David R. Henderson  

Betty Yee's Outrageous Untruth

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Having just returned from my vacation in Canada, I got around to reading tax advocate Betty Yee's side of the "Amazon tax" issue. Yee is a member of the California Board of Equalization. I had argued against the tax but I hadn't seen her argument until I returned.

Imagine my shock when I read the following:

A week later, Amazon.com launched a referendum campaign to preserve its legal loophole, a clear demonstration it is willing to do anything to avoid complying with the law, no matter the cost to California small businesses and jobs. So much for Amazon.com's ethics code and its emphasis on compliance with every law.

So Yee's own evidence is that Amazon complied with the law. But, in her view, launching a campaign to preserve its legal loophole is to avoid complying with the law. What does the term "legal loophole" mean to Ms. Yee? Isn't it a law that someone takes advantage of? But to say it's a law that someone takes advantage of is to say that someone who takes advantage of it is complying with the law.

I'm surprised--maybe I shouldn't be--that none of the letter writers who addressed her and my arguments caught her false statement. I would accuse Betty Yee of lying but lying requires not just saying something false but also knowingly saying something false. I don't know which is scarier: a lying tax official or a tax official who doesn't know that lobbying to change a law is not a refusal to comply with the law.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Tom West writes:

I always shudder a bit when I see "any attempt to oppose a policy I favor is unethical".

If you cannot believe in an "honorable opposition", (and it was a long and tortuous path to develop that concept) then you're a ways down a track that has a very unpleasant terminus.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Good point. I think it goes beyond that, though. When a government official claims that it's unethical to disagree, that's bad. But when a government official claims that it's illegal to try to repeal a law, that's horrible.

Tom West writes:

Good point, but honestly, I think if you asked her specifically: "Which law did Amazon break?" She'd probably reply that they didn't break any and she didn't mean that they were actually breaking the law.

A huge number of people are appallingly (at least for me) imprecise in what they say in these contexts. They'll happily conflate immoral, illegal and unethical when they just mean "bad".

I've found (from experience) that forcing the idea that "you are either breaking the law or you are not" only gets one painted one as pedantic in the eyes of a surprisingly large number of people.

Extra hint: Pointing out that conflation of those terms can have subtle, long-term effects on people's thinking that aren't beneficial to an open, tolerant society doesn't actually help one's case :-(. *sigh*

Brandon Berg writes:

This is probably more charitable than is warranted, but perhaps by "the law" she meant the specific law requiring Amazon to collect taxes from California customers, and that Amazon is trying to have it repealed so that they don't have to comply with it any longer.

larry writes:

Amazon is not taking advantage of "a legal loophole". This is a provision of the US Constitution, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court for decades.

joeftansey writes:

I'm surprised they're going after Amazon. Amazon has a ton of public good will and moral credit, unlike walmart and friends. You'd think the potential political backlash would scare politicians off.

Chris Koresko writes:

Betty Yee: A week later, Amazon.com launched a referendum campaign to preserve its legal loophole, a clear demonstration it is willing to do anything to avoid complying with the law, no matter the cost to California small businesses and jobs. So much for Amazon.com's ethics code and its emphasis on compliance with every law.

Imagine for a moment that you sincerely believe that the written law is only a guide to understanding the real law, namely the wise and beneficent judgment of technocrats.

Then if Amazon responds to a change in the written law by trying to get a repeal or otherwise void it, they are guilty of unethically attempting an end-run around the real law.

Doc Merlin writes:

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Roger Sweeny writes:

Perhaps Yee believes in the "living law" like some people believe in the "living Constitution." The law means what it would mean if the people who wrote it knew as much as her.

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