Mining the Code

The tax code is a recognized source of profit for those willing to scrutinize fine print, leading to inventions like the Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich.

What other innovations were discovered by prospecting legislation?


Challenge for biology students Start at the root of the tree of life and click your way through to modern humans. Hint: watch for the “hagfishes and vertebrates” node.


The 401(k) retirement plan was legal before it was recognized. You can find the relevant secion by drilling down through the U.S. Code.

  1. Title 26 Internal Revenue Code
  2. Subtitle A—Income Taxes
  4. Subchapter D—Deferred Compensation, Etc.
  6. Subpart A—General Rule
  7. § 401 - Qualified pension, profit-sharing, and stock bonus plans

Part k is about halfway through the 20,000 words in § 401 and begins

(1) General rule A profit-sharing or stock bonus plan, a pre-ERISA money purchase plan, or a rural cooperative plan shall not be considered as not satisfying the requirements of subsection (a) merely because the plan includes a qualified cash or deferred arrangement.

As Ted Benna tells the story, he did not discover a “little gem that no one else had found” in the code, but recognized that an employer match on contributions would encourage more employees to participate in plans that now hold $5 trillion.


Another discovery in code explains why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same.

By the second half of the 20th century, the suburbs were where America was moving, and as they evolved from bedroom communities into a new kind of city, the stick building evolved with them—into forms such as the “dingbats” of Los Angeles (one or two stories atop a carport) and the parking-rich garden-apartment complexes outside Atlanta, Dallas, and other metropolises. Building codes evolved, too, as insurers and fire-safety-equipment manufacturers pushed for scientific, “performance-based” codes that emphasized lab-determined fire-resistance ratings over specific materials and incorporated new technologies such as the automated fire sprinkler.

This gospel spread fitfully in a country where codes were a municipal affair, but it did spread, abetted by three regional organizations that produced model codes for cities to adopt or adapt to their own purposes. The most successful body was the aspirationally named International Conference of Building Officials, based in Southern California, whose Uniform Building Code was by 1970 at least partly followed by 9 in 10 Western cities. The UBC, updated triennially, ushered in the age of the mid-rise wood-frame apartment building.

Some of the details are lost in the mists of time, or at least in dusty archives, but the tale seems to have gone like this: The first UBC, issued in 1927, allowed for wood-frame apartment buildings three stories high. The risk of earthquakes inclined officials to be tolerant of such frames, which handle shaking better than brick walls do; the presence of a large timber industry in the Northwest was also a factor. In the 1950s the story limit increased to four if an automatic sprinkler system was installed. Square-footage restrictions were eased if building segments were separated by firewalls—initially masonry, then simpler-to-install gypsum board. By the 1970s it was possible to build four wood-framed stories atop a concrete podium. Then, in the early 1990s, came a breakthrough.

Los Angeles architect Tim Smith was sitting on a Hawaiian beach, reading through the latest building code, as one does, when he noticed that it classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible. That made wood eligible, he realized, for a building category—originally known as “ordinary masonry construction” but long since amended to require only that outer walls be made entirely of noncombustible material—that allowed for five stories with sprinklers.

His company, Togawa Smith Martin Inc., was working at the time with the City of Los Angeles on a 100-unit affordable-housing high-rise in Little Tokyo that they “could never get to pencil out.” By putting five wood stories over a one-story concrete podium and covering more of the one-acre lot than a high-rise could fill, Smith figured out how to get the 100 apartments at 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost. The building, Casa Heiwa, opened its doors in 1996, and the five-over-one had been invented.