Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington University. He teaches tax law and tax policy, and he has taught contract law, law and economics, and numerous economics courses. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs, and Social Security. He also is engaged in a long-term research project that asks how current policy choices should be shaped by concerns for the interests of future generations.

Professor Buchanan has held permanent or visiting positions at Rutgers-Newark School of Law, NYU School of Law, and Cornell Law School. Prior to attending law school, Professor Buchanan was an economics professor, specializing in macroeconomics, the history of economic thought, and economic methodology. He has held full-time faculty positions in economics at the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Barnard College, Goucher College, and Wellesley College.

Professor Buchanan has published articles in the Columbia Law Review, the George Washington Law Review, NYU’s Tax Law Review, Cornell Law Review, Virginia Tax Review, and the Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy, as well as other law reviews and refereed social science periodicals. He has also testified before Congress about issues related to tax reform. He publishes twice weekly on the legal blog “Dorf on Law,” and he is a featured columnist on Newsweek's Opinion page.

Columns by Neil H. Buchanan

Soft Drinks, Taxes, and Regulation: Why the Attacks on Mayor Bloomberg’s Proposed Size Restrictions on Soda Servings Are Misplaced

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial size restrictions on soda servings, suggesting that Bloomberg’s critics’ points are misplaced. Buchanan argues that the size restrictions are much akin to a common sales tax, and points out the equivalence of taxes, restrictions, and lawsuits in remedying public harms. Moreover, he contends that the broad liberty objection that many have voiced in the face of Bloomberg’s proposal is flimsy, when carefully considered. And finally, Buchanan takes on the paternalism objection, as well—noting that marketing has distorted people’s choices substantially, and pointing out that we are in the midst of an obesity crisis, and that some government intervention may be warranted given the extreme nature of the problem, especially with respect to children's health.

It Does Not Matter Whether Congress Calls a Tax a Tax: Explaining the Dissenting Justices’ Misconceptions About the Taxing Power in the Affordable Care Act Case

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes aim at the arguments that the dissenting justices made regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and, more specifically, regarding the taxing power. Those taxing power arguments, Buchanan contends, proved to be a dangerous red herring. Buchanan makes his case to that effect by using some ingenious hypotheticals; he argues that it is perfectly logical to deem a certain measure a tax for some purposes, but not for others. It is substance, he says, rather than form, that ultimately matters. Moreover, Buchanan notes, a tax by its nature need not be motivated by the government’s aim to raise money, although the ACA will, indeed, raise some money. Often, Buchanan points out, taxes are meant not to raise money but to incentivize or penalize certain behaviors. Ultimately, Buchanan notes that it is of no import, legally, that the ACA is not characterized as a tax; the key is that it, in part, operates as a tax.

Social Security and the Economy: The President and Congress Should Be Happy That Social Security Is Not Part of the Problem, and They Should Leave It Alone

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George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan argues that the current debate about Social Security is dangerously misleading in several ways. Buchanan faults both parties for using inaccurate rhetoric: President Obama, he says, must stop acting as if Social Security is in peril, and both the President and Congress must stop using Social Security as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans. In turn, and most importantly, Buchanan argues, Republicans must stop misrepresenting Social Security’s current financial situation as being dire, when that really is not the case. The best approach now, he argues, is to leave Social Security alone and focus on improving the economy. Buchanan also calls for an end to misleading estimates regarding in what year Social Security will be “bankrupt,” as they only scare and mislead the public. Finally, too, he warns that calls to “Act now to save Social Security” are often plans to weaken Social Security, in disguise.

Denying the Failure of Austerity Policies by Claiming That They Were Never Enacted: Understanding the Last-Ditch Effort to Save a Disastrous Ideological Agenda

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes on the arguments of those who have advocated for austerity as a solution for America’s and other countries’ still-struggling economies. First, Buchanan rebuts, in detail, the claim that government spending cuts will revitalize the economy by getting the government out of the way of the private sector. Then, he counters the argument that the reason austerity did not work was that it was never truly adopted in Ireland, the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere. The only good news relating to austerity measures, Buchanan says, is that we have not yet seen governments “doubling down” on austerity by advocating even greater degrees of austerity, after the first austerity programs have failed to improve their economic situation—which would, he notes, be truly disastrous as well as inhumane.

