(p. B15) James A. Mirrlees, who taught himself calculus as a teenager, became a college professor when he was 32 and received a Nobel award for solving one of government’s greatest economic challenges — how to get taxpayers to pony up their fair share — died on Aug. 29  at his home in Cambridge, England.
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Professor Mirrlees suggested that too many progressive taxes imposed at the highest income levels could discourage the wealthy from earning even more, reducing the revenue available to pay for government services and assist lower-income households.
He concluded as early as 1970 in the journal The Review of Economic Studies and in subsequent studies with Peter Diamond, an economist and fellow Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that “the income tax is a much less effective tool for reducing inequalities than has often been thought” and that an “approximately linear” — or flattened — tax schedule would be more desirable.
“I must confess that I had expected the rigorous analysis of income-taxation in the utilitarian manner to provide an argument for high tax rates,” Professor Mirrlees wrote. “It has not done so.”
Politically, he was regarded as a social democrat, but his economic model became a rationale, embraced by many conservatives, for flattening tax rates — leading him to reconcile the two positions by saying that his heart was on the left, but that his head was on the right.
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His research on “Optimum Income Taxation,” dating from the late 1960s, was peppered with arcane equations and graphs, but he maintained that much of economics is “in a way quite simple.”
“It is simple to be wrong as well as to be right,” he added, “and it is none too easy to distinguish between the two.”
For the full obituary, see:
Sam Roberts. “‘James Mirrlees, Who Earned a Nobel By Solving a Tax Riddle, Is Dead at 82.” The New York Times (Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018): B15.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 4, 2018, and has the title “‘James Mirrlees, Whose Tax Model Earned a Nobel, Dies at 82.”)