Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The "Most Luxurious" Tax Plan

Citizens for Tax Justice have analyzed Trump's tax cut plan in a new report. Unsurprisingly, he gives the "most luxurious" tax cuts to the wealthy... and increases the deficit significantly over 10 years.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Grit and How to Grow It: Addressing Declining Student Resilience

My friend and college classmate, Allison Hagood, teaches psychology at Arapahoe Community College in Denver, Colorado. Last week she shared an article from the September 22, 2015 issue of Psychology Today "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges."  The article traces the increasing demand by college students for psychological and other services to address depression and anxiety, their desire to avoid challenge, and the impact of these trends on faculty teaching (and ultimately, student learning outcomes). The article discusses the collective perception of college and graduate-level faculty and administrators that today's students are more needy and less resilient than those of prior generations, issues discussed in more depth in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education "An Epidemic of Anguish." 

Peter Gray, the author of the Psychology Today article, argues that there is a link between the dramatic decline in play from over-scheduling and students' increased anxiety and depression, lack of emotional resilience, and inability to cope during college. He argues that students need to experience opportunities to play, explore, pursue their own interests, and solve their own problems.

These are important insights for parents who might be tempted to over-schedule, intervene and place too much emphasis on performance rather than effort and enjoyment. However, it does not help the current set of students who are having these experiences or the faculty and administrators who are teaching them. Fortunately, a number of scholars have been observing this trend for a while and have begun to develop resources for faculty and students to facilitate learning and growth.

First, Angela Lee Duckworth explains the importance of resilience in long term success in her TED Talk The Key to Sucecss: Grit. Silicon Valley has long recognized that "failing intelligently is an important skill" and has begun offering premiums for those who have failed and learned from their experience, because embracing failure is an essential part of innovation.

Second, there are a number of resources to help students, faculty and parents understand that a shift in mindset can improve student experiences and advance learning. Brene Brown has several books and TED Talks on the impact of shame, the value of vulnerability and the joy of daring greatly. Shawn Anchor describes the payoff of being happier at work (and school) in his TED Talk on The Happy Secret to Better Work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the ideal state for generating happiness: Flow, The Secret to Happiness.

Third, several scholars are helping students shift their mindsets to lower the emotional stakes, and make failure fun again, since it's an essential part of the learning process. Carol S. Dweck describes how to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset to reduce stress and improve performance in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek have produced a book that helps students understand the neuroscience of learning and the importance of repeatedly engaging with challenging material over a long period of time in The New Science of Learning, How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain   [Note: I give this book to my students to read before the semester begins.]

Law school and college faculty are also developing new resources to advance college and post-graduate education. Flipped classrooms and active learning techniques give students low-stakes opportunities to make effort, receive feedback, and learn from their peers' and their own mistakes. Terry Doyle has written a book encouraging college professors to shift to a model of Learner Centered Teaching, Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. In the law school context, the book, What the Best Law Teachers Do by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow, provides alternatives to the standard lecture course and Socratic method options that have long held sway in legal education.

Finally, I have found that structure, clear procedures and organization are even more important if you are going to deviate from an institutional norm. While nothing has been developed at the college and grad school level, one book confirmed my classroom experiences with using innovative teaching techniques: You can demand more from students when you give them clear structure and predictability. I recommend The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, 4th Edition, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong for all beginning teachers, particularly those who have had no prior training.

We should all practice resilience. If our current process isn't working, let's recognize our failures and innovate. Consider: (1) sharing with our students what science has shown to be the true keys to success and happiness, (2) shifting our priorities away from evaluation, perfection and shame and toward effort and learning and growth, (3) providing structure and low-stakes active learning opportunities, and finally, (4) recognizing what works for Silicon Valley, where some of the most fertile and productive minds are transforming our world, may also work for the rest of us.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Global Conference on Environmental Taxation - Outside the Tax Box

