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What We Talk about When We Talk about Fairness

“I know the world isn’t fair,” pen-in-cheek cartoonist Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) observed, “but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

Whether one is a 6-year-old imp, a 36-year-old voter, or a 66-year-old policymaker, coming to grips with what’s fair, equitable, or just -- or even how to debate their definitions -- can be a lifetime’s pursuit.

This forum will tackle the many dimensions of fairness through multiple lenses: economics, history, and philosophy, especially as they come into play in debates over taxes, spending, and public policy more generally. With election season heating up and candidates drafting their stump speeches, they’ll be making a lot of claims about fairness. Are there ways to assess these claims beyond whether the policy prescriptions agree with ours?


  • Greg Ip, U.S. economics editor, The Economist (moderator)
  • Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow in economic studies, Brookings Institution; former associate director, Office of Management and Budget
  • Eugene Steuerle, Institute fellow, Urban Institute; author, Contemporary U.S. Tax Policy
  • Joseph Thorndike, director, Tax History Project, Tax Analysts; author, Their Fair Share: The American Tradition of Taxing the Rich (forthcoming)
  • Charles Verharen, professor of philosophy, Howard University


Date & Time Tuesday, May 1, 2012

  • Institute Fellow and Richard B. Fisher Chair