2015-10-25

On Daylight Saving Time

Around this time of year, complaints pop up about the need to adjust clocks by an hour. I am usually one of the complainers, so I wondered: why do we still change clocks to DST and back, when apparently, most people hate it? If most of us prefer a single time throughout the year - what are the obstacles to making this happen?

After some research, I suspect the answer is:
  • We do in fact prefer more daylight during evenings in summer. Because of this, we might prefer permanent DST.
  • However, we can only borrow the evening daylight from mornings during summer. In winter, there's no light to borrow, unless we want mornings to be black.
In northern places, like Seattle, permanent DST would mean sunrise at 9 am at end of December and early January. Even as far south as Dallas, with permanent DST, sunrise in January would be at 8:30 am.

It appears that permanent DST would be great for those of us who get up late (more daylight!); but it would make winter mornings dreary for people who need to be at work or school at 8 am or 9 am.

Conversely, permanent standard time would make summer evenings end early, and in exchange we'd get the sun waking us up at 4:15 am.

It follows that there is wisdom in the current arrangement, resulting from forces of nature. sigh

Interestingly, the British did try permanent DST from 1968 - 1971. Apparently, mornings were dreary. Though note that Britain is further north than most of the US.

Russia – even further north – also tried year-round DST in 2011, but moved to year-round standard time in 2014 after people wearied of dark winter mornings. And in summer, their sunsets are at 9 pm, anyway.

2015-10-20

Modern-day pyramid building

A commonly understood truth is that consumer spending is good for the economy. A common misunderstanding is that this is true for all forms of consumer spending: even $500 million superyachts; private jets; and the building and maintenance of luxurious villas that most of the year, no one lives in.


A superyacht is absolutely no better than an Egyptian tomb. It is to build a huge and expensive thing for one person (and their close friends), instead of spending the time and resources building something more widely useful. To think this is better than a pyramid is to fool ourselves with economic sophistry. Anyone who looks at this from a 1,000 year perspective will consider us foolish.

To say that superyachts and private jets are "good for the economy" is equivalent to the Broken window fallacy. Superyachts, jets, and villas that no one lives in, are extremely expensive broken windows.

Progressive consumption tax

I do not suggest defining some arbitrary categories of products as "luxury goods", and taxing them out of existence. We shouldn't be in the business of defining what is luxury and what isn't.

Instead, I suggest a progressive personal consumption tax, where all personal spending is taxed at 0% for the first X$ per year until some threshold, then 5%, then 10%, and so on. Optimally, a smooth formula should be used such that the tax percentage just keeps growing, indefinitely. The more you spend on personal consumption, the higher the consumption tax you pay.

The tax rate would automatically raise to some level resembling 900% if your annual personal consumption is in the hundreds of millions. It doesn't matter what you spend it on – one superyacht, one hundred supercars, or 1,000 paintings.

This does require spending to be differentiated as to whether it's personal spending, or an investment, or a business expense. However, this does not invent new complexity that is not needed for income tax administration already.

But what of the lost jobs?

When you impose a tax on luxury goods that causes some jobs to go away, of course that produces tangible, noticeable pain when workers producing those goods are no longer needed. When the economy restructures to reabsorb those people, this is diffuse, distributed, and subtle. You notice the pain, but not the relief. This may lead a person to think that damage was done by discouraging production of luxuries.

But this is not so. Even outside of tax collected, the very fact that pointless things are not being produced is a benefit to the economy. The tax is meant to reduce this type of consumption, which means it will cause job losses in the short term. But longer term, the money will go somewhere else, and jobs lost will be reabsorbed. The real benefit is in the long run (generations), not the short run (next few tax years).

But consumption moves abroad

Unfortunately, it does not do much to progressively tax consumption when people can quite simply board their jets, and take their yachting to another country, without taxation. A consumption tax is subject to tax avoidance even more so than taxation of income. Who hasn't yet taken advantage of state or country borders to benefit from shopping in a city with no sales tax? When it comes to superyachts, jurisdiction shopping is a no-brainer. Of course the yachts are going to be built and used where taxes are minimal.

To the extent that consumption can move abroad, any progressive taxation of personal consumption therefore has to be accompanied with measures to discourage avoidance. Most Western economies already tax worldwide income. Perhaps taxation of worldwide spending might not be so inconceivable.

2015-10-03

Spec author "fixes mistake", wastes everyone's man-year

I came across the Referrer Policy proposal, which is already implemented in Chrome and Firefox, and allows sites to provide more privacy for their users by restricting referrer information sent to other websites when users follow links.

For example, with default browser behavior, if you are browsing the following page:
https://www.reddit.com/r/bigdicklovers/
... then if you click any links on that page which take you to a third-party site, for example:
https://www.employer.bigfirm/
... your browser will kindly send to that site the full address of the "Big Dicks" page you came from.

This has some unfortunate privacy implications, so finally, browsers (except Microsoft's, of course) are allowing sites to exert more control over what referrer information is sent with outgoing links.

One of the nice new policies a site can choose is origin-when-cross-origin. Or is it? In 2014, the First Public Working Draft of the spec made a "mistake", and defined this policy without the third dash. In 2015, this was noticed, and the spec author decided to "fix" it, adding a third dash in later Editor's Drafts.

This has resulted in a situation where Firefox versions 36 - 40 implement the previous spelling (two dashes), and versions 41+ implement the new spelling (three dashes). As of today, Mozilla Developer's Network still documents the old, two-dash spelling. FxSiteCompat (not affiliated with Mozilla) documents the fix, and states "The legacy wrong value will no longer be supported in the future."

Meanwhile, announcements like this one continue to link to the old version of the spec, and the old version is still what you will find if you look up the spec on W3.org. If you want to use this feature, you'll spend an hour figuring it out. And if you don't, you are likely to use the old version instead of the new one – possibly leading to your referrer policy breaking in the future.

Ahh – the great results of "fixing" things that already shipped, and perhaps were not even broken. :-)