Dr. Anna Poelina
The 16th Global Conference on Environmental Taxation brought tax and environmental law experts from twenty-three countries to discuss the use tax and other market-based instruments to manage natural resources and address environmental concerns throughout the world. GCET is "the leading global forum for exchanges on the principles and practices of environmental taxation and other market-based instruments relevant for greening of the economy and a more sustainable development." The conference drew leaders from the following sectors, industries, fields and occupations:
  • tax and accounting, such as Chas Roy-Chowdhury, Head of Taxation, ACCA
  • consulting, such as Martijn Wilder AM, Head of Global Environmental Markets, Baker & McKenzie
  • international development and environmental management, such as Nils Axel Braathen, Principal Administrator, Environment Directorate, OECD
  • diplomacy, such as Hugo Llorens, Consul General of Consulate General of United States in Sydney, 
  • land trusts, such as Gary Wells, CEO of the Nature Conservative Trust of NSW,
  • mining industry, such as Samantha Daly, Partner, McCullough Robertson
  • government, such as John Seidel, Principal Project Officer, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage
  • NGOs, such as Dr. Anne Poelina, Managing Director, Madjulla Incorporated.
Most of the presentations covered traditional topics, including green fiscal reform, market instruments, energy, fuel and carbon pricing, and renewable energy and innovation. For example, representatives from the US, Roberta Mann (University of Oregon) presented her work Tax Fuel or Miles, Mona Hymel (University of Arizona) delivered her papers on Fighting for Water: Can Federal Market Instruments create a National Trading System in the United States? and Energy Tax Incentives (Oops, I mean “Expenditures”): Did Surrey’s Tax Expenditure Concept Really Impact Tax Laws?, and I presented Picking Winners And Losers: A Qualitative Examination Of Tax Subsidies To The Energy Industry.

Some of the papers, however, extended to biodiversity protection and environmental stewardship. 
One of my favorite presentations was by Dr. Anna Poelina, "A Case Study for Environmental Tax Offsets: Collaboration of Indigenous Science and Western Science to Value and Protect Cultural and Geoheritage Landscapes as Culture, Science and Conservation (Green) Economies." She has developed a website and has been been using film to educate and inform the world of the rare beauty of the Mardoowarra, the Nyikina name of the river now known as the Fitzroy in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and protect it from the increasingly severe incursions of the mining industry. The films showcase the cultural and natural assets of the area and relay information about lawsuits that have been brought against Rio Tinto following the release of scientific studies about the impacts of mining on the Mardoowarra.

Perhaps the Apache could use film as well as the Internet to share their perspective on the recent Congressional trade of Apache sacred land to Rio Tinto in a fine-print rider attached to the military spending bill in December of 2014, the National Defense Authorization Act.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Conversation with the Future

The Global Conference on Environmental Taxation has been a terrific experience. Participants hail from 23 different countries, with a solid contingent from Asia. The presentations are all very timely. One of my favorite moments was when two scholars from China, Mingde Cao and Mingming Liu, discussed whether the Chinese government would move forward with a cap-and-trade regime or a carbon tax. Note that China has just today announced their decision to move forward with a cap-and-trade program. The scholars discussed the various advantages of a carbon tax (flexibility, management of uncertainty, administration), but they favored a carbon tax primarily because it was less susceptible to corruption. I later talked with them about the courage that it takes to speak publicly about the risks of fraud and corruption. They said that technology has given Chinese society greater access to information and that people have become more bold about discussing these matters. They agreed that the government's current concern with corruption also provides an important context for discussing these issues.

The keynote address last night was by Bob Carr, former Premier of New South Wales. Taking Teddy Roosevelt as his inspiration, he created over 400 new state parks, preserving significant stands of old growth forest, and cleaned up Sydney Harbor so that now the dolphins and the whales Have returned. He said that our mandate must be to increase environmental literacy. All our work to preserve, to restore and to protect our environmental resources is a living "conversation we are having with the future and future generations." The conference presented Mr. Carr with an award for his work on behalf of the environment. For more information on today's activities, see the GCET conference program.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Flying to Sydney, Australia for the 16th Global Conference on Environmental Taxation

This week I'm excited to be flying to Sydney, Australia to present a paper at the 16th Global Conference on Environmental Taxation. The theme of the conference is Green Fiscal Reform: Protecting our Natural Resources for a Sustainable Future.

The last time I visited Australia, this is how the Sydney Harbor appeared. I'm looking forward to seeing how much has changed!

But then, this leads to reflections on how much I have changed since I visited Sydney (on holidays from a one-year Rotary Fellowship with the University of Melbourne). My time in Australia marked the turning point from a career in biology to one in law.

