In This Review

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom Through the Ages
Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom Through the Ages
By Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod
Princeton University Press, 2021, 536 pp.

Pretty much everyone dismisses tax policy as dull and dry—except the attorneys, accountants, and civil servants dedicated to collecting taxes or avoiding (or evading) them. Keen and Slemrod, two leading public finance specialists, demonstrate that, in fact, taxes are anything but dull. Relying on historical vignettes, they show that taxation can have unintended consequences; they describe, in one instance, how the English window tax of 1696 led to dark, dank, and even windowless homes. Their book is also a reminder of the importance of getting history right. They explain, for example, that the Boston Tea Party was actually a revolt against lower taxes—not higher ones—which threatened the livelihood of American tea smugglers. Keen and Slemrod use these stories as a frame for thinking about the challenges of taxation today. They ask, for example, what genetic markers that reliably predicted a person’s lifetime income would mean for defining tax liabilities. In step with policymakers in the Biden administration, the authors point to the need for fundamental changes in how governments tax corporate profits in a world of footloose balance sheets. It is hard to imagine a more timely—and entertaining—history of the fisc.