December 06, 2011
Best Chanukah Music Videos
Posted by Gordon Smith

Danny Sokol at the Antitrust & Competition Policy Blog has posted his daughters' favorite Chanukah Music Videos. My favorite was the bronze medal winner -- Candlelight by The Maccabeats -- but the whole collection is worth a look. Great job, girls!

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January 06, 2011
Credit CARD Act of 2009 and Your Holiday Gift Card
Posted by Christine Hurt

The Federal Reserve estimates that 95% of Americans have given or received gift cards.  Gift cards are easy to give, but they are also easy money for card issuers.  That mega bookstore gets your $50 now free and clear, but the odds of the entire gift card being used are much less than 100%.  And when the gift card isn't used, that's gravy to the card issuer.

Originally, to hurry this process along, gift cards were given short expiration dates.  However, technically, the value left on expired cards belonged to the state treasury as abandoned property.  So, a savvy consumer could just go in and ask the retailer to either honor the gift certificate or show them the documentation of when the value was forwarded to the state.  So, card issuers instituted the dreaded monthly fee for nonusage.  If the store could deduct faster than you could remember where you put the card, then the store won.  Some states, including Illinois, passed laws limiting this practice, but this holiday season is the first time a federal rule has covered all gift cards.  Under regulations promulgated pursuant to the Credit CARD Act of 2009, effective August 2010, you should be able to save your card until you need a little mid-year pick-me-up, or maybe even to regift next holiday season.

Under the new rules, card issuers may not deduct any fees for non-usage until the card has had no activity for one year, and the terms of such fees must be disclosed on the card itself.  ("Activity" is a sale or adding value to the card, not checking the balance.)  And, the card must not expire for at least five years from the date of issuance.  If the card is reloadable, meaning more value can be added to the card, then those funds will not expire for at least five years, even if the card does.  In that case, the holder of the card can request a replacement.

Of course, there are exceptions.  The rules are meant to apply to cards for personal, family or household purposes; therefore, cards given to employees and other business partners are not covered.  In addition, the card must be marketed or labeled as a gift card or gift certificate.  The cards could be for a particular store, an affiliated group of stores, or a mall, or even a general-use card branded by MasterCard or Visa.  The rules do not apply to prepaid cards meant to substitute for a checking account, telephone cards, rebates, cards for a particular good or service, loyalty programs or customer bonus cards.  

This last one almost got me.  This season, I bought $100 worth of gift cards at a popular national steakhouse chain.  In return, I got a free $20 bonus card.  The bonus card was specially marked and had a short expiration date, which I only noticed as I was regifting it for one of the many wonderful home remodeling workers I met this December.  So, if you were given a gift card, check to see if it is marked as a bonus card or has an expiration date on it before assuming that you have a year or more to use it.

Interestingly, many card issuers seem to have responded by not having nonusage fees or expiration dates on gift cards.  Maybe the prospect of putting all that small print on the card was just too much!

Finally, what if you received a gift card for a hardware store but you really need new running shoes?  There are many websites where you can sell unwanted gift cards for less than face value, purchase gift cards at a discount, or even swap.  They seem to sell at about a 9-12% discount from face value, so I assume that you can sell your card at a slightly larger discount.  These sites seem only to purchase certain gift cards, for amounts over $25, with no expiration dates.

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November 25, 2010
Posted by Gordon Smith

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith examined the sentiment of gratitude. He wrote: "The sentiment which most immediately and directly prompts us to reward, is gratitude; that which most immediately and directly prompts us to punish, is resentment.”

Perhaps we can talk about resentment another day, but on this Thanksgiving Day, I am interested in Smith's view of gratitude as an impetus for rewarding. Traditionally, the object of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day was God, who had provided a bounteous harvest, among other things. Many of us still try to honor that tradition, using Thanksgiving Day as a special opportunity to reflect on our blessings. The gratitude we feel toward God creates in us a sense of indebtedness. Smith observes:

If the person to whom we owe many obligations, is made happy without our assistance, though it pleases our love, it does not content our gratitude. Till we have recompensed him, till we ourselves have been instrumental in promoting his happiness, we feel ourselves still loaded with that debt which his past services have laid upon us.

