A few weeks back, now-former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn blamed the retailer’s $1.7 billion quarterly loss and its decision to close 50 stores nationwide on the fact that its online competitors, Amazon.com in particular, “aren’t encumbered by the costs of running physical locations and in many cases don’t have to collect sales tax.”
Dunn’s comments rehash the now-familiar meme that forcing e-retailers to collect sales tax is the silver bullet to saving brick-and-mortar retailers. It gives politicians on all sides cover–for some, it’s a way to keep revenues coming in for excessive spending. For others, it’s a handy way to wave the flag for local commerce.
But slapping consumers with more taxes isn’t going to save retailing. In a short piece this week, BusinessWeek explores the fundamental shifts online retailing has created in consumer behavior. Here’s a nugget from the article:
Best Buy’s decline reflects a cultural shift that’s reshaping the retail world. All big-box stores, and Best Buy in particular, thrived in an era when comparison shopping meant physically going from store to store. The effort required of consumers was a kind of transactional friction. With the advent of mobile technology, friction has all but disappeared. Rather than ruminate with a salesperson before making a selection, tech-savvy consumers are more likely to walk into stores, eyeball products, scan barcodes with their smartphones, note cheaper prices online, and head for the exit. Shoppers can purchase virtually any product under the sun on Amazon or eBay while sipping a latte at Starbucks. For traditional retailers, that spells trouble, if not death. “So far nothing Best Buy is doing is fast enough or significant enough to get in front of these waves,” says Scot Wingo, CEO of e-commerce consulting firm ChannelAdvisor.
Certainly e-commerce created competitive problems for Best Buy, but the sales tax advantage was likely the least of them. Brick-and-mortar retailing is facing an out-and-out crisis that’s going to require creativity and innovation to solve. Taxing consumers who buy online won’t do much toward that end.
Heritage Foundation released a new study this week arguing that “Congress Should Not Authorize States to Expand Collection of Taxes on Internet and Mail Order Sales.” It’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate over Internet tax policy. In the paper, David S. Addington, the Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy at Heritage, takes a close look at the constitutional considerations in play in this debate. Specifically, he examines the wisdom of S. 1832, “The Marketplace Fairness Act.” Addington argues that, “enactment of S. 1832 would discourage free market competition” and raise a host of other issues:
The Constitution of the United States has set the legal baseline—the level playing field—around which the American free-market economy has built itself. The Constitution, as reflected in the Quill decision, is the source of the present arrangement regarding collection of state sales and use taxes by remote sellers. Ever since the Supreme Court decided Quill in 1992, American businesses have made millions of business decisions in the competitive marketplace based in part on settled expectations regarding state taxation affecting their sales transactions. The states and businesses advocating S. 1832 seek to change the current, constitutionally prescribed playing field. They seek to use governmental power to intervene in the economy to help in-state, store-based businesses by imposing a new tax-collection burden on out-of-state competitors who sell over the Internet, through mail order catalogs, or by telephone. Free-market principles generally discourage such government intervention in the economy to pick winners and losers based on legislative policy preferences.
Veronique de Rugy and I raised similar concerns in both a recent Mercatus white paper (“The Internet, Sales Taxes, and Tax Competition“) and an earlier 2003 Cato white paper, (“The Internet Tax Solution: Tax Competition, Not Tax Collusion”). We argued that there are better ways to achieve “tax fairness” without sacrificing tax competition or opening the doors to unjust, unconstitutional, and burdensome state-based taxation of interstate sales. Specifically, we point out that an “origin-based” sourcing rule would be the cleanest, most pro-constitutional, and pro-competitive alternative. I also discussed these issues at a recent Cato event. [Video follows.]
As I note, the digital economy runs on information. Any regulations that impede the collection and processing of any information will affect its efficiency. Given the overall success of the Web and the popularity of search and social media, there’s every reason to believe that consumers have been able to balance their demand for content, entertainment and information services with the privacy policies these services have.
But there’s more to it than that. Technology simply doesn’t lend itself to the top-down mandates. Notions of privacy are highly subjective. Online, there is an adaptive dynamic constantly at work. Certainly web sites have pushed the boundaries of privacy sometimes. But only when the boundaries are tested do we find out where the consensus lies.
