Chicago Rages Against The Future With 9% Tax On Netflix, Spotify And Other Streaming Services
from the tax-the-future dept
Almost exactly three years ago, Mike wrote up a post that discussed Planet Money pulling together five economists with differing political views to see what they could all agree on. The result was several policy ideas that appeared to transcend politics if economics was the driving motivator instead of any kind of partisanship. The whole post is awesome, and has influenced my thoughts on economic policy and taxes to a large degree, but I came away from it with one general concept firmly in mind: tax what you want to discourage, don’t tax what you want to encourage, and never tax innovation or the future.
And now my home city is taxing the future. You see, the city of Chicago recently announced that it will extend its 9% amusement tax to online streaming services and cloud computing.
A ruling by Chicago’s Department of Finance allows the city to add an extra nine percent tax onto “electronically delivered amusements” and “nonpossessory computer leases.” In an odd combination, buying a subscription to streaming media, such as Netflix or Spotify, would qualify, as would using a cloud computing platform, such as Amazon Web Services. Each would be subject to 9% tax; Chicago is the first major American city to levy a tax on either streaming services or cloud computing services.
Amusement taxes in and of themselves generally violate the concept I highlighted in the opening. After all, if you’re a municipality, taxing fun is essentially saying you want less fun. But what makes this re-write of the amusement tax already on the books silly is that it is purely a money-grab. Here’s what happened: the amusement tax in Chicago worked primarily to collect revenue from book stores, music stores and movie rental stores, which are obviously becoming increasingly in short supply as consumers move to online stores and streaming services like Netflix and Spotify and Amazon for all of the above. This is actually a good thing from a public interest standpoint for a variety of reasons: less pollution from physical products, more efficiency in the marketplace, the opening of more creative outlets for members of the city, and more access to more content from more places and devices, meaning a more robust economic marketplace. The future, in other words, although increasingly the present as well. And Chicago wants to tax all this, effectively discouraging its use, in order to collect an additional $12 million a year.
Chicago, mind you, is in the hole for roughly one hundred times that amount.
Cities with amusement taxes have lost revenue as more people forgo book stores, record shops and video rental stores in place of online outlets. But $12 million isn’t going to be much more than a drop of water in the bucket of the city’s $1 billion operating shortfall.
Fighting the future doesn’t even yield much of a reward, so why do it at all? Don’t tax what you want to encourage and tax what you want to discourage. This makes it look like the city of Chicago really wants a tax policy to make the city operate like it was 1995.