Oregon Could Revive Localism With IP 28

Chances are very good Oregonians will be voting in November whether to assess a gross receipts tax on businesses with sales that exceed $25 million annually. Once all the shouting begins, the subtleties of history will be lost in the background noise. So let’s chat today about business efficiencies, sun-ripened tomatoes, and a pamphlet written in 1837.

Rowland Hill argued in an 1837 tract that guaranteed delivery of any letter between two points for the same prepaid price would increase its popularity. He envisioned a world made smaller and a society joined tighter. He won the argument and England instituted the Penny Post in 1840.

Single price postage didn’t appear in America until after the railroads reached the west coast. Before 1863, letters traveling less than 300 miles could be sent for half price. But since then, we’ve lived in Hill’s world where distance doesn’t matter.

What does this piece of arcane history have to do with Oregon’s proposed business tax? Well, nothing really — at least not directly. That’s why we can think about it only before the din of rhetoric drowns out every tangental detail.

Our “any distance for a single price” mentality made the world feel smaller and more accessible. We can all agree that we’ve now accomplished that. If anything, we may have done it too well.

The United States Postal Service wants to centralize its mail-sorting operation in Portland, trucking every letter sent from Eugene 100 miles north. A letter you write will take two or three days to reach your neighbor, instead of one. But hey — it’s more efficient.

Our produce aisles have zucchini from Morocco, limes from Brazil, and maple syrup from Canada — year round. Amazon will bring almost anything you can imagine to your door in two days. Desktop email replaced mailed letters, until instant messages began appearing on the phones in our pockets.

The world has gotten very small, indeed. Distance doesn’t matter — until it does.

Local companies have gained global access, but also global competition. Whittier Wood Furniture can be sold nationwide, giving good jobs to local people working with wood and wood products that grew in the ground beneath our feet.

But local farmers cannot compete with grocery store prices for sun-ripened tomatoes, even when supply levels slide from abundance to onslaught. Never mind the better taste, or the local roots — the “efficiencies” of factory farming and our sesquicentennial habit of ignoring distance leave us with cheap, tasteless tomatoes. We feed our table-mates but not our neighbors.

That’s where Oregon’s Initiative Petition 28 may represent a tide we can turn. Economic analyses have speculated that its high floor of $25 million in Oregon sales will exempt all but about a thousand corporations from paying the tax. Half of the $3 billion in projected state revenues will come from just 50 mega-firms.

Yes, some prices will be increased to compensate, and some jobs will be automated or eliminated to compensate for lost profits. But when it comes to tomatoes, we’ll all be better off if the wares offered at our farmers’ markets can be priced more competitively.

Legislators say they’ll consider a pre-emptive move that will put in place something smaller than what IP28 has proposed. I don’t believe they will, because Democrats will benefit greatly from having a measure that Bernie Sanders would love on the November ballot. That will get more liberals to vote.

I hope what legislators are really working on is a bill that binds them to devote a third of the revenue from IP 28, if it passes, to local business development initiatives.

IP 28 can revive localism, which is what we’ve lost in Hill’s mechanized, centralized, efficient-but-tasteless world. Will Apple charge a few dollars more for iPads sold in Oregon, to compensate for the tax? Probably not, but boy, if they did, what a great deal that would be for our state.

Imagine every national Apple promotion that mentions price having to add, “except in Oregon.” I’d pay extra for license plates that included those three words as our new state slogan — wouldn’t you?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.