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 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?

“The Triumphant Decline of the WASP”

A NY Times opinion piece from Harvard law professor Noah Feldman makes this argument: “The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.” Feldman explores the changes in the Supreme Court (the appointment of Kagan would make it 6 Catholics, 3 Jews) and Princeton (“As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege).

So what changed? Feldman provides some reasons: “the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution,” education was an important defining trait for WASPs so opening up universities was a big step, and the American value of fair play. The result:

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

These may be accurate reasons. But they seem to ignore the historical context: something happened in the 1960s that changed institutions like Ivy League schools and led to a very different looking Supreme Court. In that decade, the Civil Rights Movement plus an explosion in higher education for the burgeoning US population plus higher rates of immigration from non-European locales plus cultural change (rock ‘n’ roll, television, more open questioning of authority, etc.), changed, or at least began to change, the socioeconomic status of WASPs.

Supreme Court decides on Chicago guns

In a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court has decided 5-4 against Chicago’s gun ban in McDonald v. Chicago. The Chicago Tribune notes that Chicago will soon consider new gun laws and that the decision seems to be motivated in part by current conditions in the city:

In the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court noted a recent call by two state legislators to deploy National Guard troops to quell the violence on Chicago’s streets.

“The legislators noted that the number of Chicago homicide victims during the current year equaled the number of American soldiers killed during that same period in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the opinion stated.

“If (the) safety of . . . law abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials.”…

Read the full decision here.

Alito’s argument (summed up briefly in the article above) is interesting: Chicago may have lost this case because the crime rate, particularly murder rate, remains high even with a gun ban. Chicago’s ban has not limited the number of guns in the hands of violent actors. If violent actors can get guns even with a ban, Alitio suggests local citizens should have the tools to be able to fight back, particularly citizens “whose needs are not being met by elected public officials.” This is a case about a law but this statement in particular is a Supreme opinion regarding the abilities of Chicago government.

UPDATE 11:13 PM 6/28/10: Some Chicago officials also read some of the decision as an attack on the performance of Chicago’s police and government. Read here.

UPDATE 7:08 AM 6/29/10:  Links to more coverage:  Chicago Sun-Times, National Law Journal, ABA JournalNew York TimesWall Street JournalNRA press release