Syracuse University Magazine

Taxing Issues

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Leonard Burman

A nationally known tax policy expert, Leonard Burman has worked in the highest levels of U.S. government, co-founded an independent institute that is the foremost source for tax policy analysis, and testified on Capitol Hill. But the “coolest” thing he’s ever done kept his mind far from public finance. In 2005, Burman and his then-22-year-old son, Paul, biked from Oregon to New Hampshire to raise $108,000 for Partners in Health, an international health organization. “It was an amazing experience, especially when I saw the staff from the Boston office of Partners in Health with signs saying, ‘Paul and Len saving lives,’” Burman says. “I don’t think I lost it until I called my wife after we arrived.”

Inspired by a conversation with his daughter and a book about the organization’s co-founder Paul Farmer, Burman asked family and friends to sponsor him and his son in their quest. The two blogged during their trip, detailing the bloody-kneed crashes, unique characters, and goodwill they experienced along the way. “It’s such an extreme physical effort. You pretty much ride, sleep, and eat,” says Burman, who has four children with his wife, Missie. “There was no thinking at all about tax policy.”

In his professional life, Burman has been engaged in tax and budget policy in many roles over the years. The first-ever Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Burman fits well into the position’s expectation—to elevate understanding of public policy issues through thorough analysis, as the late Senator Moynihan did. “Like everyone, I have my own opinions about taxation, but the fundamental challenge for public policy is to weigh conflicting bits of evidence and sometimes inconsistent policy objectives, and arrive at sensible policy options or, often, an agenda for future research,” he says. “The work is fun because I spend a lot of time trying to solve policy puzzles, and then explain the answer to people.”

Burman came to SU in 2009 from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (TPC) in Washington, D.C., which he co-founded. The center’s tax, budget, and social policy experts analyze policy issues and generate reports that quickly provide context in more direct language than the guarded, risk-averse language used by government agencies. “Before TPC, tax policy issues often didn’t even get reported on because they seemed too complex,” Burman says. “That changed when I was at TPC. There were many hundreds of citations every year that used the center’s analysis.” 

Earlier in his career, Burman helped evaluate and create tax policies as a financial economist in the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Department of Treasury, a senior analyst in the Tax Analysis Division of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, and as deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis at the Department of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. 

Still connected with the Tax Policy Center as an affiliated scholar, Burman, who posts his ideas at blogs.forbes.com/leonardburman, took his research on “Tax Reform and the Tax Treatment of Capital Gains” to the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance in September. He testified that tax breaks for capital gains, rather than being a magic elixir for the economy, may do more harm than good by spurring the use of inefficient tax shelters. A chart illustrated the point by showing there is no obvious correlation between capital gains taxes and economic growth. Burman’s analysis was cited on the editorial pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other media outlets.

Burman, who teaches Social Welfare Policy, and Tax Policy and Politics at Maxwell, is now passing on his methods of understanding budget and tax policies to public administration students. “I loved my work at TPC, but the nice thing about teaching is you’re affecting people’s lives on a one-to-one basis, not anonymously through your reports or public appearances,” he says. “The M.P.A. students want to go out and change the world—and they care about the stuff I care about.”   —Kathleen Haley




The Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs

Recipient: Leonard Burman, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Background: The Moynihan Chair was endowed in 2007 by the Leon Levy Foundation in honor of the late senator, a longtime friend and former faculty member of the Maxwell School.