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Published by EH.Net (January 2024).

Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod. Rebellions, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021. xx + 511 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0691234021.

Reviewed for EH.Net by W. Elliot Brownlee, University of California, Santa Barbara.

 

Michael Keen is Ushioda Fellow at Tokyo College, University of Tokyo, and a former deputy director of fiscal affairs at the International Monetary Fund. Joel Slemrod is the David Bradford Distinguished University Professor and the Paul W. McCracken Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Each of these two economists has received the National Tax Association’s Holland Medal for their lifetime contributions to the study and practice of public finance, and they are both former presidents of the International Institute of Public Finance.

Keen and Slemrod begin Rebellions, Rascals, and Revenue by quoting H. L. Mencken, who in 1922 wrote: “Taxation . . . is eternally lively: it concerns nine-tenths of us more directly than either smallpox or golf and has just as much drama in it; moreover, it has mellowed and made gay by as many gaudy, preposterous theories.” Keen and Slemrod agree with Mencken and explain that they have two goals: to show that “Tax stories from the past . . . can be entertaining . . . sometimes simply because they are fascinating in themselves,” and that these stories can be “helpful in thinking about the tax issues that run through today’s headlines and politics.” At the outset they explain that the “stories we tell . . . span several millennia . . . but this book is not a history of taxation. Nor is it a primer on tax principles. It is a bit of both.” (p. xv)

In the preface they describe the unusual and complex organization of the book. The first of the book’s five parts, they write, “opens with some episodes in tax history—from the lurid to the quaint—that encapsulate some of the unchanging tax truths [emphasis mine] with which the book deals and then takes a broad look at how, over the ages, governments have set about trying to make the likes of us all pay for whatever it is they wanted to do.” The second part is “about fairness in taxation.” They add: “This is something even wicked rulers have to care about if they want to survive, and we look at the many mistakes and occasional brilliance that they have shown in trying to cope.” The third part “show cases the extraordinary power of human ingenuity—from Pharaonic Egypt to today’s multinationals—in finding ways to avoid paying taxes . . . and “considers how governments have, and have not, and ought to take account of such rascality.” The fourth party takes up the topic of tax collection, “which brings out both the best and the worst of human nature.” Finally, the fifth part “looks at the messy realities of making tax policy, describes spectacular successes and failures, and distills a few lessons” for the future. (pp. xvii-xviii) The authors explain to economists that they might use the book “to support and liven up a more traditional and formal (maybe even dull) introduction to tax principles.” The book’s five parts, they write, “correspond closely to obvious slabs of public finance learning.” The topics of the five “slabs”: (1) “a general overview” (2) “equity concerns (vertical and horizontal)” and “incidence analysis,” (3) “issues of efficiency and optimal taxation,” (4) “tax administration,” and (5) “practical policy making, and core tax challenges and possibilities for the future.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

The organizational scheme signals that although the authors may intend the book to be partly a “history of taxation” and partly a “primer on tax principles,” it is more the latter than the former. Moreover, in the preface they ask “real historians” to “forgive our blundering over their terrain.” The authors did not need to apologize because they stay well away from the terrain of tax history that interdisciplinary historians, economic historians, sociologists, political scientists, and legal scholars have explored in recent decades. These scholars, including this reviewer, have employed tax and fiscal history (a history that encompasses public spending as well taxation and borrowing) as a means of systematically analyzing the sources, methods, and effects of “the state” on economic capacity and distribution in modern nations around the world, primarily but not exclusively the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe, and East Asia. These scholars and their research findings are largely missing in Rebellions, Rascals, and Revenue, and none of the stories presented in the book are set in well-developed chronological, geographical, or social contexts. (For guides to this now extensive historical literature, see Brownlee, 2016; Buggeln et al., 2017; Huerlimann et al., 2018; and Martin et al., 2009).

Readers who have taught public finance courses will no doubt be better positioned that I am to evaluate how Rebellions, Rascals, and Revenue stacks up as a tax primer for such courses, but I feel safe in saying that it will have no competition in terms of entertainment value. Keen and Slemrod write in a way that is compelling and crystal clear, and they offer up innumerable vignettes that are vividly rendered, often hilarious, and sometimes bizarre. The geographical and chronological scope of the historical examples is breathtaking. For lecturers on public finance whose stock of tax humor has run dry, Keen and Slemrod’s book will be a godsend, connecting them with what the authors report to be “a small community of peculiar people who share our fascination with tax stories.” In thanking “the many who shared their own favorite oddities, helped us track down ours, or were generally helpful,” the authors identified 36 individuals (p. xix).

My colleagues in fiscal history (and sociology, political science, etc.), as well as general readers, will find the book entertaining and, more importantly, will discover insightful assistance in understanding various key technical issues that they often do not address adequately.

The first such issue Keen and Slemrod take up in depth is the critical one of tax incidence, meaning where the burden of a tax winds up after taxpayers attempt to shift it to others. The authors do so in chapter 7 (in the book’s second part), which they engagingly entitle “Stick or Shift.” They admit that it is very difficult to answer the important question of who bears the final burden of a tax, but they argue persuasively that “there are some robust principles to guide the search” and “some tempting errors to avoid.” (p. 150) In the process they point out the theoretical equivalency of a flat-rate tax on wages and a flat-rate consumption tax. They warn against overemphasizing where the legal liability for paying tax rests or exaggerating the ability of the government to determine tax incidence. “To understand the incidence of a tax,” they stress, it is necessary to analyze “how it is likely to change market outcomes.” (p. 154) They devote most of this chapter to historical examples but wind up admitting, “Empirical understanding of incidence issues thus remains in many ways limited—a professionally embarrassing confession, given its centrality to the discipline of public finance” and, they might have added here, to many political debates over tax policy (p. 168).