How can we satisfy our debt to God? Of course, we can never pay the debt, but we feel impelled to express our gratitude. And we do that by serving others. This is the magic of the holiday season. It brings feelings of gratitude to the surface, those feelings inspire us to express our love to each other.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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January 18, 2010
Happy Martin Luther King Day! (Celebrate with some Langston Hughes)
Posted by Christine Hurt
Happy MLK Day!  Today was a school holiday for both us professor-parents and our schoolkids.  We celebrated MLK Day as we have for the past eight years, with birthday cake and supper for a few friends.  We have a very kid-centered agenda, with a viewing of the (abbreviated) I Have a Dream speech, and this year, with poetry by Langston Hughes.  Here is a poem entitled "The Dream Keeper," which resonated with my feelings toward the aspirations of my little guys, including Luke, who was the reader:

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,

You dreamers,

Bring me all of your Heart melodies

That I may wrap them

In a blue cloud-cloth

Away from the too-rough fingers

Of the world.

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December 12, 2009
Charitable Giving -- The Good Card, Kevin Bacon and Taxes
Posted by Christine Hurt

My friend and colleague Suja Thomas featured The Good Card on her blog The Give Blog this week.  With this card, touted by Kevin Bacon, you can easily give someone a gift card, which they can then use to donate to the charity of their choosing.  It's not quite like a universal gift card -- it has to be used for a charitable donation.  This could be a little easier than making a donation in someone's name, especially if you don't know which charities that person supports. 

Of course, since I'm a frustrated tax geek hiding in a corporate law professor body, my first question was "Who gets the deduction?"  If I make a donation in my sister's name, then I get the deduction.  This isn't why I do it (I hope), but I'm sure a lot of December charitable giving has the charitable tax deduction idea floating around it.  Well, the answer is that the gift card buyer gets the deduction, which I think is the best incentive policy, if you want people to buy the gift card.  The gift card recipient either uses or looses the earmarked funds, so they need no further incentives.  Anyway, just curious!

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November 26, 2009
Thankful for Change
Posted by Gordon Smith

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the same sort of things mentioned by random people on the streets of New York ...

But reading a fascinating interview with Umberto Eco, I was reminded that I am also thankful for the ability to learn and grow and change:

I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing.

Perhaps as important as the ability to change, I am grateful to be a companion to a woman who encourages me to change for the better. And I am thankful for a God who guides me and supports me in my quest to change. A God who tells me that my trials are of temporary duration but have eternal significance. A God who loves me even more than I love my own children, a fact that, on most days, is almost inconceivable to me. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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November 23, 2009
The Future of Anti-Consumerism
Posted by Christine Hurt

Regular readers may remember that last year my family became engaged with the Advent Conspiracy movement, which seemed to us at the time to be a fairly noncontroversial attempt to reform Christmas into a holiday spent giving time and attention to family and friends instead of swapping plastic crap no one wants.  Boy, was I wrong!  Apparently, the word "conspiracy" should have clued me in to how subversive the idea of limiting Christmas shopping is.  First, we've had to confront those around us who view gifts as a "love language" and who are initially made uncomfortable by the thought of not trading gifts.  Now, we are encountering the world at large.  I will detail some of the push-back we've found, but I also want to alert you to my colleague Suja Thomas' new blog (with her husband Scott Bahr) on living intentionally and giving to the poor:  The Give Blog.

1. Christmas Shopping is Patriotic.  Our church has met some pushback in trying to enlist others to join the Advent Conspiracy because "this isn't the year."  Now, with ten percent unemployment and a gloomy economic outlook, it would seem like this would be the year both to cut back on unnecessary gift-buying and to give a little bit to local agencies addressing poverty issues.  However, people have made the argument to me that in this economy, we should all be out there Christmas shopping to revitalize the economy.  Really?  Is this my patriotic duty -- to support the retail industry's addiction to two months out of the year?  And, if we give money instead to local charities that purchase goods and services, isn't that good for the economy?  Or, is buying electronic equipment patriotic, but buying food and warm coats is not.

