Happy Valentine’s Day


Happy Valentine’s Day to all of my readers! Of all of the Hallmark Holidays this might be my favorite.

When Americans talk about gay marriage do they know what marriage is?


Because of my work as a co-author of a book on divorce laws nationwide, friends always seem to contact me when they have a divorce-related question. Here’s an exchange that I had recently with a friend who has an advanced degree in social science and who is married with children. I’ll call him “Joe.”

  • Joe: “Can you talk to my friend? His wife is putting him through hell. She’s hired one of the top divorce lawyers in the state and is making all kinds of accusations. about abuse, child abuse, etc.”
  • Me: “He should ignore all of that. Based on our interviews, virtually every plaintiff alleges abuse and judges mostly don’t believe them. He should focus on cooperating with his former spouse  so that the judge can feel comfortable awarding a 50/50 shared parenting schedule, which is what the researchers find is best for children. If he fights her on all of the little stuff that weakens his case for 50/50 parenting, so he should just cave in.”
  • Joe: “But she wants to control everything about how interacts with their child. The child can’t go to certain playgrounds because she’ll get hurt, the child can’t see certain people because they’re unsafe.”
  • Me: “He should just graciously agree to do his best to comply with her conditions. What is she going to do? Go to court later and file a motion that he agreed not to take the child to playground X and the father took the child to playground X? The first question from the judge is going to be ‘Did the child actually get hurt?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then the motion hearing is likely over.”
  • Joe: “He can’t let her just get away with all of this and push him around.”
  • Me: “Why not? The only thing that matters is the schedule, keeping her from moving out of state with the child, and preserving some sort of ability for coordination and cooperation. Has he asked her to mediate? Litigation is extremely harmful to children and poisons any kind of co-parenting, according to the lawyers we interviewed and the research literature. If he is forced by his wife to continue litigating, some of the best advice to readers that we got for the book was from a Massachusetts business litigator whose friend kept defending family court motions filed by his ex-wife [they'd been divorced for many years but she kept coming back for more cash, using a 22-year-old child as a hook; he lost nearly all of these proceedings; a Massachusetts parent can profit from obtaining child custody until the child's 23rd birthday]: ‘You know that the game is rigged. Why are you swinging at every pitch?’”
  • Joe: “What do you mean litigation?”
  • Me: “Well, she sued him. A divorce lawsuit is the same as if you sued a guy for charging you to dig a pool in your backyard but not finishing the digging. You wouldn’t expect ever to be able to cooperate with that guy again after you sued him and threw allegations back and forth in court, would you?”
  • Joe: “Actually I think he was the one who filed for divorce. But how is that a lawsuit?”
  • Me: “The only structural difference between that and you suing the pool contractor is that your friend is guaranteed to win his lawsuit because your state has no-fault divorce. But otherwise it is the same. Lawyers, witnesses, evidence, etc. It is an adversarial process that turns co-parents who need to cooperate for their child’s benefit into adversaries, typically permanently if the litigators are to be believed.”
  • Joe: “What’s the alternative?”
  • Me: “Suppose that you decide that you really need to be with some hot 25-year-old. You could try to surprise Susie [Joe's wife] by suing her. But would you be surprised if her dad hired the best lawyer that he could find to defend that lawsuit? The alternative would be to sit down at the kitchen table, ask her to forgive you for your need to be with the 25-year-old, and see if you could come to a fair agreement regarding the children, the house, etc. Then go to a mediator to work out the details and finalize something legal. Your friend is complaining that he is embroiled in litigation, but he is the one who started a lawsuit. Of course he is now plagued with litigation. Did he expect his wife not to defend the lawsuit?”
  • Joe: “But he was afraid that she was going to file for divorce herself.”
  • Me: “Well, she didn’t, did she?”
  • Joe: “And his wife is a crazy bitch.”
  • Me: “All the more reason not to sue her. If it doesn’t make sense to go around suing the average person, why would you sue a crazy bitch and then expect things to go well? And if the crazy bitch is also the mother of your child? He should send her an email right now saying ‘I apologize for suing you and I hope that you will forgive me and agree to sit down with me at a divorce mediator’s office to come to an agreement that will be best for our children.’”

