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Slate: Amazon's Tax Stance Unfair and Unethical 949

Posted by Soulskill
from the pretend-it-was-an-oil-company dept.
theodp writes "We've talked before about Amazon's reluctance to collect sales tax, with Jeff Bezos going so far as to say it's unconstitutional. So it's not too surprising to see Amazon support a California referendum to repeal sales tax for online retailers. Slate's Farhad Manjoo loves buying from Amazon and would hate to pay higher prices, but says the e-tailer 'has no intellectually sound arguments against collecting taxes from residents — by all ethical and civic standards, its position is unsound.'"
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Slate: Amazon's Tax Stance Unfair and Unethical

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:14AM (#36748846)

    Damn those federal rights over interstate commerce.

  • by jaymz666 (34050) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:17AM (#36748866)

    He should pay the use tax and be done with it, like a law abiding citizen

  • by Eggplant62 (120514) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:18AM (#36748886)

    Someone please tell me how a corporation based in Washington State and legally incorporated in Delaware suddenly becomes a tax collector for states in which it does not have a physical presence? I can see being held liable for Delaware and Washington State, but until someone amends the tax codes of the remaining 48 states and other U.S. territories, I think it should remain that we don't pay sales tax on out-of-state purchases. I don't live in Ohio and I don't expect to pay Ohio state sales tax on a purchase I made over the Internet, nor do I expect the state of Michigan to tax my purchase from a company outside of Michigan.

  • by Wonko the Sane (25252) * on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:20AM (#36748900) Journal
    He really shouldn't throw terms like "intellectually sound" around if he's in favor of taxes because the idea that's it's ethical and moral to use the threat of violence to force people to purchase services that they are not willing to purchase voluntarily rests on pretty shaky ground itself.
  • by jdavidb (449077) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:20AM (#36748910) Homepage Journal
    Winning a stupid popularity contest did not give people the moral right to take the money of other people, even for allegedly good causes. Taxation is simply theft. Apparently this is lost on the people of Slate, however, if they feel that "by all ethical and civic standards, Amazon's position is unsound." They are dismissing my standard of ethics out of hand, unconsidered, unrefuted, and I feel that the burden of proof is on them to prove that taxation is ethical in the first place. My ethical position may be a minority position, but a majority is not always correct, and I have yet to see a justification for taxation that does not amount to "the end justifies the means," which is not even close to ethical.
  • Sponsors (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crow_t_robot (528562) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:22AM (#36748932)
    This Slate article has been brought to you by Best Buy, Target, Walmart, etc.
  • Nobody admits... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by GooberToo (74388) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:24AM (#36748968)

    ...but states are already collecting taxes on etailer sales. They pay those taxes on transportation costs. These places also generate jobs. Those people buy things which also allow for taxation.

    States are just pissed that their double dipping means they might actually have to be good at their job to remain in office because balancing a budget becomes more important. Whereas the traditional school of thought is you're elected to funnel state and federal dollars to your buddies - or to declare eminent domain for an illegal land grab which is then promptly gifted to your buddies. And if you can't distract people with the slush funds lying around, how are they supposed to get away with crime as usual?

    I mean, no crime, forced to actually do your job within a reasonable budget? What is this world coming to?

  • by localroger (258128) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:24AM (#36748970) Homepage
    The problem is that sales taxes are a patchwork nightmare. Not only do different states have different rates, different collection mechanisms, and different auditing requirements, so do counties and municipalities. Just doing sales taxes for a small company that does business in 3 or 4 states is a nightmare; for a national company, it would be almost impossible. Then if you don't collect the right amount of tax, when the offended entity gets around to auditing you they hand you a bill for the tax on every transaction you've ever done since their last audit. I can understand why Bezos is so adamant about this; it's not about civic duty, but about practical possibility. If the tax was flat across the country and there was a single unified mechanism for remitting it, I doubt he would care so much.
  • by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:25AM (#36748988)

    You are free to move to a country that doesn't tax its citizens if you're unhappy about it. I think you'll be hard pressed to find a developed country that doesn't tax it's citizens to provide necessary services.

  • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:28AM (#36749038) Homepage Journal

    Actually it creates a firm ground in which we can build a thriving, prosperous, and advancing civilization.

