Economics

The Best Books on Taxes and Taxation

recommended by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages
by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

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Many of us try to avoid thinking about taxes unless we have to, but the truth is taxation has had a profound effect on the course of history and will play a key in the future society we create, too. Here, Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod, both public finance economists and authors of Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom Through the Ages, recommend books about taxes that are not only informative but also good reads.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages
by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

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Before we get to the books, are we on the cusp of a sea change in our global tax system?

Joel Slemrod: We might be. The US is talking about putting its corporate tax back up a little bit. The UK is talking about it too. We have in place some cross-country agreements to help countries track down the foreign accounts of their residents who might be evading tax, and we may soon have agreement on a global minimum rate of corporate taxation. A lot of countries are talking about taxes centered on high income people. Because of the pandemic, countries need to raise a lot of revenue, if not now, soon. Mick and I are not great prognosticators, but we might be at some sort of a cusp.

Michael Keen: On the one hand, there’s a lot being proposed, particularly in the international corporate tax area, that is very different from what we’ve had for the last 100 years, and that gets a lot of attention. For example, this idea that we’ll have a global minimum corporate tax rate is unparalleled. There are also various technical changes going on to how we tax multinationals that really are a break from norms we’ve had for the past century.

On the other hand, international corporate tax is just one part of a much wider tax system. Joel is right that governments are going to need more revenue. Whether that will mean a ‘new world’ of taxation may depend on whether they’re going to start using new tax instruments to raise those revenues. If  there were a general increase in rates of VAT, would that count as a new world in terms of taxation?

A more profound structural change would be heavier use of carbon taxation, which is something that most economists have been pressing for, for ages. But I think the jury is very much still out on whether countries are really going to bite the bullet and go for ambitious carbon pricing of some sort. There’s a lot of rhetoric about the pandemic and increased inequality and so on but, at the end of the day, is any really substantial change in tax structures going to happen? This relates to one of our books, which is about taxing the rich. Will we see real changes in social attitudes and expectations of the tax system that will drive fundamental change? We don’t yet know.

At an individual level, if I want to avoid taxes, in most cases, I can just go and live somewhere else. Or if I’m a corporation, I can just funnel my taxes through places like the Netherlands. Isn’t the real challenge getting countries to work together to narrow these gaps? And my impression is countries are now getting together a bit more, maybe?

Mick: Again, for businesses it depends on what happens this summer. But yes, the things people are talking about now, like giving taxing rights to the countries where companies do business even if they have no physical presence there—which is not something we do now—are fundamentally different. We’re waiting to see whether we end up with an agreement. We’ll have to see how the politics plays out.

The alternative picture of the future is one in which the whole system of international business taxation fragments, everything becomes even more complicated, and countries become more aggressive against one another.

Joel: For individuals, changing where you live will likely continue to offer potential tax benefits—though less so for US citizens like me: the US is unusual in taxing its citizens wherever they live.

I kept laughing as I read your book, which I thought was an incredible achievement for a book about the history of taxation. It’s fascinating what a critical role tax plays in so many major historical events, like the French Revolution, isn’t it?

Mick: Yes. It’s quite hard to find major historical events that didn’t have some kind of tax element to them. Joel and I have been thinking about this over the years, and in everything we read we look for the word “tax” in the index. And what is surprising is how many books don’t include it, given the evident importance of tax in social movements. Even today, as we speak, there’s news of fatalities in tax-related disturbances in Colombia.

Joel: Yes, there’s a long article in the New York Times about riots there triggered by tax, although only one sentence about what was actually in the tax bill. Usually, we find there’s something else beyond tax that triggers riot and revolt—some basic unfairness that comes from a wider source, that taxation somehow crystallizes.

As a citizen, I do think it’s important to be aware of tax and taxation, and your book is really useful for that, as are some of the books you’re recommending. What do you think is the biggest lesson from history for the present?

