The 'blogger tax'

Frank Wilson
is a retired Inquirer book editor who blogs at<NO1>cq<NO>

I am writing this in a secure location well outside the city limits.

I mention this because it means I won’t have to pay the city in order to have the privilege of earning some money as a freelance writer.

On the other hand, it looks as if I will have to pay for the privilege of continuing my blog — at least if I try to make some money off it — should I ever return home.

It seems that anybody who makes money doing anything in Philadelphia is obliged to get a business-privilege license, which costs either $50 a year or $300 for the lifetime version.

Which is why, as reported in The Inquirer on Tuesday, “some bloggers who make a few dollars from Web ads were informed recently that they had to obtain a license.”

Doug Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, conceded that “there’s often a blurry line when someone’s passion becomes their profession.” But, according to Oliver, once a blog starts generating revenue, it’s a business like any other and needs to be licensed if it wants to operate here: “It is the same standard for any business operating in Philadelphia.”

Remember that the next time your kids set up a lemonade stand. Or you have a yard sale. And what about people selling stuff on eBay? Seems to me that if they’re doing it in Philly, they need to get a license, too.

I doubt if the city has any idea of how many people blog here, and there probably is no easy way to find out. It only discovered the bloggers who were ordered to pay up by checking IRS records. This means, of course, as far as bloggers are concerned, that the law cannot possibly be enforced with anything resembling fairness.

Speaking of fairness, what’s fair about charging somebody $50 a year for making less than that, which is likely the case with most bloggers?

There is also the matter of discrimination. People blogging for their employers — those blogging for this newspaper, for instance — don’t have to worry because the boss already pays for the glorious privilege of operating in this prime business venue. But the private citizen who blogs and manages to make some chump change doing so is classified on a par with every profit-making enterprise in the city, even if the blogger doesn’t turn a profit.

And that brings us to the real problem, which has to do with the commodity blogs trade in. That would be speech, the freeness of which, the last time I checked, was a right, not a privilege, and no one, including the City of Brotherly Love, may charge for its exercise. The city may insist on calling it a license, not a tax, but either way it is a levy on speech. As Investor’s Business Daily noted in an editorial Monday:

“Blogging is not a privilege to be trifled with by grasping city officials, but a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Speech is free — and not to be priced by government.”

IBD makes a further point well worth noting:

“We would concede that Philadelphia might have a case if it spent money in some way to protect or facilitate blogging and bloggers. But it does neither. Bloggers aren’t driving on city streets. They don’t need fire or police service. Nor do they require, as some say a for-profit business does, a bureaucracy of regulators, inspectors or paper pushers who need compensating. They don’t even create trash that has to be collected. They can get by on their own.”

Bear in mind that we are talking about a city whose pension plans are unsustainable; a city that wants residents to pay extra for trash collection that their taxes already are supposed to pay for; a city that runs a gas company whose rates, according to a 2008 Pew Foundation study, “still outpace the cost of gas service in Philadelphia’s peer cities” and that “remains too troubled for the City to profitably sell.” I could go on — and on — but the point is merely that this systemically corrupt and dysfunctional municipality isn’t going to solve its financial woes by nickel-and-diming people exercising their constitutional right of free expression in their own homes.

I suppose it is typical of our inept political class to equate any and all earnings with profit. But given that the city’s principal ploy for encouraging otherwise uninterested businesses to move here is to offer them tax breaks, one would think that an intracranial synapse would occasionally alert city officials to the connection between high taxes on the one hand and business flight on the other. (Note also that those tax breaks only extend to the business entity itself; the employees still have to pay the wage tax.)

No wonder that, as Tuesday’s Inquirer piece noted, this whole matter has once again made the city an object of ridicule far and wide. That’s the least it deserves.

E-mail Frank Wilson at