Behind Tax Policy Controversies

Behind Tax Policy Controversies

Social, Legal and Economic Foundations

By Steven Sheffrin

Anthem Critical Introductions

This book provides a short, critical introduction to controversies in tax policy. It emphasizes the many diverse underlying factors that drive tax policy debates and sheds light on traditional and newly emerging issues of tax policy.

PDF, 166 Pages


April 2023

£18.95, $27.95

EPUB, 166 Pages


April 2023

£18.95, $27.95

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About This Book

This book is designed to be a short, critical introduction to the controversies in tax policy. The main thesis of the book is that there is a deeper substructure to debates about tax policy that underlie many of the controversies. By understanding the nature of this substructure one can place the debates about tax policy into a broader perspective. The chapters in the book elucidate this underlying architecture, drawing on ideas from economics, law, philosophy, psychology, and political science.

Economic principles shape some of the foundations for the debates, particularly with regard to the question of whether income taxes should be structured with a broad base and low rates, and whether the appropriate base of taxation should be consumption or income. Legal and administrative issues provide another foundation for tax policy, as certain structural features of the tax system—the separate existence of corporations and the realization principle for income—constrain the set of feasible tax policies. To understand tax fairness, one must delve into philosophy and psychology. A key debate is whether we view taxation just through a purely distributional lens (who gets what) or must we think about notions of process and deservingness to make sense of debates on tax fairness.

The book uses these tools to shed light on these issues as well as on the most current debates. These include the appropriate goals for tax reform, the most judicious way to tax multinational corporations, our ability to tax the very wealthy, and whether the tax system has a racial subtext. 


“A clear, up-to-date and even-handed guide to the leading controversies of tax policy that draws on economics, law, philosophy, psychology and political science. Sheffrin’s book is a great place to start to make sense of policy debates in which participants usually talk past each other” — Joel Slemrod is the David Bradford Distinguished University Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan and the Paul W. McCracken Collegiate Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

“No one understands better than Steven Sheffrin that taxation, despite its reputation as a dry, technical subject, is a reflection of society’s core values. In this book, Sheffrin shows how lurking behind all tax controversies are big, important questions at the heart of the social contract – What do we owe each other? How much are we entitled to keep for ourselves? Like a fiscal archaeologist, Sheffrin digs beneath the surface of key tax debates and gives us new insights about society and ourselves” — Kirk J. Stark, Barrall Family Professor of Tax Law & Policy, UCLA School of Law.

“If tax debates often seem familiar, that’s because they are: Americans have been rehashing the same arguments for decades. But as Steven Sheffrin lucidly explains, the fights aren’t simply about who picks up the tab for big government. They’re also an expression of complex social, institutional and even psychological factors. Sheffrin illuminates all of them with his compelling, multidisciplinary analysis” — Joseph J. Thorndike, Director, Tax History Project at Tax Analysts.

“An accessible, intelligent guide to many pressing questions in tax policy, this book will help every reader see more clearly what is at stake and why decisions on taxation provide a window into society’s most fundamental values” — Professor Matthew Weinzierl, Harvard Business School.

“This book offers a unique and lively perspective on tax policy by an eminent academic with a deep understanding of its economic, legal, political and psychological foundations. Steven Sheffrin performs a great service by explaining and examining the competing interests and considerations behind our tax policy controversies.” — Joan Youngman, Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Behind society’s tax policy stand its institutions, culture, and prevailing economic theories. In public discourse, tax policy analysis often centers on who pays what without probing the underlying factors that affect popular support for alternative distributional outcomes. This volume offers the Tax Reform Act of 1986 as a case study of the influence of economic theory on tax policy. By eliminating many tax preferences, the act broadened the tax base, enabling lower tax rates. [...] This volume provides an evaluation of tax policy fairness in an eclectic chapter ranging from equity/efficiency tradeoffs to desert theory and folk justice.--CHOICE

Author Information

Steven M. Sheffrin is a professor of economics and affiliated professor of law at Tulane University.


Anthem Critical Introductions

Table of Contents

List of Tables; Preface; 1.What Are Tax Policy Controversies About?; 2.The Rise and Fall of Classic Tax Reform; 3. Should We Tax Income or Consumption?; 4. Do We Need a New System to Tax Multinational Corporations?; 5. Competing Perspectives on Tax Fairness; 6. Is the Tax System Racially Biased?7. How Can We Tax the Very Wealthy?; 8. Looking Back, Looking Ahead; References; Index


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