Joel: One of the big lessons is that when you’re contemplating new taxes, or big increases in taxes, it really behooves a government to think beforehand about how that’s going to be enforced. There are always going to be people looking to avoid, looking to evade, and you want to get the enforcement regime that’s appropriate in place beforehand. One reason that matters now is because the US has been contemplating very large increases in taxation of wealthy people. During the presidential campaign, there was talk of a wealth tax, though it looks like we’re not going to have that in the near future. But, to the credit of the people who proposed it, in their proposals they paid a lot of attention to what would be needed to enforce such a tax.

Mick: A theme of our book is that what governments are trying to do when they tax has not fundamentally changed over the millennia. They want to raise revenue in a way that doesn’t destroy the economic activity that generates it, and in a way that is at least fair enough for them to survive, politically and maybe even literally. The technology available for doing all this changes massively, but the objectives don’t.

One of the things your book explains is there are things straightforwardly called taxes, but there are also a lot of non-tax taxes as well. A lottery is one example. Is that one of the few taxes that people enjoy paying, or are there others as well?

Joel: I don’t think it’s that people enjoy paying money to the government through lotteries, it’s just that they enjoy the gamble. Governments can tap into that, and the profits they then make look much like a tax. But I think people are just as happy to play lotteries when the government isn’t involved—maybe even more so.

Mick: There are arguments about whether it was Voltaire or someone else who came up with the description of public lotteries as a tax on the stupid, but it does seem that people just enjoy the possibility of their life being transformed by winning. So lotteries can be seen as either exploiting the foolish or adding harmless pleasure to taxpaying. Reflecting this, when we look in the book at what people have said about taxes in utopias and in dystopias, it turns out that both often have revenue-raising through lotteries.

In terms of examples of taxes that people actually enjoyed paying, there were taxes on social class that people presumably didn’t actually like paying but that played on and fed their pride. Under these taxes, which go back to Henry VIII and even before in England, you paid some fixed amount if you were a duke and some lesser amount if you were an earl, all the way down through every rung in the social ladder. Enforcing this largely relied not only on the fact that being a duke is something pretty easy to observe, but also on the likelihood that no self-respecting duke would pretend to be a mere earl in order to reduce their tax liability.

“It’s quite hard to find major historical events that didn’t have some kind of tax element to them”

Joel: There is a related story about the Queen Emma Bridge in Curaçao, which was a footbridge put up in 1888, by the US ambassador. To finance it, he had a toll on crossing the bridge, but he wanted it to be progressive, so it was only charged to people rich enough to have shoes. Crossing was free for people who went across barefoot. This sounds clever, except that a lot of poor people, for reasons of pride, borrowed shoes to cross the bridge and paid the toll. And a lot of rich people were not so proud and would take their shoes off before they crossed the bridge, to avoid the toll. Some people were happy to pay to signal that they weren’t poor.

Mick: People do occasionally make gifts to government. That’s often been the case in wartime. Typically, it’s done with enthusiasm to begin with, and then with less enthusiasm as the war drags on. In the US you can also make a voluntary gift can’t you, Joel?

Joel: Yes, if you carefully read the instruction booklet for the 1040—the basic income tax form here—there is a paragraph where you are invited to make your check a little bit bigger, to help pay down the US national debt. The government actually publishes, monthly, how much they get. It’s a pretty small fraction of what they get from real taxes.

Mick: And there are all these millionaires and billionaires who say they want to pay more tax. Joel and I have different views about how much we should be impressed by those public statements.

Doesn’t the history suggest that for a tax to be successful people do have to buy into it? Even if they’re not happy about paying it or a bit unwilling, they have to be broadly accepting of the principle—otherwise it’s going to go nowhere.

