Managing complexity: encoding the tax code

I put together an interactive tool to explore the U.S. individual tax calculation.

Here is a screenshot of the most basic tax form. You can click through to https://b-k.github.io/1040.js and add components for kids, check the boxes to add components for a mortgage, student loans, rents and royalties, and so on.

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What inspired me to develop it this far is that I showed an early draft to friends and colleagues, and for the most part their reaction was complete indifference.

Taxes are not something you understand, I was told, they are something you do. Every year, you stuff numbers into a black box, and the black box spits out a single owed/refunded number, and that’s what taxes are. There is never any need to intuit how the tax system works.

But tax law is of central importance in governance—nobody jokes about the inevitability of death and parking enforcement. And title 26 of the US Code (herein, the tax code) is arguably the most complex part of the law. What does it take to be an informed citizen or policymaker in this context? Continue reading

The space between the signal and the action

In the game-theoretic world, the gunner never shoots: the other side looks at the options down the game tree, realizes that one action will lead to his or her getting shot, and doesn’t take that action. In Game Theory textbooks, cases never go to court: both sides calculate the risk-adjusted expected payoff from trial, and if it is positive for one hyperrational side, then it is negative for the other hyperrational side, and a settlement can be calculated based on that. In both cases, knowledge that an event could occur largely has the same effect as the event itself.

But there was an eight-year glitch in the game-theoretic matrix, which has given us an interesting chance to see what happens between when a signal of a legal position is sent and when the position actually hits.

Here in 2014, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling regarding the patentability of software, Alice Corp v CLS Bank. The first draft of the ruling was published in 2006.

The question in the 2006 case of Labcorp v Metabolite was whether a patent of this form was valid:

1. draw the patient’s blood,
2. measure the level of a chemical in the blood, and
3. correlate that level to the risk of a disorder.

Steps 1 and 2 are by themselves not patentable, because they are physical processes but are entirely not-novel. Step 3 may be a novel correlation, but it is an abstract scientific discovery, and one may not patent abstract ideas or research results. So is the combination of the physical-but-quotidian steps 1+2 with the abstract-but-novel step 3 a physical and novel invention?

The Court’s decision (PDF) was one sentence long: Continue reading

How Presidential Appointees (or Lack Thereof) Matter

JOURNAL OF PUBLIC POLICY

appointment_onpage Source: americanprogress.org

By William Resh (@billresh), University of Southern California

As Gary Hollibaugh, Jr. and colleagues plainly stated on the LSE blog, “Presidential appointees matter.” Of course, this is of little question when these positions are filled. Incompetent appointees cause deleterious consequences for both citizens and presidents. But, what about those positions reserved for Senate-confirmed presidential appointees (PAS) that remain empty?

A report last year by Pro Publica grouses that the Obama administration has been subject to more vacancies than previous administrations—in both independent and executive branch agencies (see Figure 1). Yet, occupancy is often legislatively required in independent commissions and agencies before agency action can be triggered. Therefore, outcomes (or a lack thereof) are easier to identify during periods of vacancy in those positions (at least anecdotally), whereas the effects vacancies have on agency performance in executive branch agencies generally may be less evident. The…

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Bureaucrats at their desks

ImageDutch photographer Jan Banning has traveled the world documenting the consequences of war, the homeless and impoverished, and victims of human trafficking. Asked to photograph a story on the administration of international development aid, something he thought to be “un-photographable,” Banning and a journalist set out to visit hundreds of local government offices worldwide. Between 2003 and 2007, they met civil servants in eight countries on five continents. “Though there is a high degree of humour and absurdity in these photos,” Banning says, “they also show compassion with the inhabitants of the state’s paper labyrinth.”

Where European scholars are publishing in Public Administration and why we already knew this

The European Union recently commissioned a study to “reflect on the state of the discipline and general trends within the discipline and in practice” of public administration (brought to you by the EU’s “Coordinating for Cohesion in the Public Sector of the Future” Group–or COCOPS). The subsequent report produced a ranking of public administration/management journals through the results of a survey of European scholars, which asked the respondents to rank the order of preference for where they would submit a good paper.

