Tag: tax reform act of 1986

A Remembrance of William Niskanen

I first met Bill when I went to the Council of Economic Advisers in mid-1982. Bill had come to the CEA in the spring of 1981 as one of the early appointees of the incoming Reagan administration. He had known the president and worked with him when he was governor of California.

Bill and I quickly became good friends. Whenever we were both in Washington, we would usually start the day with 20 minutes of chewing over what was going on in the economy and in public policy. Part of the bond that developed between us was a consequence of the unrelenting infighting within the administration. The infighting sometimes involved the CEA but Bill and I, most of the time, were able to stand clear and remain in neutral territory.

Of course, Bill understood how bureaucracies work, or failed to work, from both his research and his experience at Rand, Ford, OMB and, yes, at UCLA and Berkeley. His insights were a staple of our conversations both at the CEA and later. Very few scholars have such first-hand experience in these various sectors of the economy. That fact often shows in the work of academics who have policy ideas that are simply untenable in the context of how organizations and the political system actually work.

A wonderful sense of humor lubricated Bill’s interactions with others. Well, most of the time anyway. During the administration’s work that culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Bill cracked along the way that the Treasury proposal was one that Walter Mondale would be proud of. I had left the CEA and returned to Brown University by that time, but Bill’s crack so angered Treasury Secretary Don Regan (who was not renowned for a sense of humor) that Regan vetoed Bill’s path to become chairman of the CEA. He served as acting chairman for a short time and then joined Cato.

Bill was the most widely read person I have known. That, plus the breadth of his personal experience, made him a delightful conversationalist on almost any topic in almost any group.

Although it was a big loss to the Reagan administration for Bill to depart, it was a huge gain for Cato and for the nation for him to join Cato. His leadership there, working closely with Ed Crane, built Cato to what it is today—the premier libertarian think tank in the world. Bill’s scholarly work will influence future generations; so also, in equal or greater measure, will the Cato Institute that he helped to build.