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.

The possible shifts in the foundations of tax bases

Governments are dependent on tax bases for revenue. Hopefully, the tax base meets financial expectations and if things are going well, the taxes bring increased revenues, leading to more spending (and saving?) possibilities. But what happens when tax bases decrease?

This is an issue facing a number of government bodies and a number of taxes are affected:

-I was reminded of this again by this piece (h/t Instapundit) which suggests that increasing income taxes on the rich may not work out in the long run as economic troubles can greatly affect the incomes of the rich.

-Property taxes are affected by the assessed value of properties. If property values are down, such as in this economic crisis where it appears housing prices will be depressed for quite a while, then tax revenue may go down. (Or they may not – can local communities really afford to have less money coming in through property taxes?)

-So called “vice taxes,” on things like cigarettes, may be self-defeating: as people smoke less, the revenue will slowly dry up.

-The gas tax will be interesting to watch in future years: as the government pushes for more electric vehicles and with higher gas prices, this could mean that less gasoline is purchased. Money to pay for new roads and maintenance will have to come from somewhere.

A couple of questions about these different taxes:

1. Is the uncertainty about tax revenues in the last few years really that different from other points in history? If not, what have people done in the past?

2. Might we expect to see some major changes in taxation in the coming years as governments look for different (perhaps more stable?) or more sources of revenue?

3. How are sales taxes or VATs affected by economic crises?

(The realm of taxes is not my area of expertise but I do know the importance of some of this to communities: limited or decreasing property and sales taxes lead to big issues with budgets which then affect services which then angers residents.)

A few comments by Joel (3/31/2011):

One way that cities and states are seeking to increase collection revenues is through enhanced sales tax enforcement.  As Amazon is finding out, for example, governments have their ways of pressuring online retailers.

Of course, to a certain extent, this is simply turning into an arms race, with businesses increasing their lobbying budgets and hiring more tax attorneys.

Another proposal for Internet sales taxes

Many American consumers can purchase goods online without paying a state sales tax. That may change in the future. While this article specifically references a proposed bill from a Massachusetts House member, it has some interesting background on the legal issues behind gathering state sales taxes from Internet purchases.