BUT THAT’LL KILL SMALL BUSINESS!
Killing small business has been a favorite pastime of American politicians for many a decade now. I imagine that at this point the great undertaking goes back at least a century, to the increased regulations of the Progressive Era, but I was pretty young then, so I don’t know for sure. Certainly the establishment of Social Security in the thirties was a major step forward in killing of small business, as were various aspects of the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, especially its equal-employment dictates and civil rights in general.
Even the reputed conservative Dick Nixon got in on the act, with his wage-price freeze, increased environmental regulation, and reported flirtation with such esoterica as the value-added tax and something called the Negative Income Tax, which nobody seemed to really understand but interpreted as yet another weapon pointed at the small businessman.
But this is a new century, and the everyday threats to Main Street business are a much more complex stew, an amalgamation of government, big business, and the internet; anyone can blend those together to suit their own particular ideological preferences The only one of the traditional bugaboos missing would seem to be Big Labor; it amuses me to remember that Mr. Gallup used to ask the public each year which was the greatest threat to America among Big Business, Big Government, and Big Labor. If anybody worries about Labor at all these days, it’s usually more like Small Labor.
In any case, we got a foretaste of the new mix of forces out to get small business in the eighties, with the rise of the Big Box Store, which usually equated to Wal-Mart, as it was then styled before it stripped itself of that too-Twentieth Century hyphen a few years ago. By the turn of the century, though, the internet had pushed into view, to the point that the punditry off-and-on worried itself over whether Walmart itself might be under threat from the internet, as though it were a struggling appliance store trying to decide whether color TV was here to stay.
Meanwhile, in an interesting parallel development, various small businesses were being told that their future was in emulating the big boxes. Small book shops, and even libraries, were being told that they needed to change their ‘business model’ to be more like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Of course, Borders is now long since extinct, with, according to the punditry, B&N soon to follow. And many a small book shop has found new life selling their books through Albris, Abebooks, or Amazon. Ebay and etsy are even better examples of sites on which merchants who took the time to adjust to internet selling are surviving and even thriving.
And then came Albert Gore, who engineered legislation exempting e-commerce from sales taxes, and a new teratism emerged: now local government was itself going to be starved for revenue-- not only was the internet killing off the property tax from all those stores going out of business, but their sales would be replaced with sales which weren’t taxed, even as government at all levels presumably continued to wage its own war against small business.
But such is the resourcefulness of either the aspiring executioners of small business or small business itself that when the by now almost-traditional free ride on sales taxes when one made an internet purchase was repealed a year or two ago, that too was seen as a war on small business, because of the confusion which would result from the complexity of trying to compute the sales taxes, state and local, which the struggling merchant would face each morning.
But I knew what was going to happen. And nobody else apparently did, certainly not any pundit I ever encountered. What happened was that software came out that allowed the company’s CSR to punch in a ZIP code, maybe ask the caller or clicker a few simple questions (I was initially bemused by being asked whether I lived within the city limits) and there’s the tax you are paying, added right below telling you that you got free shipping by adding in that Night Ranger cassette to your order. And so, against all odds, small business struggles on.