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Supreme Court interstate sales tax ruling means it is a good time to invest in paper shuffling?


“Supreme Court Widens Reach of Sales Tax for Online Retailers” (nytimes):

Overstock said the decision would have little impact on its business but argued that with more than 12,000 different state and local taxing districts, the ruling would present a “compliance challenge” for internet start-ups. Chief Justice Roberts made a similar argument in his dissent.

Folks on Facebook discussing this seem to assume that there are roughly 50 sales tax jurisdictions in the U.S. so a retailer need only do a simple calculation and write at most 50 checks per quarter to remit the sales tax actually collected. The reality is that up to 12,000 different checks would need to be written on a quarterly basis, e.g., after a sale to a single customer 3,000 miles away the retailer would have to do the following:

  • figure out the city in which the customer lived (zip codes may span multiple cities)
  • figure out the county in which the customer lived (zip codes may span multiple counties)
  • run three multiplications involving state, city, and county tax rates (this is the easiest part!)
  • write a check to the state
  • write a check to the city
  • write a check to the county

There are software packages designed to help with this (see Avalara, for example) and obviously buying stock in this kind of bureaucracy-on-top-of-bureaucracy enterprise would have made sense a month ago! But I wonder if the increased regulatory burden creates opportunities for new companies that can make life simpler for a retailer.

(Separately, I think that this shows one of the strengths of the European way of doing things. A retailer would have to deal with only a single VAT authority for both calculation and remittance. A friend pointed out that the true religion of the U.S. is regulatory compliance, in the sense that all of the time people used to spend praying in churches in the Middle Ages is now devoted to filling out forms, conducting training seminars, etc. This could be an example? Where the European deals with 1 sales taxing jurisdiction, the American will deal with 12,000.)

Readers: What do you think of all of this? Does it make sense to have a national sales tax policy enforced by 12,000 different entities? Does it make sense in the first place to tax a retailer in Hawaii selling to a consumer in New York City? The Hawaiian store is not getting any services from New York State or New York City. If “sales tax” is actually supposed to be a consumption tax on the consumer, wouldn’t it make more sense to impose the tax globally rather than nationally? Why not have the government mine a citizen’s or resident’s credit card statements and tax everything purchased anywhere on Planet Earth? If it is a consumption tax, what’s special about consuming from Hawaii or while sitting in New York as opposed to consuming something in France?

Tariffs will lead to political discord if not another Civil War? (also unions and immigration)


I’m halfway through The Industrial Revolution by Patrick Allitt, a historian who was born in England and got a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley (so he knows both sides of the Atlantic quite well).

His short explanation for the American Civil War is that it was primarily over tariffs, which benefitted the industrial North and harmed the agricultural South.

Tariffs and trade wars are back in the news these days. Will higher tariffs lead to internal political discord within the U.S.? If so, how will the lines be drawn? The North-South split no longer makes sense when it comes to manufacturing. This map shows that Alabama and the Carolinas have a larger share of their economies devoted to manufacturing than New York or Massachusetts.

Separately, the historian says that immigration to the U.S. (mostly from southern and south-eastern Europe) and to England (mostly from Ireland) resulted in lower wages for industrial workers, often down to the subsistence level. Also that U.S. workers found it impossible to unionize and gain political influence to the same extent as workers in England because of the continuous flow of immigrants and lack of shared culture. Today, of course, we have voters who say that they support both expanded immigration and expanded unionization and/or higher compensation for union workers. The lectures suggest that these two goals cannot be achieved simultaneously.

Finally, the professor talks about how the industrial revolution led to a shift in economic philosophy. In a primitive society, he says, people have a no-growth mindset. The only way that people can get wealth is by taking it from others. Therefore there cannot be social harmony unless the rich people are constantly giving gifts to the average member of the society. In the 19th century, however, there was a shift to a growth mindset in which people expected to become wealthier via an expanding pie, not by fighting someone else for a piece. Somehow, at least in the U.S., politicians have brought a lot of voters back to pre-industrial thinking such that they’re obsessed with the gifts (taxes) being provided by rich people.