Legislative and regulatory directives pre-empt experimentation. Consumer needs are best addressed when best practices are allowed to bubble up through trial-and-error. When the economic and functional development of European Web media, which labors under the sweeping top-down European Union Privacy Directive, is contrasted with the dynamism of the U.S. Web media sector which has been relatively free of privacy regulation – the difference is profound.
An analysis of the web advertising market undertaken by researchers at the University of Toronto found that after the Privacy Directive was passed, online advertising effectiveness decreased on average by around 65 percent in Europe relative to the rest of the world. Even when the researchers controlled for possible differences in ad responsiveness and between Europeans and Americans, this disparity manifested itself. The authors go on to conclude that these findings will have a “striking impact” on the $8 billion spent each year on digital advertising: namely that European sites will see far less ad revenue than counterparts outside Europe.
Other points I explore in the commentary are:
How free services go away and paywalls go up
How consumers push back when they perceive that their privacy is being violated
How Web advertising lives or dies by the willingness of consumers to participate
How greater information availability is a social good
On Monday it was my great pleasure to participate in a Cato Institute briefing on Capitol Hill about “Internet Taxation: Should States Be Allowed to Tax outside Their Borders?” Also speaking was my old friend Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow with Cato. From the event description: “State officials have spent the last 15 years attempting to devise a regime so they can force out-of-state vendors to collect sales taxes, but the Supreme Court has ruled that such a cartel is not permissible without congressional approval. Congress is currently considering the Main Street Fairness Act, a bill that would authorize a multistate tax compact and force many Internet retailers to collect sales taxes for the first time. Is this sensible? Are there alternative ways to address tax “fairness” concerns in this context?”
Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Steve Womack (R-Ark.) have introduced “The Marketplace Equity Act,” which would open the floodgates to anything-goes State-based taxation of the Internet and interstate commerce. The bill essentially sacrifices constitutional fairness at the alter of “tax fairness.” Building on concerns raised by state and local officials as well as “bricks-and-mortar” retailers, Speier and Womack claim that, as “a matter of states’ rights” and “leveling the playing field,” Congress should bless state efforts to impose sales tax collection obligation on interstate (“remote”) companies.The measure would allow States to do so using one of three rate structures: (1) a single blended state/local rate; (2) a single maximum State rate; or (3) the actual local jurisdiction destination rate + the State rate (so long as the State “make(s) available adequate software to remote sellers that substantially eases the burden of collecting at multiple rates within the State.”)
This builds on a long-standing effort by some States to devise a multistate sales tax compact to collude and impose taxes on interstate transactions. In the Senate, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has floated legislation (“The Main Street Fairness Act”) that would bless such a state-based de facto national sales tax regime for the Internet.
There is a better way to achieve fairness without sacrificing tax competition or opening the doors to unjust, unconstitutional, and burdensome state-based taxation of interstate sales. In a new Mercatus Center essay,”The Internet, Sales Taxes, and Tax Competition,” Veronique de Rugy and I argue that: Continue reading →
Over the weekend, Janet Morrissey of The New York Times posted an excellent article on the U.S. government’s continuing crackdown on Internet gambling. (“Poker Inc. to Uncle Sam: Shut Up and Deal“) Ironically, her article arrives on the same week during which PBS aired the terrific new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the history of alcohol prohibition in the United States. It’s a highly-recommended look at the utter hypocrisy and futility of prohibiting a product that millions of people find enjoyable. If there’s a simple moral to the story of Prohibition, it’s that you can’t repress human nature–not for long, at least, and not without serious unintended consequences. Which is why Morrissey of the Times notes:
And so the poker world now finds itself in a situation many liken to Prohibition. America didn’t stop drinking when the government outlawed alcoholic beverages in 1919. And, in this Internet age, it won’t be easy to prevent people from gambling online, whatever the government says. “It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” says Behnam Dayanim, an expert on online gambling and a partner at the Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider law firm. “They’ve whacked three very large moles, but over time, more moles will pop up.”
States are ratcheting up legislation in order to capture sales taxes from on-line retailers, even as companies like Amazon.com aggressively push back.
A closely-watched bill in the Texas legislature that defines Amazon’s distribution center in Ft. Worth as a physical nexus, thereby obligating the on-line retailing giant to collect taxes on sales to residents of the Lone Star State, passed on a second go-through of this year’s session, overcoming an initial veto by Gov. Rick Perry.
