Public Policy, People

An interview with Rhys Kesselman: Thoughts on an Illustrious Career in Policy

January 19, 2018

From the Spring Issue of Public Policy @ SFU Magazine...

With Rhys Kessleman's retirement last month, the School of Public Policy wanted to take this opportunity to gain insights on his distinguished academic and teaching career and some thoughts on the future. 

Marina Adshade, SPP Associate Professor, interviewed Rhys and asked him these questions:

Q1I have known you for a while now, but never realized before that your Ph.D. supervisors at MIT were Nobel Laureates Robert Solow (1987) and Peter Diamond (2010). Here at the School of Public Policy you have played a significant role in reinforcing the importance of student research. I am curious to know if your interactions with these two impressive scholars early in your own career has had any influence on the hard work you have done in shaping the next generation of scholars?

Diamond and Solow were both great role models for me as teachers and thesis supervisors, not to mention very committed to applying economic analysis toward issues promoting greater social justice. While both were heavily into economic theory at the time of my studies, in later years their interests turned toward more policy-applied aspects of theory such as income tax progressivity and social insurance programs (Diamond) and welfare reform and labour programs (Solow). My own scholarly evolution has followed a similar track, from theoretical aspects of taxation and income security to more applied policy aspects of economic analysis over the last third of my career. I hope that my own teaching and supervision of students in the SFU School of Public Policy have attained some of the standards that I enjoyed in my graduate training.

Q2. Your list of publications is hugely impressive with over 110 publications to your name, many of which are in top journals. Of all the papers you have published, which ones do you feel were the most significant in terms their ability to influence policy makers to make important decisions?

I have researched and published in diverse areas over my career, and it’s challenging to assess which works have been influential over policy decisions. I have often proceeded by publishing my research in scholarly or think-tank outlets and then reinforcing my message via op-ed columns and other media outlets. I would cite my early research on wage subsidies (followed years later by the Earned Income Tax Credit in the US and the Working Income Tax Benefit in Canada); my 1970s work on employment tax credits (followed by policies of this kind in the US and Canada); my first-ever analysis of tax expenditures in the Canadian personal income tax (followed by regular accounting of this kind by federal and provincial governments); my critical assessment of income splitting (followed by retraction of the “Family Tax Cut” in 2016); and my early and later analyses of refundable tax credits (followed by a sequence of policy changes over the decades and culminating in the Canada Child Benefit in 2016). My research on the practice of mandatory retirement and the expansion of Canada Pension Plan benefits along with op-eds, meetings with editorial boards, and public speaking also had some influence on policy changes.

Perhaps the most clear-cut example of my research impact on policy initiatives was my 2001 analysis and formulation of a “tax-prepaid savings plan” which provided the foundation for introduction of the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) in 2009, the first major change to Canadian tax provisions for savings since RRSPs in the 1950s. After assessing the actual impacts of TFSAs on distribution and savings patterns, my research findings supported reversal of the 2015 hike in TFSA limits, which proved to be decisive in the policy response. By the way, my first-ever freedom-of-information request in 2014 compelled the Canada Revenue Agency to (grudgingly and tardily) release crucial detailed data on TFSA usage, which the government of the day had sought to withhold.

Q3. I have noticed that you are much more engaged in writing for the media than most other academic researchers. Can you share some of your thoughts as to why it is important for researchers to write opinions pieces, for example, and to encourage their students to do the same?

When social science researchers assess public policies or particular programs, and their findings suggest the desirability of reforms or alternatives, I think it is natural for them to want to spread the message beyond the academic community. Increasing numbers of academics—particularly economists—are engaging in public discourse of this kind through a variety of media. My own media outreach has expanded considerably after joining SFU Public Policy, as reflected in most of my lifetime 140-plus op-ed columns and other popular articles. These writings draw upon either my scholarly research or topical areas in which I have expertise. I have also encouraged SFU policy students to engage in this type of activity as an extension of their course work and capstone research.

In most years I have offered an informal workshop on how to turn capstone and other policy research into op-ed columns; the result has been over 35 SFU SPP student op-eds published in the Vancouver Sun and other major daily newspapers. This has been beneficial to the students while also augmenting the visibility of SFU’s School of Public Policy to the broader community. I believe that this kind of exercise also sharpens our students' abilities to prepare effective policy briefings and other policy materials that will serve them well in work after graduating. 

Q4. I think both our colleagues and our students might be surprised to learn I am benefiting from your legacy at the UBC Vancouver School of Economics where you taught for 31 years; I am teaching a course that you started on Women in the Economy. That class has, in turn, spawned many of the ideas that have flowed back into my class at the SPP on Women in Policy. You should be very proud that you brought discussion of gender into mainstream economics teaching. I am curious to know what inspired the original course?

Gender economics is a field that has much commonality with topics that have long interested me and been close to my research focus: social policy, tax policy, income distribution, and labour policy.  This field seemed like a gap in the UBC Economics course offerings at the time; I had also noticed that other universities were starting to offer a course of this kind.  I canvassed my UBC economics colleagues who specialized in labour economics—a sub-discipline in which the department is unusually strong—and could not interest any of them to offer the course.  

As a result I initiated the undergraduate course for the department and taught it for several years, with gratifying results in terms of both the teaching experience and the student learning experience.  I am pleased to learn that you have carried on the tradition of teaching this course at UBC—and making it sexier than I could ever do—and have adapted the course to the benefit of Masters students at the SFU Policy School.

Q5. Okay, last question. If I could offer you as a retirement gift the ability to implement one policy reform for Canada, or British Columbia if you prefer, what would that reform be? Why would that be important to you?

One valued retirement gift would be sweeping reform of the personal and corporate tax system in Canada to pursue the goals of greater equity and efficiency while reducing the scope for tax avoidance and also raising additional revenues to meet many neglected societal needs.  I have elaborated in my recent research how all of these goals could be pursued simultaneously--very much opposite to what the US administration has now wrought.  But this gift would be a dream quickly entangled in the morass of politics, lobby groups, and even public suspicion.

A more realistic and equally valuable gift would be a universal public child care system, which British Columbia is on the verge of implementing. All the evidence is that a properly designed and adequately funded scheme would bring major social and economic benefits: expanding early childhood education, equalizing life prospects for children across social classes, and improving work-family balance for women.  Moreover, the increased earnings by mothers accessing quality, moderate-cost child care can make such a scheme largely self-financing. As evidenced by the Quebec experience (which we should not mimic in detail), this will also prove over the long run to be an extremely popular program.