Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Second-Best Tax Book of the Year

Martin Sullivan, author of Corporate Tax Reform, can be excused if he feels like the folks who make the Samsung tablet computer.   He's got a fine product out there, a lot to be proud of.  But he has the misfortune to have published the second-most successful tax book of the year, behind Bruce Bartlett's The Benefit and the BurdenWhich is not at all to suggest that Sullivan's is an inferior book, nor that Samsung's is an inferior tablet (nor, for that matter, that Bartlett has achieved wealth equivalent to the gross domestic product of Slovenia).  No surprise that Amazon brackets for cut-price sale, even though Sullivan weighs in at about 106,000th in the league tables while Bartlett  stands just now at 650th (sic--off by two orders of magnitude; and I see that Amazon offers me in the "also bought" list, Jacob Hacker's Winner-Take All Politics--heh). 

More than, the two books are in some ways hard to tell apart.  Both do an admirable job of explaining an impenetrable subject in a manner that the slow learner can handle.   Sullivan's writing has perhaps a tad more personality which may or may not be a a virtue but it certainly is a detail.  Both, so far as I can tell, end up pretty much at the same point on the policy agenda: against our own, they'd prefer  tax system that unburdened by incoherent but politically attractive inefficiencies.  They aren't crazy about taxing capital but they know that consumption taxes impose unacceptable burdens on the poor.  It may be that Bartlett leans more strongly towards a value-added tax but that is just a guess.

The problem with Sullivan's book (if there is one) is structural.  Coming out of the chute, his remit is narrower: the corporate tax as distinct from tax reform as a whole.  This does set him up for a presentation of issues in the corporate tax more searching than you'd get from Bartlett. But you'd really have to love the topic of the corporate tax to follow him all the way through the intricacies of transfer pricing and pass-through entities (I skimmed a bit). Yet ironically, his remit isn't that much after all.  Considering alternatives to the corporate income tax leads him to a review of VAT; also the "flat tax" and the "fair tax" (heh!) just as you would find in Bartlett.

Obviously if you were looking for an overview of the tax system as a whole, the choice would be Bartlett.  But you'd be short-changing yourself if you didn't lay your hands on both.  At least the first few chapters of Sullivan are clear value-added and put important meat on the bones of Bartlett's outline.

Aside: curses on Bartlett's publisher for sending him out with such an anodyne title.  I'm piling up more and more policy books on my Kindle with titles so meaningless that I simply can't remember which is about what.  On this count at least, Sullivan is a hands-down winner (note to blurb writers: please do not quote "Sullivan is a hands-down winner").  

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