The host for the conference is the University of Technology, Sydney, Law Faculty. More details about the conference proceedings are here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Flying to Chicago for the ABA 2015 Joint Fall CLE Meeting, September 17-19

I'm excited and honored to be flying to Chicago for the ABA 2015 Joint Fall CLE Meeting held September 17-19.

Gilbert Metcalf, a famous Tufts economists, whom I've cited many, many times in my research, will be on my panel session on Tax Policy & Simplification. I will be presenting a portion of my paper Picking Winners and Losers: A Structural Examination of Tax Subsidies for the Energy Industry. The session is from 9:30AM - 11:30AM on Friday September 18. Please join us!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Active Learning Versus Lecture

Yesterday, Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and author of a forthcoming book on learning called Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, wrote an op/ed article for the New York Times asking "Are College Lectures Unfair?"

She reports that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students." She blames the lecture format itself as the source of unfair advantage and touts "active learning" methodologies for breaking down the advantages lecture provides to more privileged undergraduates. An identical version of her article posted on her blog contains links to the research she cites.

While I'm not familiar with the research on race, gender and class, I am familiar with the growing scientific literature on how we learn. Some of this research is summarized in a book for students, written by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, called "The New Science of Learning." I like to give my students a copy of this book before the semester begins. Here are the key ideas, quoted from the first chapter:
1. Neuroscience research shows that when you learn something new, there is a physical change in your brain. Some of your brain cells establish connections with other brain cells to form new networks of cells, which represent the new learning that has taken place.
2. Every time you use or practice newly learned information or skills, the connections between the brain cells get stronger and your ability to recall the information becomes faster. This is called long-term potentiation.
3. The important message for all learners is that new learning requires a considerable amount of practice and a meaningful connection to other information in order to become a permanent part of memory.
4. Neuroseince research has also found that to form lasting memories, practice needs to happen over extended periods. Psychologists call this the distributed practice effect.
5. Cramming is not learning. A day or two of cramming is not nearly enough time for the brain to form the permanent memories necessary to meet the neuroscience definition of learning.
6. You can demonstrate learning by using new information to help you learn similar new information or by applying it to problems beyond those you have been doing in class. Psychologists call this transference. 
7. The human brain is constantly looking for connections to prior knowledge. These connections link previously learned material to new material, creating a more meaningful understanding of the new material.
8. The message from neuroscience researchers is relatively simple: "The one who does the work does the learning." Only when you practice, read, write, think, talk, collaborate and reflect does your brain make permanent connections. Your teachers cannot do this for you.

Terry Doyle has also written a book for teachers called Learner Centered Teaching - Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Other resources are contained in his blog/website.

Many active learning techniques and methodologies are used by the most successful law teachers as reported by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess and Sophie M. Sparrow in their book What the Best Law Teachers Do and on their website The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning.

Active learning methodologies improve learning outcomes. This is why, in my law school classes, I divide the content into modules, give students grade credit for turning in their homework (points based on effort), provide take-home assignments to draft client advice letters and memoranda for credit, and give mid-term exams as well as final exams. Students need feedback and iterative opportunities to improve their skills and performance. While providing interim assignments and feedback definitely creates more work for the law professor, science indicates that they move all students more steadily toward academic (and for law students, professional) success. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Europe's Refugee Crisis and Syria's Climate Conflict

Current and former Pentagon officials have been talking about climate security for years.

The refugee crisis in Syria (spreading now to Europe) began with a five-year drought that has been exacerbated by climate change. The Smithsonian published an article on the issue in 2013. The New York Times and National Geographic covered the issue in March.

A new comic available through Upworthy, circulating via Facebook, tells the story in a few images.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Washington State's Carbon Tax Initiative

Yesterday, Harvard economist, Gregory Mankiw wrote an article for the New York Times, The Key Role of Conservatives in Taxing Carbon, commenting on a proposal for a carbon tax. A coalition, comprised of a number of representatives from a variety of environmental organizations and local communities, known as the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, has opposed a carbon tax initiative in Washington State because they think that the revenues from the carbon tax should be used differently. Mankiw takes a political angle in his article, urging conservatives to support carbon taxes by suggesting that the opposition comes from Democrats (though there is no Democratic leadership identified in the coalition's steering committee). Mankiw does not, however, discuss why the carbon tax proposed by Carbon Washington is good policy or why the opposition's proposals are potentially problematic. I'd like to do that here.

