Monday, October 27, 2014

Avi-Yonah reviews Kleinbard

Speaking of Chicago-style legal writing, at least in the sense of frequency as opposed to scope of enterprise, Reuven Avi-Yonah has posted a very short book review of Ed Kleinbard's We Are Better Than This.

The style, as in Avi-Yonah's book review a few months back of my Fixing U.S. International Taxation, is to say, in 6 pages or less: "The author says ABC and DEF.  I agree with ABC but disagree with DEF.  Therefore, the author is to be commended for saying ABC, but criticized for saying DEF."

Actually, in my case, I don't think there was an ABC - just a DEF, but, as I noted at the time, we are all entitled to our own opinions.

In Kleinbard's case, Avi-Yonah defines "ABC" as being concerned about the overall progressivity of the fiscal system but not being too concerned about the super-rich.  This matches Avi-Yonah's views.  In the abstract, Avi-Yonah includes an odd putdown of Thomas Piketty for having an "obsession" with taxing the rich.  The only follow-through in the text of the article is a statement that an "obsessive focus" with raising top marginal tax rates is "misguided," since historical data from Elliott Brownlee suggest that we have not, as a historical matter, actually redistributed more from the top when we had higher (but generally more porous) top income tax rates.  I rather think there is more one could say on this topic.

"DEF," for Avi-Yonah in his review of Kleinbard, is not adopting Avi-Yonah's proposals - in particular, a VAT.  The book review does not explore what might be the similarities and differences between a VAT on the one hand, and Kleinbard's proposing to lift the annual earnings cap on the Social Security tax, on the other hand.  Clearly (and needless to say), these two are very different proposals in quite a few dimensions.  Yet there is enough general economic similarity between them - since a wage tax can resemble a consumption tax, when both are operating prospectively (and subject to tax rate differences, important administrative details that affect their reach, etc.) - that addressing it wouldn't have been out of place, at least in a more ambitious book review effort.

In Avi-Yonah's review of my book, although I tried at the time to put this delicately, it was not entirely clear that he had actually read it before writing his review.  For example, the review found it  surprising that Fixing U.S. International Taxation ostensibly hadn't discussed "national neutrality."  In fact, however, this had actually been a main subject of my book's chapter four, although I hadn't specifically mentioned my extensively discussing it in either the introductory chapter or the conclusion.

Then again, you know the old joke in which a writer says: "I never read the books I am reviewing.  I fear it should prejudice me."

As noted in an earlier post here, I'll be commenting on Kleinbard's book at an NYU book event later this week, and I will probably then post my comments here.  For me, ABC is most of the book, but DEF is the fact that I'm more concerned about rising high-end wage and wealth inequality than Ed is.  One thing I'll discuss, however, is that I recognize reasonable people can disagree about this.

UPDATE: It is fair to note here that Reuven Avi-Yonah takes exception to the suggestion about how carefully (or not) he read my book.  He regards it as an attack on his integrity, which goes beyond any suggestion that I meant to make, and I apologize insofar as it can be taken that way.

1 comment:

Michael A Livingston said...

I would just like to say that not only did I read your book and Piketty's books, but I honestly believe they are the only tax books I have read in the past decade. I, too, liked ABC but not DEF. However, to keep you guessing, I will not tell you which is which, and I am not even sure I can remember myself.