The Thoughts of Chairman May... on American Sales Tax

A rant regarding sales tax in the United States, or "The Great American Visitor Tax Rip-off."

The funny thing when travelling overseas is that what sticks in your mind isn't the great national differences, but the small things. Things that if you lived in the foreign country in question you'd probably never notice and think entirely normal, and never think that it could be done differently...

The subject of this rant took place while travelling home to Wellington, New Zealand in 1997 from Leeds in the United Kingdom, stopping over in Los Angeles. By way of introduction, I have a job that has me travelling away from my home country of New Zealand on a semi-regular basis, mostly on consultancy work. This was my first visit to the United States, and I had a few hours stopover in LAX to kill. I thought I'd pick up a few souvenir items for my wife and other relatives in the airport gift shop, and after an expedition into Santa Monica I still had some US currency in my pocket.

Now, here in New Zealand, and also in every other country I have visited, the price on the price tag of any item that you are purchasing in any shop is the amount that you are expected to fork over. No less, no more, all taxes included. I would have thought that this was pretty reasonable and the right thing to do, especially in the Great Home of Capitalism. "I'll take these please," I said to the bored-looking shop assistant at the counter, and took out my last remaining greenbacks to pay. Ten bucks US, and each item had $5 on the price tag, so that was simple...

"That'll be twelve dollars please," she said.

Huh? I did a double take on reality. Had I passed into the Twilight Zone? Did I hear correctly? I mean, five and five made ten - at least when I went to school.

"Um, sorry? Twelve dollars?" I exclaimed. "Yes," she said.

I checked the price tags. They were still five dollars each, and I told her so. "These are five dollars each - how does five and five make twelve?" I asked. You have got to be kidding, I thought.

"Oh, that doesn't include sales tax," she replied.

This was a new one on me. "Let me make sure I have got this," I started, going into Advanced Incredulity Mode (with Righteous Foreign Indignation on top). "The prices on the tag here isn't what I actually have to pay."


"Because the sales tax isn't included."

"That's right."

"Do I have to pay the sales tax?" I asked, feeling more and more like a lawyer every minute, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one.

"Yes, that's right."

"So, if I have to pay the sales tax," I concluded, laying on the patience with a trowel, "Why isn't it written into the price?"

She looked at me blankly, like I was a Martian or something. Well, probably as far as she was concerned, I was - at least, by now I'd proven I was Not An American, which amounted to the same thing. Obviously, by virtue of the fact that American culture had been beamed by television into the homes of most First World countries, we foreigners were expected to learn this by some kind of osmosis.

So I gave up. "Look," I said, "I only have ten dollars here, which would have bought me both of these items if the price was in fact what was on the ticket..." Yes, I was rubbing it in here, but I was steamed up and didn't give a damn. "... But seeing as this is not the case, I'll only take one." An incredible, short-sighted, and above all ignorant labelling policy had cost the shop, and by extension, the American economy, a potential sale. Not to mention the ill-will it generated.

This hair-brained scheme of only printing the pre-tax price on consumer items - especially considering that LAX is an international airport, with people of all nations coming through every day - was a scheme that could only have been dreamed up by accountancy lawyers with Mafia connections. What a brilliant way of fleecing foreigners, those tired, jet-lagged souls arriving or passing through The Great American DreamTM, unaware that they had passed into an alternate reality where the principle of Truth In Advertising was regarded as a quaint piece of fiction. Even the Philippines - definitely a Third World country, and run by Americans for around forty years - didn't have this kind of nonsense, not even when Imelda Marcos was plundering the country to augment her shoe collection. And what's wrong with putting a sign up to advise people? Something like "Prices do not include tax"? But that would be too easy. Plus, everyone in America knows this, and everyone knows there's no intelligent life outside of the United States, right?

So here's a plea to American shopkeepers on behalf of my fellow foreigners. Try this admittedly radical idea of all-inclusive price labelling - and join the rest of the world.

Postscript: Five years later, I did finally experience shopping in America where the price tag was indeed the price I had to pay - and I almost fell over in surprise! But it turned out that in Portland, Oregon, it's not that the tax is included - it's because there is no sales tax there. Not quite the same thing...

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Copyright 1996, 2002 Terry Knight.
Last Updated December 2002
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