What’s good for Amazon.com may not be good for California (or America)

Even though I just used this phrase (“What good for [company X] is good for America”] when looking at the impact of AT&T on American history, I agree that the deal Amazon is trying to offer California, jobs for no sales tax, is a bit strange:

Amazon has spent more than $5 million loading up their More Jobs Not Taxes campaign for a referendum that would repeal the legislation that started charging them taxes. Meanwhile, the latest turn in the political fight has been that Amazon offered to create 7,000 jobs if the state postpones enforcing its sales tax on the company until 2014.
Here’s why that offer is a big deal. It transforms a debate that is fundamentally about a value — fairness — into a numbers game. The next step will be that Amazon’s political operatives will plant the seed that the bill will kill jobs, probably a nice round number like 7,000 of them. According to our calculations, the politicos will say, California is killing the exact number of jobs that Amazon offered to add! Taxes are bad!
I don’t mean to pick on Amazon here. Every company is after as many tax advantages as they can get. Walmart, for example, which pushed the effort to get the Amazon sales tax bill passed, skirts some online sales taxes, too. And every company has realized that it is good politics to say that taxes kill jobs, whether they have real evidence for it or not…
Now, by transforming tax fights into skirmishes over how many jobs this or that tax will “kill,” every single tax becomes something that hurts America. The narrow (and self-serving) interests of every tax-fighting corporation become part of our national project. And the battlefield becomes the competing spreadsheets of political opponents who say that one plan or another will create more jobs, when it’s pretty obvious that no one knows precisely how that whole mechanism works.

Some observations:

1. Perhaps taxes are supposed to be about fairness – but corporations and municipalities have been playing this tax break game for years. Why wouldn’t Amazon think that it has enough clout to pull this off? Many communities and governmental bodies have been more than willing to give in to others.

2. The math is interesting: no sales tax = 7,000 jobs. I haven’t seen many details about this: does the value of these jobs equal the sales tax revenue that would be lost without Amazon? Couldn’t California hold out for more jobs or make this information public to try to worsen Amazon’s hand?

3. It is interesting that this battle about sales tax revenue between California and Amazon is getting attention; a number of states have already gone through this. Granted, California is bigger so perhaps this is about more money than elsewhere. But, additionally, California was home to some of the biggest property-tax revolts in the United States several decades ago, meaning that homeowners, and not just corporations, are interested in paying fewer taxes.

Don’t romanticize the loss of bookstores: rue the loss of tax dollars and jobs

One response to the closing of bookstores is to lament the loss of a place to browse for books and drink coffee. But another reason to rue the loss of these stores is the loss of tax dollars and jobs. Here is how this plays out in Wheaton:

The eventual closure of Borders books will have an impact on Wheaton in terms of lost sales tax revenue and jobs, said Jim Kozik, the director of planning for the city. And replacing a large retailer isn’t easy in times like these…

Locally he said Borders absence will mean a loss of jobs, a loss of tax revenue for the city and a loss of lease income for the management company that runs the shopping plaza at Butterfield and Naperville roads. But he said the amount of revenue the city will lose is hard to quantify because it is not spelled out by state government…

Kozik said the city has had discussions with Anderson’s Bookshop, an independent seller with locations in Downers Grove and Naperville. But ultimately the talks didn’t produce.

With liquidation plans announced for Borders books, Wheaton could face having two large vacant former bookstores – the other being a space in the Town Square shopping plaza formerly occupied by Barnes and Noble. That store closed a few years ago, said Kerry O’Brien of the Wheaton chamber of commerce.

It is little wonder that more states are looking to gather sales taxes off internet sales. The loss of bookstores has an economic impact that is perhaps more important than the cultural and social implications of the loss of a potential “third place.”

This story is also a little more intriguing because it is Wheaton, a community that is fairly educated and yet has lost two big chain bookstores. If they can’t survive in Wheaton, where else can they survive? (I wonder how the Barnes & Noble in downtown Naperville is viewed.) In general, the Chicago suburbs are lacking in independent bookstores, a type of business that might mark a more educated demographic.

Collecting online sales taxes

With so many governments struggling to make ends meet, more states are looking at how to collect more sales tax revenue from online purchases. While Internet users may not like this, it seems like this is primarily being held up by complications about how to collect the money:

Under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, businesses are responsible for collecting sales taxes on every sale they make in a state where they have a “physical nexus.” In other words, if the business has a store, an office or even a single sales rep in your state, it’s supposed to tack the state’s sales tax onto your bill.

Online retailers like Amazon.com typically don’t add the tax, except in the states where they’re based or where they have physical facilities like warehouses or distribution centers. Amazon, for example, collects sales taxes only in Washington (its home state), Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota and New York.

The tax is still supposed to be paid, however. And if the seller’s not responsible, then you, the buyer, are. In general, you’re supposed to voluntarily file your own report and pay the standard tax on your out-of-state online purchases. (The appropriate forms are available on state tax agency websites, revenue officials are happy to remind you.)

But it turns out that the vast majority of Americans are completely unaware of those rules, so the forms don’t get filed and the taxes don’t get paid — to the tune of $8.6 billion in 2010 alone, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Why have states waited so long to get on this? Perhaps they didn’t want to look like the bad guys while things were relatively good.

2. If more of these taxes are paid, what effects would this have on Internet commerce? There would still be benefits to Internet purchases: no need to go out to a store, often a lot more options, delivery to your doorstep. At the same time, would this help traditional retailers?