Low Taxes Aren’t a Subsidy

Economist Dean Baker thinks that Amazon owes its profits to the fact that it doesn’t have to collect sales taxes for customers in states where it doesn’t have a physical presence. The absence of sales taxes on Internet purchases, he says, is a “subsidy that Amazon gets from taxpayers.” As I point out over at Techdirt, this is silly. Some states don’t have sales taxes at all, but no one would consider that a taxpayer subsidy. My local Wal-Mart benefits from a variety of state and local government services here in the St. Louis area, such as police and fire protection, and roads and other infrastructure. At least in part, sales taxes go to cover the costs of providing those services. Amazon uses few if any services from state or local governments in Missouri, so it’s hard to see anything unfair about the fact that it doesn’t have to collect sales taxes here.

On the other side of the ledger, sales tax collection would be far more burdensome to Internet-based businesses than to their brick-and-mortar competitors. A mom-and-pop retail store only has to learn about the tax rules in one jurisdiction. Most likely, there’s just one tax rate, one set of rules about which goods are taxable at that rate, and one set of reporting requirements. In contrast, a small e-commerce site would have to familiarize itself with the rules in thousands of different jurisdictions. The state of Missouri, for example, allows municipal governments to tack a variety of local taxes onto the state sales tax. As a result, the tax rate varies from city to city. Even worse, different states have different rules about which goods and services are taxable. Missouri, for example, exempts custom software (but not boxed software), farm equipment, and medical grade oxygen, among other things. Colorado has exemptions for bingo equipment, cigarettes, food, fuel and oil, machinery and machine tools, newsprint, precious metal bullion and coins, and more. Each of the other 40-some states with sales taxes have their own lists of what’s taxable. Many states exempt food and clothing from taxes, but the precise definitions of “food” and “clothing” varies from state to state. For example, in Wyoming, bagels are considered tax-exempt food unless they’re sold with cream cheese and a knife, in which case they become taxable “prepared foods.”

Not surprisingly, small online retailers are worried about the administrative burden of complying with so many different requirements. Some states have banded together to create a unified, “streamlined” sales tax system, but e-tailers are skeptical about how much the system can be simplified. Unless states first radically simplify and harmonize their sales tax rules (which might be a good idea anyway), I don’t think it’s going to be feasible to “streamline” the system enough to make it affordable for small e-tailers.