The University Record, October 15, 2001

Business prof wins not so noble Nobel

By Lesley Harding

Joel Slemrod (Photo coutesy of U-M Photo Services)
Call it his 15 minutes of fame. Joel Slemrod, the Paul W. McCracken Collegiate Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, is now a Nobel Prize winner. Ig Nobel that is. The honor is handed out to those whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced.” Judges felt his economics paper “Dying to Save Taxes” falls into that category.

“I’m thrilled,” says Slemrod. “Wojciech Kopczuk (University of British Columbia co-author) and I support the spirit of the Iggys, that science can be fun, and that sometimes one can learn from pushing one’s ideas in unusual directions.”

Slemrod and his former graduate student, Kopczuk, were researching the effect of estate taxes on wealth accumulation when they drafted “Dying to Save Taxes.” The basis of the paper is that people can find ways to postpone their deaths if it qualifies them for a lower inheritance tax rate.

“It actually just pushes other economists’ work on whether people time births to take advantage of another year of personal exemption, or postpone marriage to save a year of marriage tax penalty,” says Slemrod.

“There is also evidence that, for non-financial reasons, people can will themselves to live longer. New York City hospitals reported 50 percent more deaths in the first week of 2000 compared with the last week of 1999; people willed themselves to live to see 2000, why not do the same for taxes?”

As strange as his research may seem, Slemrod says Congress is putting his theory to the test. “Earlier this year, Congress abolished the estate tax for the year 2010, and only that year. When 2010 rolls around, rather than the only two inevitable things being death and taxes, it will be death or taxes.

Slemrod joins the ranks of nine other winners for 2001. The Ig Nobel Board of Governors is quick to point out that the award does not deem a work good or bad, commendable or pernicious. It just recognizes the unusual and honors the imaginative.

“I am happy to have been honored with other notable scientific endeavors such as work on compulsive nose picking, head trauma from falling coconuts and why shower curtains get sucked into the shower when you turn the water on,” jokes Slemrod.