So the story goes, in 1850 the British Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone asked the inventor of the newly-created electric dynamo, Michael Faraday, the practical value of electricity.
“Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it,” came the physicist’s rejoinder to the minister of finance.
It is an apocryphal story of Faraday’s Folly, to be sure, decades before it began to power a lightbulb.
Yet it makes a point in support of the cynical notion of government as legalized gangster, finding ever new ways to separate citizens from their earnings.
Here at home, consumers’ worst fears are about to be realized, as the Government seizes on our appetite for buying items by laptop and smartphone and having them shipped to us either by courier or cousin, broker or brother.
In a matter of weeks, the tax on online transactions will be here to play its role as Christmas killjoy, even if it is intended for the worthy cause of stemming the foreign exchange bloodletting that continues to shrink our import cover. It has been dubbed the “Amazon Tax”.
Mind you, we are not convinced of the necessity for the tax, beyond the oft-trotted shibboleth of fiscal penury, overshadowed as it is by poor management, incredible waste, abuse and possibly fraud and corrupt gain of the taxpayer’s money.
Our Government has not presented data on online purchases and presumably lost revenue and foreign exchange. It cannot, and most likely will not, calculate the opportunity cost – what Barbados would likely gain if that bauble or widget were obtained here instead.
And it has said nothing about the millions more spirited out of our banking system by well-heeled corporations.
All Barbadians know is that things here are so prohibitively expensive, the range too often limited, and the hassle to obtain them down in town or up at at the mall is too great.
In the worlds of Amazon, eBay, Etsy et al, there are no fatal encounters with shop assistants in default surly and sour mode wearing the permanent scowl.
At the very least, in cyberworld, we are unlikely to encounter the differential treatment applied in increasing order of importance and commensurate attention: black national, returning nation, black non-national, African-American, white national, white tourist and expatriate, to say nothing of other critical variables as gender, perceived wealth, store location or time of day or season.
But we would be derelict in our duty were we to fail to point out that beneficiaries though many Barbadians are of online shopping, there have been, and continue to be, adverse knock-on effects on jobs and business viability here at home.
So it falls to us to urge the local retail community, an amorphous and nebulous entity though it may be, to up its game and join the 21st Century if it, and we, are to survive the rest of it.
There must be a happy balance somewhere, what one supposes the economists would call equilibrium – between selling at the right price and stocking the right stuff – of actually catering to the market’s needs and means.
The Value Added Tax was supposed to have been the tax to end all taxes, a revenue-neutral tax that would level the playing field, and balance the impulse to tax the hell out of the consumers with something approaching fairness.
The thinking was, so we were told, that a fridge would reach a sensible price while the tax base of items and services would broaden sufficiently to offset any revenue loss from a plummeting sticker price as stamp duties and other indirect taxes disappeared. In other words, that fridge would now be in reasonable range (no one seems to remember but large appliances were even more impossibly expensive) while you would now pay a few pennies on the dollar for that personal care product or service.
And yet, budget speech by budget speech, the raft of imposts meant to be eliminated by VAT, have crept back in, with names not out of place in the dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “cess”, “environmental levy”, “national social responsibility guilt trip”. And all the while the VAT has crept from 15 per cent to its permanently temporary rate of 17.5 per cent.
Perhaps it is a wakeup call – if even well past noon – for our merchants to get over their Trumpian aversion to science, logic, creativity and innovation, and finally start offering their products online through clever apps and up-to-date websites. Artificial intelligence now makes it possible to enter a keyword search for an item and not only locate it in the shop nearest you but also glean its comparative price, complete with local users’ comments and ratings on both item and emporium.
It’s well past time to put the word ‘service’ in the services trade, to give nonpareil shopping and after-sales attention. It is time our customer service folk, and our Customs officers, end the sloth, bigotry, myopia and disrespect that pass for customer service in this country.
And yes, if we can make them here, then by all means let’s try, and let’s take greater pride in our own industry and buy ‘Made in Barbados’. It is high time we politicize our consumption, too.
As with a great many things in our great little nation, the only limitations are our imagination and our will.
After all, it’s only the future of the domestic economy and the jobs that put food on our own tables daily that may be at stake.