A Time for Fairness in the Markets

The question couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

I was in the midst of collecting material for this column when a friend called me.

“What is the official name of the two-piece slow cooker?” he wanted to know.

“You mean the one that is permitted even according to the viewpoint of Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l?” I asked him.

“Indeed,” he replied.

For the next few minutes we discussed the fact that this is said to have been the last ruling issued by that Torah giant, as well as the various differing halachic opinions on the subject.

Then my friend returned to his original question. “So, what is it called?”

I was forced to confess that although I actually own two of them, I didn’t recall the company name of this particular slow cooker.

“Every heimishe electronics store sells it,” I pointed out. “You can just walk in and choose one.”

“I am not buying in a local store,” my friend rejoined.

Though he didn’t spell it out, I knew instantly what he meant. For the needs of his particular parnassah, he had received permission from his Rav to use the internet with, of course, a proper filter. Apparently, he felt that once he was online in any case, he was permitted to do some shopping.

“Forgive me,” I said, hesitantly, “I know this isn’t my business, but wouldn’t it be a much better idea to patronize a local merchant?”

“I have had terrible experiences buying locally,” he replied.

“I am sure you have. But if you haven’t yet had terrible experiences buying online, you will in the future. It is much more likely that you will get what you want when you can actually see and touch the physical item, and deal face-to-face with a human salesman.”

“Well, I have had some positive experiences buying locally as well,” he admitted. “But online is cheaper, especially when you don’t have to pay tax.”

I replied by referring him back to his Rav, as many poskim hold that one is obligated to pay up to a sixth more to buy from within our own community. (I also advised him to check whether the heter he has for business internet use includes shopping for his household needs.)

Whether or not I managed to convince my friend to buy local remains to be seen. But this exchange is a perfect example of why we should be supporting the Marketplace Fairness Act.

It has already been passed by the Senate, and it is time for the House to support it as well.

Unlike many other bills, the title of this law really matches its meaning; it’s all about fairness. It grants states the authority to compel online and catalog retailers, regardless of where they are physically located, to collect sales tax at the time of a transaction — just as local retailers are already required to do.

The law includes a crucial condition: States are only granted this authority after they have simplified their sales tax laws.

As can only be expected, pundits and politicians on the right are crying foul. Some are claiming that this will have a negative impact on small businesses, conveniently ignoring the fact that the law specifically exempts any enterprise with under a million dollars in remote sales.

Others have claimed that since sales tax is a local matter, companies will be forced to learn and apply thousands of different tax rates and rules of the different counties and towns they ship to. This would cause enormous hardship for these companies, and they would have to hire workers just to figure out how much tax to charge.

This would have been a valid complaint before the age of computers, but then again, they didn’t sell online back then, either. In reality, free software is easily available which keeps track of all the different tax rates, making determining these rates no different than calculating shipping costs.

All this law does is level the playing field and take away the unfair advantage that online merchants have over local retailers.

While it is true, of course, that some members of our community have online stores, in most cases, would-be buyers have no idea from whom they are buying. This law will help our friends, relatives, and neighbors who worked so hard to establish businesses right here in our community to survive and thrive.

It is a fair and good bill. I hope it will pass.