Against Tuohey on Haslag, and a comment about taxes

So here is an interesting post by Patrick Tuohey, editor of the Missouri Record (a publication that has previously featured at least one essay by yours truly). In this post, Tuohey very uncharitably slams Show-Me Institute economist Joe Haslag’s latest paper on taxation (disclosure: Haslag taught my Introduction to Macroeconomics class circa 2005). Here is an excerpt from Tuohey’s post:

I’ll take the authors’ word for it because I cannot make heads of tails of the essay itself.  It begins with,

Which tax structure — sales or income — is most preferred by the typical Missourian? For the purposes of this essay, the notion of “most preferred” is formalized as lifetime welfare. Both sales and income taxes are distortionary.

That is when I skipped the following twelve pages to get to that summary.  The writing is so opaque that I defy anyone without an advanced degree in economics to read and understand the whole essay.  This is a shame, because Show-Me has such lofty goals.  Their website states that they,

…study public policy problems and develop proposals to increase economic opportunity for ordinary Missourians. It then promotes those solutions by publishing studies, briefing papers, and other educational materials, which help policymakers, the media, and the general public gain a better understanding of the issues.

But this essay helps exactly no one.  In fact, I’d argue that such argot-laden documents actually hurts the Institute’s mission because well-meaning journalists and policy-makers are less likely to seek their input if they fear they are going to be hit with such… garbage.

At the top, let me say I meet Tuohey’s sole challenge: I have read (and purport to understand) the entire essay, although I do not have an advanced degree in economics. I will say that the essay itself has a clear and understandable summary, and you do need to understand some mathematics to grasp the more technical sections. A lay reader might be comfortable reading the less technical sections, though there might be a couple definitions to look up (but that’s why Al Gore invented Wikipedia, right?). We might also have a discussion about how well I understand the essay, but that that is a separate issue.

Now, I feel bad that Patrick “cannot make head or tails of the essay itself”. But I do not think that Patrick’s observation of his inability to read or comprehend the essay is sufficient evidence for the claim that Haslag’s writing is universally “opaque”. For one, I think that the sole part of the essay that Tuohey excerpts is crystal clear; there is a question asked (What kind of tax do Missourians prefer?), a clarifying statement (we are measuring what Missourians prefer using this notion of total lifetime “benefit”), and a statement that both income and sales taxes are distortionary (which is simply the observation that taxing products distorts the market price for the good or service taxed).

Here’s the thing. If Tuohey can’t understand this essay, that’s fine. It’s one thing to post asking for clarification. It’s entirely another to slam someone else’s work as “garbage” and to say that this “essay helps no one” without a coherent argument for your claim. Certainly reading the essay helped me; I now know and understand more about Ribelo’s AK model (1991) and the dynamics of income taxation, though emulating Haslag’s work remains far beyond my poor capabilities.

Far from being “well-meaning”, I have another word for Tuohey and journalists like him: lazy. Or perhaps: arrogant, rude, or crass. It would behoove Tuohey to post an apology and to (humbly) ask for clarification. If Tuohey does not, then we know he is not intellectually honest.

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