NYT covers a divorce lawsuit that merited investor financing


“A Russian Oligarch’s $500 Million Yacht Is in the Middle of Britain’s Costliest Divorce” (NYT):

In December 2016, a High Court judge ordered Farkhad Akhmedov, a Russian billionaire who has owned a home in England since the ’90s, to pay the equivalent of $646 million to his ex-wife, Tatiana Akhmedova. He refused, arguing that the couple had been divorced in Russia more than a decade ago.

For more than a decade, Russian oligarchs have been parking their families and some chunk of their net worth in England. A deal was implied: The oligarchs got a haven from the pitiless realities of Putin-era Russia, and Britain got an influx of very rich people.

Now some oligarchs are learning that life here has hazards of its own. That goes even for nonresidents like Mr. Akhmedov, who never became a British citizen. Eager to keep British tax collectors away from his money, he limited the number of days he stayed in England to a maximum of 180 a year. (More recently, the number was reduced to 90 days.)

The plaintiff in this divorce lawsuit is on the defense:

A sunny woman with a mild Russian accent, Ms. Akhmedova wore ripped denim jeans, a batch of string bracelets and a T-shirt that read “Free as a Butterfly.” …. “I don’t want to play the victim, because it’s not my nature,” she said. “But I have to defend myself.”

The NYT accepts uncritically the plaintiff’s narrative that the defendant wouldn’t agree to give her anything via settlement:

She’s also startled by Mr. Akhmedov’s campaign to keep her from pocketing one cent of his $1.4 billion fortune… Ms. Akhmedova said she had always wanted to settle out of court, quietly and for far less than she was awarded.

The journalists never became curious as to why a plaintiff who wanted to settle out of court for minimal dollars hasn’t done so even, for example, after this recent tough-to-collect judgment was issued. The obvious explanation is that the defendant who was clever enough to make $1.4 billion is a completely irrational person?

A reader from Connecticut (one of the best alimony jurisdictions on the planet, though children are more lucrative in neighboring Massachusetts) commented:

Another poster case as to why marriage is an archaic institution designed to enrich lawyers and keep court employment high.

Here we have a British law firm, paying a Russian wife, to go after the assets of his Russian husband, when neither is a British citizen nor permanent residents in Britain.

It drives home the point that if you are married or have been married, the ownership of any asset you thought you had, is up to a cadre of greedy lawyers and enabling judges.

The only way to win is not to play.

For those who are upset that there aren’t enough female founders, it appears that at least one woman’s enterprise has been funded:

[the plaintiff] is living off a lump sum provided to her by Burford Capital, a litigation finance firm, which is helping to fund the legal efforts and will take a percentage of any results.


  • divorce law in England (they don’t recognize prenups and, unlike in many U.S. states, it is easy to attack a defendant’s pre-marital savings, even after just a year or two of marriage)

Cities will become yet more desirable compared to suburbs once the electric car and truck transition happens?


Despite my pessimism regarding Tesla’s ability to compete with companies that have deeper engineering benches, e.g., Honda and Audi, I’m optimistic that the U.S. car and truck fleet will eventually be mostly electric. Even if this is economically inefficient, it will enable wealthy city-dwellers to push all of the noise and pollution associated with energy conversion into suburbs and exurban areas.

I’m wondering if this will further drive the trend toward urban real estate being more valuable than suburban. One of the drawbacks to city life has tended to be noise and most of the noise comes from cars and trucks. If there is no more diesel clatter, will the cities become dramatically more pleasant?

On the topic of suburbs being devalued by traffic congestion:

Ivy League colleges thinking like Einstein?


“Einstein’s travel diaries reveal ‘shocking’ xenophobia” (Guardian):

After earlier writing of the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, he goes on to say: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

Einstein is kind of the secular Jesus in that people quote him whenever they want to justify a personal notion. Ivy League colleges are under attack for their policy of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, most of whom are of Chinese descent, in admissions. Will Harvard and Yale now start quoting Einstein?


