With the death of Richard Miller Bird on June 9, the public finance fraternity, especially in developing countries, lost a vast reservoir of knowledge. In addition to working on tax policy and reforms and fiscal federalism in Canada, Bird has devoted much of his 60 years of professional life to tax policy issues in developing countries around the world, spanning countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America. He was Professor Emeritus at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, in addition to being a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Andrew Young School of Public Policy in Atlanta and Assistant Professor at the Australian School of Taxation and Business Law in Sydney. He has received several awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award and the Douglas Sherbaniuk Award from the Canadian Tax Foundation and a Daniel M Holland Award from the National Tax Association of the USA.
After graduating from Columbia University, Bird worked at Harvard University and later at the International Monetary Fund before moving to the Department of Economics at the University of Toronto. He has been part of several missions advising countries around the world including Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Colombia in Latin America and China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Sri Lanka and Vietnam in Asia.
In India, he was widely consulted by the Tax Reforms Committee chaired by Raja Chelliah in 1991. Reviewing the committee’s work in the Economic and Political Weekly, he said: in resource allocationâ¦ practically requires major reforms to the crunchy tax structure that India inherited from the past. He added: “The three reports on tax reforms in India … generally offer clear and solid indications of what can and should be done.”
The book he edited with Oliver Oldman, Readings on Taxation in Developing Countries, was required reading for all academics and practitioners in the developing world. He later wrote Fiscal Policy and Economic Development, which continues to be a classic. Recently, he wrote a series of articles with Eric Zolt on theories and best practices in tax reform, in which he adopted the Broad Base Low Rate approach. His book on VAT in Developing and Transition Countries written with Pierre Pascal Gendron is perhaps one of the most influential policy guides for countries introducing the GST. Reviewing the book in the Journal of Economic Literature, Michael Keen wrote, âThis is a rich and elegant book on a rich subject and (if we are to understand it correctly) inelegantâ¦ It lays out some key issues and challenges in it. who stays. a largely unexplored area.
Bird stressed that there is no âone size fits allâ approach to the GST, contrary to what the IMF advocates, but agreed with conventional wisdom that countries should:, (ii) not use the GST. tax regime to achieve too many targets, (iii) keep the threshold at a reasonably high level to focus on âwhalesâ rather than âminnowsâ, (iv) have minimum rate differentiation to stay simple, (v) continuously monitor the tax system and focus on the collection of tax at source, (vi) not collect more information than can be processed and (vii) encourage proper records and aim for a long-term goal of self-assessment. His concern was “… some negative characteristics – such as too high or too low thresholds, too broad exemptions, or multiple rates – may be critical to a successful adoption in the first place.” However, once introduced, it will be difficult to remove them â. As is true in the case of India.
Richard’s research on fiscal federalism has been featured in several incisive articles and books. In addition to his work on Canada, he has worked on intergovernmental financing issues in several developing countries. An important feature of his work was that it was not only based on a rigorous theoretical framework, but also based on an understanding of systems and institutions. His work with Robert Ebel and Christine Wallich on the decentralization of the socialist state is a reference for all those who want to understand the decentralized systems in the countries in transition including Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and the ‘Ukraine.
When he passed away, I lost a great friend and guru. He was my thesis examiner in 1977, but I had the opportunity to interact with him during my visit to the University of Toronto in 1991. Since then we have interacted closely, discussing many public finance issues. . He has closely followed the evolution of public finances in India and has commented extensively on them. I have collaborated with him on various occasions. Most recently, we contributed to an article on Urban Governance and Finance in India, commissioned by the Chairman of the High Powered Committee on Urban Infrastructure and Governance. The last communication I had with Richard was on March 28 in which he wrote: “So far I am in fairly good health and overall continue to function fairly well”. Unfortunately, this insurance did not last long and a cardiac arrest cost him his life. With his passing, we lost a walking encyclopedia on public finance and development. A generous man to excess in his desire to share. The public finance fraternity has lost a legend.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on June 28, 2021 under the title âMy friend, my guruâ. The writer was a member of the fourteenth finance committee and former director of the NIPFP