(I suggested to my friend that he read the “Divorce Litigation” chapter of our book.)

This is some pretty basic stuff and is required for consumers to read by the State of Florida before they can get a marriage license (handbook), but this married guy with an advanced degree didn’t know any of it. He’s a supporter of gay marriage, as it happens, and after the conversation it occurred to me that he has no clue as to what civil marriage is. I wonder how many other Americans who have weighed in on either side of the gay marriage debate are similarly situated in their ignorance of the fundamentals.


Cosby: His Life and Times


One of the more poorly timed authorized biographies, Cosby: His Life and Times, was not in very high demand at the local library. So I decided to learn a bit more about Bill Cosby, other than the sexual assault allegations that have flooded the media since November 2014.

Mark Whitaker’s book is interesting for its window into black-white relations in the 1960s when Bill Cosby was on his way to becoming America’s most successful entertainer. Were whites racist? The business executives running television networks were happy to employ talented actors of all races, according to the author, but sometimes they expressed fears that affiliate stations in the Deep South would not run shows featuring a black co-star. Their fears that “the other people are racist” turned out to be unfounded, with 180 out of 184 affiliates picking up the supposedly controversial shows. This is not to say that network executives are completely open-minded. They fought like tigers against Cosby’s plan to fill five minutes of one of his 1980s sitcom episodes with lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, believing that Americans could not accept the Bard in their living rooms.

The author, a former managing editor of CNN and bureau chief for NBC News, is criticized for his failure to include anything about allegations of sexual assault against Cosby. This Wikipedia page from September 6, 2014 does include an account of a 2004-6 case and as many as 13 other women with similar claims:

In August 2006, Cosby reached an out-of-court settlement in a lawsuit filed against him by a Canadian woman claiming he had attacked her in his Philadelphia home in 2004. The woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted after being given pills when she had complained of feeling stressed, and court documents show her lawyers intended to call 13 other witnesses who made similar claims of abuse. Cosby denied the assertions.

Thus it may be said that Wikipedia is a more balanced source than this $30 Simon and Schuster book.

Given our current public debates about optimum tax rates on our most successful citizens, the book is relevant for its portrayal of what Cosby did when he was earning a very high income in an environment of high tax rates. He frantically invested the money into film and recording projects, which qualified as deductible business expenses, to avoid giving 70 percent to the federal government. This ended up creating a huge personal loss for Cosby, as the projects did not pay off, but also a loss to the economy, as a lot of useless showbiz people in LA snorted up what would have been the U.S. Treasury’s money.

The book reminds readers how influential network television was back then. It was possible to get at least one member in nearly every American family to watch the same TV show on the same night. Cosby used this platform to put out a positive image of middle class black America.

The book is not without embarrassing disclosures. Whitaker describes a dalliance with a young lady in Los Angeles (Cosby was there for extended periods for work while the family remained in Western Massachusetts). Shawn Berkes turned up to meet Cosby in Las Vegas in 1975 with a photo of a 14-month-old baby girl and a hunger for cash. This was prior to the introduction of child support guidelines so the value of a pregnancy or child that resulted from a brief encounter was hard to calculate. Most of the cash value of an out-of-wedlock child was due to the potential for embarrassment, marital discord, and bad publicity. (A present-day successor to Ms. Berkes could have sex in Los Angeles with a high-income partner and then use the online California child support calculator to learn exactly how much the resulting child would yield. Note that she would be very unwise to have sex or a child in Las Vegas due to Nevada’s $13,000-per-year cap on child support for a single child.) The incident shows the price of celebrity in the U.S. because there was never any evidence that the child was Cosby’s.

The book reminds us that Cosby’s beloved son Ennis was murdered more or less randomly and pointlessly by an armed robber. It is tough to imagine how a parent could recover from that and go on trying to entertain the rest of us.

