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January 30, 2006
The Encyclopedia of Taxation and Tax Policy
Joseph J. Thorndike

Full Text Published by Tax AnalystsTM

The Encyclopedia of Taxation and Tax Policy, 2nd Edition. Edited by Joseph J. Cordes, Robert D. Ebel, and Jane G. Gravelle. Urban Institute Press, 2005. 453 pages. $75.


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Alphabetical

The traditional organizational structure for encyclopedias, dictionaries, and many other reference works. Also a useful conceit for reviewers of such works. (I offer particular apologies to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who used an alphabetical structure last fall to review The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.)

Ambition

The object of desire and effort; a goal. In this case, to create the first "knowledge central" for tax policy, "a single source of rigorously peer reviewed but highly readable information on the key issues of public finance."

When first published in 1999, the Encyclopedia of Taxation and Tax Policy made good on that ambition, at least in part. Widely hailed as a valuable tool for expert and neophyte alike, the book found a place on library shelves across the nation. The new edition builds on that success, and its various enhancements make it worth the new investment. After all, time, tide, and tax policy wait for no man; while hardly obsolete, the first edition of the encyclopedia is already showing its age. See entries below for Expand and Zeitgeist.

But the editors hope they've created something more than just a reference tome. "For some, this volume will serve as a quick one- stop source for definitions, concepts, and topic overviews," suggest the editors. "However, others may want to read the book cover to cover to get an overview of the discipline and a sense of how various tax issues relate to one another." That seems a stretch; this isn't exactly bedtime reading, even for the dedicated tax wonk.

Audience

According to promotional materials from the Urban Institute Press, "this book is a must-have reference not only for tax professionals, but for anyone involved in public policy and public administration." That seems a fair assessment. There's much to interest tax professionals here, especially since few can claim expertise in every sphere of tax policy. But the most grateful audience will certainly be found outside the tax community. Many professions and disciplines touch on tax policy, if only occasionally and unpredictably. The encyclopedia provides a useful introduction to a notoriously obscure set of topics. See Readability.

Expand

To increase in size; to make larger in scope or extent. The revised edition of the tax encyclopedia includes more than 40 new entries, bringing the total to almost 250. Some of the additions fill odd gaps in the original volume. (The entry for "tax" makes its first appearance in this revised edition.) Others seem to reflect the changing political context. See Zeitgeist.

Expert

A person with special knowledge, skill, or learning; an authority. The encyclopedia reflects the combined wisdom and learning of more than 150 tax experts. Drawn from the membership roster of the National Tax Association, the authors include many of the nation's leading tax scholars. Some are true giants of the field; is anyone better equipped to write about tax fairness than Richard Musgrave? As a group, the authors are the fiscal philosophes of our generation. Who better to prepare our version of the Encyclopédie?

Opinion

A judgment, belief, or conviction; something often absent from encyclopedias and other reference works. Happily, the tax encyclopedia avoids the tedious temptation to drain the life out of tax policy. Many of the entries manifest a discernible, if generally balanced, point of view. They illuminate contentious issues without retreating to bland description.

For instance, William G. Gale of the Brookings Institution authored entries for "flat tax" and "retail sales tax, national." Both are even-handed, but they also reflect his well- established -- and generally critical -- view of those ideas. "As a replacement for the existing federal tax system, a national retail sales tax is a non-starter," he contends in characteristic fashion. That sort of judgment will certainly irritate partisans, but I think it reflects well on the encyclopedia as a whole. It certainly makes for better reading.

Readability

The quality or capacity of being easy to read. In their preface, the editors of the tax encyclopedia declare their fealty to this noble ideal. And generally speaking, they've come pretty close to realizing it. In his review of the first edition, my colleague David Brunori suggested that some of the entries were needlessly technical, and he urged the editors to focus on "simple prose" when it came time for revision.

Several entries in the new edition seem to reflect a renewed commitment to readability. Others seem stubbornly -- if perhaps unavoidably -- immune to such revision. You won't encounter many equations in the tax encyclopedia, but you'll still find a few.

Zeitgeist

The defining spirit or mood of a period. The politics of policymaking are notoriously fluid; ideas and proposals move in and out of fashion with often alarming speed. As a result, no encyclopedia could hope to stay relevant without regular updates. The changes to the second edition -- and particularly the new entries -- clearly reflect a new political context. This isn't Bill Clinton's Washington anymore, and tax politics have changed quite a bit since the turn of the millennium. Consider a few of the new entries:

  • child tax credit;
  • dynamic revenue estimating;
  • expenditure tax;
  • retail sales tax, national; and
  • x-tax.

None of those subjects is new to the tax policy arena, but all have assumed new prominence during the last half-decade. Indeed, you can discern the main currents of modern tax politics from the pages of this encyclopedia.

Joseph J. Thorndike is a contributing editor with Tax Analysts.