Mick: Right, and the classic example is still Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax in the UK—a poll tax being one that is a fixed amount independent of income or any other indicator of economic well-being. The British are pretty law-abiding when it comes to tax but this one dissolved into disaster. The experience shows how potentially vulnerable respect for that tax system can be, and how a badly conceived tax—again, taken in a wider social context—can lead pretty quickly to real problems with compliance. The evidence suggests it also takes some time to recover from that. Once you undermine trust in the tax system, it’s not something you necessarily get back very quickly.

Let’s go through the books about taxes you’ve recommended. The first one is Showdown at Gucci Gulch, which sounds like an entertaining book written by a couple of reporters, Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum. Can you say a bit about the incident it’s covering and why it’s important in the history of US taxation?

Joel: Gucci Gulch is the nickname for the hall in the US Congress outside where the tax committees meet and where all the fancy lobbyists with their Gucci loafers line up. Not all of them could get into the committee room, so they’d line up outside and wait for news about what was going on. The book does sort of read like a thriller. Probably the only tax thriller there is.

It’s about the months leading up to the next-to-last big income tax reform we had here in the US, which became the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It’s an interesting story about how the politics of taxation work, because a couple of years before it passed, very few people would have thought anything like it could happen. For political reasons, President Reagan commissioned the Treasury to put out a study of tax reform. They took it very seriously and came out with a three-volume study. Then it went over to Congress where, again, it just didn’t seem likely that it could pass.

What it did, basically, was lower tax rates but broaden the tax base. And I would say most academics would have voted for it if it was an up or down vote. There were moments when it looked dead. And then particular characters in this drama stepped forward, and it happened.

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So that’s the background. It was the last big tax reform in the US before one in 2017. That one sharply cut revenues. The current Biden administration tax proposal would effect tax reform of a very different kind than either 1986 or 2017, as it aims to raise substantially more revenue, from corporations and rich individuals.

Mick: For non-American readers Gucci Gulch is a great read, partly because of the many larger than life characters involved, from Ronald Reagan down, and partly because you learn how the sometimes puzzling US process works. And there are a ton of good stories along the way that also point to some general lessons. For example, these days it is common to present transparency as crucial in setting about tax reform. Well, some of the 1986 hearings were with TV cameras and some weren’t. And one of the main players in the reform explains how important the closed sessions were, because then the politicians could really cut the deals. They could come out and say to their lobbyists, ‘I really fought for you in there, but, gee, it just didn’t work’. So we get an inside look at the nitty gritty of how the tax deals were done. It makes you understand and think a little bit more deeply about how the process works, or can work.

If it was under Reagan, wasn’t it about cutting taxes on the rich?

Joel: It was not that at all. Reagan said he wanted to lower tax rates, so that was an important part of what was eventually passed. But to pass, reform had to be pretty much a bipartisan effort. Tax rate cuts were accompanied by expansions of the tax base, with the reform as a whole supposed to be both revenue neutral and distributionally neutral, meaning it was explicitly not supposed to shift the tax burden away from the rich or toward the rich, anything like that. As I mentioned earlier, that’s very different from what we’re talking about this year in the US.

Is it a useful indication of how to get things done in Congress?

Joel: It’s an amazing indication of what happened in 1986. There’s just no way to envision that kind of consensus about tax changes today. It’s just not conceivable.

Let’s talk about the next of the books that you’re recommending, which really shows the importance of tax and taxation to the course of history. This is John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power, about 18th century England. Tell me about this book.

Mick: This one is about the development of the revenue-raising capacity of the British government that underpinned Britain’s rise to global dominance in the 18th century. It’s a very all-encompassing account, covering the growth of parliamentary sovereignty following the Glorious Revolution and the Civil War before that, the emergence of a professional civil service, even the role of interest groups and lobbyists. It provides a compelling and gripping explanation of how Britain went from being a second-rate (if that) power to being able to finance a global military presence—on both sea and land, for the latter largely by hiring foreign troops. By the end of the 18th century, although it was the French that had a revolution, the British were raising three or four times as much per capita. But they were doing it in ways that were broadly seen as acceptable.

