Monday, October 12, 2015

Andrew Gelman: Hoisted from the Comments

This is Joseph

This comment from Andrew Gelamn showed up on an earlier post:

A related issue came up a few years ago regarding Mankiw's views on taxes: he seemed to think that the state should only tax things that are “unjustly wrestled from someone else.”

This seemed a bit odd to me, given that when you consider sales taxes, income taxes, import taxes, etc.: presumably almost none of these are taxing things that are unjustly wrested.

I think the usual view is that taxation is, from the government's perspective, a way to raise revenue; and, from the taxpayer's perspective, a cost of doing business. But Mankiw seems to view taxes as a sort of punishment or fine.

I actually don't think Mankiw has fully thought these ideas through, which seems strange given that his field is economics and his specialty is public communication.

Or maybe he just hasn't communicated well enough. Here's what I wrote in that earlier discussion:

"I realize that [Mankiw and his collaborator] are trying to be provocative, but I think they're being provocative in the context of an argument among economists that I don't fully understand. It's sort of an academic version of those all-black paintings in the Museum of Modern Art that can only be understood as responses to earlier paintings (as described, for example, in Tom Wolfe's book, The Painted Word)."

I rather liked this comment because it made me think that it was possible that I was missing the major thrust of the argument.  I am quite familiar with the "taxes are theft" line of thinking and I'd rather assumed that this was just a dressed up version of that argument.

But maybe there is a big piece that I am missing.  Given that, what I think would be the most useful thing would be for the defenders of this orthodoxy to insert some context.  Even if it is hard to grasp, saying something like "It's hard to grasp if you don't have a sense of the arguments that this is in response to" would be very useful (maybe with a couple of these arguments.

Immanuel Kant wrote the almost unintelligible (at least in English translations at the time I was in graduate school) critique of pure reason and followed it up with the (far more understandable)  Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, that I had not trouble following.  I still never quite managed to connect it to what was in the critique, but at least I had an idea of what the whole thing was about.

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