Americans separating children and parents at the border and within


We hit the 50-comment limit quickly a few days ago with “How does our government deport children?” Can we infer from this that immigration is the great issue of our time?

This posting is to highlight some content that I added at the end of the original posting and to provide a renewed forum for discussion.

Related from Facebook:

  • From our Native American senator, Elizabeth Warren: “Cardinal O’Malley is right. Tearing children away from their families is cruel and unconscionable — and goes against everything our country stands for.” and “At our town hall in Newburyport yesterday, people wanted to know: how can we stop the horror of the Trump administration ripping children from their parents? #KeepFamiliesTogether” (Warren sued her own husband and successfully separated two children from the person who had been their father; she also advises other women to keep a divorce litigation fund at the ready)
  • “By now you’ve likely seen all the headlines about the children being separated from their parents at the border. It makes me sick, and sad, and I don’t know what to do. I’ll admit to writing this post in anger, but I know I’m not the only one with these emotions. When we hear that 2,000 children are being taken from their parents, what can we do?” from Mayim Bialik, an actress who sued her husband for divorce in 2012, thus separating her own children (age 4 and 7) from their two-parent family.
  • “There is no excuse for inflicting these abuses and trauma on children. The Administration must immediately reverse course. #KeepFamiliesTogether” and “I’m standing in solidarity with the activists and families standing up to our government’s human rights abuses along the southern border. Government should be in the business of keeping families together, not breaking them apart.” from California Senator Kamala Harris. Wikipedia says “The family lived in Berkeley, California, where both of Harris’ parents attended graduate school. Harris’ parents divorced when she was only 7 and her mother was granted custody of the children by court-ordered settlement. After the divorce, her mother moved with the children to Montreal, Québec, Canada…” (i.e., the government of California was in the business of separating what had been Kamala’s own family; see Promise of divorce ruined by children (Australia parental relocation study) for how this kind of complete separation of children from the loser parent is getting tougher)
  • “As a father, as a parent, I can not in good conscience abide this removal of children from their families. It is a cruel and inhumane action.” over “Here’s How You Can Help Fight Family Separation at the Border” (Slate). (Other than posting on Facebook, he is not personally doing anything to help. He lives in New York so if his wife decides that she wants to spend more time having sex with new friends, he will be separated from his own children except for every other weekend.)
  • The above Slate article was also linked-to by a divorce, custody, and child support litigator here in Massachusetts. As we are a winner-take-all state when it comes to family law, she will spend nearly every working day separating children from a loser parent.
  • direct post from Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse: “Catch-and-release – combined with inefficient deportation and other ineffective policies – created a magnet whereby lots of people came to the border who were not actually asylum-seekers. … Human trafficking organizations are not just evil; they’re also often smart. Many quickly learned the “magic words” they needed to say under catch-and-release to guarantee admission into the U.S. Because of this, some of the folks showing up at the border claiming to be families are not actually families. Some are a trafficker with one or more trafficked children. ” (posted by a passionate Hillary supporter with “One of the only actually informative statements I’ve seen on the family separation debacle.”)
  • “13 Facts the Media ‘Pros’ Don’t Want You to Know About ‘Family Border Separation’” (from a Deplorable via private message; he noted “And if you intended to seek refugee status, why break in, why not just go to the border guard and say you want to be a refugee? If you do that, there is no arrest and no child separation. That means that the people who are arrested only lie about being refugee after they are caught.” He added “at least the anti-gun kids are out of the news”)

How about this last comment? Is it correct that families are kept together if they show up at a standard border crossing and say “We are applying for asylum”? (But then we are back to the question of why these folks, if not Mexican, didn’t apply for asylum when they arrived in Mexico?)

