Stuck Inside of Retail With the Tax Holiday Blues Again
Before I depart for a semester in London, I plan on replacing a portion of my seasoned wardrobe. I’ll be shopping in the States because (thanks, in no small part, to monetary distortions on a much larger level) the value of my wealth will roughly halve when the “fasten seatbelt” sign illuminates.
As my fellow bloggers have noted, with differing degrees of enthusiasm, we are in the midst of a tax “holiday.” My consternation about this practice is mostly explainable by the theory-driven gripe I’m about to offer. However, I’m also upset that the holiday has landed on one of the few weekends where I have better things to do than draw funds out of savings.
The tax holiday is a feel-good gimmick. Many people, maybe even some needy parents gearing up for another costly school year, will return home from the store with a few more bucks than they otherwise might have. The state budget won’t really suffer, either. What’s the harm? If you don’t find yourself frequently daydreaming about monetary policy, there really isn’t any; enjoy your shopping spree.
Still with me? Then you’ll agree that the tax holiday tarnishes the price system’s fidelity as an indicator of value. This distortion is based on the fact that, at least for the foreseeable future, state and local revenues draw heavily from sales tax. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to say that a good’s price after tax is more faithful than its pretax price at representing that good’s real cost. By this reasoning, the expenditures of state and local governments are inputs partially included in the price of a good. This makes sense, considering who builds the roads on which inventories and customers travel. When this input is discounted, the resulting price could (and will) motivate consumers to buy more than they otherwise would in an efficient market. Sarah’s example of a hypothetical shopper driving far away to cash in on tax-free shopping is a great example of how price distortions can affect individual behavior in negative ways.
I also feel shorted because of the arbitrary nature of the holiday. In general, I’m enthusiastic about reducing taxes and regulation in hopes of bettering economic freedom. However, this instance of a tax break slightly benefits those who shop during this weekend at a tiny cost to those who make purchases on the other 362 days. In order to retain the tax revenue that would be available without a holiday, Missouri officials will have to marginally increase the sales tax rate. If they choose not to do so, the state will have less revenue than it otherwise would. Although it’s certainly not the case that tax revenue necessarily benefits me or any other voter effectively, it does so to at least some extent. The holiday also unnecessarily benefits those who spend relatively more money during these three days. There’s just no good reason for rewarding people who shop this weekend rather than any other.
So, is the tax holiday highly damaging? Absolutely not. However, any humanitarian advocate for it should research more direct methods to promote their desired outcomes. In the end, we are only billing ourselves to indulge in a weekend of slightly less expensive shopping. I think the only really unfortunate outcome of this event is that we further distance public sentiment from good economic thought by allowing shoppers to get excited about a gimmick.