Chapter 9 (in part three), with the title of “Collateral Damage,” introduces the related subject of “excess burden.” This refers to the economic costs of taxes that go beyond their immediate cost to taxpayers because of their impact on taxpayer behavior. The authors point out the difficulty of including the concept of excess tax burden in the making of tax policy because the concept is “very nebulous” (p. 219), but demonstrate its importance by referring, for example, to tariffs on automobiles that provide some benefit to high-cost domestic manufactures and generate some tax revenues but result in larger offsetting economic losses by inducing domestic consumers to buy fewer and more expensive cars.

Chapter 10 extends this line of discussion by stressing the importance of including the evaluation of excess burden in debates over, for example, the questions of how progressive a tax system ought to be or how much revenue a government should raise if the central goal is national economic growth. To their credit, however, Keen and Slemrod do not think there are easy answers to such questions. With regard the first issue, they observe that “the variation in the progressivity of the income tax largely reflects differences and changes in ethical values bearing on the fairness of alternative tax arrangements,” and that “economists have no special expertise on the justice of alternative ethical positions.” (p. 244) With regard to the second issue, the authors recognize its complexity and acknowledge that there is nothing like “a mechanical relationship between tax ratio and growth.” After all, they write, “some aspects of the tax system may seem likely to be bad for growth, discouraging private activities of various kinds, some aspects of the public spending they finance—on education, infrastructure, and so on—can clearly be good for growth.” (p. 249)

Chapter 11, entitled “Citizens of the World,” concludes part three with a useful discussion of the complications that arise when analyzing tax efficiency (and equity) across national boundaries. After a discussion of the depressing history of cross-border agreements, “tax sanctuaries” (the authors’ term), tax emigration, international tax treaties, multinational tax avoidance, and proposals like the ill-fated DBCFT (destination-based cash flow tax) and international agreements on minimum corporate tax rates, Keen and Slemrod declare that “real tax sovereignty is a thing of the past—a distant memory, and largely a false one.” They conclude on a fittingly uncertain note: “The real question is how countries will choose to pool and exercise the collective sovereignty that they still possess.” (p. 279) The question seems even more important in 2024 than it was in 2021.

Keen and Slemrod do not offer much in the way of detailed comparisons or evaluations of specific tax measures that might become important in the coming decades. However, in the concluding chapter, “The Shape of Things to Come,” the authors provide a useful summary of the pressures that will shape future policy choices globally. They forecast “a future of increased pressure on tax systems, with a need to raise more revenue [for social programs] and do so in ways that match evolving views of fairness,” and they appropriately warn tax experts that “there must be a tradeoff between fairness and efficiency that only politics, broadly interpreted, can resolve.” However, they do identify one issue as offering “some opportunity to square the need for revenue and the desire to promote efficient resource allocation: climate change.” In doing so they make one of their rare political recommendations: “The world needs carbon taxation, or some similar way of pricing carbon.” (p. 392) They then go on to call for “deeper international cooperation” to address the growing pressures on tax systems globally.

After finishing reading the book, this reviewer had some difficulty deciding what the authors meant by “the unchanging tax truths” that they referred to in the preface. The best guess might be “eleven lessons that millennia of enduring, arguing, and thinking about taxation teach us.” In the last chapter the authors list them as “pillars of tax wisdom.” The pillars are: “Tax Revolts Are Rarely Just about Tax,” (2) “Be Careful with Words,” (3) “You May Be the One Paying for Lunch,” (4) “Fair Taxation, Whatever That Is, Is Hard to Achieve,” (5) “Taxation is About Finding Good Proxies,” (6) “Tax Avoiders and Evaders are Wonderfully Creative,” (7) “The Biggest Cost of Taxation May Be the Ones You Can’t See,” (8) “Taxes Are Not Just for Raising Money,” (9) “People Pay Taxes Because They Are Scared,” (10) Tax Sovereignty is Becoming a Thing of the Past,” and (11) “Beware of Mantras.” The authors quickly add: “The only exceptions to this last lesson are, of course, the eleven mantras we have now set out.” (375-389) Keen and Slemrod deserve applause for their success in merging a sense of humor, analytical competence, and ambitious scope in a thoroughly enjoyable book.

References

Brownlee, W. Elliot (2016). Federal Taxation in America: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press: 295-320.

Buggeln, Marc; Daunton, Martin; and Nützenadel, Alexander, editors (2017). The Political Economy of Public Finance: Taxation, State Spending and Debt since the 1970s: 1-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huerlimann, Gisela; Brownlee, W. Elliot; and Ide, Eisaku, editors (2018). Worlds of Taxation: The Political Economy of Taxing, Spending, and Redistribution Since 1945: 1-16. Palgrave Macmillan.

Martin, Isaac William; Mehrotra, Ajay K.; and Prasad, Monica, editors (2009), The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective: 1-27. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

W. Elliot Brownlee (https://www.history.ucsb.edu/emeriti/w-elliot-brownlee/) is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is currently completing a book on the financing of World War I. His earlier books include Federal Taxation in America: A History (2016); The Political Economy of Transnational Tax Reform: The Shoup Mission to Japan in Historical Context (2013, editor and principal contributor with Eisaku Ide); and Funding the American State, 1941-1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance (1996, editor and principal contributor).

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