Anyone who thinks that my failure to persuade an author to tackle the international comparative dimension of the rural-urban divide is the only unrequited labor of my nearly 14-year TAI editorship might want to think again. When I pick over the rubble of my failed initiatives, several boulders stand out for one reason or another. But the record for sheer frustration in my editor’s experience has to go to a man who will remain unnamed in order to protect the guilty.
I no longer remember where the idea came from, but I grew curious about the reasons why we do not tax advertising buys in the United States. We tax a great many other services—airline tickets, rental cars, toll roads, utilities, hotel rooms, licenses, financial transactions, cell phone usage—so why not advertising? There sits a multi-billion dollar business featuring a standard point-of-purchase contract arrangement that would be easy to collect taxes on, and here sits the Federal government with a $22 trillion-and-growing national debt about which the Congress seems prepared to do nothing except make it bigger. So this raises an obvious possibility, one would think.
Note that I am not talking about digital advertising, or at least not exclusively about that, which is a matter much in the news lately, especially in Europe. (The French government claims to be determined to tax Facebook’s and Google’s ad revenues insofar as they hover over virtual French airspace.) I am talking about advertising in general.
Being such an obvious question, one would think that tax-and-spend Democrats—some of whom have lately gotten behind the “magic money tree” (a.k.a. Modern Monetary Theory) concept of debt for reasons so self-interested that they really don’t require explanation—would have proposed this dozens of times by now. They haven’t: Apparently, obvious is a synonym for common sense, and we all know what Voltaire said about that. To the best of my knowledge, at the Federal level at least, no one has even raised the idea in recent memory, and with one or two exceptions, neither have the states. Furthermore, before the digital era, not even European welfare states were accustomed to taxing advertising buys. Why?
It seems that various national leaderships came to believe that advertising was good for their economies. Since everyone knows that you get less of what is taxed and more of what is subsidized, it would be unwise to tax advertising because that would conduce to a smaller economy, and you would probably pay a political price even for suggesting it. Indeed, in the tax code here in the United States, and probably also in most European countries, advertising is a legitimate business expense that can be deducted from gross receipts. The way the tax laws are written amount to a subsidy for advertising, especially since they allow for the very quick amortization of the expense. So we probably get more of it then we otherwise would.
The problem with this understanding of why advertising buys are not taxed is that, well, its premise is mainly wrong. When I consulted TAI editorial board member Tyler Cowen, it turned out that he had handy the outline of a lecture, or part of a lecture, on advertising that he gives to students at George Mason. Naturally, I asked him to write up his notes into a short essay; he declined (you can’t win them all). But the outline made sense and enabled me to put a proposition to another prospective author.
Here is the essence. Advertising is good for the economy and for the public weal generally under two conditions: when it provides information about the function, quality, or price of a good or service, and when it is not intrusive. We can make from this distinction a simple two-by-two matrix. On one axis, we distinguish between advertising that provides useful market signals and advertising that may be slick but is functionally useless. On the other axis, we distinguish between intrusive forms of advertising and forms that we choose to expose ourselves to for one reason or another.
So, for example, a television ad that tries to sell expensive cars to rich guys by posing a sexy woman in a slinky black dress near the car—suggesting subliminally that if the rich guy buys the car he gets the woman but otherwise telling us nothing about the car—is worse than useless. It is a diseconomy in economic terms because it misleads by disorganizing the stock of knowledge consumers have about that class of products. It is also arguably in bad taste, but then all television advertising tends to be in bad taste.
On the other hand, we may not be interested in razor blades, cheap beer, or erectile dysfunction medications, but if advertising revenue handed over to a television station brings us a baseball game to watch for free, then we may submit to viewing the advertising in order to get something we want. Sometimes we even seek out advertising in the process of shopping because of the market-relevant information it can provide. A highway billboard, contrarily, is ugly and grabs our attention whether we want it to or not (thanks to our evolved cognitive “novelty bias”). If it delivers useful information as we zoom by it, that’s one thing—it becomes an intermediate case on the matrix as neither economically positive nor wholly negative. But if it’s ugly, intrusive, and has no useful information about any product, service, or price, it is certainly a diseconomy—and an aesthetic pain in the ass, too.
Any scheme to tax advertising buys would therefore have to discriminate among these four types of advertising, one per quadrant of the two-by-two matrix. It would not tax much or at all advertising that furnishes usable market signals and is not intrusive. It would tax heavily advertising that furnishes no useful market signals and that is intrusive. It would tax mixed cases in-between.
As such, it would be part revenue raiser and part Pigouvian tax, designed to pay for externalities and, possibly, re-shape market behavior for the better. For example, economists pretty much all agree that advertising with clear and accurate price signals tends to be anti-inflationary, so more of that would be good. If most of the ugly billboards on our highways were to disappear as a consequence, I for one would not be the slightest bit put out: A lot less of that would be wonderful.
I put all this to someone I trusted to think the idea through. I had spoken with Tyler sometime during February 2014. My correspondence records show that I issued this invitation on February 28, 2014. I tried to make it easier for the author by providing an outline of an approach that would work for a long-form essay.
First, I suggested, establish the scale: How much do U.S. businesses spend on advertising in a given year, and what range of revenue might taxing it bring in? Then, second, I asked him to explain why all advertising is not created equal, basically using Tyler’s two-by-two matrix or some variant of it. Then, third, I asked for a little history, since Austria and a couple of U.S. states had tentatively raised the idea of taxing advertising over the years but had never pulled it off for long. And finally, fourth, I ask him to sketch a proposal for a Federal tax on advertising, it being stipulated that states might also design taxes of their own, and that the states could undertake experiments over time to see what works and what doesn’t. I added only that since we don’t want to hurt small businesses and small ad jobbers, some kind of threshold makes sense—maybe $250,000 per year in gross advertising buys and revenues. Above that threshold, rates could be adjusted/prorated for every $250,000 increment, just to keep it as simple as possible.
Well, to my delight, my target author waxed enthusiastic about the idea, and agreed in principle to do it. There then followed over the next 62 months some dozen or so email exchanges and telephone calls, each one initiated by me, asking when he thought he might deliver a draft, and each one replied to with a plea for more time.
The most recent reply, however, included an element sure to drive an editor foaming-at-the-mouth mad. My would-be author informed me that he had become so deeply interested in the subject, and had done so much research based on my essay sketch, that he couldn’t see how he could possibly shove it all into a mere essay. He needed more time, and anyway now had his heart set on a book. And then he thanked me for having provoked him into studying this fascinating policy question.
This is an argument for gun control. Don’t ask me to explain.