Thursday, May 28, 2020

Upcoming virtual conferences

I had planned to attend this year's Law and Society Association annual meeting, which was scheduled to start today in Denver. One small peeve I had was that, due to the LSA's rigid rules for defining their "Author Meets Readers" sessions, they were not going to let me do such a session with my newly published book, Literature and Inequality, even though we had a number of interested commenters lined up. Under their mysteriously rigid rules, the book would have had to be published earlier than its actual April 1, 2020 pub date in order to be eligible for the session this year. So I will do the "Author Meets Readers" session next year, at least if there is a normal LSA conference.

I had planned on attending the LSA annual meeting after all, and joining one of the tax panels to discuss either it or my newly posted article on minimum taxes. But I decided against participating via Zoom - which I certainly would have done for "Author Meets Readers."

This summer I will, however, be participating in the virtual version of Oxford Centre for Business Taxation's Annual Academic Symposium, on June 29 and 30. I'll discuss the minimum tax paper. Truly a shame that actual physical conferences are on hiatus. I always enjoy going there, and seeing all the folks in Oxford (including other guests). And I had planned to combine the Oxford travel with a day in Liverpool plus perhaps a walking tour in the Lake District. But so it goes; maybe next year.

I'm also planning to discuss the minimum tax paper at this year's National Tax Association Annual Meeting, which had been scheduled for November 19-21 in Denver. I believe that the plan to hold an actual physical conference has not as yet been canceled in favor of the virtual version, but obviously few will be surprised if that happens.

NTA has extended the paper submission deadline for a month, presumably reflecting all the attendant uncertainties, and those who are interested can submit here. I always enjoy this conference, as much for the social aspects as the intellectual content, but am not especially hopeful that in-person will be feasible this year. Still, I'll participate virtually if that's all there is.

Friday, May 22, 2020

New York State has to do a better job with voting by mail

New York State is not among the states with leadership that aims to suppress voter turnout and make it harder for people to vote. Its leaders are not like the 5 Supreme Court Justices who evidently are fine (or perhaps better than fine) with forcing voters who they very well know are primarily Democrats to risk death from the pandemic as the price of exercising the constitutional right to vote.

Yet New York State needs to get its act together, better than it has so far, if it wants to make sure that voting by mail is a sufficiently available option this November. I base this on my own experience with the State's well-intentioned effort to expand the availability of voting by mail for the June 23 Democratic Party. They're trying to do it right, but there are a couple of glitches that need to be ironed out.

Yesterday I got an application form for voting by mail in the primary. Here it is, with the lines that list my mailing address, etc., blotted out.
Here are the main problems:

1) My basis for requesting an absentee ballot comes from the second line in Box 1 on the top. I have checked the line that says "temporary illness or physical disability (including affected/potential COVID 19)." The bolded text offers my basis for checking the box. Yet on its face it's ambiguous. Am I entitled to check it, absent any actual temporary illness or physical disability of which I am aware? The cover letter on the flip side of this page makes it clear that mere fear of contracting COVID 19 supports requesting an absentee ballot. And they've added the bolded language to the preexisting form itself to help make that clear. But it doesn't really quite fit. Potential COVID 19, or even reasonable fear of contracting it, isn't really quite (or at least unambiguously) a subclass of "temporary illness or physical disability." I'd consider the interpretation allowing me to check this box in good faith to be uncertain at best, if not for the "legislative history" confirming that this is within the intended scope.

2) In Box 6, which I've partly obscured due to the personal info printed a few lines above it, I have 2 options. One is to have my ballot picked up by me or my designee at the Board of Elections, an option that doesn't make enormous sense here. So I've checked instead the box that says: "Mail ballot to me at (check box and complete ONLY if address is different than mailing address."

My first reading of this phrase led me to think that I couldn't use this option unless I was submitting a mailing address for the ballot that differed from my regular mailing address. This would have made the entire exercise pointless. Upon further reflection, I concluded that the words could only reasonably mean: "if you check box, complete the line below ONLY to supply an alternate mailing address if needed."

Yes, it's trivial, but a confusing and ill-drafted form like this is NOT going to get the job done in November, when the whole thing may matter a lot more.

