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FatWallet.com

Downtown Rockton, Illinois

Rockton, Illinois

Rockton is a small town (population 7,685) located in the Rock River Valley in northern Illinois.  It’s a pretty town on the normally placid Rock River.  In past years, Rockton was the site of the Wagon Wheel Resort, started by the late Walt Williamson in 1936 as a gas station and restaurant.  It grew into an over 300 acre resort:

Like so many other things, the Wagon Wheel survived because of the entrepreneurial leadership and personality of one person.  When Williamson died in 1975, the resort began a slow decline.  By the later 1990’s, it was a sad abandoned site.  Curtains hung out of broken windows.  Piles of debris were everywhere.  Arsonist vandals had taken a liking to the place; there were several mysterious fires.

The Wagon Wheel at the End

The City of Rockton finally was able to demolish the structures which remained on the site.  A vision had made this place alive and when that visionary passed on from this life, the idea finally died.

A New Start

Now, on the top of the highest hill of the Wagon Wheel site stands a modern-day structure:

This 30,000 square foot building is in the architectural style of our day, with clean lines and large windows.  But when you approach the building, you discover that it is empty, abandoned as was the Wagon Wheel before it.

You draw close to the entrance.  The sign on front says “fatwallet.com”:

Fatwallet.com

The building is empty, but there is the hum of HVAC machinery.  Inside, everything is tidy, but there are no people, no furniture, nothing but the structure itself.  It is in a beautiful place:

Fairness

Why would a company leave a place such as this?  FatWallet.com is still in business, but left Rockton, Illinois as a result of a stroke of a pen on March 10, 2010.  On that date, Illinois Governor Pat Quin signed the Illinois state version of the Main Street Fairness Act.  To wit

Under the new law, called the Main Street Fairness Act, online retailers must collect and remit sales taxes on purchases made by Illinois residents if the online retailer has a physical presence in the state. The new law expands the meaning of “physical presence” beyond a warehouse, factory or office to include affiliate companies, typically deal and coupon website operators that earn commissions for directing shopping traffic to an online store.

And:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that companies without a physical presence in a state aren’t required to collect state sales taxes.

And:

Amazon, based in Seattle, sent a letter to its affiliates in Illinois [including FatWallet] on Thursday telling them that the company will terminate their contracts April 15. Its affiliates will no longer receive advertising fees for sales referred to Amazon.com, Endless.com or SmallParts.com, the letter said.

Needless to say, Illinois’ interpretation of “physical presence” has been expanded.   FatWallet, faced with a loss of revenue, quickly resolved the issue by moving two miles away into Beloit, Wisconsin.  Wisconsin does not charge a  similar sales tax.

FatWallet.com

To quote FatWallet.com’s founder, Tim Storm: ““We exist to help people save money.”  In so many ways, FatWallet is the classic start-up, begun in its founder’s basement in nearby Rockford with capital of $100.00 (the cost of a domain name for three years).  Along the way, the business was built up into what it is today.  The company started with one employee, and now has around 60 employees.  Those people brought money into the local economy, paid taxes, added value.  Their story is here.

In the larger sense, start-up companies such as FatWallet exist because they are willing to look at things in a different way.  The company happened to do so at the right moment.  At the same time, the State of Illinois was in its own process of expansion by increasing taxes.  More than a few companies including Caterpillar are making plans.  The increases in taxes also affected individuals.

How you feel about these moves depends upon your political perspective, but what many politicians are unwilling to acknowledge is the fact that people are not necessarily going to sit there quietly and pay those new taxes.  It is not against the law to minimize your tax exposure; there are countless estate planners who work very hard at this every day.  Lawyers are standing by, too.  In short, if the tax situation becomes unfavorable, people will respond by either lowering their exposure or by moving.  FatWallet moved to another state.

Hidden Taxes

You can’t turn around without running into hidden taxes.  Every time you rent a car, or stay in a motel, there are little fees and taxes enacted by local governments.  At the same time, you have no elective voice in the governments which have enacted these taxes.  You simply return the car at the airport, get on a plane to leave (paying more taxes along the way) and go home.

The notion of state taxation of interstate commerce has now moved to the national level courtesy of Dick Durbin, Senior Senator from the great State of Illinois.  The proposed law’s name, as was the State’s law, is the “Main Street Fairness Act”.  It sounds so wholesome.  You can just see it in your mind’s eye.

