Amazon lobbies to pay more tax in the US

Yes, you read that right.

The American Senate has passed – with a fairly overwhelming 70-24 majority – an early version of the "Marketplace Fairness Act", which aims to give states a route to collect sales tax for goods sold online. That progress will please one of the bill's most surprising supporters: Amazon.

In the US, sales tax for mail-order purchases is supposed to be paid in the state of the buyer, not the seller. This means that the retailer doesn't charge any tax, and the customer is supposed to declare that they owe a certain amount to their state's tax collector. In practice, of course, this doesn't happen, and purchases from out-of-state retailers are essentially tax-free.

Naturally, retailers who do have to pay sales tax – both brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers shipping largely to their own state – are unhappy with this state of affairs, as are the people in charge of trying to plug the multi-billion dollar shortfall that occurs. But the support of Amazon is less obvious: after all, the company takes advantage of tax planning measures worldwide, and ships a huge number of things across state lines, avoiding tax in the process.

But Amazon has fought this battle before. Until a few years ago, it stubbornly resisted paying sales tax, but in Autumn 2011, it switched course. Slate's Farhad Manjoo reports that:

Over the course of the next couple years, Amazon will begin collecting sales tax from residents of Nevada, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, and on July 1, it began collecting taxes from Texans. It also currently collects taxes from residents of Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, and its home state of Washington.

As Manjoo points out, the reason for the shift is pretty clear. If you're trying to deliver things within a week or two of their being ordered, it makes sense to centralise your operations in one state to minimise your tax take. But if you're trying to deliver within a day or two – or even an hour or two – of the order, you're going to need physical locations in every state, and most major cities. And if that's the case, then you've given up your tax advantage – so it makes sense to get your competitors to give up theirs, too.

So the Amazon of today can't use the sales tax loophole, because it's not shipping out of state any more. And if it can't have it, no one else can either.

That's going to be a shock to brick-and-mortar retailers, who might have hoped that more equitable tax treatment would make competing with the company easier. But fundamentally, they are having the same problems that HMV had: Amazon isn't impossible to compete with because it avoids tax; it's impossible to compete with because it has no real desire to make a profit.

Forcing the company to pay tax may raise its prices slightly; but they will still be lower than almost any competitor could match. And the loops it jumps through to avoid that tax – like not being based in state – are things that competitors can use to their advantage. In other words, small retailers of the world: be careful what you wish for.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.