Yesterday's Zoom conference on income-shifting by multinational companies

Here's the live stream of yesterday's TPC-UNC Tax Center Zoom conference on income-shifting by multinational companies. My 7 minutes start at 1:42:40.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Conference on income-shifting & the OECD - Thursday morning, 5/21/20

I've been remiss in not flogging this earlier - focusing on my current writing project - but tomorrow morning I'll be participating in a very interesting international tax policy conference with a number of outstanding participants. It's on Zoom, and is free, so anyone anywhere can watch whatever parts of it they like, subject only to having a computer or smartphone.

Sponsored by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and the UNC Tax Center, it's called Responding to Income-Shifting by Multinational Corporations, and the link for it is here. You can register for it here.

Here is the agenda (all times are EST):

9:30 a.m. Welcome and Introduction: Mark Mazur, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

9:35 a.m. Keynote Address • Pascal Saint-Amans, OECD

9:50 a.m. Audience Q&A

10:00 a.m. Panel I. How Big a Problem is Income Shifting?:

Kimberly Clausing, Reed College
Scott Dyreng, Duke University
Leslie Robinson, Dartmouth College
Gabriel Zucman, University of California, Berkeley
Edward Maydew, University of North Carolina (moderator)

10:45 a.m. Audience Q&A

11:00 a.m. Panel II. The OECD’s Response to Income Shifting
Manal Corwin, KPMG
Lisa De Simone, Stanford University
Victoria Perry, International Monetary Fund
Daniel Shaviro, NYU Law School
Thornton Matheson, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (moderator)

11:45 a.m. Audience Q&A

12:00 p.m. Event Concludes

I'm actually the second speaker on Panel II (although we're listed above alphabetically), so I will be speaking from roughly 11:08 to 11:15. I'm planning to discuss the OECD's Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 initiatives, although what exactly I'll say remains somewhat flexible pending  the keynote address, which may offer updates (at least to me) that are of interest.

Small musical note

Two old albums that I have been quite enjoying recently are the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle (1968) and XTC's Apple Venus, Vol. 1 (1999). Both are melodic and wistful in a way that brings to mind Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson in their good years. Their elegiac tone seems to fit my mood these days.

New items I've tried via Spotify include this year's releases by Fiona Apple (Fetch the Bolt Cutters) and Car Seat Headrest (Making a Door Less Open). But neither has yet broken through for me. I like the percussion and self-willedness of Fiona's latest, but admittedly after only a couple of listens it doesn't yet pack for me the emotional punch of her prior 3 albums, which I consider among the very best anyone has done this century. My impression is that she's in a better place emotionally, for which I'm glad, but that the raw anger and distress expressed on prior albums (albeit, mixed with other moods) were good for her art.

Haven't made it through the Car Seat Headrest yet; it's harder to find the time without health club visits and the car trips of normal times. Plus, if I only have a few minutes, why not just play Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales again.

Monday, May 18, 2020

My paper on minimum taxes

I've finally posted on SSRN my paper on minimum taxes of various kinds. Its specific title is: What Are Minimum Taxes, and Why Might One Favor or Disfavor Them? It's available here.

The draft has a March 4, 2020 date, to reflect that I haven't yet changed it to reflect some very useful comments that I've gotten from several readers since that time. But I not only appreciated those comments, but plan to make use of them in revising / improving the paper. Only, the time for doing that hasn't quite come yet, so in the interim I thought I would solicit more feedback regarding the original version.

I kind of like the paper, if I do say so myself, but it's definitely pitched in the conceptual albeit applied space, and is aimed at people who know a fair amount about current income tax issues, in the US and internationally, rather than being for generalists. But it may be of interest to tax law professors, tax practitioners, tax policymakers in Washington and abroad, economists who are interested and steeped in applied income tax issues (especially but not just international ones), and other people who are following, say, the OECD GloBE process.

The paper's abstract goes something like this:

The alternative minimum tax (AMT), a key and at the time widely lauded feature of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, soon fell into disrepute and was subsequently scaled back, to general approbation and relief. Yet in recent years minimum taxes have come back into vogue. For example, two key international tax provisions in the 2017 tax act (GILTI and the BEAT) had minimum tax structures, and the OECD has recently issued proposed guidelines for the design of a global minimum tax, meant for multilateral adoption.