First, I'd like to explain how the Washington State carbon tax would work and examine that proposal. Then I'll consider the main concerns of the opposition. The full text of the proposal is available here.
  • How the tax works: The proposed carbon tax for Washington state will tax fossil fuels at an initial rate of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, increasing to $25 per ton in the second year and then increasing at a rate of 3.5% plus inflation (up to a maximum of $100 in 2016 dollars). The carbon tax on fuels will be collected from businesses licensed to sell fuels (such as motor vehicle fuels and aircraft fuels) and crude oil used to manufacture other petroleum products. The carbon tax on electricity will be collected from utilities in a manner similar to sales and use taxes. When the prices increase for electricity, gasoline and goods that are manufactured and transported using fossil fuels, people will tend to use less of them. They may decide to use less electricity by lowering the thermostat, take public transportation, or find substitute goods (that are cheaper because they are manufactured, transported and delivered without the use of fossil fuels).
  • Exemptions: Public transportation systems and agriculture are initially exempt from the full impact of the tax; instead the tax will phase-in over a 40-year period for these sectors.  These phase-ins will limit the price increases for public transportation and food grown in Washington. In addition, those who use carbon sequestration can have their taxes rebated. 
  • Who pays (ultimately): Even though the tax is collected from businesses, the tax will be passed forward to consumers. Taxes on energy are ultimately included in the purchase price of all goods and services that use fossil fuels in manufacturing and transporting goods. As I explained in my 2010 article on carbon taxes and cap and trade systems, Mitigating the Distributional Impacts of Climate Change Policy, all incidence studies show that regardless of who collects the tax, consumers are the ones who ultimately pay it. People can avoid the tax by reducing their use of gas, electricity, and goods manufactured using fossil fuels. The goal of the tax is to encourage people to make changes (such as lowering the thermostat in the winter and raising it in the summer, weatherizing their homes, and using public transportation) that use less fossil fuel-based energy. The carbon tax will also likely create demand for non-fossil fuel energy resources.
  • Use of Revenues: The carbon tax is expected to generate $1.7 billion in revenues. I-732 proposes to use those revenues to reduce the sales tax, provide a rebate to low-income working families and eliminate the business and occupational tax for manufacturers.  Each of these proposals have pros and cons.
    • Reduction in the State Sales Tax. The I-732 carbon tax proposal is revenue neutral. The money collected from the carbon tax will be delivered back to the people who are impacted by the carbon tax (rather than used by the government on other projects). In my article about a national level carbon tax or cap-and-trade policy, I argued that the revenues should be rebated to households as a lump sum and should be delivered to households through the income tax. Reducing the sales tax is less efficient and less effective because the price decreases through the sales tax undercut the price increases from the carbon tax (resulting in higher use of fossil fuels than the carbon tax was designed to deliver). A lump sum rebate would be more effective because it allows the carbon tax to work, but then returns the funds to households at a later time and in a manner that they are more likely to spend the money on something other than energy or fuels. In my article, I proposed to deliver the lump sum rebate through the income tax because it would be easy to administer (income tax administrators calculate income annually, household energy use and other consumption roughly corresponds to income, and rebates could be calculated based on income). However, Washington State does not have an income tax. Therefore, the sales tax reduction is not a bad substitute. A reduction in the sales tax would also track more closely household carbon consumption than estimates based on income by quintile (my proposal).
    • Rebate for Working Households. In addition to the sales tax reduction, I-732 proposes a rebate of up to $1500 a year for low-income households in Washington state that receive the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This proposal reaches many of the households that would experience the most harsh effects of the carbon tax, but it would not generally reach elderly households or unemployed individuals. 
    • Elimination (more or less) of the Business and Occupational Tax for Manufacturers.  Manufacturers in Washington State would likely be harmed by the tax. If they pass the carbon tax forward to retailers, and ultimately to consumers, their goods will have higher prices than those manufactured in other parts of the United States and the world. This puts the manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage and may encourage them to close factories in Washington state and move to locations that are not impacted by the carbon tax. This is known as "leakage." By reducing the Business and Occupational Tax, I-782 may be effectively offsetting the impacts of the carbon taxes on these businesses and the goods they manufacture. This is not an optimal result. Ideally you want the price of goods to reflect their carbon content (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted as a result of their manufacture, transportation and use). However, this may be the best means available to keep businesses from moving out of Washington State. Washington cannot impose border taxes on goods imported from other states or countries under the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3),  and the Import-Export Clause (Article I, Section 10, Clause 2) of the Constitution
