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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- NYU (Co-Convenor's Perspective)

Daniel N. Shaviro, co-convenor of NYU's Colloquium Series on Tax Law and Public Finance, continues our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

NYU had the first tax policy colloquium, for which I must thank John Sexton, our dean at the time when I was considering moving from Chicago to NYU. John put me in touch with David Bradford and suggested that we introduce a colloquium along the lines of the Dworkin-Nagel law and philosophy colloquium at NYU. Ours remains fairly unique among tax colloquia that I have attended, in that we don’t have the author present the paper but plunge right into directed discussion in the public afternoon session (which comes after a two-hour morning session with the students followed by lunch with the speaker).

Done right in circumstances where it’s feasible, I believe this is the best approach, but there are a number of preconditions for it to be feasible. The conveners (there really have to be at least 2 for it to work well) have to be ready, willing, and able to take on all topics. They have to have enough time (which depends in part on the teaching credits they get) to be able to spend a great deal of time thinking about the issues. They have to spend enough time with the author in advance of the session, in a collegial spirit that avoids being either too deferential or too confrontational, to make the public discussion a shared enterprise based on having cleared away all initial misunderstandings. And they have to have a sufficiently large and lively audience, with a culture of participation, so that the audience doesn’t sit there thinking: “Why do we need to listen to these guys again instead of hearing the author, who is here just for the day?” When I am the discussion leader (I take turns with my partner), then even if I have lots of things to say I try to keep in mind the maxim “Jason Kidd, not Stephon Marbury.” In other words, try to facilitate discussion not dominate it, and get things to the audience fairly swiftly but having suggested guidelines that will shape what comes next.

Done right, you crisply tee up a few key issues for in-depth discussion, focusing on one issue at a time, using the paper as a starting point, and the audience gets a richer experience than they would from listening to a summary that merely repeats what the paper already said. Done wrong, you can bet that the audience will vote against you over time with its feet.

Those are the basics of the afternoon session as we do it at NYU. We prepare discussion notes, typically with 3 main topics and a few central points about each. At lunch this can all change due to discussions with the author, but at 4 pm we do it as revised, keeping each point short, with the author responding each time and then the audience chiming in. Sometimes we fail to move on as swiftly as we should to cover all of the topics, but that’s a lesser sin than cutting off lively audience discussion prematurely.

The central aim of the afternoon session is not to assess the paper, or even to tell the author what to do with the paper (though this usually happens). Rather, it is to advance, through dialogue and collective effort, all of our thinking about the topics discussed in the paper. In doing so, we try to combine accessibility to students with cutting edge content for the legal and other academics, practitioners, etc., in the room.

The aim of having an advanced discussion while also including and enlightening the students would be unachievable if the afternoon session was all we had. In our morning session, however, our aim is to provide the students with as full a background as possible on the literature and ideas that underlie the paper. Indeed, the aim of the AM session is not to do a dry run of the PM session but rather to equip the students to understand and follow it.

We also have every student participate in one AM class as a discussion leader (usually with one other student) who prepares an outline just for us that we review with the preparer(s) in advance but don’t grade. Rather, the grade is based on critique papers, assessing and responding to the week’s reading, that are due at the start of the AM class. Students are required to write 5 papers of about 6 to 8 pages (the details of this vary with the year) and can choose whichever weeks they like. One of the key pedagogical features of the class is that we write comments back to the students concerning their critique papers, often 2 or 3 pages long, containing a grade but also offering not just an assessment of how good a job the critique paper did but further thoughts on the issues it raised.

The day’s final event is a dinner, typically with 7 to 9 people including the authors, the conveners, and usually 1 to 3 students along with academics, practitioners, etcetera, who have attended the PM session. In addition to being enjoyable (given that we are in lower Manhattan, our motto is “14 weeks, 14 different places”), we also aim both to further pursue the PM session and to advance our aims of creating a tax policy discussion community where people inside and outside NYU, including students, make lasting connections with others.

One final point about our design is that it aims to be inter-disciplinary. I always co-teach it with an economist, and we exhibit some inclination to have the economists comment on more law-based papers while I comment on more economics-based papers. While we mainly invite law professors (and an occasional legal practitioner) and always try to keep in mind readability for the students and broader legal audience, we always have several papers by economists, and also invite political scientists and philosophers when they have suitable papers. Among invited law professors, we aim for a mix that includes junior people. We also interpret “tax policy” broadly to include, for example, budgetary issues, entitlements, transfers, and even topics such as regulatory mandates if they appear sufficiently “tax-like” for our discussion purposes.

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