Sinews is also just very engagingly written, bringing out the personal side of revenue-raising, the people involved, from the ones we’ve all heard of to modest clerks and excise officers. There are many  telling stories. Brewer talks, for instance, about the rise of professional excise collectors, and describes how one of them who had crossed something out in his ledger book became terrified that he was going to get into trouble, because playing around with your tax collection book looked so suspicious—a memorable way of explaining how high professional standards were becoming. The book comes down to that very human level, while at the same time conveying powerful and important insights. That made it one of the first books onto our list.

How fascinating, that Britain can tax at three or four times the rate of France and it’s the French king who ends up on the guillotine.

Mick: That’s right. I think there’s a question about how far you go back to explain the difference between Britain and France. Brewer starts with the Glorious Revolution. Some people would go back further, perhaps to the Civil War as embedding parliamentary supremacy even more fundamentally. And even before that, Britain wasn’t fragmented in the same way France was. The French tax system was made incredibly complicated by internal frontiers and different regional rules and practices.

Joel: One of the themes in Brewer is picked up in the Scheve and Stasavage book. Brewer talks about how the ability of the British to tax allowed them to shoulder the burden of military commitments. The first word of the subtitle is war: Brewer talks about the creation of a fiscal military state. One of the biggest themes in Scheve and Stasavage is the relationship between war and the ability of countries to tax.

Let’s talk about that book next. It’s called Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.

Mick: This is the one that’s most related to current concerns. It tries to explain episodes in which the rich have been taxed at very high rates. There are all kinds of theories you might put forward about that. Was it, for instance,  to do with the widening of the suffrage and the rise of democracy, the idea being that a majority of non-rich voters will vote to tax the rich to extract money for themselves? Or was it because of some social consensus that such taxes were needed to address unacceptably high inequality?

Scheve and Stasavage have a quite different explanation. They argue that the episodes in which we’ve taxed the rich particularly heavily have had a compensatory element and occur particularly during and after big wars, where there’s been mass conscription. The idea is that when the poorer bear some massive burden in pursuit of some collective goal, the rich have, in effect, been pressured or even felt it right to make a commensurately large financial commitment. This force is most evidently at work in mass wars: the conscription of wealth is called for to match the conscription of labor. This relates to Joel’s point about the importance of war in understanding the development of tax systems. Major wars have led to very heavy taxes on the rich, not only or even mainly in order to raise a lot of money, but because the poor are seen as having a massively harder time during war.

“Because of the pandemic, countries need to raise a lot of revenue”

The book is relevant to today and some of the things we’ve been talking about, partly because it argues, for example, that it’s not simply concerns with inequality—which we hear much of these days—that have given rise to heavy taxes on the rich. Episodes of heavy taxes on the rich may have more to do with this idea of compensating the poor for some spectacularly disproportionate suffering.

Some people have tried to draw parallels with the current pandemic, given that the poor, and the most vulnerable, have borne a disproportionate share of the burden. The better off, and many of the middle class, haven’t had such a bad time. One issue—going back to what you asked at the outset, whether we’re at a cusp—is whether the pandemic has set up the compensatory context in which we might see these pressures for the rich to pay substantially more tax to meet what are in many countries going to be heightened revenue needs.

Joel: What their message has to say about today is fascinating. The book was written before COVID. It  ends by saying, ‘Well, it doesn’t look likely that we’re going to be able to have more taxes on the rich, because the nature of war has changed.’ Scheve and Stasavage talk about how today we don’t need mass armies anymore. Without that, the burdens of wars won’t be so heavily borne by low-income folks. So this compensatory argument doesn’t apply.

So, just like Mick, I have been wondering ‘Does COVID have that same element of a mass war?’ Maybe this compensatory argument applies to the post-pandemic era. If you read the last page in the book, it is not optimistic that increased taxation for the rich can fly—but maybe it can.