  • Ed, the town’s pharmacist is out in front rolling down the canvas awning of his store.  Miss Primm, the town’s librarian says hi to him as she walks to work.  Down the street, Flo dusts the books on the shelves of her little shop, while Buddy sweeps out his hardware store.  Jim and Earnest sit on nail kegs playing checkers out in front of the barbershop.

Even the Senator is joining in the fun:

Senator Durbin at Work

It needs to be fair for the good folks of Main Street! 

Like so many other political fantasies, you do need to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt.  Or three.  Consider that big stores like Wal-Mart actively support the Main Street Fairness Act because they are both brick & mortar and online.  As opposed to Amazon, that is only online, selling interstate and not paying taxes to the state governments.   Is this fair?  Your call, but when tax collections go up, the money has to come from somewhere.  And there are consequences to tax increases.

In the larger sense, FatWallet is simply a pawn in the game of life, but the pawns are truly the most useful players because they determine the strategic flavor of a game.  A well placed pawn can help win a game, a poorly placed one will lead to quick defeat.

FatWallet is part of a larger process of how we obtain goods and how we look at our world.  They are nimble and able to change their business model to reflect the needs of a free market.  And they generate jobs and related income at a time when we most need it.  While not big in the financial sense, FatWallet and other such operations are giving people information which helps them save money.  And money not spent on one thing can be spent on something else.  Or saved for future use.

There is a downside to having so much information available, but the process started before the Internet.  In the movie “You’ve Got Mail“, the tiny soulful little children’s bookstore gets eaten up by the big evil megastore.  A lot of the little book stores have fallen by the wayside because of big brick & mortar stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.  Yet, even the big, bad super bookstores are now feeling the pinch, too.  And it wasn’t necessarily the Internet that did it.  You have to acknowledge that popular tastes change with time.  A free market changes.

Crony Capitalism 

While a free market changes in response to demand, there are a lot of forces out there trying to push things one way or another.  We live in confusing times, and there are a lot of special interests out there who are playing everything for what it’s worth.  Yet, we as a society have relied upon the for-profit entrepreneurs to affect change.  And for the government to largely stay out of the way while they did it.

Consider that if movie theater owners in the 1950’s had been able to limit their competition, there might not be television.  At least not television as we know it.  Likewise, if there had not been Ted Turner, there might still just be ABC, CBS and NBC and boring “educational TV”.  I trust the free market to handle things better than I trust a small group of politicians who are being constantly pulled in different directions by special interest lobbyists waving money at them.

This is not to say that the market always makes the right decision.  The war between the 1980’s video formats of Betamax and VHS is an example.  While Betamax was technically superior in video quality, it was VHS which won the market place.  There were a number of reasons why, including the presence of pornography on VHS, yet however wrong it might have been, the market spoke eloquently.  Now, upon sufficient reflection, video tape seems so, uhh, 20th Century.  The free market moves on.

For years, while the economic bubbles were swelling, we heard the mantra “There must be reward for risks taken.”  Now, however, when the risks turned around and started biting these “entrepreneurs”, they have fled to the government to bail them out.  Rather than accept that the risks they had taken were unjustified which led to their financial losses, they now have sought the taxpayer to make their investment pay.  They now try to stifle the actions of a free market.

Likewise, the clear line between private enterprise and public service has been blurred, if not erased.  People work in government service for a few years, then hop right over to industries that they once regulated.  Or people work in private enterprise, make a bunch of money, contribute to a candidate and then they miraculously get a nice government posting.  This has been going on for years, with both political parties, but now it seems that people make big political contributions and now become vendors to the government.  Or get big loans from government agencies to support their private businesses.  This is not right, and most everybody knows it, but the practice continues.

People who read these pages know that I’m a private-capital, free-market guy.  Not that its been all that easy in recent years, but I continue on, probably because I’m not all that bright.  I trust a free market to provide the best answers.

If an idea is a bad one, it needs to fail.  If an idea is a good one, it needs to succeed.  FatWallet appears to be a good idea for the moment.  When confronted with unnecessary governmental interference, it responded in a perfectly legal way.  The State of Illinois saw yet another opportunity to raise revenue, yet the consequence of its actions may prove to generate even less revenue.  Time will tell.  Perhaps one day, all of the states will be collecting taxes for activity that has taken place in another state, but it hasn’t happened yet.  And if that day comes, how many entrepreneurs will simply move to another venue?  Or not produce at all?

