Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tax-apalooza and Society

In a typical week during the course of a semester, professors are given the opportunity to attend one or, at most, a handful of works-in-progress seminars given by colleagues or visiting scholars. Academic conferences intensify the experience by scheduling multiple panels over the course of several days, usually with a panel of between three and five scholars presenting similarly-themed papers to a self-selected audience and a chair/discussant. Depending on the conference, there can be as few as one panel per time slot or as many panels as the physical space permits.

For those of us who are tax scholars, the number of tax papers that one can see presented at our home institutions during the semester is pretty low (unless you are at one of the few law schools that sponsors a tax colloquium). At the AALS annual meetings, there is exactly one tax panel presented each year. There are also specialized tax conferences, my favorite being the annual Critical Tax Conference (most recently hosted by Indiana-Bloomington). There has, however, been no regular conference of legal scholars that has had a large tax presence among its panels.

The Law & Society Association's annual meeting brings together legal scholars and scholars in the humanities and the social sciences. It was in part as a result of my participation in the L&S annual meetings in the late 1990's that I decided to move from economics into law. A few years ago, in my first year of law teaching, I again attended the L&S annual meeting but noticed that there were exactly zero tax-related panels on the schedule (out of literally hundreds of panels). This seemed odd, so the following year I announced on the TaxProf listserv that I was interested in organizing a tax panel at the next L&S annual meeting. Much to my surprise, a dozen people responded; and we held three tax sessions at the 2005 meeting.

Encouraged by that experience, I went through the process again in 2006 and ended up scheduling six panels. The 2007 meeting was held in Berlin, Germany; so I considered skipping a year. After I changed my mind and went through the process again, we ended up with eight panels. In 2008 in Montreal, fourteen. This year, I submitted proposals for eighteen tax panels; but the association said that the limit was fifteen. The meetings were held this past weekend (Thursday-Sunday) in Denver, from which I have now returned.

Fifteen tax panels in four and a half days is a lot of tax law! Even so, I wish that it were possible to convince non-tax scholars to attend some of our sessions. Tax scholars often say (defensively) that tax is anything but boring, because virtually (perhaps even literally) every topic known to humankind can legitimately be discussed within the context of a tax paper. Every year, the tax papers that are presented at Law & Society prove that point in spades. Among other topics, papers presented in Denver included discussions of:

--the politics of tax limitations like Prop 13
--carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade anti-pollution policies
--private accounts for Social Security
--"Does the Income Tax Cause Americans to Spend Too Much Time With Their Children?"
--"The Tax on Being Absurd: Taxation and Legal Consciousness in Northern Cameroon"
--"Can publishing a newspaper be a charitable purpose?"
--ending the home mortgage deduction
--the deductibility of the costs of sex-reassignment surgery and of fertility-related medical expenses
--"Does it Matter what Slaves thought Direct Tax Meant in the United States Constitution?"
--tax shelters in the US and the EU
--"Taxing Private Ryan"
--the earned-income tax credit
--how to tax married couples and same-sex couples
--international tax treaties and international organizations
--comparisons between the US and German tax systems
--comparisons between social welfare systems in the US, Sweden, and Singapore
--inheritance and estate taxation
--"The Price of Pleasure."

I realize that I no longer have the ability to judge these things with any objectivity, but that seems like a pretty non-boring list of topics. (There was also a paper about having the federal government change its accounting in a way that would encourage investments in long-term investments to benefit future generations; but I cannot vouch for the quality of that paper . . .)

In any case, even though the "Law, Society, and Taxation" group came into existence quite accidentally, the four days of the Law & Society annual meetings have become my favorite weekend of the year. Tax nerds, unite!

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan