With the passing of Richard Bird last week, the world of public finance scholarship lost one of its giants. A prolific researcher, his writings on public finance in low and middle income countries surely reached most of those working in the field. His subjects covered tax policy, fiscal decentralization, and much more. When he studied something, or worked directly in the field, he became a virtual library. His encyclopedic knowledge of the field was legendary. As of last week, he was still adding to what he knew.
Richard was much more than an academic researcher and a professor. His advice on tax policy issues was widely sought by the International agencies and by governments around the world. Most of his work was about bringing real world practices in line with good economics. He was a stickler for insisting on knowing how fiscal systems actually worked on the ground, and often said in his writings that “ tax administration is tax policy”. On the occasion of his receiving the prestigious Dan Holland Medal from the US National Tax Association, his old friend Charles McClure drew from the rules of golf in describing Richard as one who always played the ball where it lay. What a great description of how Richard Bird worked.
Richard was one of the pioneers in the now burgeoning field of fiscal decentralization. His writings helped form the foundation of several of the key areas, including expenditure assignments, intergovernmental transfers, and the property tax. Most students of the subject, and even most of the old hands, still begin their internet search in this field with “Richard Bird”. The 2018 book which he co-authored, Fiscal Decentralization and Local finance in Developing Countries (Edward Elgar publishing), includes many of his insights on this subject.
Roy Bahl is Regents Professor and Founding Dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University.