Monday, January 19, 2009

The Tax Canon -- Mirrlees '71 (Part 1)

It is a great testament to my laziness that I have failed to yet finish J. A. Mirrlees, An Exploration in the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation, 38 Rev. Econ. Stud. 175 (1971) simply because I came across a bit of math that I no longer remember how to work with. To continue reading I must either: 1. assume that my current understanding is good enough (it's a pretty minor point anyway), or 2. crack a book that is sitting on my shelf at home and spend ten minutes getting back up to speed. For days now I have elected to do neither. In any case, I think I'll post some background information in the hopes that this will motivate me to hurry up and finish.

I have heard the name Mirrlees a number of times, but I did not until now know anything about him or his work. (This is officially the part of the blog post where I admit to now feeling stupid.) Apparently Professor Mirrlees won a Swedish prize of some sort in 1996 -- other than that he's not so notable. (This is probably where I first heard of him.)

It seems that Professor Mirrlees is an economist's economist -- the sort of brilliant person who made me realize that my efforts in grad school were pointless, thus causing me to leave with a lowly MA. He's the sort who seems to enjoy complex mathematics for its own sake, and ends up shedding light on some of mankind's more pressing problems merely by happy happenstance. Reading his mini-autobiography, one learns that Professor Mirrlees has exuded brilliance (though he would not make such an immodest claim) since boyhood, and continues to work for the simple pleasure of it. His many publications are phenomenol in their breadth as well as their complexity (so it seems to me anyway) and I hope to have the chance to read some of it in the future. (Actually, if I want to learn anything about optimal tax theory, I will have no choice but to read many Mirrlees papers.)

Most interestingly, much commentary about Professor Mirrlees' work on optimal taxation points out how much it is at odds with what most of us assume must be attributes of an efficient and effective tax system. I'll save a breakdown for my later post about his '71 paper, but suffice it to say that it is officially gee whiz stuff.

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