Mick: Yes and, in fact, we may see it already a bit. People are starting to talk about ‘excess profit taxes,’ which the UK, US and many others had in both world wars. These are one form of solidarity tax that countries have sometimes adopted to deal with emergencies, even short of war—in response to national disasters, for instance.

This sense of crisis, that something has to be done, galvanizes everybody. But then I guess the sense of crisis often passes quite quickly…

Mick: Right! Our sense is that the pandemic-related moment for this may have passed, at least in advanced countries. It might have had better prospects six months ago.

Okay, let’s go on to the next of the taxation books you’ve chosen which is about 100 years old, I believe. It’s called The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad. Tell me about it.

Joel: This book is by one of our heroes, Edwin Seligman, who was a professor at Columbia University at the turn of the 20th century. He began this book in 1894. In that year, the US passed an income tax and he was thinking, during the initial debate, ‘I’m going to put together what’s known about income tax.’ It had been levied in many countries before that. Then, in 1895, the Supreme Court said, ‘One problem: an income tax is unconstitutional.’ Seligman then stewed about it. The first edition of this book is 1911, 17 years after he started. This is when the US was seriously thinking about an income tax again. It was understood that we needed a constitutional amendment and the 16th amendment passed in 1913. In that year, the US passed an income tax, the Revenue Act of 1913.

I find the origin of the book and the fact that he’s writing it in parallel with the US introducing an income tax to be fascinating. Seligman was a supporter of the income tax and, in the second edition, published in 1914, he adds a little chapter at the end with his evaluation of the US income tax that was passed. He’s an academic, so of course he’s got a couple of things he would have done differently, but he’s mostly supportive.

Mick: The thing that really stands out for me about this book is that Seligman was such an incredible scholar. He read the most obscure tracts in their original German and French. In erudition, he’s the Edward Gibbon of taxation. You wonder how on earth he wrote this book without Google. Scholarship isn’t as universal amongst academics as often thought, but he is a shining example.

In terms of the general story, income tax is a recent phenomenon. It’s not that in the past people were taxed less, it’s just that different methods were used to extract money from them. The income tax itself is a 20th century phenomenon and still the best thing we have, is that right?

Joel: For the British, who introduced it in 1799, the income tax is actually a 19th century phenomenon. But yes, for the US and others it came to maturity in the last century.

In the US, the income tax was meant to replace excise taxes and tariffs, which were perceived as putting the burden too heavily on low-income people. That’s what propelled the income tax in the US. At first, it didn’t mean a big increase in total revenues. It did prove to be successful, though, so whether the presence of an income tax leads to higher revenues later, that’s a tough one to figure out, but it certainly could be so. In any case, the income tax is still the principal policy tool for achieving tax progressivity, although the idea of adding a highly progressive annual wealth tax has recently been mooted.

“Under the century-old norms, if a company is not actually physically present in your country…they are not required to pay corporate tax there”

Mick: You’re right, Sophie, that looking over the millennia of history, rulers and governments and princes and kings have always looked for some kind of indicator, some proxy, for how well off people are, on which to then base tax liability. And that proxy has changed over time. To begin with it was the land you had, then it was how many fireplaces you had, or what your social class was, or how many windows there were in your house. The income tax, in a way, is just using today’s best feasible proxy. There’s a nice quote from Seligman that we include in the book, making clear that the income tax is not perfect but is the best we’ve got for now.

We’re still figuring out what might come next, whether it’s something Joel has written about, looking at taxes based on your genes, or something else. There are all kinds of things we might end up looking at.

One thing I wanted to ask you about is the Laffer curve, because that’s always very popular on the right, this idea that you can lower taxes but still get an uplift in revenue. Donald Trump even awarded Arthur Laffer a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his services to economics. In your book, you point out that the data say it’s untrue. There’s never been a circumstance where lowering taxes heightens a government’s revenue, is that the consensus?

