March 05, 2012

When Laws Collide

When adding a new rule to a game, the designer must consider how it interacts with the game’s other systems. One major task of playtesting is to find the surprise interactions between seemingly unrelated rules, and eliminate them.

Legislators, and the bureaucrats who interpret the various laws they pass, suffer no such limitations. Here's a bizarre example of a collision between two unrelated statutes that suggests that Congress ought to playtest more efficiently before succumbing to rules bloat.

The estate of art dealer Ileana Sonnenbend is suing the IRS to reverse a ruling valuing a famous Robert Rauschenberg collage/painting, “Canyon”, at $65 million for inheritance tax purposes. The problem? “Canyon” famously features the taxidermied wings of a bald eagle, rendering its sale illegal under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This law predates the creation of the piece; Rauschenberg was breaking it when he made the work. It can’t even be exhibited without a special permit.

Sonnenbend valued it at $0. The IRS argued otherwise. They regularly levy taxes on illegal items, including stolen goods. In this case, they’re telling the estate that it could sell “Canyon” on the black market, perhaps to a “reclusive billionaire in China,” and thus owes them a masterpiece-based rate. The taxman is all but telling executors to go ahead and break that pesky, non-remunerative other law. Hey, it’s only enforced by those wussies at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With no GM to decide which rule takes precedence, estate lawyers have made an appointment with the next best thing—a US tax court judge.