Tax Analysts Blog

C. Lowell Harriss, R.I.P.

Posted on Dec 22, 2009

Apparently, the world can only mourn one economist at a time. Paul Samuelson's death on December 13 made headlines around the world. By contrast, the passing of C. Lowell Harriss on the following day made barely a ripple. As far as I can tell, no newspaper has published an obituary for Harriss. Not even the New York Times, which often finds room for people of modest reputation (and sometimes considerable obscurity).

Samuleon and Harriss were contemporaries, and among the last remaining members of their professional generation. Samuelson cut a larger swath in the world, as his Nobel Prize confirms. But Harriss was a prominent scholar in his own right, especially when it came to taxation. So it falls to us, the tax community, to note his passing.

(Indeed, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has already done so, as has the National Tax Association. Harriss served on the board of the Lincoln Institute and as president of the NTA.)

Harriss was a leading figure in the field of public economics. He took special interest in issues of land taxation and local finance, but he wrote widely on a range of issues, inlcuding inflation, government spending, estate and gift taxation, and consumption taxes.

Harriss taught economics at Columbia for 43 years, from 1938 until his retirement in 1981. He was a rather junior member of the Columbia School of economics, which began with Edwin R.A. Seligman in the late 19th century and included such luminaries as Robert Murray Haig, Carl Shoup, and William Vickrey. (Indeed, Harriss and Vickrey were close friends; when the latter won the Nobel prize for economics in 1996 -- and died three days later -- Harriss accepted the award on his behalf.)

The Columbia School, while less famous than its Chicago counterpart, played a crucial role in the history of American public finance. Its founding generation helped establish the modern income tax as a pillar of federal finance. Later adherents -- many of whom served numerous stints at the U.S. Treasury, either as staff members or paid consultants -- helped transform the income tax from a "class tax" on the rich to a "mass tax" on the middle class. In doing so, they laid the fiscal foundation of the modern American state.

As Columbia University noted in its press release on his death, Harriss was one of the last economists to have lived through the Great Depression as an adult. His passing marks the end of an era, or nearly so.

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