How Would Economic Policy Change Under a President Romney? The Second in a Series of Columns Analyzing What Mitt Romney Would Do As President

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan continues his series of columns commenting on what a Mitt Romney presidency would look like from an economic point of view. In this column, the second in the series, Buchanan considers what the roles of the House and Senate would be in setting economic policy in a possible Romney presidency; describes the role that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, would be likely to play; and postulates that, in a Romney presidency, America would see the imposition of austerity measures similar to those that we are now seeing in Europe, as well as the diminution of much of the federal government, with potentially disastrous consequences. Overall, Buchanan argues that a Romney presidency would only make America's current economic predicament much, much worse.

What Would Life Be Like Under a President Romney? The First in a Series of Columns Analyzing What Mitt Romney Would Do As President

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan looks at past and current evidence to predict what might happen during a possible Romney presidency. First, Buchanan covers Romney’s botched attempt to court female voters by claiming erroneously that President Obama was to blame for layoffs affecting women, and traces the real responsibility for women’s layoffs to schoolteacher firings, which Romney has supported. Buchanan also argues that it will be difficult for voters to isolate a clear set of beliefs that Romney has consistently held dear, which is troubling. Buchanan asks who the “True Romney” really is, and warns that it may not be the moderate Romney who governed Massachusetts. Instead, he contends, today’s Romney will stay conservative in order to gain a second term as president. Finally, Buchanan contends that, even if Romney did remain moderate while in the White House, Republican extremists at every level of government would still push him toward extremism at every juncture.

‘The One Percent’ and the Rewards of Education: Collecting the Revenue Necessary to Send More Americans to College Is Vital

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with several arguments that have often been made by Republicans in the run-up to this year’s presidential election. Specifically, Buchanan counters arguments that taxpayers should not help pay for others’ college educations—and perhaps not their K-12 educations, either. He also takes on the two mutually contradictory arguments that (1) college is a waste of time and money, and (2) college education is the only force driving economic inequality. As to the first argument, Buchanan points out that education is a key indicator of economic progress, and that as we stagnate in our population’s educational achievement, other countries eagerly seek out more college education for their own people. As to the second argument, Buchanan argues that it can be rebutted by basic statistics, and that, even if it were true, the logical response would be to broaden American educational attainment.

An Educated Population Is Essential to a Nation’s Prosperity, yet Some Politicians Are Demonizing Our Educational System for Political Advantage

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the recent Republican attack on American education. Buchanan begins by emphasizing the copious evidence showing that education leads to national prosperity. In addition, he contends that it only makes sense for everyone who benefits from our educational system—meaning all Americans—to together pay for that system, including via student loans. Citing recent comments by candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, Buchanan critiques and opposes their, and other Republicans’, seeming disdain for education. Buchanan argues that if you focus on the facts, education has been proven, over and over, to be well worth its cost. Other countries clearly know this, Buchanan points out, citing notable examples, and if we forget this truth, he says, we will surely fall behind as a nation.

Why Do We Simply Accept on Faith That Taxes Are Always Harmful? Economists Begin to Acknowledge the Weak Empirical Case for Tax Cuts, but We Should Say More About the Real Costs of Cutting Taxes

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan contends that a current assumption that lies beneath many Republican (and sometimes also Democratic) speeches and positions—the assumption that tax cuts are always good—lacks compelling empirical support. Buchanan focuses on the costs of cutting taxes, and takes economists, as a group, to task for not conveying more persuasively to the public that these costs do exist. While politicians tout tax-cut benefits, Buchanan argues, economists ought to underline tax-cut losses, too—such as the losses of essential government programs that, due to tax cuts, are closed or underfunded. He also points to recent commentary, based on empirical studies, from prominent economists Christina Romer, Uwe Reinhardt, and Paul Krugman, pointing out how surprisingly little taxes affect the economy.

Understanding the Misunderstandings on Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Financial Relationship: Who Is Taking Advantage of Whom?

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George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the financial relationship between U.S. and China—which he argues is far from as problematic as some claim. Buchanan covers the issues that have been raised regarding China’s holding U.S. debt; argues that the mutual China/U.S. dependence is ultimately healthy; discusses a possible worry on China’s part that the U.S. would accomplish a stealth repudiation of its debt through deliberate inflation, but deems that worry unrealistic; and considers whether the U.S. holds political power over China due to its holding our debt. Ultimately, Buchanan suggests, Americans should not be particularly concerned about the U.S.-China relationship, but should be quite concerned by the situation of the have-nots in both countries. Both governments, Buchanan concludes, need to ensure that the prosperity their country enjoys benefits not just the elites, but also the whole of society. While China is besting us in infrastructure improvements, he notes, it is not, at the same time, improving its citizen’s lives as it ought to. Yet the economic relationship between our two nations, he says, is sound.

