You Cut, I choose—and Danish Sound Dues

It has been a while since this Blog featured Kitch. That’s our term for silly vignettes, personal aphorisms or sheer nonsense — but still in keeping with our journalistic mission, of course!

This is Kitch, but it is a also true story. I was there. Now you can be a fly on the wall.

When I was a child, my father would often bring home a large baked treat for me and my brother to split. Imagine a huge eclair or giant scone.

I don’t think we have Greek heritage, but our favorite treat was baklava. Even today, visions of honey, walnuts and filo dough lead to drooling anticipation.

When this tradition started, Dad would give the treat to my brother, and say “Charles, cut this treat and give half to Ellery”. But I would inevitably end up with the smaller piece. Perhaps my brother did this inadvertently, but either way, it seemed unfair.

My dad got wise to the scheme and came up with a new rule: Charles would still cut the treat, but I got to choose which piece was mine. We called this rule: “You cut, I choose”.

So, do you suppose that it worked? You bet it did! From then on, whenever Dad came home with a treat, Charles would run to the tool box and get a tape measure, a protractor and a compass. Eventually he refined the process, adding a precision scale.

Cutting a parallelogram into even portions is pretty tricky. Imagine how much harder it is when our oldest brother was in town from university. Now, it must be divided into three equal portions. Yet, from every single perspective—mass, area, volume or calories—Charles became a master craftsman. Each portion had the exact same size.

I wonder if Dad got the idea from 16th century Denmark.

Cargo ships entering the sound were taxed at 1 or 2% of the value of cargo on board. But ship captains routinely under-reported the value of cargo. At first, the port authority enforced the tax by employing dock workers to impound each ship and take a detailed inventory. The job was costly and unpleasant. And it led to delays that would endanger perishable goods.

Of course, some things were difficult to value and this led to contentious disputes. How much is a pack mule worth if has only one eye? Are those jewels genuine and flawless? Even tulip bulbs fluctuated wildly in value.*

So, Danes came up with new method of assessing taxes. In fact, this clever idea dates back to 1429 when the novel assessment method was legislated by King Eric of Pomerania. Sea port authorities returned to trusting each ship captain to report inventory value. But local companies, bankers and tradespeople were invited to inspect each claim as the ship docked. If anyone felt that products were assessed lower than fair market value, the government or the experts could liberate the entire cargo at the exact cash value claimed by the captain. No penalty—just a perfectly fair exchange.

Problem solved! Once implemented, no one under-reported the value of cargo. In the rare case that a client had purchased materials at an unusually low price, ship captains would offer the tax man a higher value—simply so that goods were not bought out from an inland client who was already under contact.

Dad passed away 8 years ago. But I really wonder if he knew about this story when he came up with the rule “You cut, I choose”. The two rules seem eerily connected across the centuries.

* Tulip bulbs were even a currency during the 16th century. There hangs another tale!

  • Related: Danish Sound Dues; Clever law leads to fair tax assessment

    The Sound Dues were a toll on Øresund, a strait that forms the Danish–Swedish border. It  was often ⅔ of Denmark’s state income in 16th and 17th centuries. The dues were introduced by King Eric of Pomerania in 1429 and remained in effect until the Copenhagen Convention of 1857. (The toll was waived for Swedish ships between 1660 and 1712).

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