Taxes on Internet shopping

Here in the US the Senate just passed the Marketplace Fairness Act, and it is causing a great deal of debate on all sides.

I want you to pay taxes

Pay more taxes on your online goods

In the USA each state can levy its own sales tax. The rate is not equal across the states, for example here in Massachusetts I pay 6.25% sales tax on my new fridge, but if I drive to New Hampshire I do not pay anything. You can check out the differences on this interactive tax map.

The legislation described above aims to make Internet sellers collect the taxes due to the buyer’s state, something they are not currently required to do. At the moment I order my fridge from a New Hampshire based Internet retailer and I don’t pay any tax. In theory I should go and pay the state myself, but with online sales worth billions there is no enforcement and no queues (lines) outside the tax office.

Retail outlets argue that this gives online sellers an unfair advantage, but they in turn argue that the collecting and payment of state taxes under the new proposed regime would be expensive and extremely complicated. If they sell me the fridge here it costs a certain amount, they have to collect the tax and pay it to Massachusetts, but my friend in Florida pays a different amount and the tax is paid to the state there. Now this might not be too complicated a system for Amazon to manage, but a small Internet based retailer might not have the technical expertise or personnel to carry it out.

The proposed bill does exclude traders who sell under a million dollars of goods, but in today’s world that could still be a very small organization.

The technical difficulties of collecting the taxes through any other means seem insurmountable though, and the problem is very much related to the idea that borders can be controlled. States have different laws about selling many things, but if these things can be bought on the Internet and shipped to an individual house I cannot see how these rules can be adequately enforced. Is it a form of smuggling to buy something that you cannot get in your own state?

The result of the bill (if it passes although it does have bi-partisan support) will be that local sales tax will be levied at source and so the fridge will cost more. Maybe this is just and fair, maybe it will choke some smaller businesses, who knows?

What do you think?