At my own school, faculty have vigorously (and in a healthy manner, I might add) debated the relative importance of journal ranking. And, this debate is certainly not isolated to my current place of employment. But one might question whether any of this debate really matters. Once a given metric becomes an established point of reference among those judged on that metric, is there any reason to believe that any other metric (qualitative or quantitative) will adequately replace it?

For instance, the Journal Citations Report or Google Scholar Metrics are two rather widely accepted quantitative metrics for journal prominence in a given field. JCR, in particular, has been used for years and is prominently featured as the metric of choice on most social science journals’ websites.

Below, I show tables derived from the COCOPS study, JCR, and Google Scholar Metrics. I have eliminated distinctively “policy”-oriented journals from lists in the “Public Administration” category in both JCR and Google Scholar. Even keeping in mind the obvious European bias in the COCOPS report, an almost identical list would emerge based on five-year impact factor or Google Scholar metrics. In ALL three lists, the top five journals in the field of public administration are PA, PAR, JPART, Governance, and PMR.

Note that some journals do not yet have a 5-year impact factor score (e.g., IPMJ). Nonetheless, it seems to me that there are a couple things you could derive from the COCOPS report… (1) traditionally accepted quantitative rankings are endogenous to choice; or (2) they aren’t a bad rubric for some fields; or (3) both.

Continue reading

Airplanes and the intellectual commons

Today’s post is based on a great paper by Peter Meyer, on the invention of the airplane. He also has a set of slides summarizing the paper and offering lots of pictures of early plane designs.

The data set that he put together is of the writings, correspondences, and patents regarding air travel during the period before anybody worked out whether air travel is even possible.

He paints the picture of a real community of interacting researchers. Letters are sent, ideas are shared. Patents are obtained, but then immediately pledged to the world at large. We get a sense of a small community of people that everybody else thought was crazy (until they were proven right), and who longed to see flight happen. Some people, most notably Octave Chanute, worked hard on being an information hub to keep the conversation going.

And then, they stopped. Two members of the community, the Wright Brothers, were especially active until about 1902, at which point they realized that their design could actually fly, and they stopped sharing. By the next decade, the correspondences stop and the patent battles commence:

This rapid takeoff of the industry, unmoored from the original inventors, suggests that much of the key knowledge was widely available. There were great patent battles after 1906 in the U.S. (and after 1910 in Europe) and industrial competition, but the key knowledge necessary to fly was not in fact licensed from one place or closely tied to any particular patent.

Looking to somewhat more recent history, the software world followed a similar pattern. Before the mid-1990s, software was largely seen as not patentable. That was the period when people came up with word processors, spreadsheets, databases, compilers, scripting languages, windowed GUIs, email, chat clients, the WWW. Then, after a series of federal circuit rulings which I will not rehash now, patents showed up in the software industry. If Rip van Winkle fell asleep in 1994, he’d see modern computing technology as amazingly fast and tiny and beautiful, the product of ten thousand little incremental improvements, but a basically familiar elaboration on what was in the commons in 1994.

The 3D printing world has a different history, because the early innovations were deemed patentable from the start. Many authors characterize the 3D maker world as being in a holding pattern, because key patents from the mid-1990s claimed the fundamental technologies. For airplanes and software, the fundamental building blocks were out in the public before the lawyers showed up. For 3D printing, the patents came from the start, so it took the 17-year wait until their expiration for the common tools to become commonly available.

[By the way, I found that last link to be especially interesting. It lists 16 patents that the authors identify as key to 3D printing, though the authors refuse on principle to say that their being freed up will advance the industry. Five of the sixteen are listed as having “current assignment data unavailable”, meaning that even if you wanted to license the described technology, the authors—a Partner and Clerk at an IP law firm—couldn’t tell you who to contact to do so. Orphan works aren’t exclusive to copyright.]

These are loose examples of broad industries, but they make good fodder for the steampunk alt history author in all of us. What would the 1910s and 1920s have looked like if airplanes were grounded in a patent thicket? What would our computer screens look like today if WordPerfect Corp had had a patent on the word processor? What would the last decade of our lives have looked like if the cheap 3D printer technology emerging today were patent-free then?