And, in related news, the VC (Venture Capitalists, not the Viet Cong) have discovered FatWallet.com.  The company was purchased in early September by Ebates.

When words elude, leave it to the Austin Lounge Lizards to fill it in:

*****

Of course, in the fullness of time, patterns eventually become apparent.  And, with that in mind, it is becoming apparent that all of the states will eventually be charging sales & use tax on Internet transactions.  There’s too much money involved and there are too many forces pushing things in that direction.  But this doesn’t change the fact that while laws may be passed, there are still ways to legally minimize their impact.  It’s the logical free market approach……

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John Monds, Governor

Pause for a moment and consider.  We are in the midst of an historical election, not only at the national level but also at the state and local levels, too.  Thanks to the information age, we now have immediate access to the actions of our governments, and for many, it is a scary sight.  Government has grown so big and so ever present, and yet it demands more.  It is time for a change.

This is about the current Georgia governor’s political race.  My wife and I have both decided to vote for John Monds, and you might want to do so also.  You have probably not heard of him, but you should know about him.  He’s running as the Libertarian candidate, and in any other year, the Libertarian candidate would be relegated to the sidelines.  But this is not an ordinary year.

Even I still believed the mainstream mantra about Libertarian candidates.  It was not thirty days ago that I opined:

  • On an emotional level, I want to like the Libertarians, but I can’t do it on an intellectual level.  There’s just not enough different to justify my vote.  Third party movements have always had a hard time with this, defeating the sense that you’re “throwing your vote away”…….   So, too, the Libertarian voice needs to be there, just to remind everybody that government can’t cure all that ails us.

Yet in those words is the key to our decision to support John Monds.  Government can’t cure all that ails us. And shouldn’t.  But it is more than that.

A Choice

Monds represents a clear choice in the governor’s race.  The two “leading” candidates for Governor of Georgia represent the major political brands of our time.  They also represent a microcosm of today’s damaged political situation.  Their names are not important, but what is important are the issues and backgrounds which they represent.  One is beholden to the teachers’ unions, a link to the system which has consumed so much taxpayer money and done so little.  The other is beholden to his creditors, and if the electorate had known that fact prior to the primaries, there would be a different candidate from that political party.  Monds comes to the governor’s race without the political and intellectual baggage of the two leading candidates.  And his relative lack of political experience may be an asset; we’ve already seen the outcomes of the experienced politicians running in the governor’s race.

The Existing Approach is Failing

Governments have become so big that they have become unwieldy; they are unable to perform the massive duties that they have taken upon themselves.  While some in the media rail on about what they describe as the “extremism” of the Tea Party, they miss the larger point.  It is the failure of our political system that has led to this extremism.  Consider Peggy Noonan’s words on the subject.  Change is in the air, and for due cause.  In any ordinary election year, the Libertarian candidate might well fit into the traditional role of “third party candidate”, but this is not any ordinary election year.  We need to look at all of the candidates to find the best choice.

Being For Something

It is more than that.  After watching the long fall of respect for many of our institutions, I am looking to vote for something rather than against.  Those of you who follow this blog know this to be a recurring theme of mine.  I’ve lived in the 4th Congressional District of Georgia long enough to know about voting against a candidate.  We had Cynthia McKinney for years, and there was no representation from her in our part of the County and there was nothing that we could do about it.  She felt neither obligated to care about our needs nor to even acknowledge our existence.  We were required to pay our taxes  but received not even a shred of representation.  She has moved on to other things, but the intellectual damage from her political career remains with us to this day.  The electorate has become cynical.

Today, we face a crisis of confidence in so many areas of our lives, of having trusted people to do the right thing and to be repeatedly disappointed.  And so many of those institutions now represent a failed status quo.  Our trust has been misplaced, but rather than vote against another candidate, I want to vote for ideas that I believe in.

I want our political structure to be better, to be positive instead of negative.  And it is this search for the positive that has brought me to supporting John Monds for Governor of Georgia.  Consider this article from the greatly improved Atlanta Journal Constitution.  A brief quote:

Q: What is a Libertarian?

A: The easiest and shortest definition is someone with a fundamental respect for the rights of individuals.

Q: Wouldn’t Republicans and Democrats make that same claim?

A: Talk is cheap. Time and time again, they have proved that that is not true.

Talk is indeed cheap, which explains why there’s so much of it. At the same time, talk is expensive, and it is that big money that has edged our country toward a disaster of massive proportions.  As pointed out in the Noonan piece:

This “will be remembered as the year the American people said no” to the status quo. The people “do not trust” those who make the decisions far away. They want to restore balance.

