Reflections on Teaching a Doctoral Public Affairs Seminar in Public Finance

This semester I teach my doctoral public affairs seminar in public revenue. When I was a graduate economics student, most of the emphasis in the analogous class I took was on learning how to solve the calculus laid out in theoretical papers and understanding their relationship to structural empirical work. Overall you learn a lot about how to write a paper right now in the field. What are the major questions being asked? How are they being approached? What are the data/methods/literature being cited?

That is a very good way to teach a doctoral seminar, but I’ve drifted away from it. They get some of that, of course, but I feel like in many ways those are some of the easiest things to pick up by attending a conference or skimming recent issues of journals. I also have only so much capability to remain current on those questions for all the variety of topics in any case. What is the best thing to learn in a field when you have a weekly 3-hours conversation for four months? Or perhaps, what can be learned that benefits most from that design?

I have drifted (not yet “arrived”) towards organizing the course around “classics” where for a variety of topics the students read them to see the history of thought. I still need them to be able to pick up and read a contemporary technical paper, but I want them also to be able to read the paper in its place over the long arch of a topic, as part of a multi-decade conversation emerges that they (the students) are going to join. A drawback of figuring out how to jump into a literature “right now” is that it tends to discuss the literature as originating with something like a 1995 Diff-in-Diff. It is definitely true that this is important, but it feels shallow to me compared to the intellectual tradition one joins. Of more current papers, I like the ones that connect to that history.

Public finance, make no mistake, has a intellectually rich history of scholarship that I would consider a tragedy to lose. The oldest ideas relate to problems of state building, competing philosophies of equitable contributions/sacrifice, notions of democratic rights, and individual self-worth. Excess burden is not an obvious welfare statistic, but emerged through arguments of treating individuals as having some piece of the divine in them worthy of respected rights. The history of thought approach, I think, also carries with it the hope that students will potentially be better trained for the questions that we aren’t asking right now and drawing more personal self-worth out of their own research agenda.

For those interested, here are is my reading list and critical reflection questions. As I said, it is drifting and not yet arrived, and would appreciate any suggestions. (E.g. I still don’t have a harmonious way to bring in John Stuart Mill’s writings on “the tax state,” I probably need to add a wealth tax section to do so.)

Here is a sample from the critical reflection questions:

Optimal Taxation

Imagine humans invent a machine that produces a same-age perfectly identical twin. There is a marginal cost to using the machine to make this copy. Offer some perspectives from the readings on how to think about the Optimal Tax Policy in this brave new world. 1 page.

And here are my introductory week readings, a series of “chapter 1’s”:

Public Finance: Introduction

Hillman, Arye L. (2017). “Markets.” Chapter 1 in Public Finance and Public Policy, 3rd Edition. Cambridge Press.

Musgrave, Richard A. and Peggy B. Musgrave.  1980.  Public Finance in Theory and Practice, New York: McGraw-Hill. Chapter 1.

Poterba, James M.  1998.  “Public Finance and Public Choice,” National Tax Journal, 51 (2): 391-396.

Martin, Isaac William, Ajay K. Mehrotra, Monica Prasad. 2009. “The Thunder of History: The Origins and Development of the New Fiscal Sociology.” Chapter 1 of The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective. Cambrdige Press.

Monson, Andrew and Walter Scheidel. 2015. “Studying Fiscal Regimes.” Chapter 1 of Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States. Cambridge Press.