Kevin Milligan is a Professor of Economics in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, and is also affiliated with the C.D. Howe Institute and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Since 2011, he has served as Co-Editor of the Canadian Tax Journal.He studied at Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, receiving his Ph.D. in 2001. His thesis was awarded the 2002 National Tax Association dissertation award.His research spans the fields of public and labour economics, with a focus on the economics of children and the elderly, as well as other tax and labour market policy topics.
Most of my research examines how tax policy affects the well-being of seniors and children. I started out in graduate school looking at tax policy from the public finance and labour perspective. Over time, I became more and more interested in how tax policy affects the young and the old. I found these groups to be interesting because their behaviour and outcomes seem to be affected most by policy. Since I’ve become a father I’ve started to focus my research on how policy affects child development, particularly the effects of increased maternal leave time and resulting increased duration of breastfeeding on children. I think it’s kind of a unique and interesting way of looking at tax policy – not just looking at the labour side of tax policy or at the economy-wide effects of changes but looking at how tax policy can affect the lives of individuals.
I think as a researcher I feel a responsibility to the facts, and to pursue truth in an unbiased way. I think it’s great that society deems paying people for this useful, I think that the search for truth and facts and evidence is a noble endeavour. I appreciate that not everyone has the chance I have to explore freely and I think this leads to a sense of responsibility to do the most I can with this opportunity.
I wouldn’t say there’s one eureka moment when I realized I wanted to be a researcher, but it was a gradual process over the course of my university career. I started an undergrad in commerce, taking finance and accounting, but started taking economics courses as electives on the side. I found them more intellectually satisfying. Not to indict finance or accounting, but studying economics just suited me better I think. I ended up going to graduate school in economics and then continued into research and professorship after.
I think my favourite part is watching my students progress. On the graduate side of things I appreciate the closer connection with my students to see them work and move forward. On the undergraduate side it’s a little more difficult to have this connection, because the relationship is different. I think there my enjoyment of teaching them comes from asking probing questions to get people out of their comfort zones. One of my favourite lectures is on tax policy, where I begin to explore all the different points of view on the subject of income redistribution, hopefully challenging people’s predispositions to stand on one side of the argument or another.
As far as challenges go, I think the biggest challenge has been choosing the best balance to allocate my time. At any different time I could be helping my undergrad students, meeting with my graduate students, working on my research, providing a public opinion for the media, or doing policy consulting work. It’s a lot to tackle. Unlike many other people, I don’t get paid directly; it’s more or less based on how I choose to allocate my time so the responsibility to allocate my time well is all on me.
Emmanuel Saez: I really admire his combination of theory and empirical work. I think his rather revolutionary way of thinking has made theory relevant again to actual policy design questions.
I think it’s important to say first that doing the first year of a PhD program is like being brainwashed. As you start to live and breathe the subject you’re studying it has the kind of eerie effect of re-ordering your brain. So, I think studying economics with the intensity that I have has definitely had an effect in and of itself. As to how my particular field of economics research affects the ways I look at things: as an economist doing research on tax policy, child development, et cetera, I think I’m a little less concerned about a few things than most parents when it comes to my own children and their development. I don’t mind when they are older than the average age when it comes to taking their first steps or when they say their first words, because I know what the 10-90 percentile range is and how much variance that statistic has. Similarly, I don’t care so much whether they drink out of plastic or metal but I am much more concerned that they know how to use a pool or go up and down stairs safely because these are statistically much more likely to be dangerous. As an empirical economist, I think I have a bit of a unique point of view on what the relative risks are in the world and my research has influenced my parenting strategies.
Get out your pencil and paper, it’s that simple. Practice. Understand the models and why they are the way they are. Know the math, and above all, make sure you ask lots of questions as they lead to deeper thinking.