This is not an ordinary election year.  Those who care about the state of our political system are looking at things with fresh eyes, with a sense that we can do better than what we have now.  That we should do better than we have.

There is the growing sense that the omnipresent powerful government is not the right way.  Government serves a real and necessary purpose, but it cannot and should not be our “friend”.  This is true at all levels of government.  Less is indeed more.

The vast majority who would read this item would ask: “Who is John Monds?”  I ask you to look and find out.

It should be “John Monds, Governor“.

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Like a moth drawn to the flame, I recently attended a debate between three candidates for Governor of the State of Georgia.  The event was held at the Cobb Energy Centre (why, oh why do they do that sniffy Centre stuff?) and it was an interesting experience.

As is my custom, I got there early, nosed out a cup of coffee and settled in on a bench outside the ballrooms where the event was being held.  As show time approached, the candidates arrived and were led back to a holding room behind the debate site.  First to arrive was Nathan Deal, who did something rather interesting.  As he was walking by my coffee drinking spot, he pointedly came over to greet me individually, which, as it turns out, impressed me.  Obviously this is part of his No Voter Left Behind act.

Second to arrive was Roy Barnes, who could be heard long before he made the walk down the hall.  He and his entourage looked over at me, smiled and kept moving.  There was that quizzical “Who the hell is he?” look on their faces.  I’m quite accustomed to this and actually like it that way.  I’ll never be an I. F. Stone; I’m much closer to being the modern day Milton Frisch (who was an avid letter-to-the-editor type in 1960’s Atlanta).  I could do a lot worse.

Last to arrive was John Monds.  Deal and Barnes have held numerous political campaigns before, and it shows in their general composure.  Monds, on the other hand, is relatively new to this, and he walked in with his entourage, deep in conversation and preparation.  Not a surprise.

The debate room was modestly large, in the event that a large number of people showed up.  Which they rarely do.

Ballroom A & B of the Cobb Energy Centre

The fact that the crowd was relatively small was not a surprise.  First, the weather was very decent instead of blazingly hot, it was a Saturday afternoon and the subject was Georgia politics.  I did see some young people in the audience, along with at least two sets of parents with their children, but overall, the crowd was older and whiter than average.

Because the debate sponsor was the Medical Association of Georgia, there were a goodly number of physicians there, all with basic convention name tags.  The political types were easier to spot, since they were dressed up as if going to work, which they were, and their little plastic name tags that help countless other political types remember just who they were talking to.

The moderators for the debate were the AJC’s Kyle Wingfield, news babe Wendy Saltzman (CBS-affiliate station) and news babe John Bachman (ABC-affiliate station).  Here, they prepare prior to the debate:

Wingfield has been the AJC’s conservative columnist for a couple years now and does a good job with it.  Saltzman has developed a reputation for being just a bit pushy.  Bachman, scion of other broadcast types, observed in the introductions that he had originally been in pre-med but had later gone into television.  I suspect that several of the doctors present quietly thought to themselves: “Hmmmm, the money’s almost as good and there are fewer lawsuits.

Gathered at the back of the room were more of the media types:

In general, this is the place to be.  If things get really boring, you can make a quiet exit.  There can often be interesting side-bar conversations and football game reports back there, too.  The idea is to stand around with your hands in your pockets, looking bored.  That said, it should also be noted that people don’t really change all that much.  Consider the local news woman who took prodigious notes on a steno pad during the entire debate, clearly the same one who sat in the front row of that Sociology class in college, taking copious notes.  And, just like college, I’m there without pen nor paper, just taking it all in.

Things got underway promptly at 1:00 PM, with an introduction by Gary C. Richter, MD,  the current President of the Medical Association of Georgia.

Although introduced as the “Three candidates for Governor”, there are, actually, five:

  • Nathan Deal (R) – Congressman, Ex-State Sen., Ex-Juvenile Court Judge, Attorney & Army Veteran
  • Roy Barnes (D) – Ex-Governor, Ex-State Sen., Ex-State Rep. & Attorney
  • Neal Horsley (Creator’s Rights) – Evangelist, Pro-Life Activist
  • John Monds (Libertarian) – Grady County Planning Commission Member & ’08 PSC Nominee
  • Sam Hay III (Write-In) – Environmental Activist, Retired Businessman & ’02 Candidate

No word yet from the Socialist Worker’s Party or the Whigs.  And, there’s no telling just what would have happened if the evangelist or the environmentalist had appeared on the dais.  In any case, having all five candidates would have been unwieldy, at best, and unfortunate at worst.  Given the current state of political affairs, it also made sense to have the Libertarian candidate present.  Although not a prominent presence in Georgia, the tea party movement is out there, an entity which is not clearly a Republican phenomenon and most certainly not a national Democratic one.

