Kennedy: Amazon issue is tying me in knots

Kennedy: Amazon issue is tying me in knots

May 15th, 2011 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment

My 9-year-old son is a Boise State football fan. He likes being different, and the blue turf at Bronco Stadium is as different as it gets.

Not long ago, he decided he wanted a Boise State baseball cap. We looked first at a cap store in Northgate Mall and found a nice one that fit.

"I can get it cheaper on Amazon," he said, and handed the cap back to the sales associate.

Indeed, he ordered a cap online a few weeks later, and after five days it arrived by UPS in a small brown box. My son ripped open the package and popped the hat on his head. I saw him deflate. The cap was about three sizes too small; it looked like a beanie on a boulder.

As his eyes began to water, my younger son zipped through the room and confiscated the cap, which fit perfectly on his 4-year-old head. I promised my older son we would go back to the mall the next day to find a cap that fit, and we did.

"Hi there," I said, as we strolled into the cap store at Northgate. "Got any Boise State caps?"

"Yep, same one we had the last time you were here," the sales associate said dryly.


Twenty dollars later, my son was strutting through the mall beaming. Moral of the story: Sometimes a cap in the hand is worth two online.

I thought about this story this week as lawmakers in Nashville wrestled with whether to compel Amazon, which is building giant distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties, to collect sales taxes on purchases by Tennesseans. (As I write this column the issue is unresolved, and Amazon has promised to take its jobs elsewhere if the tax is imposed.)

I envy people who can take an issue like this, boil it down and immediately pick a side. This story touches my life in a bunch of ways.

Here are a few:

  • My wife is a first-grade teacher. Her salary helps keep our lights on. Tennessee's patchwork tax system is dependent on state and local sales taxes to pay a big portion of the cost of public schools. When online purchases escape sales taxes, the tax base erodes and schools suffer.

I can draw a straight line from the debate in Nashville to my family's financial security, which is about as personal as an issue can get.

  • On the other hand, Amazon is bringing good-paying jobs to Tennessee at a time when unemployment is slamming some of my friends and former co-workers.

Also, I've got two precious boys who will grow up and need jobs some day. I paid for my college education as a seasonal laborer, making twice the minimum wage assembling air conditioners and packing rods at an aluminum plant. The thought that such good-paying jobs might some day be available to them is huge.

  • As a newspaperman, my daily bread is provided by advertising dollars from traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers, some of which have been pummeled by the one-two punch of recession and tax-free online competition.

If it weren't for those Sunday ad inserts from Best Buy and Target, the slump in the newspaper industry would have been much deeper.

If I see one more career journalist clean out his or her desk, it will break my heart. Unspoken, but always in the back of my mind: That journalist could be me.

  • At the same time, I can't get it out of my head that the elected leaders of Tennessee shook hands and made a promise to Amazon as part of the deal to bring the distribution centers here.

That trumps everything. As parents, my wife and I stress to the boys that honesty is the No. 1 virtue. Breaking promises for personal gain is the definition of dishonesty.

If I didn't teach my sons to put honor above financial gain, what kind of father would I be?

A cowardly one, that's what.