Girls are better at reading than boys and just as good at math…


… except for one subgroup, says “Why Are Rich, White Girls Struggling in Math?” (Atlantic):

In reading in particular, girls have consistently outperformed boys. Some studies have also found that in a typical U.S. school district, girls have all but caught up in math… a new study by a team of researchers led by the Stanford education professor Sean Reardon finds that girls’ dominance in school isn’t the case across demographics. Yes, the study confirms: Overall, in the average U.S. school district, girls and boys are performing about the same in math. But the study finds that in communities in which most families are affluent and white, and in which adult men far outearn women in income, girls continue to lag behind their male peers in math achievement. In some of these districts, boys on average outperformed girls in math by two-fifths of a grade level.

At the other end of the affluence spectrum, a near-opposite phenomenon is playing out: In poor communities of color, namely those where families are predominantly black or Latino, girls on average outperformed boys in math by one-fifth of a grade level, in addition to significantly outperforming them in reading.

(i.e., if a young man of color has difficulty getting an interview at a STEM employer, he can thank the do-gooders at Atlantic for broadcasting that he is statistically likely to be unqualified for the job)

Here’s the most bizarre part of the article:

Fahle cited a study that analyzed the conversations of a sample of families as they observed a science exhibit at a museum. While parents were equally likely to talk to their sons and daughters about the exhibit, they were three times more likely to explain the science to the boys.

How would parents in the world’s least scientifically literate developed nation be able to “explain the science” to anyone? Admittedly the folks who go to a science museum are a selected subgroup, but do readers remember hearing a lot of cogent and correct scientific explanations flowing from parents to children at museums?

Readers: Assuming that the results are not an example of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” what do you think accounts for the data? Could it be “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (also Atlantic), which suggests that STEM is a last-resort career for anyone and “rich, white girls” have a lot of options other than nerdism?


Make wooden cars to appeal to sanctimonious environmentalists?


I’m wondering if sanctimonious environmentalists will eventually figure out that it takes so much energy to make the materials that go into an electric car that they could have saved the planet more effectively by keeping their old car. Alternatively, so many people will buy electric cars that ownership of an electric car will no longer be a sufficient signal of virtue.

What about a wooden car?

There is a wood-framed car on the market today: the Morgan. The 1936 design, however, might not suit every family’s needs.

What if it were possible to make wood as strong as steel? Some researchers at University of Maryland seem to be on track:

The team’s process begins by removing the wood’s lignin, the part of the wood that makes it both rigid and brown in color. Then it is compressed under mild heat, at about 150 F. This causes the cellulose fibers to become very tightly packed. Any defects like holes or knots are crushed together. The treatment process was extended a little further with a coat of paint.

The scientists found that the wood’s fibers are pressed together so tightly that they can form strong hydrogen bonds, like a crowd of people who can’t budge – who are also holding hands. The compression makes the wood five times thinner than its original size.

“The paper provides a highly promising route to the design of light weight high performance structural materials, with tremendous potential for a broad range of applications where high strength, large toughness and superior ballistic resistance are desired, “ said Dr. Huajian Gao, a professor at Brown University, who was not involved in the study. “It is particularly exciting to note that the method is versatile for various species of wood and fairly easy to implement.”

“This kind of wood could be used in cars, airplanes, buildings – any application where steel is used,” Hu said.

“The two-step process reported in this paper achieves exceptionally high strength, much beyond what [is] reported in the literature,” said Dr. Zhigang Suo, a professor of mechanics and materials at Harvard University, also not involved with the study. “Given the abundance of wood, as well as other cellulose-rich plants, this paper inspires imagination.”

“The most outstanding observation, in my view, is the existence of a limiting concentration of lignin, the glue between wood cells, to maximize the mechanical performance of the densified wood. Too little or too much removal lower the strength compared to a maximum value achieved at intermediate or partial lignin removal. This reveals the subtle balance between hydrogen bonding and the adhesion imparted by such polyphenolic compound. Moreover, of outstanding interest, is the fact that that wood densification leads to both, increased strength and toughness, two properties that usually offset each other,” said Orlando J. Rojas, a professor at Aalto University in Finland.

