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The 92 Report

Nov 13, 2023

Wei Cui shares his journey since graduating from Harvard. He describes it as a 30-year journey, with three phases: first decade, where he continued attending school in the United States, second decade, where he practiced law in New York City and Beijing, and last decade, living in Vancouver teaching at the Law School of the University of British Columbia. This period was the favorite stretch of his life, partly because of having them as part of his life and partly because it was nice to live in a beautiful part of the world and pursue scholarship at a major research university. Wei's life in Vancouver is different from earlier stretches in his career, especially from the years spent in China. He moved to Canada after spending seven and a half years working in China. The journey has been interesting from the perspective of Canada, as it allows him to think about these different parts of his life in the US and in China from the perspective of Canada. Cui's journey began when he was in Harbor College on a student visa in the United States. After deciding to stay in the US, he found a terminal master's program in philosophy at Tufts. He continued to study philosophy in Ph.d programs, then went to law school, where he became interested in China and the idea of law being applicable to China. He eventually graduated from Yale Law School in 2002, worked in New York City for three years, and moved to China in 2006. 

Working As an Attorney in China 

Wei worked in China for seven and a half years. He took up an academic position at China's largest law school in Beijing, but the university was disorganized and he had a light teaching load. He took up legal practice part-time at a local Chinese law firm. In 2008, he worked at the China Investment Corporation (CIC), which invested in Blackstone and Morgan Stanley shares. In 2009, he was secunded to CIC and started setting up a tax practice in house. He also worked in consulting with the Chinese government, working extensively on tax policy projects. He left CIC in 2010, but by that point, he decided to focus more on academia. Wei's third decade in China involved working with the Chinese government on tax policy projects. He was sought out for tax law and tax policy advice for seven years until 2013. In his third, Wei focused on research and teaching, focusing on the challenges of pursuing a career outside of China and in North America. He believes that focusing on academic work and pursuing a career outside of China helped him achieve his goals. He also talks about his current teaching role at the University of British Columbia and as an author. 

Divergent Economic Development

Wei discusses various examples of social science scholarship, including the divergence in economic development paths and the study of ancient economic geography. He also discusses the field of philosophy, particularly the study of philosophy of mind and the foundation of self consciousness. The field of evolutionary psychology, specifically the study of cultural evolution, has gained significant attention. Wei's scholarship was broad, focusing on tax law and policy, with a focus on the US and Canada. He mentions that his book on international taxation is driven by US tax policy, with Canada playing a secondary role. China, however, has made no significant contribution to international tax policy. Wei argues that the US is an outlier in terms of its tax system, with a tax revenue to GDP ratio of 27% compared to other OECD countries. This is a significant difference from countries like France and Germany, where the tax to GDP ratio is 40%. He also discusses the unique structure of the US tax system, which is radically different from what most listeners are used to. The US has a relatively low tax rate, especially for the middle class, which is referred to as "middle-class" in the Biden and Obama administrations. In conclusion, Wei Cui's research on tax law and policy highlights the importance of understanding the unique structures and systems of advanced economies.

US Tax Revenue Redistribution vs. OECD Countries and China

The US does more effective redistribution of tax revenue than other OECD countries, such as France and Germany, which collect their revenue through pensions and payroll taxes. However, the US spends a greater portion of its GDP, distributing to the bottom 50% of the income distribution than these other countries. The US does not have a value-added tax, but rather low rate state sales taxes, which could potentially collect more revenue through a value-added tax. The US is also unusually reliant on personal income tax in collecting revenue, making it easier to afford less complicated tax laws. The US tax law is complicated, with the IRS being thinly staffed and heavily reliant on taxpayers and return preparers for tax compliance. The rule of law is crucial in this system, as it dictates how people should pay taxes and is followed by private parties. In contrast, China invests little in writing tax law and has many tax administrators providing taxpayer services. In China, there is a lot of individual discretion in tax administration, with each tax administrator responsible for different taxpayers and facing revenue targets. This leads to a more predictable and predictable tax collection process. Tax farming is another analogy used to describe the approach in Rome, where private societies auction off the right to collect taxes to private societies, collecting as much money as they want. 

Tax Compliance and Tax Avoidance across Countries

Wei discusses the differences between societies that do not rely on a legal system and those that do. He talks about tax compliance and tax avoidance across countries. In advanced economies, cash collection mostly operates through business firms, which collect corporate income tax, sales tax, VAT, wage payments, interest payments, and creditors. As a result, individual behavior in terms of tax compliance does not matter as a first cut. There is quite a bit of commonality between countries and their modern tax systems, with richer countries having more big business firms to collect taxes for the government. However, there are variations in tax compliance and evasion across countries. For example, in Greece, most taxes are collected by business firms, while in the US, compliance rates for self-employed individuals are substantially lower than those employed by firms. This highlights the need for scholarship to advance and better educate the public about tax collection and evasion. From a tax law perspective, the biggest differences in China and the US are not in tax law but more in their systems of redistribution. Public finance systems define what these countries are like, making them more worthy of discussion. 

Influential Courses and Professors at Harvard

Wei discusses his experiences in college and his connection to liberal political philosophy. He took a John Rawls’ course Theory of Justice and other philosophy courses, which he believes continue to resonate with him personally and professionally. Wei's liberal philosophy was heavily influenced by his American experience in the 1990s, which he associates with American ideology. However, he finds it sobering that people do not subscribe to these philosophies and that academics and others who subscribe to them do not make much effort to persuade others of their correctness. Wei's first irreversible awakening was the US invasion of Iraq, which he found morally wrong. He believes that what he learned from professors like John Rawls is partly what is creating a sense of discomfort and reflection about the world 25 years later. In summary, Wei Cui's experiences in college and his journey to China, the US, China, and Canada have shaped his views on morality and politics.


05:32 Personal background, education, and career path

10:48 Legal career, academic research, and international tax law

18:51 Academic research in various fields

23:33 China's tax system and its differences from other countries

30:02 Tax complexity and compliance in the US and China

35:06 Taxation, compliance, and avoidance across countries

41:53 Taxation, state capacity, and social safety nets in China and the US

48:18 Philosophy, politics, and personal growth