The Alliance for Clean Jobs and Energy appears to oppose I-732 (though they have not made a statement on their website).   
  • Carbon Tax versus Cap-and-Trade? The Alliance has previously supported cap-and-trade legislation proposed by the governor. In general, cap and trade programs are less efficient, and in some circumstances, less effective than carbon taxes. As my friend, Shi-Ling Hsu, one of the authors of the I-732 carbon tax proposal, has explained in his book, The Case for a Carbon Tax, a carbon tax is better than cap-and-trade because it is precise, flexible, easily implemented and administered, less susceptible to arbitrage and gaming, and less likely to create entrenched interests that will oppose future innovations.  
  • Better Use of Revenues. The main concern of the Alliance appears to be that they believe the carbon tax revenues should be spent differently. According to a Seattle Times news article, the coalition's leaders argue that the carbon-tax revenues should be spent on clean-energy investments, schools and other community programs. The cap-and-trade proposal that the Alliance supported in the past would have directed revenues to the state education budget, transportation projects, and affordable housing programs. While these projects are laudatory, beneficial and needed, they will not benefit the coalition of community groups in the short term, and may not benefit them to the degree that the decrease in the sales tax and the rebates would.  This use of revenues would also not likely be as popular on a state-wide basis.
    • Future Benefits Versus Current Relief. First, any benefits from using carbon tax revenues to construct affordable housing, schools and renewable energy facilities are likely to occur in the future. The design, permitting, and construction for these kinds of projects all take time. In the meantime, low-income households will suffer preferentially from the carbon tax because they spend a larger percentage of their income on energy than higher income households and they have less ability to reduce those costs because they rent their homes and lack the authority to make weatherization improvements.  
    • Distribution of Benefits. Affordable housing and improved transportation are often hotly disputed land use issues that cause delays and increase costs. Their benefits will not be distributed uniformly or even according to the amount of carbon tax paid. The structure of the programs often determine who benefits from these projects. A recent Supreme Court case demonstrates that states can further a pattern of discrimination by steering affordable housing to certain neighborhoods. Even if affordable housing units are developed in optimal locations, low-income households may not receive much of the intended benefit. Some studies have shown that affordable housing subsidies (such as tax credits) are enjoyed primarily by tax credit investors and developers rather than the households they are intended to benefit. Each dollar of subsidy is estimated to only provide 35 cents in rent savings for low income households. Similarly, the benefits of tax subsidies to renewable energy projects appear to accrue primarily to investors rather than consumers because of the transaction costs and other costs associated with tax credit transactions.
    • Popularity of Tax Cuts Versus Investments. The coalition also suggests that alternative energy investments, affordable housing, and improved schools would be more popular than tax cuts. I think that the opposite is true. The tax is imposed throughout Washington State. While many of the political interests in the urban centers would support use of carbon tax revenues for energy development, affordable housing and school improvements, the less urban areas are quite conservative. They would likely find reductions in the state sales tax and rebates more appealing because they entail less redistribution. When revenues are to be steered toward certain types of government programs, it's not always clear who the winners and losers will be. This uncertainty may undermine efforts to pass the initiative. For a broader discussion, please see Section III of my carbon tax article, which discusses the equity and efficiency of alternate proposals for uses of revenues from carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs. The paper evaluates the fairness the different proposals from a variety of political perspectives. 
While providing a lump sum rebate to consumers from the carbon tax revenues would be ideal in terms of achieving efficiency and managing the equity problems that arise from the carbon tax, the I-732 proposal has been constructed well and thoughtfully. Based on the political economy of Washington State, it has a higher likelihood of being passed than either a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax in which the revenues are used for particular projects. It will also offset the impacts to low-income households in a more straightforward way. While additional provisions to aid unemployed workers and elderly households would improve the program, the proposal appears to be politically feasible, effective, and just.