Why Are So Many Economists So Unable to Help With the Ongoing Economic Crisis? Understanding What the Economics Profession Rewards and Penalizes

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George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of the economics profession today, linking it to the frustration many Americans feel when economists seem unable to come up with a clear set of prescriptions as to how the economy can be improved. Buchanan traces the root of the problem to the way in which economists are now trained, and the expectations placed upon PhD candidates. Ideally, Buchanan says, economists would be trained to study important and interesting real-world issues. Instead, he observes, they are not asked to actually try to understand the economy, but rather to master certain technical skills and to gain a command of topics in advanced mathematics that have limited, if any, direct real-world applications. Buchanan notes that some excellent economists do learn to grapple with real-world problems, but he observes that they do so more by happenstance, than as a result of their training. He traces the roots of this longstanding situation, and predicts that it will only change if and when the incentives presented to economics PhD candidates change.

The Buffett Rule Is an Imperfect Form of Tax Justice, but an Important Step in the Right Direction

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Justia columnist, economist, and George Washington law professor Neil Buchanan comments on the controversy regarding the “Buffett Rule,” Warren Buffett’s observation that he surely should not pay a lesser percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does. This rule—and the principle behind it—proved to be especially relevant this week, Buchanan notes, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney released some of his tax returns. Buchanan explains how wealthy Americans typically receive special tax treatment, and argues that it is not true that—as some claim—this treatment is necessary to induce the wealthy to invest. He also lauds the Buffett Rule as a key step toward reaching our ultimate goals as a nation, and ensuring the fair treatment of all Americans, regardless of income.

Why Interdisciplinary Legal Scholarship Is Good for the Law, the Academy, and Society at Large

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan responds to some of the common criticisms of interdisciplinary legal scholarship, defending such scholarship on the ground that it makes a valuable contribution. He begins by noting how legal scholarship has changed over the years, beginning around the 70’s, from a field that primarily summarized legal developments, to one that primarily describes how the law could and should change. As a result of this evolution, Buchanan argues, it made sense to bring in other academic disciplines to assist law professors who were interested in improving policies, and who wanted to draw from the relevant schools of thought in framing their policy recommendations and developing their ideas. There has been nostalgia on the part of some—and, especially, some judges—for legal scholarship the way it used to be: primarily focused on describing the law, not improving it. But Buchanan argues that this nostalgia, while understandable, is misplaced, for combining legal expertise with expertise in another field can importantly further the debate on important policy matters. Some questions, Buchanan notes, are truly interdisciplinary and for these, interdisciplinary scholarship is not just useful, but vital.

College Football Needs to Change, but Player Salaries Are Not the Answer: A Critique of the Misguided Calls to Give Up on the Student-Athlete Ideal

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of college football, and how it can be improved. Buchanan argues that what is needed is not a movement toward more professionalism in sports, as some have suggested, but rather measures that would both ensure that college athletes do not face serious physical injury (and are taken care of, physically and financially, if they do), and also guarantee that players truly receive the college education that is supposed to come along with their admission. In addition to putting forward his own proposals, Buchanan also considers Taylor Branch’s analysis of the issue in The Atlantic, and Joe Nocera’s commentary on it in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

Austerity Really Is Austere: The Argument That We Can Shrink Our Way to Prosperity Was Always Weak, and It Gets Weaker Every Day

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with the claim that “contractionary” policies—such as budget cuts, and tax increases imposed on the non-wealthy—can help the American economy. To the contrary, Buchanan contends that such policies will only shrink the economy, and that the right approach to improving America’s economy is to use government spending and tax cuts aimed at the non-wealthy, who are very likely to spend the extra money that tax cuts free up and thus give a strong boost to the economy. And yet, Buchanan points out, all we have seen from Congress, over the past year, has been a series of contractionary approaches. Buchanan examines the case for invoking “expansionary austerity” in America now, and finds it sorely lacking when tested against the relevant evidence—as found in the recent and past experiences of America and of other nations. He concludes, based on this evidence, that “expansionary austerity” is simply a pipe dream.

