right in front of police who don't enforce the rule. But suppose that - at least in places where jaywalking violates norms as well as laws - there were facial recognition cameras at every corner, so that if you jaywalked you'd get a ticket, levying a fine, by mail (just as can happen when you go through a toll plaza without EZ Pass, & they photograph your license plate).

The issue that would arise then isn't (mainly) that people would be getting fined all the time. Rather, they would stop jaywalking, which would be somewhat good and somewhat bad. (The NYC norm for jaywalking is superior to the blind-obedience norm when properly executed by everyone, but it also invites greater, and potentially costly, errors in applying it.) Plus, we would have the other issues around cameras everywhere telling whomever had access to the footage where one was going all the time.

One could enrich this little example's capacity to stand in for the broader set of problems that the paper discusses by adding in discriminatory enforcement. E.g., suppose Attorney General Barr gets to decide who does and doesn't get a jaywalking ticket.

The paper has laudably broad ambitions, which combine devising a general compendium of issues and categories, with offering a couple of broad takeaways, e.g., (1) space to "fall short" of honoring all of the legal commands one faces is shrinking and this isn't all good, (2) more sophisticated and well-financed players will be especially well-equipped to take advantage of new high-data environments (although that's also likely to be true in other environments). I look forward to seeing the final version.

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