2. Christmas Shopping is Festive and Philanthropic.  This is perhaps the oddest thing that has happened to me in a long while.  My church small group decided to sponsor a tree at a local Festival of Trees hosted by a national social-service organization that I have long supported.  Visitors to the Festival of Trees market would bid on the trees, and the proceeds would go to this organization, who pledges all profits to their philanthropic projects.  We signed up using the name of our church, and described how we would decorate the tree -- decorations from Ten Thousand Villages and a digital picture frame showing the 2008 Advent Conspiracy video (above) on a loop.  We were accepted and sold a pre-lit tree to decorate.  As we were setting up on Wednesday, an officer of the organization walked by, watched the video, teared up, and said it made her not want to buy anything at the three-day extravaganza because she realized she didn't need anything.  The next day, we were told we couldn't show the video.  The stated reason was because, in a room full of Christmas trees, we were promoting religion by showing a video that used the word Jesus.  We were not told to take the nativity ornaments down, however, and other trees had similar ornaments (angels, etc.).  The year before, a Christian radio station decorated a tree with multiple nativity scenes, and no one said a word.  This leads us to believe that the reason we had to turn off the video was not because we promoted religion, which seems to be tolerated for others, but because we went against the established religion of consumerism and threatened the proceeds from the event.  Strangely, the event was supposedly a fundraiser for philanthropic projects, so turning off a video that encouraged people to celebrate Christmas by practicing philanthropy seems like missing the point.

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May 10, 2009
What do mothers really want on Mother's Day?
Posted by Gordon Smith

The NYT asks the perennial question and provides one of the standard answers: "To have someone else cook dinner." I cook for my wife every Sunday, so today is no exception, though I always try to do something especially geared to her tastes on Mother's Day. (Today, for example, we are having pan-seared Tilapia, a potato gratin, some veggies, and fresh strawberry pie.)

The NYT story also references a survey on the topic, which found that a small percentage of moms “would love to receive a car, money or a weekend away.” Well, we finally bought a new car, and our purchase happened to coincide with Mother's Day. The Chevy Malibu gets good reviews, and it suits our large family. The gas mileage is decent (33 mpg on the highway), since we went with the four-cylinder rather than the V-6. And the folks at Brent Brown Chevrolet in Provo were very, very motivated to sell, without being obnoxious about it. If you are car shopping in Utah Valley, talk to Brett Applegate, who was excellent.

Given that I have blogged about car shopping during the financial crisis (here and here), I feel obliged to offer some concluding thoughts on that topic. First, contrary to the idiosyncratic and ill-informed opinions of one of our commentators, we received all of the substantial discounts discussed in my previous post -- and more -- even though we were paying cash. No, I am not a crack negotiator. You would get the discounts, too. And I highly recommend saving up and paying cash, if you can swing it.

Second, I was planning to wait for the "cash for clunkers" program to make its way through Congress, but now that the details are emerging, it's quite probable that we would not qualify on this purchase, since we were getting rid of a compact car in favor of a mid-size. Not only would we be required to increase our fuel efficiency, but under both the House plan and the Senate plan, only vehicles getting 18 miles per gallon or less would quality for trade-in. If the plan becomes more expansive than I anticipate, we still have another fairly old car that I wouldn't mind trading for a new, compact, commuter/errand car, like the Honda Fit.

By the way, I wonder whether manufacturers would continue to offer rebates if the "cash for clunkers" program passed. In our case, the dealer took $3,500 right off the top in rebates and dealer incentives, and I would not be surprised if those evaporated (or were substantially reduced) if Congress stepped up to the plate. By substituting tax dollars for manufacturers rebates, we would simply be giving an additional subsidy to the automobile companies, not a bailout for the rest of us. This substitution would also call into question the behavioral assumption underlying the proposed program -- that people just need a small boost to trade in their old cars. If money were the issue, those people should already be trading in their old cars. Of course, this is a program that also has been widely criticized for its misguided environmental aspirations, so this seems like a good time to re-think the idea.

Third, this is a great time to buy because dealers are more interested in market share than profits. This is especially true for the American automobile dealers, which are looking to cut a substantial number of dealers. I never worked out whether it would be better to purchase a car from a marginal dealer, but I assume that someone on the cusp of extinction would have a great incentive to close sales.

In the end, we purchased a car that we would have been perfectly happy to walk away from, but one that is a substantial upgrade over our previous seven-year old vehicle. And the fact that we closed the sale on the day before Mother's Day made it all the better.

Now, back to the kitchen!

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January 19, 2009
Happy Martin Luther King Day!
Posted by Christine Hurt

This year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seems to have been absorbed into the Inauguration Day anticipation.  I think that's fine and probably fitting.  Although we can't be sure, we can speculate that the election of an African-American man to the office of President of the United States, arguably the most powerful position in the world, must have been one possibility Dr. King was considering in the "I Have a Dream" speech.  Though I think we all wish the Dr. King could be in Washington, D.C. tomorrow, not thinking of him tomorrow will be impossible.