Whatever Happened to Making an Honest Buck? Wall Street Attacks Elizabeth Warren Because She Believes in Capitalism More Than They Do

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan discusses the issues raised by the candidacy of Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, who is running for a Massachusetts Senate seat. Buchanan’s thesis is that Warren is more truly a capitalist than her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, or the voters and commentators who oppose her. In particular, Buchanan notes that Warren—an advocate of transparency in financial transactions; an architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and an advisor to President Obama on financial industry issues—is a true advocate of free markets. The reason her opponents claim otherwise, Buchanan argues, is that they are confusing being pro-free market with being blindly pro-business, no matter what evils business interests may perpetrate. Being truly in favor of the free market, he contends, means that one ought to endorse—as Warren does—the principle that both sides need to be well-informed when they transact business. That kind of free-market thinking, he points out, might have stemmed or prevented the mortgage loan crisis.

When Is a Tax Not a Tax? Exposing the False Claim That Social Security Taxes Are Not Really Taxes

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes very strong issue with the claim, often made by conservatives now, that the rich pay more than their share of taxes. In particular, Buchanan rebuts the common claim that Social Security and Medicare taxes—the taxes that fall most heavily on lower- and middle-income Americans—are somehow not really taxes at all. Buchanan points out that the overall federal tax code is only mildly progressive, and that state and local taxes are regressive, falling more heavily on the poor. And overall, he notes, rich and poor alike pay roughly the same percentage of their incomes in taxes each year—reflecting, rather than reversing, income inequality. Finally, Buchanan notes that conservatives take issue with calling Social Security and Medicare payments taxes, because benefits will be paid out down the line, but he presents several strong arguments showing that their contention is misleading.

All That Glisters Is Not Good Policy: In Defense of the Federal Reserve, Especially if the Alternative is the Gold Standard

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan argues that calls for the abolition of the Fed, and a return to the gold standard, are misguided. While Buchanan’s views on the Occupy Wall Street protests are mostly positive, he suggests that the movement would be better off dropping its anti-Fed rhetoric. While the Fed has its flaws, Buchanan argues, its role in our economy is vital and its track record is far, far stronger than that of the gold standard—which has proven historically to be a disaster. Buchanan notes that the Fed is unpopular in part because it is undemocratic, but he explains two key reasons why it needs to be that way. He also explains why attacks on the Fed often come from the left (for instance, from Occupy Wall Street), rather than the right (with the exception of Ron Paul). Yet, over its history, Buchanan argues, the Fed has actually done most things right, and thus, while the left’s critique of the Fed makes some valid points, it is very overstated. In addition, Buchanan contends that it is not the Fed, but rather Congress and the White House, that should be blamed for the failure to remedy the economy’s current course—and that the adoption of the gold standard would only make our current situation much worse, and ironically, would lead to the creation of a “Gold Fed.”

The New Protests Against Wall Street: Why They Should Be Taken Seriously, and What Could Come Next if They Are Not

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. He argues that this new movement should be taken seriously, not just dismissed as a passing fancy. Accordingly, he focuses on the substance of the protesters’ complaints, finding many of their points well-founded—particularly, their points about the inequality of economic and, relatedly, political and media power in the United States. Buchanan argues that such inequalities are damaging not just to the have-nots, but also to society as a whole: Greater degrees of inequality, according to the IMF, lead to slower economic growth. Buchanan also argues that protesters are right to the extent that they are calling for re-regulation of the financial markets. And he cautions that if the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters fairly modest and reasonable proposals for re-regulation and greater social equality are ignored now, the next protest movement we see, along these lines, may be much more dangerous and troubling.

Blaming the Victims of Our Advice: Why Europe’s Woes Show That the Regressive Policies It Imported From the United States Are Wrong, and That Progressive Policies Are Right

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Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s claim, in a recent debate, that European governments have adopted policies that Democrats in the United States would also like to adopt, and that those policies have led to disastrous consequences in Europe. Specifically, in criticizing President Obama, Romney said, “Guess what? Europe isn’t working in Europe. It’s not going to work here.” Buchanan argues that this comment gets it backward—for, he argues, the problem for Europe has not been the social-democratic policies to which Romney refers, but rather the very U.S.-style economic policies that Romney and other like-minded Republicans endorse. Thus, the truth, Buchanan says, is better embodied in the following statement: “American financial policies were a disaster in America. And they ruined Europe, too.”