Lawrence Zelenak, Pamela B. Gann professor of law, was elected to membership in the American Law Institute July 26. He teaches income tax, corporate tax and a tax policy seminar. The Chronicle spoke with Zelenak about the his membership to ALI and current topics in American tax policy. The following conversation has been condensed for clarity and length.

The Chronicle: How does it feel to be a member of this organization?

Lawrence Zelenak: The organization has a long and storied history. I guess it's about a century old or so and has been involved very prominently in a wide range of law reform to date. As you may have heard, the most prominent activity tends to be publishing so-called Restatements of the Law, where they both explain—in a clear way—the state of the law and then, also make recommendations for what the law should be. In my particular area, tax, they've never done a restatement and they probably more aimed towards tradition and more aimed towards common law fields, where the law's developed primarily by legislatures. 

It seems like once a generation, there's a big writing on the income tax laws. You may have heard of the [Tax Reform Act of 1986], which is from the last generation. Well, the previous one, much of which is still in the Internal Revenue Code today, was the 1954 Internal Revenue Code. It turns out that that's largely the work of the ALI. The ALI—in the late 1940s and early 1950s—had this massive project in drafting an entire model internal revenue code. In 1954, they took it over to Congress and said, "You really ought to enact this." To the large extent, Congress did. They certainly didn't enact everything that the ALI gave them, but they enacted large chunks of it, which gives you a sense —in that field at that time—how respected the ALI was and how much pull they had. It continues to be highly respected and influential across of a wide range of fields, but I felt a particular connection because of the work I had done in tax.

TC: What made you decide to pursue tax policy and law?

LZ: My experience has been a lot of things accidental. When I went into practice after law school, I had no particular notions of specializing in tax. But, there was a partner in the law firm where I worked and he had previously been high up in the [Internal Revenue Service]. We clicked and I ended up having a three or four year tutorial in tax from him. We worked on some interesting projects together, especially involving the tax exempt status of certain organizations. Then, after a few years, I decided to go into teaching. By that point, I had picked enough tax from him that I could credibly market myself as a tax professor and it's easier to get law school teaching jobs if you say that you want to teach tax than if you say that you want to teach constitutional law. Next thing I knew, there I was as a tax expert, which is something I never would have anticipated when I came into law school. I think a lot of people have stories like that in the sense that their careers ended up going in directions they wouldn't have predicted for highly contingent reasons. 

TC: What are your thoughts on the idea that the federal income tax code is too complex?

LZ: My opinions are pretty mainstream. I think there's no question that the level of complexity that the average tax payer has is out of control. There's a lot of relatively straightforward fixes that could make the system a lot easier for the average income tax payer. I have a book called "Learning to Love Form 1040." Basically, what the book argues is that on the one hand, having a return based income tax that requires a certain amount of active tax payer participation has a lot of civic virtues in calling people's attention to the fact they are tax payers. But, those virtues are lost when figuring out your tax and interacting with the IRS becomes a totally frustrating experience. It seems once a generation, you need to clean up the income tax and it's about time to do that.

So, I've been talking mostly about individual income tax. But, there are also legitimate concerns that are our treatment of taxation of multinational corporations is seriously screwed up and needs a lot of attention as well. One thing that I'm concerned about and a lot of people are concerned about is while it's clear that there's a need for major international tax reform, there's also need for major simplification for individuals, and that those changes not be accompanied by an aggressive shifting of the tax burden onto middle income and low income tax payers. 

TC: What are your thoughts on the idea of putting more of the tax burden on extremely wealthy individuals?

LZ: First point is politically, I don't think it's going to happen. I think the real issue is whether the tax burden on the wealthy has increased or not. I think decreasing it would certainly be a bad idea. As for increasing it, that would be fine with me. A moderate increase on the tax burden of the top one percent or the top 0.1 percent would certainly be appropriate, but at the same time, we need to be aware that that we cannot solve the federal revenue problems merely by increased taxes on the top of the income distribution. The revenue needs to go beyond what can be produced from that.

TC: What are you interested in studying more in the next phase of your career?

LZ: My interest in recent years has gone more in the direction of U.S. tax history. My major current project is a book that should be coming out from the Cambridge University press early next year called "Figuring Out the Tax," which is a history of the early technical development of the federal income tax, so it's focusing on the events between 1913, when the tax was introduced, to about World War II, as Congress and the Treasury Department struggled with making the tax work. This book looks at the details that really no one has looked at before and I found a lot of fascination information.