If everyone in your neighborhood already has an electric car, what would be a better way to show off one’s virtue than by parking a wooden electric car in one’s driveway?


Tesla: example of crazy bad user interface?


I was a front-seat passenger the other day in a Tesla X. I wanted to adjust the radio volume. This turns out to be an obscure couple of touch areas at the bottom right of the central touch screen (photo). As with the Honda Clarity whose interface proved intolerable, there is no volume knob, though there are buttons on the steering wheel for the driver.

I know that Tesla true believers may love everything about the car, but I wonder if this design is an example of crazy bad user interface. The volume control, which one might use 10 or 15 times during a trip (e.g., to tone down commercials or hear a question from a child in the back), is actually smaller than the set-and-forget temperature control. It gets roughly equal prominence to the seat heater/cooler control, which one might adjust 1-2 times per trip.

I would question the safety and utility of this whole approach. It is a lot easier to feel a button and requires less diversion of attention from the road than it is to find a portion of a touch screen by sight. Honda and Toyota are able to make a profit selling cars full of physical buttons for about 1/6th the cost of a Tesla. So we can’t say that it is impractical to engineer a $100,000+ vehicle with dedicated buttons for frequently used controls.

Readers: What do you think? A monster touch screen that does everything is obviously great if the designers change their minds years after the car ships, but is it a bad idea compared to what most car companies are doing? (dedicated buttons for commonly used controls; a touch screen to get down into the weeds)

The less a society values fathers, the more maudlin will be the sentiments expressed on Father’s Day?


Facebook today is a collection of maudlin postings about fathers.

One links to “Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Boy, did you matter.” (Washington Post):

I could bring up his heroic willingness to waken me, a teenage morning monster, at 6 o’clock every day. Or the fact that he came to all of my high school basketball games even though that wasn’t a common thing for dads to do in that era — and even though neither I nor my team was any good. In the end all of my memories would testify to the same simple fact, the single most important thing that a father can give his child: his presence.

Family breakdown seems to affect child well-being even in Scandinavian countries with lavish welfare states. In the United States, research consistently shows that children without fathers in the home do worse on a variety of measures, including poverty and behavior problems. The effect is so powerful that it spills over to nearby houses; in economist Raj Chetty’s landmark work on how location affects income mobility, one of the strongest predictors of low-mobility areas was the percentage of single-parent households, even for kids who are themselves raised with two parents.

Here’s one from the mother of two college students:

Happy Father’s Day to this fine man and father of our fabulous boys!

(She previously sued this “fine man” for divorce so that she could continue to spend his income while simultaneously having sex with a guy 15 years younger.)

From a college student…

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you!

(Her mom sued said father so that she could have sex with some new friends.)

From the mom/plaintiff:

Happy birthday Dear [Jane]!!! And happy Father’s Day to [husband of “Jane”]. Double celebrations for you guys!!!

From a (white) tenured literature professor who spends 20 hours/week denouncing Trump and the rest of what she refers to as “the white patriarchy” on Facebook:


(it is the other 100 million white males who are the problem?)

From a childless academic:

Almost any male can be a father… but a man who is empathetic, caring, (non-malignant narcissist), and puts his children first, is a dad… To all dads, past or present, Happy Father’s Day.

(So there will be a test, administered by childless academics like himself, before a biological father can be celebrated as a “dad” on Father’s Day?)

From a friend of a friend:

Shout out to all the Single Moms on Father’s Day.

(It is not enough to celebrate the heroic acts of single mothers only 364 days per year?)

It seems safe to assume that the Romans, with their pater familias concept, did not have a Father’s Day. Can we infer from our own Father’s Day and the accompanying outpouring of treacly sentiment for 1/365th of the year, that fathers are actually not valued in the U.S.?

More evidence: the one segment of our society where emotions are never faked is among Canine-Americans. For dogs that do have a human “father”, every day is Father’s Day!

Readers: What have you seen this year? Has Facebook turned a Hallmark holiday into something even more maudlin?

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