Joel: I would say that except for the world ‘never’, that’s right. There are isolated incidents, with particular circumstances, where it looks like there might have been a Laffer curve phenomenon. A cut in the tax on tea in eighteenth century Britain may be one such case. But as a general proposition about lowering income tax rates in the UK, the US, or other advanced economies, the evidence is clear that it just doesn’t happen.

Let’s go to the last of your books on taxation, which is Dimensions of Tax Design. It’s a set of papers for the Mirrlees review. Is this specifically about the UK?

Mick: This book is a series of background papers for a report that was prepared by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK in 2011. There’s certainly a UK focus, but we picked this book because, although it’s a little out of date, it gives a great sense of where our discipline is. It brings together the theoretical apparatus that was developed over the last forty years or so with empirical techniques that have improved by leaps and bounds in this century. The various chapters are still the go-to places for a lot of the topics that arise not just in the UK, but in other countries too.

And are we pretty good at taxing these days? Have the techniques of economists made it a pretty efficient process by now?

Joel: One of the interesting aspects of this book is that for most—maybe even all—of the chapters, academic economists were paired with people from outside academia with a real interest in actual policy. It’s that aspect that comes to mind when you ask how good we are at taxing, because tax shouldn’t be left just to economists. In fact, there’s a quote in the final Mirrlees report to the effect that ‘economists cannot claim to have all the answers to good tax design.’ I think that’s true, not only about the practical aspects of administration and enforcement, but also about the ethical aspects. Mick and I, and others, will glibly use the word ‘fair’ and talk about ‘fairness in tax’ but deciding what’s fair is not an economics question. We have to look to the political system, or even to philosophers, for answers to that.

But if you want to see where the state of the art is, even though it’s now 10 years old, these are some of the best economists in the world writing on 13 key topics. It is 1347 pages, so you do need to take a gulp before you recommend it to your readers.

Mick: I confess that I realized after we picked it that each of us actually co-authored one of the chapters, but that’s amongst many authors. I hope we are still allowed to pick it?

That’s fine. Also, I did insist you include a geeky book rather than just great reads.

Mick: Picking up on Joel’s point about many of the authors not being academic economists, it occurs to me how many of the books we have chosen aren’t by economists. The author of The Sinews of Power is a historian. Taxing the Rich is by political scientists. Showdown at Gucci Gulch is by journalists. The prominence of non-economists in or choices is not just because economists don’t often write that well and we wanted books that people might enjoy reading. It’s also because economists have often not wanted to focus on, or felt comfortable with, taking a wider perspective on taxation.

Which reminds me you also wanted to include a book called The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey by Phillip Knightley, who was also a journalist. The Vestey family come up in your book.

Joel: The Vestey family story is nice because it illustrates all the tricks that people still get up to on international taxation, but a century earlier. They ran a big multinational company and were very creative at playing all the tax avoidance games that multinationals and the rich still play today. It’s a lively story, with characters whose lives were, for better or worse, remarkable. So the Vesteys provide a way of telling the story of international taxation—even getting a little bit technical—and the tricks that taxpayers use, and how governments seek to counter them.

Yes, I found it interesting because the average person in the street, we all think Amazon should be paying more taxes. But what that actually means, I have no idea.

Mick: That goes back to what we were talking about before. People have these ideas because they deal daily with these big-name companies and think, ‘They really ought to be paying tax to my government.’ But under the century-old norms, if a company is not actually physically present in your country, that’s simply the rule: they are not required to pay corporate tax there. Now we might begin to relax that rule, which would be a huge change.

Lastly, as a postscript, there are also some works of literature that revolve around taxation. What would you recommend for people who are interested in reading about taxes in a literary way, rather than an economics/nonfiction way?

Mick: A few come to mind. One is an easy read. This is a wonderful short story by Mark Twain, called “A Mysterious Visit”. But it would spoil the joke if I were to describe it.