Whitaker also describes Cosby’s late-life jeremiads against black ghetto culture (e.g., the Pound Cake speech). Our interviews with divorce litigators nationwide and review of the research indicates that Cosby’s attack on black culture is unfair to at least some extent. Do black women have children in response to cash incentives provided by the U.S. welfare system? Perhaps, but the data show that white women also have babies to get cash. See “Parental Responses to Child Support Obligations” (Rossin-Slater and Wust 2014) in which Danish women, presumably overwhelmingly white, were more likely to have an out-of-wedlock child if they had previously received a cash profit on an earlier child. The change in behavior was significant despite the small size of the cash incentives (child support is capped at $8,000 per year in Denmark, lower than the value of welfare benefits, such as free housing, here in the U.S.). Child labor in the old days was mostly a white phenomenon. From our book:

A key assumption underlying most states’ divorce system is that a parent would never put personal financial gain ahead of his or her child’s interest. For example, a parent who believed that 50/50 shared parenting would be better for a child emotionally would not go to court asking for 67/33 or 100/0 in order to have more money.

“You know that this assumption is false,” said one litigator, “because 19th century parents sent their children to work in the mills and stopped only when child labor laws made it illegal.”

It turns out that this question has been formally studied by economists. See, for example, “Parental Altruism and Self-Interest: Child Labor Among Late Nineteenth-Century American Families” (Parsons and Goldin 1989; Economic Inquiry 27:4):

Nonaltruistic behavior by parents was pervasive. Even among families with positive assets, child labor was common…

The labor market evidence suggests that parents were willing to accept large reductions in their own wages to secure employment in areas having abundant child labor opportunities. They were implicitly willing to sell the labor services of their children very cheaply, indeed at a rate that suggest they placed very little value on the foregone schooling (and future income) of their children. … Neither did they permit children to retain their earnings for future use. The children were simply worse off…

The empirical results suggest that parents did not have strong (economic) altruistic concerns for their children. … the family provided little in the way of offsetting physical asset transfers (in the form of gifts and bequests) to compensate children for their lost schooling and future earnings. The increased family income was apparently absorbed in higher current family consumption.

Do black men run away from fatherhood? Lawyers and legislators that we interviewed told us that fatherhood for a lot of black men means being the only non-lawyer in a courtroom and being on the losing end of whatever the proceeding might be. One attorney said “white men spend all of their savings defending divorce lawsuits expecting to get justice; black men don’t bother because they know that they’re not going to be treated justly.” Regarding continuing to pay a lawyer and defend a lawsuit after losing a 10-minute “temporary order” motion in which custody of children are assigned to the mother:

“Realistically this is where one parent, typically the father, should give up,” said one attorney, “due to the court system’s bias toward the status quo, even a status quo that was created by the court. The judge has told the father ‘The only thing that you’re good for is paying the mother’s bills’ but dad has trouble believing that he’ll never be anything other than an ATM. In a lot of ways the ghetto dads are smarter than my [white] male clients. Ghetto dads try to minimize the financial damage, comply with court orders to pay money, but don’t volunteer to serve as unpaid babysitters of a child that the court has deemed to be essentially someone else’s.”

Cosby does not seem to account for the possibility that American blacks are responding to economic incentives in more or less the same way as American whites, but from a different educational basis.

What about the fact that the 500 pages of the book teach us less about the accusations of sexual assault against Cosby than does a casual visit to Wikipedia? To my mind that means we can’t accept this book as a definitive guide to Bill Cosby as a human being, but the book remains a definitive guide to his professional accomplishments.

Cosby was undeniably one of the most important and influential Americans of the 20th century and Whitaker does a great job of explaining that importance, albeit with some name-heavy sections that people who aren’t passionate about Hollywood would want to skim. For Americans who pat themselves on the back today for not being as racist as those white folks depicted in movies such as Selma, the book also serves as a reminder that the supposedly deeply racist America of the 1960s and 1970s was very happy to work with or be entertained by a talented black person. (This is not to say that we don’t have any race-related problems or didn’t have any back then, only that things are perhaps not so different.)

