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Is Economics Useful for Public Policy?

Listed author(s):
  • James Alm

    ()

    (Department of Economics, Tulane University)

Economists have always played an important role in major public policy debates. Even so, I believe that the role of economists in these public policy discussions has often been misguided because it has typically relied upon "best practices", stated in the form of "general guidelines" or even "universal principles. However, "best practices" are not best if the specific situation does not conform with the assumptions that underlie the advice. So my first conclusion is a cautionary, and negative, one: Specific circumstances differ so profoundly across individuals, firms, markets, countries, and time that most any attempt to define "best practices" that apply in all circumstances will lead to profoundly misleading public policy recommendations. However, even if economics cannot identify "the" truth, it can often identify "a" truth. So my second conclusion is a more positive one: Economists should continue to develop multiple theories that inform public policies, but we should also focus our efforts on identifying and testing the critical assumptions that drive the results of these theories, recognizing that the validity of any assumptions will depend intimately on specific circumstances. I illustrate these two main conclusions with specific examples from my own work. I conclude with some "best practices" recommendations of my own, recognizing the obvious irony of such an effort.

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File URL: http://econ.tulane.edu/RePEc/pdf/tul1702.pdf
File Function: First Version, May 2017
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Paper provided by Tulane University, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 1702.

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Date of creation: May 2017
Handle: RePEc:tul:wpaper:1702
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  1. Alm, James & Bahl, Roy & Murray, Matthew N, 1990. "Tax Structure and Tax Compliance," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 72(4), pages 603-613, November.
  2. Peter Diamond & Emmanuel Saez, 2011. "The Case for a Progressive Tax: From Basic Research to Policy Recommendations," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 25(4), pages 165-190, Fall.
  3. N. Gregory Mankiw & Matthew Weinzierl & Danny Yagan, 2009. "Optimal Taxation in Theory and Practice," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 23(4), pages 147-174, Fall.
  4. Alm, James & Martinez-Vazquez, Jorge & McClellan, Chandler, 2016. "Corruption and firm tax evasion," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 146-163.
  5. Alm, James & Buschman, Robert D. & Sjoquist, David L., 2011. "Rethinking local government reliance on the property tax," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(4), pages 320-331, July.
  6. Norman Gemmell & Richard Kneller & Ismael Sanz, 2014. "The growth effects of tax rates in the OECD," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 47(4), pages 1217-1255, November.
  7. Kaplow, Louis, 1989. "Horizontal Equity: Measures in Search of a Principle," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 42(2), pages 139-54, June.
  8. Alm, James & Bruner, David M. & McKee, Michael, 2016. "Honesty or dishonesty of taxpayer communications in an enforcement regime," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 85-96.
  9. James Andreoni & Brian Erard & Jonathan Feinstein, 1998. "Tax Compliance," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 36(2), pages 818-860, June.
  10. Bruno Frey & Victor Ginsburgh & Pierre Pestieau & Werner W. Pommerehne & Friedrich Schneider, 1983. "Consensus, dissension and ideology among economists in various European countries and in the U.S," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/1761, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
  11. Alan J. Auerbach & Joel Slemrod, 1997. "The Economic Effects of the Tax Reform Act of 1986," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 35(2), pages 589-632, June.
  12. James Alm & Kim M. Bloomquist & Michael McKee, 2013. "When You Know Your Neighbor Pays Taxes: Information, Peer Effects, and Tax Compliance," Working Papers 13-22, Department of Economics, Appalachian State University.
  13. James Alm & Janet Rogers, 2011. "Do State Fiscal Policies Affect State Economic Growth?," Public Finance Review, , vol. 39(4), pages 483-526, July.
  14. Alm, James & Badgett, M.V. Lee & Whittington, Leslie A., 2000. "Wedding Bell Blues: The Income Tax Consequences of Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 53(n. 2), pages 201-14, June.
  15. Alm, James & Yunus, Mohammad, 2009. "Spatiality and Persistence in U.S. Individual Income Tax Compliance," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 62(1), pages 101-124, March.
  16. Alm, James & Sennoga, Edward B., 2010. "Mobility, Competition, and the Distributional Effects of Tax Evasion," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 63(4), pages 1055-1084, December.
  17. Alm, James & Jackson, Betty & McKee, Michael J., 1992. "Estimating the Determinants of Taxpayer Compliance With Experimental Data," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 45(1), pages 107-114, March.
  18. James Alm & J. Sebastian Leguizamon, 2015. "Whither the Marriage Tax?," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 68(2), pages 251-280, June.
  19. Frey, Bruno S. & Ginsburgh, Victor & Pestieau, Pierre & Pommerehne, Werner W. & Schneider, Friedrich, 1983. "Consensus, dissension and ideology among economists in various European countries and in the United States," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 23(1), pages 59-69, September.
  20. Alm, James & Badgett, M.V. Lee & Whittington, Leslie A., 2000. "Wedding Bell Blues: The Income Tax Consequences of Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 53(2), pages 201-214, June.