I take MLK Day very seriously, and we actually have an MLK party each year, complete with a birthday cake.  I'v even blogged about it before.  Today, I only have one tidbit to add. 

This election day, my 92 year-old white grandma went to the polls and voted for Barack Obama, who she knew to be an African-American man.  My grandma spent the first half of her life in towns in East Texas that don't show up on most maps.  I don't think she went to school past junior high.  I don't think she's ever had a black person in her house, or shook a black hand, or sat next to a black person on purpose.  My grandma is the most wonderful person I know, but she lived most of her life around people who said (and still say) things that would make your hair stand on end.  But something happened, and she voted for Barack Obama.  Now, maybe she voted for him because he was the only Democrat left standing or because of some other reason, but it doesn't matter.  I'm from a place where every courthouse has a water fountain and a metal plate on the wall next to the water fountain, where the "colored" water fountain used to be.  Public buildings have two women's restrooms on every floor and one men's because the building at one time needed three separate restrooms.  In four decades, less time than for all of these remnants to be replaced, Barack Obama has been elected President -- because people like my grandma voted for him.

Have a great MLK Day.

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January 01, 2009
New Year, New Heights
Posted by Gordon Smith

That's not my idea of a good time -- being afraid of heights, I couldn't even make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and watching that camera shot looking down from the faux Arc de Triomphe made me woozy -- but I admire the careful planning that went into this stunt ...

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December 25, 2008
Merry Christmas
Posted by Gordon Smith

After a very difficult fall semester, I am recharging my batteries. A trip to Temple Square in Salt Lake City was part of the plan ...

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October 08, 2008
Posted by Anna Gelpern

NYU's Nouriel Roubini has been a consistent and delightful prophet of doom for years.  His Twelve Steps to Financial Disaster from last winter are classic, famous, and kind of scary seeing as he looks way more right than wrong.  Scary is seasonal, and it seems the market for Roubini paraphenalia is one of the few up these days -- here is a Halloween mask to start your collection (ok, so it's free ... but then again, people are lending money for free to the U.S. Treasury!).  I hope Nouriel's business, RGE, takes this as a prod to start a merchandising operation.  The Stimulus We Need.

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July 24, 2008
Posted by Gordon Smith

We had a wonderful hike on Timpanogos Trail to Emerald Lake today.


The trail was surrounded by wildflowers ...


and waterfalls ...


and snow ...


and mountain goats!


Can you see them?

By the end of the day, I was exhausted, blistered, and sunburned.


We finished the day with dinner at the Foundry Grill at Sundance. On the way down the mountain, my wife and daughters were singing "Perfect Day" by Hoku, and I had to agree ...

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Happy Pioneer Day!
Posted by Gordon Smith

Today is a state holiday in Utah. We are commemorating Brigham Young's entry into Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Many people will be going to parades and barbecues. We are planning to hike Mt. Timpanogos.

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July 05, 2008
Stadium of Fire
Posted by Gordon Smith

We just returned from the Stadium of Fire in the Lavell Edwards Stadium. I would have preferred watching football, but this was a great show. We were enthralled by the sky divers who opened the show.


My 17-year-old son immediately took to the idea. "I want to do that." I see ROTC in his future.

More photos below the fold ...

Half of the field was occupied by a stage and spectators, but dancers soon filed the other half. This is usually the time for me to find a restroom or get some food, but these young women (and a few young men?) were absolutely fun. They did a seven and a half minute tribute to the Summer Olympics, acting out every sport. I can't tell you where the flags come in, but this should give you a sense of the pageantry ...


Somehow I had never seen the Blue Man Group live in concert. They had only a small role in tonight's program, but they were very clever and entertaining. This was their opening ...


No one should have to follow BMG's "Rock Concert Movements" and "How to be a Megastar," their homage to choreographed dance moves. But, of course, the headliner for this show was Miley Cyrus. Aside from a few signs like "We Love You, Hannah!" references to Hannah Montana were non-existent. This was mostly about Miley's new album, "Breakout." If Miley's Vanity Fair photos were not sufficient notice that she is trying to shed the bubble gum image of Hannah Montana, she just screams I'm breaking out! Even her fans didn't know the words to these new songs, so they just jumped and screamed, too.

Ok, enough about Miley. The best part of the evening was the massive fireworks show, which rained ashes on us and probably took several years off of my life. But it was spectacular.



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