Associate Professor Allison Christians is the H. Heward Stikeman Chair in the Law of Taxation at the Faculty of Law of McGill University. She teaches international taxation, tax policy, and Canadian income tax law and tax policy, and has contributes contributed to a seminar on Economic Justice. As a scholar, Professor Christians focuses on issues in national and international tax law and policy, with a particular interest on the relationship between taxation and economic development. Here, Focus online asks her about the benefits of Twitter for scholarly research, how her life became a comparative law project when she joined the Faculty, and the meaning of tax activism.
By Bridget Wayland
“I post things because I think they’re thought-provoking, things that I’d like to go back and read later. It’s almost like a depository of ideas…”
On discussing FATCA online: “Pretty soon, the commentary, from various people—not just academics, but also practitioners and activists—led me to see that I wasn’t getting the whole picture yet. Those commentators pushed to me reevaluate the problem.”
“(As an academic) you have a responsibility, as a member of your community, to make conclusions about the policy choices that are made.”
You are the author of many book chapters and articles in leading scholarly journals. But you are even more prolific online: You comment on developments in international tax law and policy in your Tax, Society and Culture blog, and via your Twitter account, @taxpolblog. You also edit the Tax section of Jotwell, post regularly on the LexisNexis Tax Law Community blog ,the SCOTUS blog, and in all kinds of professional forums. What benefits does Web publishing offer you as a law professor?
For me, the blogging and the tweeting is just another extension of my professional community life. That is, I go to conferences, I write in journals, I speak to people on the phone, I interact with students, I interact with practitioners—this is just another way to do that same thing. My blog reaches readers from all across the world—Singapore, China, the UK. So that medium is a way to interact, and maybe build a different audience than you have in your backyard.
These are media to engage with the community and explore, on a contemporary basis, ideas relevant to my work. On the blog, and on Twitter, I post things because I think they’re thought-provoking, things that I’d like to go back and read later. It’s almost like a depository of ideas that occurred to me, or that seemed connected to something I was interested in, but wasn’t ready to formally cite it in a paper yet.
It’s part of my process of thinking about resource allocation and distribution, and institutions and how they affect our understanding of what we are owed and what we owe society. I think it is integral to the exercise.
Has one of your tweets or blog posts ever generated so much interesting discussion that you eventually developed it into a published scholarly article?
Yes, that’s happened. A few years ago, I started posting a lot on a then-obscure US disclosure rule called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)—a very technical information exchange issue to do with banks in Canada providing information to the IRS when their account holders are American. This touches on a lot of issues, and I got into a lot of discussion back and forth about this online.
But when I first started posting, I only saw one angle to that legislation. So I was posting from this one perspective—the US is trying to protect its tax base, albeit in a tremendously over-reaching and fundamentally unworkable way. But pretty soon, the commentary, from various people—not just academics, but also practitioners and activists—led me to see that I wasn’t getting the whole picture yet. Those commentators pushed to me reevaluate the problem.
So then I started working on an article, which eventually got published (“Putting the Reign Back in Sovereign“). It would have been a different article if I had just sat here at my desk and typed the thing up, without that interaction.
[Note: Christians has since recorded a McGill Law Journal podcast on what FATCA will mean for Canada ( “FATCA incoming“), spoken about FATCA last November on CBC Radio’s national news program The Current (“FATCA under fire from tax experts“) and last January on CBC News television, organized a public information session at the Faculty last month, posted her thoughts on her own “Taxpol” blog. (see: “FATCA in Canada—constitutional challenge mounting” ) and, in March 2014, made a submission to the Canadian Finance Department, co-authored with Professor Arthur Cockfield of Queens’ University, which argues that “the proposed Implementation Act and intergovernmental agreement raise a number of serious issues ranging from likely constitutional violations to violations of international law.” –Ed.]
Before you joined the Faculty in 2012, you taught law at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern, you practiced in New York, and you studied law at Columbia and NYU. So, how has moving to Canada affected your work, in regard to international tax law and policy issues?
Well, I am Canadian; I grew up in Ontario. But professionally, I’m American—I was educated in the States, I only practiced in the States, I only knew the US tax code. So I’ve come back home, but I’m not quite at home. My whole life, now, is a comparative law project. It’s a cultural education, at the same time as a language education and a legal institutional education, all wrapped in one.
It’s a new puzzle for me. I feel like I am starting over. It’s one little step at a time. First you have to learn the language. And the code. And how this code is playing out here, culturally, which is qualitatively different than in the States. It’s a new tax culture—and Quebec is totally different.
I’m starting to get well-versed in Canadian tax law and to learn how it all works here. I recognize a lot of it, because it’s the same structurally, and yet it’s foreign at the same time. And there are some oddities to the system that I have not quite figured out what to do with yet. I do feel like I’m still waiting to see the system reveal itself to me somehow.
One of your research themes is international tax and global tax policy. You’ve said that structured tax treaties between poor and rich countries are not only unfair, they also contribute to problems of economic development in developing countries, which you consider a human rights issue. You also post regularly about tax justice. Do you consider yourself a tax activist?
No. I’m not a tax activist at all. I’m an academic, so I have the freedom and the ability to look at these things in depth. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to have research-based universities—so you can have people devoted to studying issues, and to describing the world the way it is.
If no one is doing that, then this kind of thing—tax policies that unjustly impact developing countries—can go on and on forever. I don’t think it’s being an activist to do that work, it’s being an academic.
You have a responsibility, as a member of your community, to make conclusions about the policy choices that are made.
~ Interview by Bridget Wayland. Photos by Lysanne Larose.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Christians is organizing the Tax Justice and Human Rights Research Collaboration Symposium, to the held at the Faculty, June 18-20, 2014.