  • by Kohath (38547) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:29AM (#36749050)

    It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

    -- Abraham Lincoln, October 15, 1858 Debate at Alton

  • by eddy the lip (20794) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:30AM (#36749068)

    I don't know, I hear Somalia's quite the libertarian paradise.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:31AM (#36749078)

    our civilization is none of those things

  • by spiffmastercow (1001386) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:32AM (#36749098)
    Sales tax is a regressive tax -- it hurts the poor the most, and is barely a burden on anyone beyond middle class. In addition, sales tax hurts local businesses, who have to compete not only on direct prices with the likes of Amazon, but then have to charge you an extra 5-10% as well. Instead, states should make up for lost sales tax with increased income tax. You'll get more consistent tax revenue, a healthier business community, and the added bonus of being able to know exactly how much you have to pay for stuff at the store before checkout without using a calculator.
  • by causality (777677) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:32AM (#36749106)

    He should pay the use tax and be done with it, like a law abiding citizen

    Yeah, no kidding. Also I love the completely unbalanced perspective from the summary:

    Slate's Farhad Manjoo loves buying from Amazon and would hate to pay higher prices, but says the e-tailer 'has no intellectually sound arguments against collecting taxes from residents — by all ethical and civic standards, its position is unsound.

    "Civic standards" I can buy, but ethics? We're talking about government here: the only entity legally authorized to use lethal force in order to achieve its goals. Government is force. For wise laws and unwise laws alike, they are all enforced by an implementation of "might makes right". Even when they ask nicely, it is understood that force or threat of force will be used to deal with non-compliance. This is carried out by men with guns and other weapons, typically known as either police or agents.

    Amazon may be acting flippant but there is no moral equivalence here. Government at its finest is a benign parasite, a necessary evil that takes its money (and property) instead of earning it. We have one simply because that's a little better than not having one. It is not something to glorify, hold in high esteem, or celebrate to the tune of patriotic music. Government at its worst is a bloated, overgrown cancer that destroys its own nation and its own people. Government's style of "might makes right" is scraping the sludge at the very bottom of the barrel when it comes to ethics. At least you can refuse to ever allow Amazon to affect your life. You can simply not do business with them.

    Then there's the entire Constitutional notion that there are actually good reasons why we don't have states regulating interstate commerce. If Amazon were breaking a law, why haven't they been prosecuted? Until a prosecutor proves otherwise, they're presumed innocent. They're presumed to be simply doing something that certain people don't like. Those people want to do what, force Amazon to do otherwise? Make it conform to their personal whims? By what manner of legal threat? How ethical is that?

  • by couchslug (175151) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:33AM (#36749126)

    Bring legal standards or STFU. "Ethical" and "civic" standards are subjective. That's one reason LAWS were written.

    All the Slate statement boils down to is "we haet Amazon, herp derp".

  • by cforciea (1926392) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:35AM (#36749150)
    I always hate when people say things like that. The whole reason we have a government from a economic game theory perspective is to act as a mutually accepted arbiter to enforce cooperation to avoid a Tragedy of the Commons [wikipedia.org] scenario for shared resources. The economically rational choice is always to not take the cooperative action unless you can ensure everybody else is going to.

    Donating to charities might still make sense because you aren't doing it necessarily in the context of rational self-interest, but the government is specifically a mechanism to leverage people's rational self-interest. There's no way to get away from that context. It therefore never makes sense to tell people to donate tax money except in the childish "if you love the government so much why don't you marry it" sense.
  • by EraserMouseMan (847479) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:36AM (#36749164)
    Which have been abused and used nothing today like what the framers had in mind.
  • by OverlordQ (264228) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:36AM (#36749168) Journal

    Someone please tell me how a corporation based in Washington State and legally incorporated in Delaware suddenly becomes a tax collector for states in which it does not have a physical presence?

    Because it's easier trying to get the corporation to pay a sales tax then going after their own citizens for not paying the use tax.

  • by rotide (1015173) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:36AM (#36749180)

    "The sales tax was to cover services that B&M retailers needed from the state, county, and city. Amazon, being a net business, uses none of those services."

    I can't really comment on what sales tax was meant to cover, however, to say Amazon uses no resources/services of a state it ships items to/through is dishonest.