The next move is up to Amazon. Its distribution center is essentially a warehouse that fulfills online orders and employs 200. Amazon previously said it would close the center if the bill passed, but has yet to make good on the threat. However, it is dangerous to dismiss it as a bluff. When South Carolina passed a similar bill, the company closed a distribution center there; only to return once the legislation was reversed.
The heart of the Texas dispute is whether a distribution center counts as a nexus. The case law is Quill Corp. v. North Dakota and National Bellas Hess v. Illinois Department of Revenue, which, as broadly understood, stipulate that a business must have a nexus, that is, brick-and-mortar store, in the state in order to be liable for tax collection. If there is a viable court test to either or both of these decisions, the contention that a distribution center constitutes a nexus may have the most potential.
The debate over the imposition of sales tax collection obligations on interstate vendors is heating up again at the federal level with the introduction of S. 1452, “The Main Street Fairness Act.” [pdf] The measure would give congressional blessing to a multistate compact that would let states impose sales taxes on interstate commerce, something usually blocked by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the bill in the Senate along with Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Jack Reed (D-RI). The measure is being sponsored in the House of Representatives by John Conyers (D-MI) and Peter Welch (D-VT). At this time, there are no Republican co-sponsors even though Sen. Mike Enzi was rumored to be a considered co-sponsoring the measure before introduction.
Without any Republicans on board the effort, the measure may not advance very far in Congress. Nonetheless, to the extent the measure gets any traction, it is worth itemizing a few of the problems with this approach. My Mercatus Center colleague Veronique de Rugy and I have done some work on this issue together in the past and we are planning a short new paper on the topic. It will build on this lengthy Cato Institute paper we authored together in 2003, “The Internet Tax Solution: Tax Competition, Not Tax Collusion.” The key principle we set forth was this: “Congress must.. take an affirmative stand against efforts by state and local governments to create a collusive multistate tax compact to tax interstate sales.” “It would be wrong,” we argued, “for members of Congress to abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the national marketplace by giving the states carte blanche to tax interstate commercial activities through a tax compact. The guiding ethic of this debate must remain tax competition, not tax collusion.” Continue reading →
public utilities are, by their very nature, non-innovative. Consumers are typically given access to a plain vanilla service at a “fair” rate, but without any incentive to earn a greater return, innovations suffers. Of course, social networking sites are already available to everyone for free! And they are constantly innovating. So, it’s unclear what the problem is here and how regulation would solve it.
I don’t doubt that social networking platforms have become an important part of the lives of a great many people, but that doesn’t mean they are “essential facilities” that should treated like your local water company. These are highly dynamic networks and services built on code, not concrete. Most of them didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Regulating them would likely drain the entrepreneurial spirit from this sector, discourage new innovation and entry, and potentially raise prices for services that are mostly free of charge to consumers. Social norms, public pressure, and ongoing rivalry will improve existing services more than government regulation ever could.
Do-Not-Track is not inconceivable itself. It’s like the word “inconceivable” in the movie The Princess Bride. I do not think it means what people think it means—how it is meant to work and how it is likely to offer poor results.
Take Mike Swift’s reporting for MercuryNews.com on a study showing that online advertising companies may continue to follow visitors’ Web activity even after those visitors have opted out of tracking.
“The preliminary research has sparked renewed calls from privacy groups and Congress for a ‘Do Not Track’ law to allow people to opt out of tracking, like the Do Not Call list that limits telemarketers,” he writes.
If this is true, it means that people want a Do Not Track law more because they have learned that it would be more difficult to enforce.
That doesn’t make sense … until you look at who Swift interviewed for the article: a Member of Congress who made her name as a privacy regulation hawk and some fiercely committed advocates of regulation. These people were not on the fence before the study, needless to say. (Anne Toth of Yahoo! provides the requisite ounce of balance, but she defends her company and does not address the merits or demerits of a Do-Not-Track law.)
Do-Not-Track is not inconceivable. But the study shows that its advocates are not conceiving the complexities and drawbacks of a regulatory approach rather than individually tailored blocking of unwanted tracking, something any Internet user can do right now using Tracking Protection Lists.