In light of minimum taxes’ surprising return to center stage, this paper explores such issues as the following:

1) the purposive, technical, and semantic contours of instruments we call “minimum taxes,”

2) why a minimum tax structure matters – pertaining, for example, to the creation of clientele effects and discontinuous marginal incentives,

3) the lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of the AMT,

4) minimum taxes’ similarity to foreign tax credit limitations and loss nonrefundability,

5) the design question of whether, if highly profitable companies’ financial accounting income were made tax-relevant, this should be done through a minimum tax,

6) how one might rationalize (or not) the BEAT’s minimum tax structure, and

7) the main issues posed by global minimum taxes, including GILTI and the OECD’s Pillar Two GloBE proposal.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Branko Milanovic review of Literature and Inequality

Branko Milanovic, who is one of the world's leading scholars on the global history of economic inequality, has posted a review here of my new book, Literature and Inequality.

The review lauds my "very skillful analysis" of the societies discussed in the books that feature in my study, and adds that "Shaviro's book could set the tone for a new type of social studies that would combine the usual empirical work with archival research and valuable fiction."

The two main dialogue points he raises in the review pertain to: (1) marriages as potentially unsettling the social order when they are made, not just dynastically, but based on all of the diverse personal elements that can shape it in daily life, and (2) the picture of how great fortunes are made in classic fiction, versus the world of Econ 101 textbooks. As he notes, the books I discuss feature plenty of "swindles, cheats, cronyism, plunder, and bribery," as distinct from acts of productive entrepreneurship. It of course figures that those methods tend to be more fun to write and read about than the meticulous work of building up a successful business. Also, as I note in the book, artistically ambitious fiction writers tend not, as a group, to be enormously fond of business or the business classes. Nonetheless, he concludes that the fictional narratives, given real world parallels, should "give us pause when entertaining a more benevolent view of large fortunes in capitalist societies."

I very much look forward to our further discussing these and other issues during the Zoom session regarding my book that is scheduled for this October.

Friday, May 08, 2020

My follow-up book-in-progress to Literature and Inequality

In my prior post, I promised a follow-up to how my plans for a sequel to Literature and Inequality have developed.

Literature and Inequality looks at 9 books, 3 from each of 3 eras. It goes:

(1) England and France during the Age of Revolution: Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, Balzac's Le Pere Goriot & La Maison Nucingen.

(2) Victorian and Edwardian England: Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Forster's Howards End.

(3) Gilded Age America: Twain & Warner's The Gilded Age, Wharton's The House of Mirth, Dreiser's The Financier & The Titan.

Part 2, as originally envisioned, was going to repeat the structure of having 3 eras with 3 works each, in this case the 1920s through World War II, then the 1950s through perhaps the 1970s (i.e., the peak of the "Great Easing"), then the 1980s to the present. I also anticipated looking not just at novels, but also possibly at plays, such as Death of a Salesman, and films, such as It's a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street.

But I have decided instead to write something shorter and more focused. Here's the current state of the play, which I have been pursuing actively while sheltering in place at home. Current working title, which may change and might require a more informative subtitle: Bonfires of the American Dream.

Here my main premise is that two deeply embedded U.S. ideological sets of values, which I dub egalitarianism and market meritocracy, are both each contested internally and in tension with each other, in ways that make extreme high-end inequality very fraught here, and which texts of various kinds can help us to understand. I propose to illustrate how texts can be used to illuminate these tensions through examples drawn from each of three formats: lectures or speeches, literary fiction, and film - rather than to draw sweeping general conclusions from a limited data set.

Part 1, of which I have completed a first draft, discusses and contrasts (1) Russell Conwell's Acres of Diamonds lecture (very famous and prominent cultural artifact from the 1870s to 1920s) and (2) the John Galt speech in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Part 2, on which I am making (knock on wood) good progress at present, discusses The Great Gatsby. I take an interest here not just in the text itself, but also in how its reception has varied sharply as between eras.

Part 3, on which I've done some preliminary research, will aim to discuss and contrast It's a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street.

The whole thing will be, I hope, no more than say 45,000 words. And if the project keeps going well, I should certainly be able to finish writing a complete first draft this summer.

Branko Milanovic on literature and inequality

This new blog post by Branko Milanovic discusses issues of common interest, including his book, The Haves and the Have-Nots, which helped to inspire my Literature and Inequality. (BTW, he calls my book "new and exciting," and promises to review it in his next post.)