  21. Bibek Adhikari & James Alm, 2016. "Evaluating the Economic Effects of Flat Tax Reforms Using Synthetic Control Methods," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 83(2), pages 437-463, October.
  22. Agnar Sandmo, 2012. "An evasive topic: theorizing about the hidden economy," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 19(1), pages 5-24, February.
  23. Bakija, Jon & Steuerle, C. Eugene, 1991. "Individual Income Taxation Since 1948," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 44(4), pages 451-475, December.
  24. Michael Hallsworth, 2014. "The use of field experiments to increase tax compliance," Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 30(4), pages 658-679.
  25. James Alm & David L. Sjoquist, 2014. "State Government Revenue Recovery from the Great Recession," Working Papers 1408, Tulane University, Department of Economics.
  26. James Alm & Sally Wallace, 2007. "Are Jamaica’s Direct Taxes on Labor “Fair†?," Public Finance Review, , vol. 35(1), pages 83-102, January.
  27. Slemrod, Joel & Blumenthal, Marsha & Christian, Charles, 2001. "Taxpayer response to an increased probability of audit: evidence from a controlled experiment in Minnesota," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 79(3), pages 455-483, March.
  28. Nigar Hashimzade & Gareth D. Myles & Binh Tran-Nam, 2013. "Applications Of Behavioural Economics To Tax Evasion," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 27(5), pages 941-977, December.
  29. William G. Gale & Aaron Krupkin & Kim Rueben, 2015. "The Relationship Between Taxes and Growth at the State Level: New Evidence," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 68(4), pages 919-942, December.
  30. Lutz, Byron & Molloy, Raven & Shan, Hui, 2011. "The housing crisis and state and local government tax revenue: Five channels," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(4), pages 306-319, July.
  31. Bakija, Jon & Steuerle, C. Eugene, 1991. "Individual Income Taxation Since 1948," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 44(4), pages 451-75, December.
  32. Alm, James & Shimshack, Jay, 2014. "Environmental Enforcement and Compliance: Lessons from Pollution, Safety, and Tax Settings," Foundations and Trends(R) in Microeconomics, now publishers, vol. 10(4), pages 209-274, December.
  33. James Alm & Fitzroy Lee & Sally Wallace, 2005. "How fair? Changes in federal income taxation and the distribution of income, 1978 to 1998," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 24(1), pages 5-22.
  34. W. Robert Reed, 2009. "The Determinants Of U.S. State Economic Growth: A Less Extreme Bounds Analysis," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 47(4), pages 685-700, October.
  35. Emmanuel Saez & Joel Slemrod & Seth H. Giertz, 2012. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income with Respect to Marginal Tax Rates: A Critical Review," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 50(1), pages 3-50, March.
  36. Sheffrin,Steven M., 2013. "Tax Fairness and Folk Justice," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521148054, August.
  37. Allingham, Michael G. & Sandmo, Agnar, 1972. "Income tax evasion: a theoretical analysis," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 1(3-4), pages 323-338, November.
  38. James Alm & J. Sebastian Leguizamon & Susane Leguizamon, 2014. "Revisiting the Income Tax Effects of Legalizing Same‐Sex Marriages," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 33(2), pages 263-289, 03.
  39. Alm, James & Jackson, Betty & McKee, Michael J., 1992. "Estimating the Determinants of Taxpayer Compliance with Experimental Data," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 45(1), pages 107-14, March.
  40. Slemrod, Joel, 1995. "Professional Opinions About Tax Policy: 1994 and 1934," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 48(1), pages 121-147, March.
  41. James Alm, 2012. "Measuring, explaining, and controlling tax evasion: lessons from theory, experiments, and field studies," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 19(1), pages 54-77, February.
  42. Alston, Richard M & Kearl, J R & Vaughan, Michael B, 1992. "Is There a Consensus among Economists in the 1990's?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(2), pages 203-209, May.
  43. Kaplow, Louis, 1989. "Horizontal Equity: Measures in Search of a Principle," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 42(2), pages 139-154, June.
  44. A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), 2002. "Handbook of Public Economics," Handbook of Public Economics, Elsevier, edition 1, volume 4, number 4.
  45. James Alm & Chandler McClellan, 2012. "Tax Morale and Tax Compliance from the Firm's Perspective," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 65(1), pages 1-17, 02.
  46. Alm, James & Bahl, Roy & Murray, Matthew N, 1991. "Tax Base Erosion in Developing Countries," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 39(4), pages 849-872, July.
  47. Alm, James & Jackson, Betty R. & McKee, Michael, 1993. "Fiscal exchange, collective decision institutions, and tax compliance," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 22(3), pages 285-303, December.
  48. James Alm & Jeremy Clark & Kara Leibel, 2016. "Enforcement, Socioeconomic Diversity, and Tax Filing Compliance in the United States," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 725-747, January.
  49. Frey, Bruno S & Eichenberger, Reiner, 1992. "Economics and Economists: A European Perspective," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(2), pages 216-220, May.
  50. Slemrod, Joel, 1995. "Professional Opinions About Tax Policy: 1994 and 1934," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 48(1), pages 121-47, March.
  51. A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), 2002. "Handbook of Public Economics," Handbook of Public Economics, Elsevier, edition 1, volume 3, number 3.
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