More: Read Cosby: His Life and Times.

Stanford studies tendency of people who vacation together in Italy to have sex


Mental challenge for today: A rich 29-year-old guy invites a 21-year-old fashion model and college undergraduate to go on an all-expenses paid vacation with him to Italy where they will be sharing a luxury hotel room. She accepts the invitation. Are they likely to have sex?

This question is being investigated by the 10 lb. heads of Stanford University, with the help of one of the world’s most expensive law firms, Pillsbury (disclosure: I have served as an expert witness in Delaware Chancery Court for a Pillsbury client; Pillsbury won the case so apparently they are worth whatever they’re charging).

This question also merits an epic-length New York Times magazine article.

What do readers think? Can a society survive when some of its best educated people are occupied with this kind of investigation? What does it mean when the editors of a major newspaper think that this is newsworthy?

My idea for Stanford’s next research inquiry: Do visitors to Las Vegas tend to drink and gamble?

Boston subway system shut down for 36 hours


Boston’s MBTA bus, subway, and rail system shut down due to the snow for about 36 hours. The New York Times article on the system characterized it as “underfunded.” This is a system that is paying pensions for a lot of folks who retired at age 41 under the recently abandoned “23-and-out” rule (Boston Globe) and pays bus drivers about $100 per hour to work at night (boston.com). When Jesse on Breaking Bad ran out of money buying strippers and drugs for all of his friends, was he “underfunded”?

Let’s suppose that the New York Times is right and the MBTA actually does have less funding per passenger than other systems. What to do about it? I vote for congestion pricing for cars and give the money to the MBTA so that it can pay all of those retired bus drivers and also push the snow off the tracks.

What do readers think? Is the impending insolvency of the MBTA due to its pension commitments and debt service enough to motivate Bostonians to go where no other U.S. city has gone?


Most perverse things about the U.S. tax code?


It would be interesting to gather reader perspectives on the most perverse things about the U.S. tax code. Here is my personal list of things that stick out either because they affect a lot of people or have big dollar signs attached.

That child care expenses are not fully deductible from income. Suppose that a parent works to earn $40,000 per year and pays a nanny $40,000 per year to stay home with the children. As the family is no better off financially than when the parent stayed home personally, why is the family paying more in taxes? Maybe the argument is that the family gets a huge emotional and personal benefit from having a child around and therefore the nanny costs are personal rather than work-related? But if that is true, why are children treated as an economic burden with no emotional or personal value when it comes time to award child support to the parent victorious in a custody lawsuit?

That a person who collects $100,000 per year in child support, more than 20X what a typical married couple spends on a child (see previous posting regarding on UCLA research), can claim that child as a financial “dependent.”

That child support, which in many states functions by design in the same way as alimony, is treated differently from a tax perspective (tax-free to the plaintiff, not taxable to the defendant). Once child support exceeds the USDA-estimated cost of rearing a child, why wouldn’t the IRS treat the excess as alimony-in-fact? (Separately, why hasn’t the IRS addressed the apparent discrepancy between the 567,887 Americans who report paying alimony and the roughly 300,000 who report receiving it, with the result that taxpayers who were not divorce litigants must pay a larger share of their income in tax to make up the shortfall? (treasury.gov report).)

That health care costs, which are nearly 20 percent of the GDP, are deductible or not depending on a huge array of factors, e.g., whether the employer or the employee pays or whether or not one is self-employed. For such a huge sector of the economy one would expect that there would be agreement on whether these should be pre-tax or post-tax expenses. (Personally I think it is madness to pour gasoline on the health care bonfire of cash by making the dollars spent mostly pre-tax. If an industry is consuming an outsized portion of GDP why encourage Americans to keep pouring more money into it? It is also a big hit to the tax base. The government is very careful to limit charitable deductions as a percentage of income but is allowing 20-30 percent of income, for a lot of workers, to be swept off the taxable table.)