The Haves and the Have-Nots contains brief vignettes on Pride and Prejudice (which I also discuss, at greater length), as well as Anna Karenina (which I am currently re-reading, as it happens, but just for fun and I don't anticipate writing about it).

His discussion of Pride and Prejudice was most helpful to me, e.g., because he uses the income numbers that Austen provides in the book, along with his own research in economic history, to reveal that the "middle-class" Bennets were actually, if just barely, in the top 1% if one were to rank the era's English households by per capita income. But he offers vignettes that emphasize the numbers (and their relevance), whereas I essay deep dives that look at broader cultural issues. So they are complementary efforts.

He suggests that I ought to have discussed a Fitzgerald novel, such as Tender is the Night or The Great Gatsby, in connection with the Gilded Age. But despite the similarities between the 1920s and the Gilded Age itself, I had planned to save this for Literature and Inequality's then-intended Part 2 or sequel, as part of a post-World War I sequence that might also have included Waugh and Wodehouse.

As it happens, my thinking about a follow-up book has changed since then. I decided to do something shorter and more focused - but including The Great Gatsby. More on that in my next post.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Upcoming TPC-UNC event on income-shifting by multinational corporations

On Thursday, May 21, from 9:30 am to 12 pm, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and the University of North Carolina Tax Center will be cosponsoring a Zoom event on income-shifting by multinational corporations. I am among the speakers. More information about the event is available here, and the registration page is here.

After a keynote address by the OECD's Pascal Saint-Amans, there will be two panels. The first will discuss the empirical issues, and the second, on which I am among the speakers, will focus on evaluating the OECD's response to multinationals' income-shifting efforts.

Book event now scheduled for the fall

It's still a ways off, but it looks like we'll be having a Zoom book event at NYU Law School on Literature and Inequality, on Thursday, October 15, from 4:30 to 6 pm EST. Kenji Yoshino and Branko Milanovic will be offering comments.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Short piece discussing Literature and Inequality

Westview, the neighborhood paper in my NYC neighborhood, has just published a short piece that I wrote discussing my new book.

The link is here, or for this week's entire issue here.

Given its brevity, I've pasted in the full text of my piece below:

Jewish immigrant families from a century ago, such as my grandparents on both sides, often had a distinct set of intellectual and artistic values. Suppose that, of two siblings born to a similar family, one had turned out to be Bill Gates, and the other had become the third violinist at the Philharmonic. Everyone in the family would probably have said, “It’s a shame Bill didn’t turn out as well as his sibling.”
With such a background, it was predictable that if I didn’t find a career in the arts (though I’ve written a novel, the royalties wouldn’t pay for a Fresh Direct shipment) I would at least become an academic. In that capacity, I’ve been teaching and writing for more than thirty years, mainly about tax policy, but also in related areas such as social justice, inequality, budget deficits, Social Security, and Medicare. But for fun I read works outside my fields, focusing especially on literature, high quality genre fiction, and history.
When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I realized that I could now combine my professional and side interests. Piketty had the great idea of using works of literature as a tool for increasing our understanding of inequality in different eras. Unfortunately, however, his discussion of such classic works as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot is neither very deep nor entirely accurate. For example, he views Goriot as showing that early nineteenth century France was a pure rentier society, in which only inherited capital mattered—not what one achieved personally. This ignores the fact that Goriot is in large part the story of Eugène de Rastignac, to this day the preeminent arriviste or social climber in all of French literature.
I decided that I could do better than Piketty in using literature to help us understand inequality in different eras (although I respect his great work with economic data). In Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era Through the First Gilded Age, just published by the Anthem Press, I take a deep dive into a set of classic works that range from Pride and Prejudice and Goriot to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mark Twain’s (with Charles Dudley Warner) The Gilded Age, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
My aim has been to enrich and deepen, qualitatively albeit anecdotally, what bare economic accounts can tell us about the feel of inequality, and how it was both rationalized and condemned, in different countries and different eras. I explore, for example, the cultural differences between American and English inequality, and the relationship between America’s two Gilded Ages: that which occurred during the late nineteenth century and that which exists today.
The book was fun to write, and I hope is fun to read. It does not require familiarity with the works that I discuss. Literature and Inequality is available from Amazon and other online booksellers, including in a Kindle edition, and I would be delighted to discuss it with any readers who wish to pursue a dialogue about it.