Taxing the Ether
by Gary Jason | Posted May 27, 2011
Here’s the instinctive mindset of the Democratic Party: “If it moves, tax it. If it doesn’t, tax it even more.” If you need proof, consider the frantic attempts by desperate Democrat governors in high-tax states to tax commerce conducted on the internet.
One story about this comes out of California, notoriously one of the most economically ignorant and fiscally incontinent states in the nation. It appears in a Los Angeles Times editorial lauding the efforts of Democrats in the state legislature to try to apply California’s outrageously high sales taxes — nearly 11%, counting state and localities together — to purchases on the internet, targeting especially the dominant internet retail giant Amazon.com. The LAT (always an affirming voice for redistributionist tax-and-spend government) argues that the state is “owed” millions in tax dollars for sales over the net. The paper, natch, supports a bill by Berkeley Dem Nancy Skinner to require internet retailers to collect sales taxes.
The LATviews this as fair — what is the difference, it asks, between buying your shoes at the local store and purchasing them at a store based in Nevada? And, the rag pompously avers, this is the law.
It cites the 1992 Supreme Court ruling (Quill Corp. v. North Dakota) that held that out-of-state mail-order companies (and presumably, by inference, internet retailers) with no physical presence (i.e., no actual stores or warehouses) in a state could not be compelled to collect sales taxes from customers in that state — although the court allowed states to try to collect taxes from such customers directly. So this is the law.
According to the LA Times, people who buy over the internet are both legally and morally (morally?) obligated to pay sales taxes on their purchases. It argues that Amazon and other online stories deliberately encourage consumers to evade their legal and moral obligation by failing to inform them of that obligation on their websites. Not only must the internet help to suck in taxes; it must also lecture people about their ethics.
In an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Gov. Quinn cost his state jobs.
The LAT not only endorses legislation that would require any internet company to collect sales taxes from purchases by Californian customers if that company has any affiliates (suppliers) in the state; it also recommends a national bill that would explicitly require all internet companies to collect sales taxes on half of all states that want their citizens’ purchases taxed—and which of them wouldn’t? The LATconcedes that so long as the Republicans have a check in Congress, such a bill won’t ever be passed, but the grand vision is of every vendor of five-dollar trinkets to become an IRS agency, assiduously divvying up its surplus value in accordance with the 50 tax codes of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia.
At the time the LAT piece was published, rumors were circulating out of Sacramento that the state Board of Equalization — the agency responsible for collecting California state taxes — would be hiring computer geeks to find out ways of looking at internet traffic to discover which criminal Californians are daring to buy on the web. This, needless to say, caused considerable consternation—not to mention considerable concern about the morals of internet aficionados who would thus be involved in killing the internet.
But the LAT’s case is patently defective. Why the devil should a business like Amazon, which uses none of California’s police or fire services (since it has no bricks-and-mortar locations in the state), much less its educational enterprises, have to pay the state a nickel? And why should Amazon customers within the state have to pay any more than they do right now? They already support the schools with their property taxes. Their sales taxes, collected at the stores that actually exist within the state, support the police, the fire department, and the other agencies that protect those stores. Where does one’s moral and legal obligation stop?
And the consequences from trying to tax the internet are likely to be counterproductive to the states that do it, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal reports. The WSJ — which understands economics approximately a thousand times better than the LAT understands it — points out the obvious: if a state (like California) tries to saddle (say) Amazon with collecting sales taxes for that state because Amazon has affiliates within it, then Amazon will just drop those affiliates.
Indeed, as the WSJ piece recounts, this is just what happened recently in Illinois (a state in even worse fiscal shape than California, if that be possible). The tax-happy Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a law applying the state sales tax to internet purchases in Illinois, and it took Amazon only a few hours to announce that it was immediately halting purchases from and affiliation with the 9,000 small Illinois businesses with which it had been doing business — business profitable for Illinois as well as for Amazon.
So, in an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Quinn cost his state jobs. Either a discontinued affiliate will stay in Illinois and see its sales plummet (which will then necessitate cutting its workforce), or it will — as some are already doing — move to an adjacent state (such as Indiana) that manifests less tax madness.
Rhode Island, which like Illinois and a few other states (Colorado, New York, and North Carolina), had earlier passed an “Amazon tax bill,” has collected only peanuts in extra sales tax revenues. A study by the Tax Foundation shows that when you factor in the lost jobs from affiliates cutting back, closing down, or moving away, the state probably lost revenue.
The LAT editorial suggested that to prevent internet companies from dumping affiliates in a state that imposes an Amazon tax, what we need is a federal law forcing all internet companies, wherever located, to collect taxes from all customers, wherever located, and remit those funds to the customers’ respective states.
That insipid argument is based on the absurd premise that if we pass a national Amazon tax, Amazon couldn’t drop all of its national affiliates. But it sure as hell could, and just move its central operations to (say) Mexico and all its affiliations to businesses in other countries. That would be yet another example of government greed, triumphant.
Gary Jason is a philosopher and senior editor of Liberty, and the author of Dangerous Thoughts.
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