Then there’s a book called The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. This is very long, and to be honest neither of us got to the end of it, yet. It’s about his experience working in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois. It has many great observations that we use in our book, for example about the great secret of tax policy being that it’s so boring that no one takes an interest in it, and  therefore governments are able to get away with murder. The book also has many striking asides about the IRS, some of them  true, some of them false. For instance, he writes about the US government having plans in place for tax filing in the event of a nuclear attack, which turns out to be true, right Joel?

Joel: That one is true.

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Mick: There’s also a classic 19th century Russian novel that bears on oddities of tax systems: Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. It plays on a feature of the Russian tax system, which charged serf owners a tax related to the number of their serfs, but with that number based on an outdated register. If a serf was dead, you still had to pay the tax. The main character, Chichikov, travels the country trying to buy these dead serfs in order to later claim them as collateral for a large loan.  The fun is in the characters he encounters, and their reactions to his odd proposal. And there are plenty of insightful episodes along the way.

One is very relevant to tax administrations today. With most tax administrations—and as is often recommended by experts—a taxpayer who builds up a reputation for being honest  gets better treatment. You may, for instance, get your VAT refunds faster if you have a good record. So, Chichikov builds up a reputation for being extremely trustworthy in relation to customs payments. And, of course, it’s all a prelude to a massive scam. This  a nice reminder of possible pitfalls in standard ‘good practice’ in tax administration.

Do you have any fiction you’d like to add, Joel?

Joel: Those are the ones I would have mentioned. There is a book by Dorothy Sayers, the British mystery writer, An Unnatural Death, which turns out to revolve around estate tax. There was apparently a tax motive for one character to die before the end of 1925 because, as of January 1, 1926, the inheritance tax was about to change and would have led to somebody losing a lot of money.

I read a lot of mysteries and I think I’ve actually read that one!

Mick: We should also mention Robert Hart, a shy Northern Irish lad who went off to China in the mid-nineteenth century and became a wholly admirable and hugely respected head of China’s Imperial Customs Service. He kept diaries which include a lot about his very active and somewhat guilt-ridden amorous adventures. These have formed the basis for a novel, My Splendid Concubine, about his eventful career and ultimately quite sad love life. He fell in love with a Chinese woman and they had children but eventually parted. He is the only tax administrator we know of whose life inspired a work of fiction.

Joel: And the only tax administrator we know of whose life inspired a statue. There was a statue of him on the Shanghai Bund. It’s not there anymore, but we have a picture of it in the book.

On the other hand, quite a few people famous for their writings who had tax-related jobs, didn’t they?

Joel and Mick: Yes, Adam Smith, Chaucer, Voltaire, Cervantes, Herman Melville, Lavoisier, Tom Paine, Sam Adams all had tax-related jobs at some point. But they weren’t all very good at it.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Joel Slemrod

Joel Slemrod

Joel Slemrod is professor of economics at the University of Michigan, where he is also Paul W. McCracken Collegiate Professor at the Ross School of Business. He has been awarded the National Tax Association’s Daniel M. Holland Medal for distinguished lifetime contributions to the study and practice of public finance, and is a past president of the International Institute of Public Finance.

Michael Keen

Michael Keen

Michael Keen is deputy director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at the International Monetary Fund. He has been awarded the National Tax Association’s Daniel M. Holland Medal for distinguished lifetime contributions to the study and practice of public finance, and is a past president of the International Institute of Public Finance.

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Joel Slemrod

Joel Slemrod

Joel Slemrod is professor of economics at the University of Michigan, where he is also Paul W. McCracken Collegiate Professor at the Ross School of Business. He has been awarded the National Tax Association’s Daniel M. Holland Medal for distinguished lifetime contributions to the study and practice of public finance, and is a past president of the International Institute of Public Finance.

Michael Keen

Michael Keen

Michael Keen is deputy director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at the International Monetary Fund. He has been awarded the National Tax Association’s Daniel M. Holland Medal for distinguished lifetime contributions to the study and practice of public finance, and is a past president of the International Institute of Public Finance.