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Course Descriptions

Course Descriptions

Tax Policy Seminar: What's Luck Got to Do With It? (Fall 2019)

Course Description

This is a writing-credit seminar devoted to the following theme: what should be the relationship between brute luck, going all the way back to the accidents of where we are born, when we are born, and to whom we are born, and public policies – particularly federal fiscal policies (taxing and spending). The seminar will be organized around my book in progress on this theme. It is a somewhat experimental topic and will not necessarily be offered in future years.

Prerequisites: intellectual curiosity and willingness to engage in robust discussion. Agreement with the instructor on all matters covered in the course is not required.

Learning Objectives, Preliminary Syllabus and Practical Informatio

Class:                          Wednesdays 4-6pm

Office:                         Room 472

Office Hours:             I am in most days, most of the time. Just email ahead and I will hold a slot for you. I expect you to come by to consult at least once about your paper topics!  I am happy to talk to you about the course, law school, career choices, or anything else.

Contact Details:         213-740-4582,

Assistant:                    Tom Callahan,, 213-740-9244

Course Overview

Like it or not, we swim in a sea of luck. Sometimes the currents of good fortune propel us forward, while at others the incoming tide of bad luck makes progress almost impossible.

We can’t undo every instance of bad luck, but we can design public programs based on the principles of insurance that mitigate cases of systematic bad luck that deprive Americans of genuine equality of opportunity. The result is not just a fairer America, but greater economic growth, more broadly shared.

My book project, What’s Luck Got to Do With It?, will combine insights from economics, philosophy, religion and social psychology to develop the theme that public policies should be designed with an appreciation for the importance of systematic bad luck in outcomes. The book further will argue that the antidotes to systematic bad luck are public policies inspired by the principles of insurance. Public insurance in a literal or figurative sense can reach bad luck that forecloses opportunities where private markets cannot. The seminar will explore the themes invoked by the book.

In the first part of the course, a couple of students will be asked each week to read one or two assigned academic papers that address a theme or research agenda invoked by the book and report on them to the rest of the class. Students leading each week’s conversation will hand in summary notes of their readings.

In addition, each student will write a research paper drawn from the topics introduced by the book. I have a very large database of academic and news stories that will help in your research.  I anticipate that most papers will be in the range of 20-25 pages.

By mid-semester you will be expected to have chosen a paper topic, to have discussed your proposed topic with me, and to have shared with me an early outline of what you hope to accomplish. I reserve the right to reject a topic that is too tedious for words (e.g., existing tax subsidies for higher education), but I will not reject any topic on the grounds that the student fundamentally disagrees with me.

In the second part of the course (probably the last four weeks) each student will submit an outline of the student’s work in progress and one or two particularly relevant academic papers to the class. Each student will then lead a discussion of his/her project for about 30 minutes. We will have time in the first part of the course only to discuss a limited range of topics, but topics not covered are still fair game for your papers!

Unlike my large classes, attendance will be taken, and slackers’ grades adjusted accordingly.

Learning Objectives

1. Integration of self-directed research (primarily through academic papers) into coherent written argumentation with an original point of view.

2. Facility integrating learning from disparate fields (law, economics, philosophy, religion, psychology) into a unified thesis.

3. Facility in holding one’s own in robust give-and-take conversation with peers.

4. Facility in managing difficult elderly law firm senior partners. (I will serve as a stand-in for the aforesaid.)


Course Details

  • Unit Value: 2
  • Grading Options: Numerical Only
  • Exam: Paper
  • Writing Requirement: Yes with submission of the Upper Division Writing Requirement Form.
  • Skills/Experiential Unit Requirement: No