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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Structuring a Tax Policy Workshop Series -- UCLA

Kirk Stark, co-host of UCLA's Colloquium on Tax Policy and Public Finance, continues our series on how to best structure a tax policy workshop series:

We started the UCLA Colloquium on Tax Policy and Public Finance in January 2004. From the outset, one of our main objectives was to bring in speakers from a wide range of fields in the hopes of contributing to a dialogue on tax policy that transcends the usual disciplinary boundaries of academia.

Toward that end, we have hosted 56 speakers from several areas of study, including law, government, economics, political science, history and sociology. We also wanted to take advantage of the law school's proximity to other schools and departments here on the UCLA campus. While the workshop is organized each Spring by two of us here in the law school (alternately including Eric Zolt, Kirk Stark, Steve Bank and -- before he left for better weather -- Victor Fleischer), we've been fortunate to have other UCLA faculty regularly involved as well. Most notably, we've benefited greatly from the regular attendance of Al Harberger from our economics department. Al has attended nearly every session since January 2004 and on more than one occasion has graced our whiteboard with his famous triangles.

Our format has varied from year to year. Our typical approach has been to give the author 20-30 minutes to present the paper, followed by 10-15 minutes of remarks from a designated commentator. The commentator is often one of us, but we've also been very fortunate to draw in some our colleagues from other LA schools, including Ted Seto, Ellen Aprill and Katie Pratt from Loyola and Ed McCaffery and Tom Griffith from USC. Like the other tax policy workshops already discussed here on TaxProf, ours is open to students, who are allowed to enroll in the workshop for law school credit. We've gone back and forth on the question of devoting class time to introducing students to the various topics to be covered in upcoming workshops. For example, one semester we interspersed the workshops with two-hour sessions devoted to discussing assigned readings on a particular subject, ranging from tax incidence theory to transfer pricing. At a minimum, we assign students some basic public finance reading (typically from one or more of the public finance textbooks) at the beginning of the semester with an eye toward getting them up to speed on some of the vocabulary of tax policy analysis. In addition, we sometimes assign two or three related articles so that the student have a better sense of the literature in which the author is writing.

We've also experimented with co-hosting our workshop with other workshops here at UCLA. For example, last year we co-hosted a session with Seana Shiffrin's Legal Theory Workshop. The presenter was Rob Reich, a political theorist from Stanford, who presented his work on a political theory of philanthropy, which included an extended critique of tax subsidies for charitable contributions. While it can be hard to coordinate schedules and find authors whose work satisfies both workshops' intended subject areas, our experience suggests that it is well worth the effort.

Probably the best thing about running a workshop like this is the sense that you are participating in a tangible way with the cross-fertilization of ideas in the tax policy community. It's hard to imagine a better way to stay engaged with developments in a field than by devoting several months each year to face-to-face exchanges with leading scholars on their forthcoming work.

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