The system

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(HOST) Is it worth gaming the system? Commentator Allen Gilbert discovered a cautionary tale in the experience of a small village.

(GILBERT) At our town meeting this year, everyone was beefing about higher property taxes caused by galloping appraisals. Our listers shrugged and explained that a property’s worth is based on fair market value: how much it, and similar properties, could or actually do sell for. This prompted a particularly creative person to pipe up, “Let’s all sell our homes to each other for $1. That’ll fix things!”

The idea was worth a chuckle. I don’t think that anyone took it seriously. But listen to what happened in a village not much bigger than my town, halfway around the world.

Last month the Montreal Gazette carried a story titled, “Divorce for free apartment scheme backfires on Chinese villagers.” Here are the details.

China has been industrializing at a furious pace. The government has taken to buying up farms on the outskirts of cities to make room for development. A farm family is offered a two-bedroom apartment in the nearby city. Farmers who are single receive a one-bedroom apartment. Considering the price of housing in China, many think that this is an attractive offer.

But not all farmers like the deal. Some have even taken to the streets to protest. In one small village in central China, however, the residents came up with a novel idea. They all decided to divorce. Then, they reasoned, each person would be entitled to a one-bedroom apartment. The formerly married couple would reunite, move into one of their two single-bedroom apartments, and rent out the other one. They’d have a steady stream of rental income for life.

Well, soon the local registry office bordered on mayhem. Couples that had been married ten, twenty, thirty, and more years lined up for a divorce.

One man told a reporter, “Divorced? How could I not be divorced? It’s now a local custom!”

The government caught on, however, and changed the details of the compensation package. To get two apartments, a couple had to be divorced at the time the program was first announced. But what if you had managed to sneak in before the rules changed? Well, sorry, but not enough one-bedroom apartments had been built, so you have to wait a long time to get one.

Given these new circumstances, what’s happened? Well, remarkably few divorced couples have remarried. They’ve apparently drifted apart or found new loves. Many are miserable, not sure what to do next. A woman who had been married for forty years but hasn’t regained her husband, said, “We were very happy before. But he had a change of heart and married a younger woman.”

A thirty-one-year-old man said, “I just want to go back to my farm.” His wife went off with someone else after the divorce, leaving the man with the couple’s three-year-old daughter. The man said that on his farm, he could at least grow his own food. But, sadly, his farm has already been demolished.

Selling our houses to each other for a dollar may be a tempting idea, but I think that the plight of the Chinese villagers offers a cautionary tale for anyone who’s thinking of gaming the system.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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