    Amazon may not directly transport items across state owned roads in _every_ state, but it does indeed depend on those roads to exist so their products can be transported by other companies. Beyond that, they also need protection from the state/local police in every state they ship items to. They need all the supporting services just to keep the roadways open. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, I'm sure.

    That being said, I think a tax already exists to cover this "issue" on taxes, Use Tax.

  • by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:42AM (#36749286)

    I think it should remain that we don't pay sales tax on out-of-state purchases. I don't live in Ohio and I don't expect to pay Ohio state sales tax on a purchase I made over the Internet, nor do I expect the state of Michigan to tax my purchase from a company outside of Michigan.

    Except that you're missing the entire point of the law. You *already have to pay sales tax* on out of state purchases in pretty much every state with a sales tax.

    The only change is that California in this instance wants to put the collection process in Amazon's hands.

    This isn't requiring Amazon to pay California taxes for all of their sales. This is requiring Californian citizens, who already are required to pay taxes an easier and more straight forward system of paying at the point of purchase as if it was a physical store instead of filling out a form and keeping receipts.

  • by transami (202700) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:44AM (#36749318) Homepage

    I only repeat this every single time the subject comes up, but no one ever seems catch on. I repeat...

    Since online retailers must SHIP product they are at a disadvantage with brick-and-mortar shops. Moreover, requiring sales tax collection for every state of every online retailer would create undue burden on MANY THOUSANDS of small business sellers and drive them out of business.

    If taxes must be collected on online retail, there is only one sensible place to lay the burden -- on shipping. The shipping companies are already well equipped to handle per-state pricing structures and already have the computer infrastructure to easily add to a new line item.

  • by dpilot (134227) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:44AM (#36749324) Homepage Journal

    Sidestepping for a moment the entire issue of the ethics of taxation, etc...

    Early on, I supported the idea of keeping internet purchases tax-free, as an incentive to let things grow. In a similar vein, I support the idea of making goods manufactured in outer space tax-free. But the "need for incentive" time is long past. In fact, if anything the brick-and-mortar stores are now in serious trouble and the sales tax increases their disadvantage. I won't sit here and say that a sales tax on internet purchases the right, ethical, and Ayn Rand approved way of doing this, but it's the mechanism we've got.

    It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a justice of the US Supreme Court, who once stated that "taxes are the price we pay to live in a civil society."

    In recent years, in a rather brutish way we've begun tugging at the threads that weave our civil society together. Is everything optimal? Certainly not. Is there waste? Certainly. I won't argue with either of those points. I argue with the rather careless tugging at the threads, and the inattention to what it's doing to the fabric of society, the seeming attitude that, "Keeping MY money is the most important thing." Once things start falling apart - and they are falling apart - we don't know where they will stop. It's easy to say, "All we need are the basics!" but beyond not everyone agreeing on what those basics are, we may not understand the underlying web of dependence on even those things we agree are basic. OK, we need firetrucks, but without roads and fire hydrants what good are they?

    Sometimes I think the US is the only nation actively aspiring and working to achieve thrid-world status.

  • by darkmeridian (119044) <william.chuang@gm a i l . com> on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:44AM (#36749336) Homepage

    There are many aspects of the Constitution that need updating. I mean, this bears repeating however obnoxious, but some of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. They were not necessarily the most in tune with human rights.

    Perhaps we want to clarify gun rights. Perhaps we should put in a very clear right to privacy (such as the right to contraception, to interracial marriage, and to abortion, perhaps) instead of having a non-elected Supreme Court cobble that together.

    I don't know if it's a good idea. I would reject it because we'll end up banning free speech given the current political climate. But it's not stupid enough to dismiss out of hand. If we had another shot at drafting a Constitution, we might be able to do a better job than the Founding Fathers did.

  • by regimechange (2287586) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:45AM (#36749348)

    Sales tax is a regressive tax -- it hurts the poor the most, and is barely a burden on anyone beyond middle class.

    Huh? The sales tax is completely fair on everyone, regardless of income level, which is how taxes should be. Why should i pay more sales tax just because i earn more money than some else? So no, it does not hurt anyone more than anyone else, it affects everyone in the same way.

  • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:45AM (#36749356) Homepage
    California has a big state income tax, and look at the volatility of their budget! Just as a practical matter: when you tax incomes, especially rich peoples' incomes, your tax revenues begin mimic the performance of the stock market to an uncomfortable degree.

    A sound property tax system (unlike California under Prop 13) is probably a much better idea for most state governments, housing bubbles notwithstanding.

  • by Aladrin (926209) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:48AM (#36749384)

    And those other companies pay the taxes. And need the police support. Etc etc.

    When Amazon ships something to you by UPS, and it gets stolen, Amazon doesn't call the police to report a theft. They call UPS and UPS handles it, because the package was in their care.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:51AM (#36749434) Journal
    Amazon and all the internet companies are beneficiaries of countless amount of research dollars spent by the US Government over the decades without knowing if anything will pay off or not. Countless researchers in State universities contributed code and stuff over all these years to make internet a viable platform. US Federal and state governments spend so much of money enforcing intellectual property rights, even when the one-click patent is such a travesty of the concept of patents. After enjoying all these benefits, Amazon and the internet sales companies are nitpicking over the definitions to maintain a apparent 7% to 10% price diff compared to brick and mortar retailers.

    All the complaints about number of jurisdictions and tax laws do not hold water. We could come up with a open XML based publication of tax code by each municipality.

    The big companies have become very adept in convincing so many Americans that "All tax is bad, All tax is theft".

  • by Seumas (6865) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:52AM (#36749452)

    We've amended the constitution, where necessary. You know, for things like eradicating slavery and allowing women to vote. I don't really see where confusion is over the constitution. People always talk about how it is the job of the SCOTUS to "interpret the constitution", but last time I read the document, it began with "WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT". *Self-evident*...

    The document seems pretty clear on things like free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to due process, and the right to be protected against unlawful search and seizure. The only reason to "go back and clarify" these things if if people actually mean "re-write to fit my political viewpoint which contradicts what the constitution says" instead of "clarify".

    Yes, the constitution was written by imperfect men, but it's disingenuous for us to say things like "they were just farmers and slave-owners and have no relevance to today's society". The document aims to protect us against many things that went wrong in other societies. Things that *WE* seem to often fail to comprehend, today. Things that may seem irrelevant to us *because* of the protections the document has laid out for so long that we might be all too willing to fuck up, under the premise that "life is really different today".

    I don't see a single thing in the constitution which does not belong there, for all of time and we're always free to add amendments if we agree that they are absolutely vital and valuable.

  • by Scareduck (177470) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:54AM (#36749484) Homepage Journal

    Oh, nonsense. Article I, Section 10:

    No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Controul of the Congress.

    In other words, what California and New York and all the whiners who are trying to install sales taxes on material from other states is a straightforward violation of the Constitution.

  • by Metrol (147060) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @12:00PM (#36749596) Homepage
    Perhaps we want to clarify gun rights.

    Here ya go:

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    Perhaps we should put in a very clear right to privacy

    Okay:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    such as the right to contraception, to interracial marriage, and to abortion, perhaps

    Sounds good, how about we toss this bit into there as well:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    instead of having a non-elected Supreme Court cobble that together.

    If there is a flaw in the Constitution, it is a lack of checks on the court. I honestly don't know how you could set it up differently.

  • by sorak (246725) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @12:11PM (#36749778)

    The document seems pretty clear on things like free speech, the right to bear arms

    The right to bear arms shall not be infringed. Does that literally mean no weapons regulation period? So can you sell hand grenades to children? Or by "arms", do they only mean firearms? And does it matter that they had no standing military and that the need for a well-regulated militia was part of their rationale? Also, doesn't "well regulated militia" imply the government's authority to regulate militias? I think there are a few legitimate questions to ask. Even if you know your answer to every one of them, I don't think they are all clearly written in the second amendment.

  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @12:14PM (#36749838)

    Not being from the US, my idea of a duty is an EXTRA tax on imports, over and above what would be paid if the goods originated in the state. Duty is a method of favouring local goods by imposing extra tax on imported goods. So charging regular sales tax on out of state goods isn't a duty, it's effectively cancelling an anti-duty, and thus doesn't violate the article you cited.