Allowing some money managers to claim their fees as capital gains rather than ordinary income. (The “carried interest” stuff that is periodically debated by politicians.) If the point of having a long-term capital gains rate is to ameliorate the fact that inflation-driven pseudo-gains are taxed (see below) and to encourage people to invest in businesses, why give the rate to people who did not put up personal funds and who did not hold an asset long enough for inflation to be an important factor?

That capital gains are not adjusted for inflation (so we pay the same tax on an asset that doubled in nominal value over the past year and on an asset that doubled in nominal value over the past 50 years (i.e., actually lost value because of 50 years of inflation)). This will lead to some crazy behavior if we ever get back to Jimmy Carter-era levels of inflation.

That successful people who lead short lives have a much larger percentage of their income taxed away compared to people who enjoy a long life. This is because the estate tax is a second income tax, taking a cut of money that was already taxed as it was earned. (See Mankiw for how these add up.) Someone who dies during his or her working years is much more likely to pay estate tax than someone who dies following a long retirement in which savings accumulated during working years were spent. [Financially unsuccessful Americans don't pay any estate tax, of course, because the threshold is pretty high.]

After we (permanently?) melted down our economy with a housing bubble and while we continue to melt the planet by heating and air conditioning double the number of square feet per person that we lived in during the middle of the 20th Century, we continue to subsidize expenditures on housing with the mortgage interest deduction.


Do teachers and children in China, Korea, and Japan get snow days?


We are on our second state of emergency here in Massachusetts. The Boston Public Schools are shut down for two days. The MBTA shut down bus, subway, and train service at 7 pm this evening and will keep public transit shut down through Tuesday.

The former Soviet contingent of our household said “We never had snow days in Moscow.” What about the subway system? “Never stopped,” she responded. “And the buses pretty much ran all the time as well.”

Readers: Who grew up in China, Korea, or Japan? What happened to school when it snowed heavily?

Some photos:



Now Harvard professors can completely ignore the undergrads…


Harvard, like other research universities, punishes professors for spending time with undergraduates. An hour spent teaching an undergraduate is an hour that could have been spent working with a post-doc or graduate student to get a research paper or grant proposal out the door. Via a new policy, Harvard has now banned sex between consenting adult undergraduates and teachers. Thus there is truly nothing tangible that a professor can gain from talking to an undergraduate.

The Boston Globe article on the new policy talks about ethical issues, but in an era where “A is average” the traditional ethics problem of influence over grades does not exist.

To me the deeper ethical questions are why professors grade their own students (see my “Universities and Economic Growth” article) and how it can be ethical to send graduates out into the world without any independent, and therefore credible, certification of their competence. But since these issues don’t involve sexual activity, apparently nobody cares…

Male/Female Wage gap from Census Current Population Survey


We loaded the March 2014 U.S. Census Current Population Survey into a MySQL database for our students at MIT. In showing them how painful it is to calculate medians in standard SQL we discovered a larger-than-expected female/male wage gap. We limited our results to young people, age 22-36. They all had the same level of education: a Bachelor’s degree (no more, no less).  They all worked at least 30 hours per week. Within the sample, men generally worked 2-6 hours more per week (e.g., 44 hours versus 40). We’re going to make the virtual machine available, probably from the Three-Day RDBMS course page if you want to poke around in the data (you can try right now from the Day 1 problems). Note that we started with a CSV file from the National Bureau of Economic Research. I’ve seen various statistics on male/female wage gaps. Supposedly the trend is that when corrected for working hours, years in the work force, education, etc., there isn’t much of a gap. This is as you’d expect from classical economics. If women were truly cheaper to employ, adjusted for skills and productivity, Target could put Walmart out of business simply by hiring only women. How does the theory translate into practice?

