From Maxwell Perspective...

The Public Economist

As the Moynihan Chair, Leonard Burman has a chance to develop public-policy analyses far-reaching and important enough to honor the Senator.

Len Burman
Tax-policy expert (and avid bicyclist) Leonard Burman is the first-ever Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs. He is the founder and former director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

For the July 27 edition of Tax Notes, Leonard Burman was asked why he was leaving the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center to return to academe, specifically as the Maxwell School’s first-ever Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs. He gave a range of reasons: the chance to teach again, his admiration of Moynihan, the chair’s emphasis on policy analysis and debate. Plus, he tossed in, Central New York seems a good place to pursue his greatest hobby, bicycling.

“Now, admittedly,” he added, “during the eight months when it’s winter that’s a challenge. But during the two weeks of summer it’s really nice.”

Leonard Burman really loves to bicycle. Not only does he ride his bicycle to work every day, but he vacations along the route of the Tour de France. The most prominent artwork in his new Eggers Hall office is a large, aerial photo of Alpes d’Huez, one of the Tour’s most notorious ascents. He tells of a recent “pilgrimage” to the village of Bourg d’Oisans, from which he made the nine-mile, eight-percent-grade, 21-switchback climb. On another occasion, he and his son cycled across the United States to raise $108,000 for an NGO, Partners In Health.

But his answer was significant also because, when confronted with irony — taking his bicycle to a land of supposedly ceaseless blizzards — Burman can’t resist cracking a little wise, with the mischievous, impish delight of a high school math geek who sees when things don’t quite add up. Ask him a question pregnant with possible paradox, and his eyes dart and a bemused grin starts to flicker. He’s one of those people for whom the world is impossibly complicated and contradictory, and a wry aside is the only sane response. 

It’s an important asset for one of the country’s leading tax experts and the new occupant of a chair honoring a great public mind. Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Burman takes it all in, puts it together, and describes it with originality, forthrightness, and just a little humor.

“I love economics. I love the models. But it’s so easy for an economist to get lost in this kind of fantasy world.”
Moynihan Chair Leonard Burman

Burman was an instructor at Bates College when, in 1985, he went to Washington on what was supposed to be a two-year leave. He ended up staying. It was a “hot time for tax policy,” he says, as Ronald Reagan was spearheading the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Burman joined the Treasury Department, spent 10 years in the Congressional Budget Office, did a brief turn at the Urban Institute, then ended up back at Treasury. He developed a keen sense of the need for legitimate, unbiased tax-policy analysis. The American tax code has grown vast, byzantine, and, in his opinion, crippled by patchwork provisions and exceptions. He wanted to make it possible for citizens, via their journalists, to understand what was going on in American tax policy, and to provide good advice to policy analysts.

So he went back to the Urban Institute as a senior fellow and soon created, with associates from Urban and the Brookings Institution, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. “We were advocates for good policy,” he says. Today, the TPC is probably the nation’s most respected and utilized source of tax-policy analysis. Its findings are cited by candidates of both political parties and by all manner of media, from CBS Sunday Morning to Doonesbury. Burman’s op-eds are found in the Washington Post, Washington Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is an “expert blogger” for the National Journal and on-air analyst for public radio’s Marketplace. He often testifies before Congress.

He remains with the TPC as a non-resident scholar, but feels it no longer requires his leadership. As the Moynihan Chair, “I have more time to think about big-picture issues,” he says, and from a vantage point outside the Beltway. His first priority is the formulation of an ambitious economic model predicting the outcome of federal budgetary trends. Like many economists, he considers current fiscal policy grossly irresponsible. One of his favorite expressions is “headed over a cliff.”

“I hope to play out in gory detail the results of current policy,” he says. The model will detail the collapse of federal bonds and a resulting domino effect, leading to inflation, a radical shrinkage in government functions, and the end of American economic dominance. His term for this is “catastrophic budget failure.” He’ll teach a course on it next semester.

Hopefully, he says, if politicians see this implosion spelled out tangibly, they will reverse course. That’s his goal. “I don’t want to say 25 years from now I was right.”

Burman wants to be the kind of expert who makes a difference. “I love economics. I love the models,” he says. “But it’s so easy for an economist to get lost in this kind of fantasy world.” 

His impact depends largely on being like Daniel Patrick Moynihan — pulling together big ideas and finding a way to make them approachable, sometimes surprising. (His public critiques of policy, replete with technical analyses and terminology, also contain words like scary and dumb.)

“Pat Moynihan educated the public on a breathtaking range of issues,” says Burman. “He was a great American — a Renaissance man who left a mark on so many areas of public policy.”

While looking forward to teaching — “I love to teach,” he says. “I’m a ham” — he’s excited about the cachet of the Moynihan Chair and the purview he’s been given to drive policy discussion. It’s a convenient platform from which to have a voice on some of the nation’s greatest challenges.

“I hope to make a wide and varied contribution to public policy discussion,” he concludes, “consistent with Pat Moynihan’s legacy in public affairs.”

— Dana Cooke

Dana Cooke is the publications manager of the Maxwell School and the editor of Maxwell Perspective.
This article appeared in the fall 2009 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2009 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.