George Will & Jeff Jacoby on Internet Sales Taxes & “Tax Fairness”

by on May 2, 2011 · 128 comments

I was pleased to see columnists George Will of The Washington Post and Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe take on the Internet sales tax issue in two smart recent essays. Will’s Post column (“Working Up a Tax Storm in Illinois) and Jacoby’s piece,”There’s No Fairness in Taxing E-Sales,” are both worth a read. They are very much in line with my recent Forbes column on the issue (“The Internet Tax Man Cometh,”) as well as this recent oped by CEI’s Jessica Melugin, which Ryan Radia discussed here in his recent essay “A Smarter Way to Tax Internet Sales.”

I was particularly pleased to see both Will and Jacoby take on bogus federalism arguments in favor of allowing States to form a multistate tax cartel to collect out-of-state sales taxes.  Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) will soon introduce the “Main Street Fairness Act,” which would force all retailers to collect sales tax for states who join a formal compact. It’s a novel—and regrettable—ploy to get around constitutional hurdles to taxing out-of-state vendors. Sadly, it is gaining support in some circles based on twisted theories of what federalism is all about. Real federalism is about a tension between various levels of government and competition among the States, not a cozy tax cartel.

Will rightly notes that “Federalism — which serves the ability of businesses to move to greener pastures — puts state and local politicians under pressure, but that is where they should be, lest they treat businesses as hostages that can be abused.” And Jacoby argues that an “origin-based” sales tax sourcing rule is the more sensible solution to leveling the tax playing field:

The current system is far fairer than the one [Senator] Durbin wants. Bricks-and-mortar merchants charge sales taxes based on their physical location. The same rule applies to online merchants. A Pennsylvania tobacco shop doesn’t collect Ohio sales taxes whenever it sells a humidor to a visitor from Ohio. Amazon shouldn’t have to, either.

Jacoby also addresses the “tax fairness” argument as follows:

All other things being equal, consumers no doubt prefer a tax-free shopping experience. But all other things are rarely equal. E-retailers (or mail-order catalogs) may have a price advantage, but well-run “Main Street’’ businesses have competitive advantages of their own. They attract customers with eye-catching window displays. They play up local ties and neighborhood loyalty. They give shoppers the chance to see, feel, or try on items before buying them. They enable the serendipitous joys of browsing. They don’t charge for shipping. And they offer potential customers a degree of personal service and warmth that no website can match.

And Will says:

[bricks and mortar] stores have the competitive advantage of local loyalties and customers being able to handle merchandise.Besides, Main Street stores pay sales taxes to support local police, fire and rescue, sewage, schools and other services. If Amazon’s Seattle headquarters catches fire, will Champaign, Ill., firefighters extinguish it?

Anyway, read both columns and stay tuned: this fight is about to get hot once again.

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