April 24, 2007
Academic Parlor Games
Posted by Victor Fleischer

In a recent post picked up by the New York Times, Frank Pasquale dissed Greg Mankiw's new paper on "The Optimal Taxation of Height" as an academic parlor game

Pasquale's drive-by analysis of the paper misses the point.  If we find the idea of taxing height absurd, then it puts a heavy burden on those who advocate optimal income tax analysis to defend the approach.  Optimal income tax theory suggests that we should have declining marginal tax rates.  So by attacking Mankiw's "parlor game," Pasquale, ironically, is defending declining marginal rates.  I doubt that's what Pasquale intended. 

These battles over ideal theory do have real world political relevance.  A seminar student pointed me to some state legislative proposals that would provide tax subsidies to young people as an attempt to combat brain-drain.   Should we dismiss age-based taxation as a parlor game?  In a recent paper, I use the endowment tax literature to analyze the taxation of high-ability fund managers, an issue that Congress is looking at now.  (I'm not endorsing endowment taxation; rather, our broadly-shared reluctance to taxing endowment helps explain an important element of partnership tax.)  There's a serious paper out there on gender-based taxation.  Not to mention, in the actual tax Code, various tax credits and deductions based on marital status, the number of children you have, medical conditions, and other personal attributes.  Are these all parlor games?

It's often necessary to think about ideal tax approaches in order to understand how we define the tax base and the trade-offs involved in making actual tax policy.  It's just not helpful to vaguely argue that we should tax the rich more without explaining why (and to what extent) we should tax the rich, and how we should measure wealth, income, or ability to pay in the first place. 

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