Saturday, July 29, 2006
Neil H. Buchanan (Rutgers-Newark)
- A.B. 1981, Vassar
- A.M. (Economics) 1991, Harvard
- Ph.D. (Economics) 1996, Harvard
- J.D. 2002, Michigan
My father was a Presbyterian minister, but I grew up on a steady diet of "Perry Mason" and knew when I was twelve that I wanted to be a lawyer. That was still the plan until my sophomore year at Vassar, when my heart was stolen by a macroeconomic theory class. I loved the math, the policy implications, the sense of dealing with something Very Important. After graduating, I immediately enrolled in the Ph.D. program in economics at Harvard. There, my interests turned toward teaching. I became one of those people who extends his graduate school career because he's having so much fun teaching undergraduate classes. I taught the intro class, seminars, summer school, etc. I even managed to land a teaching position at Berkeley one summer (despite having no prior connections there), which introduced me to the joys of the Bay Area. The next obvious step was to find a teaching position at a liberal arts college. After a one-year visiting stint at Wellesley College, I landed a tenure-track job at Goucher College, near Baltimore.
While at Goucher, I was adopted by two dogs and two cats. Proving that I really have no life, I named the dogs after my two favorite economists, Maynard (John Maynard Keynes) and Violet (Joan Violet Robinson). The cats were already named by the time they took over my house, sparing me from having to find two more economists with interesting middle names. Violet, Maynard, Katie, Murphy, and I thought that we were going to live happily ever after in the mid-Atlantic, but we were wrong. Very wrong.
By that point in my career, I had focused all of my energy on teaching and had not focused on scholarly research. Although teaching was still very fulfilling, I wanted more. I took a position at a policy research think-tank in upstate New York, finally wrote a dissertation (under the generous and invaluable supervision of Benjamin M. Friedman at Harvard, with my good friend Jeff Fuhrer acting as a patient sounding board and de-mystifier of advanced econometrics), then continued my tour of the Seven Sisters colleges by visiting at Barnard College for a year before moving on to another policy research and teaching position at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Whew!!
By then, I had started to do some research and writing in the macroeconomic aspects of tax policy. It was also of some consequence that, after all that moving around, I had filled out an awful lot of tax forms in an awful lot of states. The differences among the states' tax systems intrigued me, causing me to think in some very concrete ways about the policy consequences of different tax systems. (Given my scholarly interests, it's also probably not a minor point that I had been able to pay my college tuition with Social Security survivor's benefits. I would be a staunch defender of the Social Security system in any event, but there's no doubt that we are all to significant degrees the products of our personal histories.)
Starting in 1995, I was invited to attend some feminist legal theory workshops that were organized by Martha Fineman, who was at that point at Columbia Law School. This led to invitations to participate in sessions at Law & Society and at the AALS. Before too long, it occurred to me that I was enjoying my time among legal scholars in ways that I never had among economists. I had always felt like a round inter-disciplinary peg in a square economics hole, and I saw that the interests and methods of legal scholars were very well-suited to my own scholarly approach.
It took some doing, but my new law professor friends (and two old law professor friends, Michael Dorf and Sherry Colb) talked me into going to law school. (The professor at Vassar who taught that macro theory class ended up going to law school, too, by the way.) Was I twelve years old again, watching re-runs of "Perry Mason"--and, by that point, "LA Law" and "Law and Order"? Once again, I loaded my four critters into my little car and moved, this time to Ann Arbor, to become a 40-year-old legal virgin. Having grown up only 45 minutes away near Toledo, this was the best of all possible worlds. Watching my nephews grow up, seeing my mother and siblings much more frequently than had ever been possible, and attending one of the best law schools in the country. What could be better?
I thought that I might become a public defender, or maybe an environmental lawyer. By the end of my first year, though, I missed teaching so much that I realized that I had to return to academia, this time as a law professor. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to be brought on to teach in the economics department at Michigan during my second and third years of law school. I was insanely busy, but it was great. My three years at Michigan were the most exciting and intellectually stimulating time of my life (so far).
In the fall semester of my second year, having been closed out of a course and needing to fill the resulting hole in my schedule, I decided to take Kyle Logue's basic tax class. I thought that I might as well take a course that "every law student should take," since I was otherwise taking as many seminars and academically-oriented courses as I could. At this point, my story--which is so completely unlike the other stories that I have read in the Tax Prof Spotlight series--has the same punch line: I was surprised to find myself hooked on tax. I followed up that course by taking two seminars with Kyle, and I knew that I had to be a tax professor. The Tax Policy Workshop at Michigan began during my third year there, which resulted in my being a student under the tutelage of Kyle, Reuven Avi-Yonah, and Jim Hines. That I had been a classmate of Jim's in grad school and had lived in the same residential house at Harvard as Reuven made being a student in the workshop somewhat surreal, but it was a great way to finish law school.
After law school, I clerked for Judge Robert Henry on the 10th Circuit in Oklahoma City. The clerkship was a great learning experience, and Oklahoma was ... let's just say it gave me a lot of stories to tell. I moved from there to New Jersey to become a law professor at Rutgers-Newark, where I just completed my third year. I have some wonderful colleagues and students at Rutgers. I am also looking forward to teaching at NYU this coming year. Having moved into New York City last year, I am already a regular presence at the great movie theaters in Greenwich Village.
Only one of my critters remains to enliven my life in Manhattan (and unfortunately, he's not getting any younger), but I know that I couldn't have made it through all the changes that I've made in the last thirteen years without all four of them. On the human side, I've been very impressed by the collegiality of law professors in general, and tax professors in particular. This is a very pleasant way to make a living.
When people see that I have a Ph.D. in economics and am now focusing on tax policy scholarship, they often think that that must have been the plan all along. I smile, cross my fingers, and tell them that, yes, it really was that simple.
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