Amazon.com: America’s #1 Tax Evader?

== Update:

On September 7, Amazon relented and made a deal to pay sales taxes on shipments to California (no doubt the trenchant analysis that follows persuaded them to do the right thing). For details of the deal see http://goo.gl/kNwjQ.

Now every other state in America needs to make a deal with Amazon — even if they have fewer than California’s 10% of the population. This reinforces the need for Congress to enact a cross-border VAT and to rebate 100% of the funds to the state to which the product ships.

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Amazon’s refusal to collect sales taxes is bad for the company’s reputation, bad for honest retailers, and bad for state governments. Six states have taken modest steps to level the tax playing field, causing Amazon to respond with a business, political, and legal offensive to protect its tax-avoidance strategy. The first battleground will be California, where Amazon and national retailers will fight a very expensive ballot initiative. Longer term however, Congress should close the unintended sales tax loophole created by Article I of the US Constitution. 

Unlike almost every modern country, the US has never had a national sales tax. Most states tax sales within their state but are rightly prevented by the Constitution from taxing out of state transactions. Amazon has turned this important limit on state tax authority into a major piece of its business model. Unfortunately, a smart tactic is becoming a stupid strategy. Congress needs to level its head — and then level the playing field. From its first day of business, Amazon.com has taken extraordinary measures to avoid collecting sales taxes. It locates distribution centers in low population states to minimize the number of customers for whom it must collect sales taxes. It builds complex software to ensure that every possible product ships across state lines so that customers have no tax obligation. It puts engineers and logisticians to work in shell corporations even if they work on Amazon’s retail website just to avoid creating “taxable nexus” — which obligate Amazon to collect sales taxes. It hires legions of attorneys to minimize and manage the inevitable tax claims. When states like Texas attempt to collect taxes, Amazon retaliates by closing facilities and filing f-you lawsuits. When states declare that Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of third party sellers and affiliates amount to a physical presence in the state, Amazon simply closes the programs — as it did last week in California. Today Amazon went even further: they filed a state ballot initiative in California that will let Californians vote on whether or not to pay sales taxes on third party purchases. National retailers are gearing up for a mammoth fight.

Amazon is now America’s Number One Tax Evader. The company says that if you buy Hot Freddy’s Thai Salsa from a Los Angeles seller on Amazon, the sales taxes on the transaction are for you and Fred and the state to sort out. Unlike the corner grocery store, they won’t collect these taxes. Nobody disputes that Fred owes taxes on his sales to Californians, but Amazon says that collecting them is Fred’s job, not theirs. Since, as a practical matter, it costs California more to chase Fred than it is worth, Amazon’s policy needlessly costs California tax revenues and denies Californians badly needed public services. So California sensibly joined five other states that require Amazon to collect sales taxes on the intrastate sales of third party sellers. The law goes further, and declares that third party sellers or affiliates (sites that earn commissions on traffic they send Amazon) constitute taxable nexus — as do subsidiaries. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law on June 30, whereupon Amazon immediately notified all California third party sellers and affiliates that they were discontinuing their program. Amazon has built its business model around a court decision. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled  in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota that a state can compel a company to collect taxes only if they have a physical presence, or a nexus, in the state. Absent nexus, the court held that online retailers and mail-order companies can sell products across state lines without collecting the tax. This decision reflects the current law and our national architecture as a republic formed in an era when very few goods were traded across state lines. It also reflects an odd twist in the way the US collects sales taxes: by taxing transactions based on where the seller does business not based on where the buyer lives, we effectively tax selling, not buying. In old fashioned Main Street America it doesn’t matter: every sale is local. But the rise of mail order and online retail meant that our peculiar approach created a giant loophole. I am aware of no other country that makes this mistake. 
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