  • by spire3661 (1038968) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @12:39PM (#36750432) Journal
    You have no clue of socio-economics at all. Just stop talking.
  • by dpilot (134227) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @01:51PM (#36751768) Homepage Journal

    I won't deny a single thing you've said - I agree with pretty much all of it. I disagree with the currently popular remedies.

    Many, many moons ago I had an epiphany, during the days of Bush I - whom I thought did a pretty good job in office. It was at that time that Resolution Trust was being set up as part of the Savings and Loan bailout. There was a co-worker, more conservative than I, who was griping about all the money being given to the poor, and at the time I was inclined to agree with him. Then as I watched more of the Resolution Trust process, I realized that the whole Savings and Loan problem was about rich people bilking poor people, and many/most of them somehow dodging any blame or need for restitution. Instead, THEY got the money, and my money went to backfilling the victims. In essence, it was a "wealth transfer" from taxpayers like me to crooked bankers.

    At that point I realized that very likely, more of my tax dollars go to people making more than me than go to people making less than me. More of my wealth transferred UP than DOWN. When we talk about the budget problems, first off most of the focus is on the discretionary budget, which is a pittance. I'll give what's-his-name credit for looking properly at Medicare, though I disagree with his diagnosis and solution. I'm also unhappy that only peace-niks are looking at the defense budget.

    In brief, I believe we have a market failure. Today when people say "socialism" it's as if it's an inherently bad word. I'm not in favor of it either, or rather I'm in favor of some hybrid system. But here's the point... The essence of Free Market Capitalism is that it allows a broader spectrum of ideas and resources to be mobilized for solving societies' problems. This broad spectrum should enable more efficient and economical solutions, so that it's cheaper for the customers AND allows the producers to enjoy a profit, both at the same time.

    IMHO that's what's broken. Many of our industries are so consolidated that they're no longer Free Market Capitalism - they're essentially central planning, just in a few corporate boardrooms instead of government buildings. The upshot of this is that we have the most expensive health care in the world, with mediocre results. Our economy is doing less efficiently at health care than that "evil central planning." - though it is VERY profitable. We also spend more on defense than anyone in the world by a large margin, and I'll agree that we get a lot for it, but it would be really interesting to understand the cost effectiveness, and also how much if it is really a hidden corporate subsidy, both by contract and by "making a safe place to do business." (or read, export American jobs to cheaper places - paid for by my tax dollars)

    Social Security is a different issue. Besides being outside the ordinary budget, I'm generally in favor of raising the age. What I really wish is that there were some way to tell when we were going to die. I have a reasonable expectation to live to 90+, so I'd prefer to keep working - I'm not ready to start coasting to the grave, and I know that golf and fishing can only go so far. But there are also those with a family expectation much shorter, and for them at my age they'd be closer to the grave than me. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. Or another way of putting it, the necessary decisions are way above my pay grade - I just wish someone were seriously addressing the issue in a complex - not simplistic, way.

    Finally, since 2000 my financial boat hasn't been taking on water, but it has been settling lower in the water. But I don't blame taxes for that. I blame "my executives" who continue to enjoy faster-than-the-economy compensation increases at least partly by making sure my pay raises are slower than the economy, and compounding the problem by shipping US jobs overseas. In the past decade they've cashed in - but I guess letting the 3rd lowest top-margin tax rate in history increase from the 3rd lowest in US history to the 4th lowest in US history is too onerous.

    Enough for now...

  • by Solandri (704621) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @02:58PM (#36752610)
    The government really needs to set up an official central database for this. e.g. Set up a Federal website which any individual or business can visit and download a guaranteed up-to-date version of the latest tax table for the entire country. States and local governments should be required to update their tax rate on this site before the tax can officially be collected.

    The current method of requiring businesses to collate this information themselves is too fraught with errors (it's really easy to miss a tax increase passed by a city one night), and gives an unfair advantage to bigger companies. Hiring a private company to compile the tax tables for you doesn't quite work because they don't indemnify you against their errors. If they screw up and you failed to collect $5000 in sales taxes because of it, you have to pay the $5000, not them. Having it be a single government site is the most efficient solution to the problem, and places the consequence for errors squarely upon the party making the error (whether it be the business getting a tax table entry wrong, or the state/local government failing to update the table).

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