There is the dawning recognition that the issues may not strictly be the provenance of Left or Right.  I suppose that it all goes back to the fact that we have two eyes, two ears and such.  If we had three hands, it would seem likely that we would have Left, Right and Other, which would open up all sorts of political avenues for us.  But, I digress.

In a way, these debates are always strikingly ordinary and predictable.  And I would not have it any other way.  The people that attended were genuinely interested in the candidates, these were not people that were just passing by and decided to stop in to see what was happening.  And, based on those that I saw there, this is a very good thing.  The crowd was well behaved; polite applause would periodically occur, but there were no hoots and catcalls.  If this is the voting electorate, I have confidence in the future, for they were thoughtful and interested.

Of course, the media covers these events because they have to, and because there’s always the limited possibility that some candidate will veer abruptly off of their talking points and say or do something startling.  Sometimes it will be newsworthy and sometimes it will be fodder for wretches such as myself.  Film at 6:00.

The debate itself was predictable and well mannered.  The focus groups have been telling the politicians that they’re tired of the fractious behavior, and that message seems to be getting through.  Everybody was well behaved, and that is a good thing.

As I listened to the candidates, I could get the sense of their experience level.  Barnes has more experience at the gubernatorial level, Deal at the Congressional level. If you’re a Deal supporter, his Congressional experience is a positive; Barnes supporters would say that this doesn’t apply for the Governor’s office.  Barnes’ previous gubernatorial experience counts as a plus if you’re one of his supporters, a negative if you’re not.  He did leave office previously against his will.  Both clearly have depth of experience, good and bad.  Barnes invoked the name of Richard Russell, and I wondered how many people in the room knew who that was.  Certainly a lot of the audience knew, but I’m not so sure about how many in the media knew that name and the reverence that it earns.

Monds has some experience, but not yet enough and certainly not enough to break the two-party character of this election.  I am hoping that we have not heard the last of John Monds.  What I particularly like is the fact that his racial background has never been mentioned, a clear expression of the Libertarian philosophy that it is the individual and their ideas that matter.

On an emotional level, I want to like the Libertarians, but I can’t do it on an intellectual level.  There’s just not enough different to justify my vote.  Third party movements have always had a hard time with this, defeating the sense that you’re “throwing your vote away”.  At the same time, the tea party movement has gained traction, maybe not enough to get elected but certainly enough to affect policy with the two major political parties.  I suspect that after the November elections, this movement will quietly disappear, but the lessons that it taught will not be gone.  In that sense, the tea party may have already succeeded in doing what needed to be done.  So, too, the Libertarian voice needs to be there, just to remind everybody that government can’t cure all that ails us.

And, remember, this year is a Census year, and the next session of the General Assembly will be determining  the State’s voting districts for the next ten years.  Who is Governor will matter in a number of ways.

The debate ended as promptly as it started and I left with a feeling that this had been a worthwhile experience, but it was more than that.  I eventually realized that what had left me with a good feeling was that to get into the debate hall did not require passing through a security checkpoint.  People just walked in, sat down and listened.  To be sure, there were uniformed officers present, but their presence was as low key as the crowd.

In this day and time where fear is exploited, the Medical Association of Georgia Debate was just an exchange of ideas.  It was well mannered and thoughtful, but it was more than that.  There was a physical connection between the participants and the listeners.  It was not adversarial, we were all citizens gathered together to discuss the issues of our society.  It was us, not us and them.

Consider the venues for local school boards, which have a Chinese wall and moat between the Board members and the general public.  So reminiscent of other places:

That said, I do have the usual perverse thought.  If any organization really wanted to draw a big political crowd, they could do no better than to stage a Texas Death Match, complete with chain link fence, between , say, Arianna Huffington and Ann Coulter.  This match would include bikinis, drilling mud supplied by Halliburton, grilled sausages by Johnsonville and beer from Dogwood.  Now, that would draw a crowd.

By the way, if you want the straight coverage of the event, please see here.

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