CPS F CPS M Cents/Dollar
Alabama $40,000 $47,000 85
Alaska $43,600 $50,000 87
Arizona $30,000 $50,000 60
Arkansas $42,000 $57,000 74
California $40,000 $55,000 73
Colorado $41,600 $45,000 92
Connecticut $35,000 $60,000 58
Delaware $46,000 $40,000 115
District of Columbia $47,000 $55,000 85
Florida $40,000 $50,000 80
Georgia $38,000 $43,004 88
Hawaii $43,000 $45,000 96
Idaho $31,000 $53,000 58
Illinois $40,000 $50,000 80
Indiana $35,000 $43,680 80
Iowa $38,000 $67,000 57
Kansas $46,000 $50,000 92
Kentucky $40,000 $45,000 89
Louisiana $32,828 $63,000 52
Maine $28,000 $46,500 60
Maryland $37,000 $51,000 73
Massachusetts $35,000 $45,000 78
Michigan $37,000 $60,000 62
Minnesota $45,000 $58,000 78
Mississippi $25,000 $38,670 65
Missouri $40,000 $50,000 80
Montana $28,000 $40,000 70
Nebraska $36,000 $50,000 72
Nevada $38,000 $50,000 76
New Hampshire $42,000 $60,000 70
New Jersey $43,000 $53,000 81
New Mexico $35,000 $40,000 88
New York $47,000 $53,000 89
North Carolina $37,000 $36,000 103
North Dakota $35,000 $39,000 90
Ohio $40,000 $45,000 89
Oklahoma $30,000 $40,000 75
Oregon $30,000 $43,700 69
Pennsylvania $40,000 $50,000 80
Rhode Island $40,000 $60,000 67
South Carolina $34,000 $50,000 68
South Dakota $38,000 $50,000 76
Tennessee $37,000 $42,000 88
Texas $41,400 $50,000 83
Utah $40,000 $62,500 64
Vermont $38,000 $45,000 84
Virginia $40,000 $74,000 54
Washington $41,804 $55,000 76
West Virginia $28,000 $60,000 47
Wisconsin $48,000 $45,000 107
Wyoming $40,000 $55,000 73
average 77

Note that the sample size is fairly small for the CPS. There are 224 women in California in our restricted sample and 210 men, for example. So that could account for a fair amount of variance but I don’t think it can explain the overall pattern.


Update: In response to reader comments that some the differences might be due to marital status, I ran the queries again on the 22-36-year-old population of Americans with Bachelor’s degrees. The results were limited to people working at least 30 hours per week and earning at least $5000 per year.  The median earnings of women went up from 77 percent of men’s earnings to 86.7 percent. Note that the virtual machine with all of the data loaded is available so readers can do their own poking around (given minimal knowledge of SQL).

Canon 5Ds: Supersize those crummy JPEGs


Sony sensors produce much better images in real-world conditions than Canons due to the roughly two extra f-stops of dynamic range (ability to record both light and dark tones in the same image). Nikon adopted the Sony sensors in its flagship D800 and similar cameras.

Canon has announced a somewhat bizarre answer to the challenge presented by the superior image quality of Sony and Nikon: the 50 megapixel 5Ds. dpreview:

As far as dynamic range is concerned, we’re told that the new 5DS and 5DS R should give the same performance as the current EOS 5D Mark III. If true, this means that the new cameras won’t be able to offer the same industry-leading dynamic range of Sony’s current APS-C and full-frame sensors, but at least it isn’t a step backwards. And hey – 50MP!

What good is 50 megapixels? The maximum resolution of this camera is 8688 pixels on the side of the image. Assuming a perfect lens, tripod, and focus technique, this means a beautiful quality enlargement to about 43 inches on a side. The Nikon D800 creates images that are 7360 pixels on the long side, thus enabling a similar quality enlargement to only about 37 inches in width.

Not planning to use a tripod, sandbag, $4000 Zeiss Otus lens, etc.? The extra megapixels likely won’t be worth much.

Short summary: If the report regarding dynamic range is true, this is another sad day for Canon EOS lens system owners.


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