Alvin C. Warren, Jr., 2016 Holland Medal Recipient

Alvin C. Warren, Jr. The Daniel M. Holland Medal was created in 1993 in the memory of Dan Holland, a Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, who was an internationally recognized researcher, teacher, and practitioner in public finance. The Holland Medal, which is the most prestigious award given by the NTA, recognizes lifetime achievement in the study of the theory and practice of public finance.

This year’s winner of the Holland Medal, Professor Alvin C. Warren, is the Ropes & Gray Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he has taught tax law and policy since 1979. Professor Warren is the founding director of the Harvard Law School Fund for Tax and Fiscal Research, which was organized in 1985. Prior to coming to Harvard, he was a member of the law faculties of the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and the University of Connecticut. Professor Warren is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of teaching awards at Harvard, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He has been active in professional organizations concerned with tax law and policy including the National Tax Association.

One of the highlights of the Annual Conference on Taxation is the plenary session in honor of the winner of the Holland Medal. This year panel’s included presentations by Alan J. Auerbach, Michael Graetz, Louis Kaplow and Ruth Mason. Excerpts of their presentations appear below.

Alan J. Auerbach, Robert D. Burch Professor of Economics and Law, University of California, Berkeley

[ Alan J. Auerbach ]“Al Warren has made fundamental contributions on many important topics in tax policy, all relating to the design and impacts of the current income tax and of alternative reforms, including progressive expenditure taxation and the integration of corporate and individual income taxes.”

“A question I’ve been asked to address over the years when talking to lawyers and economists is what the role of each discipline should be in the analysis of taxation. Lawyers need an understanding of economics, but I think it is a mistake for them to try to do ‘economics light.’ A potentially much more valuable approach is to apply knowledge of institutions to show how the tax system really works and how policy can and should deal with actual incentives and rules. Al is the master of this, and his colleagues, co-authors, students, and, one can hope, citizens more generally, are the ultimate beneficiaries.”

Michael J. Graetz, Columbia Alumni Professor of Tax Law, Columbia Law School

[ Michael J. Graetz ]Al Warren, in my view, is to tax law scholarship what Wallace Stevens, a graduate of Harvard and New York Law School, was to poetry: a consummate practitioner – probably the most important American modernist, who simply sees things that others do not see and expresses them with unsurpassed insight and eloquence. If there was a Holland Award for poetry, Stevens certainly would have received it but, unfortunately for him, he had to settle for the Pulitzer Prize.”

“Wallace Stevens chose the commonplace, often unnoticed, blackbird for sustained
observation and elaboration in one of his most famous poems, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a
Blackbird.’ Consider stanza nine:

When the blackbird flew out of sight
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles

Tax law, it goes without saying, is not poetry; it is barely prose. And while Stevens zeroed in on the blackbird, Al has often chosen to explore – and bring clearly and elegantly into sight – many of the different circles as well. When Al Warren selects a tax law or policy subject to explore, he is never satisfied until he has examined it – and understood it – from many different perspectives, sometimes even, as in the case of his work on corporate integration, many more than thirteen.”

“In every case, whenever Al examines an important issue of tax policy from his many different perspectives, using his favorite tools of simple algebra, numerous examples, exceptionally clear, careful, precise, and often eloquent language, you leave his scholarship with a much deeper and richer understanding of the subject than before Al tackled it. Often, nothing more needs to be said.”

“It is a special pleasure for me to be able to join you here today in presenting him with the Holland Award. No one is more deserving of this honor.”

Louis Kaplow, Finn M. W. Caspersen and Household International Professor of Law and Economics, Harvard Law School

[ Louis Kaplow ]“In summary, Al’s top two traits are making everything 110% clear (don’t worry, this is not a marginal tax rate!) and getting everything right. But which one is more important? Naturally, one would think: “Getting it right?” But most of the time, most do not really understand. Perhaps, then, it’s: “Being clear?” But often when one attempts to communicate with clarity, the result is oversimplified, which isn’t right. Al Warren’s teaching and research offers a solution that isn’t available to the rest of us: Getting everything clearly right! Not a bad motto for a Holland Award.”

Ruth Mason, University of Virginia School of Law

[ Ruth Mason ]“I remember that the examples he used in class always involved a Buick.  That Buick really got around.  It was given and bequested and sold and donated and depreciated and traded in like-kind exchanges.  It was repaired, gambled, and finally totaled (don’t worry, it was fully insured).  Practically the only thing that Buick didn’t do was suffer the marriage penalty.  Although I suppose the Buick never got  to see what Warren always referred to as the “angel of 1014” which brings with it what he describes as the state of ‘tax nirvana’—tax-free step-up in basis.

“Warren always emphasized the big picture—tax is about how we distribute the benefits and burdens of society.  Nothing less.  All of us in this room know that well, but I can attest that it often comes as surprise to second-year law students.”

” When my own basic tax class goes badly, I flip through the notes I took as a student in Al Warren’s class for hints.  (Don’t get nervous, Al, they hold up!) Yes, I kept them since 1999.  I have moved five times since then and jettisoned everything else from law school other than the diploma.  But I would never even consider leaving my Warren notes behind.”

” Al Warren’s teaching is a model to me, and so many others.  Noel Cunningham, a tax professor of NYU loves to tell the story of what he describes as the best course evaluation he ever received.  He was visiting at Harvard, and the review said, simply, ‘Not Warren, but not bad.'”

” Barbara Angus, now serving as Chief Tax Counsel for Ways and Means, had Warren for corporate tax. She told me that she recently returned to HLS for her reunion, and she sat in on Warren’s packed, 8am Friday morning class.  She said, ‘It was as good as I remembered it.  I hadn’t embellished it in my mind.  And it made me feel good about the system.  That this is how we’re training tomorrow’s tax lawyers.  The tax world and the economy is better for it.'”

“So thank you, Al, for giving your students your all and being the best teacher we ever had.  And for introducing us to our life’s work.”