Amazon's fight with the state of California over paying sales tax is ridiculous. Whatever arguments might get ginned up, the basic fact is that the company sells stuff in California and companies that sell stuff in California have to pay sales tax, therefore Amazon has to pay sales tax. Perhaps it made sense to foster online commerce by exempting them from sales tax laws, but we're not talking a baby industry here. Amazon has a $95 billion market cap and is steamrolling everyone in sight.
Amazon has spent more than $5 million loading up their More Jobs Not Taxes campaign for a referendum that would repeal the legislation that started charging them taxes. Meanwhile, the latest turn in the political fight has been that Amazon offered to create 7,000 jobs if the state postpones enforcing its sales tax on the company until 2014.
Here's why that offer is a big deal. It transforms a debate that is fundamentally about a value -- fairness -- into a numbers game. The next step will be that Amazon's political operatives will plant the seed that the bill will kill jobs, probably a nice round number like 7,000 of them. According to our calculations, the politicos will say, California is killing the exact number of jobs that Amazon offered to add! Taxes are bad!
I don't mean to pick on Amazon here. Every company is after as many tax advantages as they can get. Walmart, for example, which pushed the effort to get the Amazon sales tax bill passed, skirts some online sales taxes, too. And every company has realized that it is good politics to say that taxes kill jobs, whether they have real evidence for it or not.
In the 1950s, a long-past GM CEO who had been appointed secretary of defense said that "for years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa." That CEO, Charles Wilson, got misquoted as saying, "What's good for GM is good for the country." At the time, it was something to be embarrassed about. Or at least it sounded a little ridiculous to conflate your narrow corporate interests with the collective interests of the country, even if you were the nation's largest company.
Now, by transforming tax fights into skirmishes over how many jobs this or that tax will "kill," every single tax becomes something that hurts America. The narrow (and self-serving) interests of every tax-fighting corporation become part of our national project. And the battlefield becomes the competing spreadsheets of political opponents who say that one plan or another will create more jobs, when it's pretty obvious that no one knows precisely how that whole mechanism works.
The what's-good-for-my-company-is-good-for-America rhetoric should become laughable again.
Alexis C. Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.