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Shifting the (Online) Sales Tax Burden

Shifting the (Online) Sales Tax Burden published on No Comments on Shifting the (Online) Sales Tax Burden

Recently a friend (and former student) Tweeted about the politics of regulation (see the Tweet below). Today, the city (and county) where I live is voting on a new “use tax” that would be applied to all “purchases made from out-of-state vendors”. Ostensibly, this is to offset lost sales tax revenue due to online shopping–the bugaboo of many local retailers and governments.

This morning I lectured on the relationship of demand elasticity to the question of who pays for a sales tax. As illustrated in the simple example below, both the consumer and the seller pay portions of the sales tax–provided neither Demand nor Supply are perfectly elastic (flat) or inelastic (vertical). When the supply curve shifts up due to the tax, it reduces how many units consumers buy (Q1 vs Q). Consumer pay more than they would have without the tax (P1 vs P), and sellers receive a lower price (net of the tax) than they would have without the tax (Ps vs P). So both sides bear some of the burden of the sales tax. The question is, which side pays more? It’s a pretty simple exercise to show that the “steeper” curve pays the bigger share just by redrawing the picture with lines of different relative steepness. Try it for yourself using this simple graph as an example.

The steepness of the curve reflects the sensitivity of consumers (on the Demand side) and sellers (on the Supply side) to changes in price. The more sensitive either side is, the more their quantity decision will change when price changes. More sensitivity means ‘flatter’ lines. Less sensitivity means ‘steeper’ lines.

Consider demand for something that’s very important to the consumer, like insulin. Even if the price goes up, insulin-dependent consumers will not reduce their consumption of insulin very much at all–unless the price really goes up a lot. In that case, the Demand line would be very steep.

What affects the steepness of Demand? Lots of things, but one of the biggest is the availability of other goods that provide the same (or very similar) benefits to the consumer. For instance, if you need insulin, you don’t have many alternatives. Orange juice, on the other hand, has several. If the price of orange juice goes up much, I might choose another juice, milk, or just plain water.

What else has substitutes? Stuff sold in local stores that can also be bought online. If I’m willing to wait two days, a large percentage of the things I might buy locally can be delivered right to my doorstep without me having to leave my house. If the price of buying things online is lower than the price of things sold locally, buying online is a really good substitute–if I can exercise a little patience. And if the local sales tax does not apply to my online purchases, that gives online sellers an automatic price advantage over local sellers–as much as 4.5% where I live (and that doesn’t count State sales tax).

So, what does that have to do with who pays the sales tax or Per’s tweet above?

First, demand for local purchases is more price-sensitive because the price of substitute items (from online sellers) is lower. If we impose (and actually enforce) a use tax on online sales, that will make consumers a little less price sensitive in their demand for local stuff, i.e., their Demands for local goods will get steeper. That means the relative tax burden will shift from local sellers to consumers. And this is even before the retailer’s ability to increase prices (or to not lower them as much to compete with online sellers). Little wonder local retailers are more than happy to “level the playing field” with online sellers by imposing the tax. They get to increase prices and pay less of the sales tax themselves; a win-win.

Second, the process giving rise to this proposed tax follows exactly the process Per outlines:

  1. Government imposes a regulation (a sales tax) that makes local retailers less competitive in the market place. There are other forms of taxing municipalities can and do use. Ours chooses to use a sales tax (for lots of things).
  2. Higher sales taxes encourage more people to buy online to avoid the sales tax, which not only reduces local sales, but local government tax revenue. Two problems for the price of one!
  3. Blame “The Market” for the loss of sales and tax revenue. Our City Manager even suggested it is immoral for people to live in the City and use City services while buying stuff online.
  4. Demand new regulations (i.e., the use tax) to “fix” the problem created in Step 1.

So here we are on election day in Boone County, Missouri. The voters that bother to show up will get to decide: who should pay more of the tax burden? Consumers or retailers?

Epilogue
Record low voter turn out (suggesting few people cared–if they were even aware of the special election) and the proposed use taxes failed 49.2-50.8 and 45.3-54.7 in the city and county, respectively. Not surprisingly, those residents for whom brick-and-mortar shopping is even less convenient voted even more to keep the price of the substitute lower.

 

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