Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Another, much briefer, Ed Kleinbard tribute

Today at a Zoom conference I was asked to offer brief words about Ed Kleinbard. Not wanting to repeat myself entirely, I said approximately the following:

Ed was a great personal friend, but today I want to emphasize the professional side.

He became the most respected and admired practicing tax lawyer in America – but that wasn’t enough for him. He saw how much of the tax law is arbitrary and formalistic. But instead of concluding “Ah, it’s just a game,” he decided to change his career at age 55, which is incredibly brave, and not at all easy. It brings to mind Michael Jordan going to play baseball, except Ed succeeded.

He combined an incredible understanding of capital income taxation, including its international components, with a zeal for doing good in the world, through the use of logic and rigor. He was brilliant and boundlessly energetic, and made a number of major contributions. Just to name two: his work in bringing “stateless income” to wide public attention. And, his grossly under-appreciated work on the business enterprise income tax or BEIT, paired with dual income taxation.

He also has a book coming out next year with the Oxford University Press, called “What’s Luck Got to Do With It?” It’s about fairness, opportunity, and the importance of luck, but of course with a specific policy focus as well. I and others aim to make sure that it does come out as scheduled, although, given the projected publication date, it may not yet have been copy-edited.

As a mutual lawyer friend noted to me yesterday, Ed “didn’t suffer fools and mountebanks well.” Of course, you didn’t have to be one to get into a policy argument with him! (As a number of our mutual academic friends can testify.)

He also does not seem to have liked it when people’s work was sloppy or careless. This reflected his belief that people should care about doing things well.

We can all learn from Ed – certainly I can – that what we’re doing in tax scholarship isn’t just art for art’s sake, although that matters too, but is also moral, both because it affects people and because it’s right to try to do things well, not poorly.

I’ll miss him, and so will our field.

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