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opinion - Wall Street Journal

P2JW072000-4-A00900-1--------XA THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Saturday/Sunday, March 12 - 13, 2016 | A9 * * * * By Joseph Rago ‘S New York o you have...

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Saturday/Sunday, March 12 - 13, 2016 | A9

* * * *

By Joseph Rago


New York o you have the water, you have the steaks, you have the airline. I mean, what’s wrong with selling?” Donald J. Trump asked Tuesday in his remarkable election-night defense of his business empire. “Every once in a while you can sell something. You have the wines and all of that, and Trump University, we’re going to start it up as soon as I win the lawsuit.” He went on to invoke other “assets” including his hotels, Trump Vodka, the New York towers, the golf links and the Mar-a-Lago club—but missed the opportunity to plug his Trump-branded neckties, restaurants, jewelry and mattresses. Mr. Trump says he’s the candidate of the common man, and, well, the common man now regularly shares online his opinions of the stuff he buys. By coincidence, a few weeks before Mr. Trump’s speech, I wondered what the amateur critics who contribute to websites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Amazon were saying about his consumerfacing products, and I started to comb through their reviews whenever I had a spare half-hour.

Trump say he’s the tribune of the common man. I read 26,000 online reviews to find out what the common man thinks of his products. According to my spreadsheet, I’ve now read about 26,000 individual reviews. It has been slow, bleary-eyed scutwork, trust me, and remember, kids, this is what happens if you go into journalism. The digital portrait of Mr. Trump that emerges, review by review, is instructive, however subjective and impressionistic. You might call it an unscientific poll— Mr. Trump’s favorite kind—of his achievements, failures and the relationship between his grandiosity and reality. i i i Mr. Trump was flanked on Tuesday by a pile of what he called Trump Steaks, but his mail-order beef business is defunct. The label on the steaks indicated that they were sold by Bush Brothers Provision Co., a West Palm Beach grocery. The reviews for Trump Steaks are still posted on the QVC website, however. One reports that the Classic Collection, which cost $199 for two filets, two bone-in rib-eyes and a dozen burgers, had “no redeeming qualities.” “Dreadful pieces of meat for a high price,” reads another. “It’s hard to believe these are the same

pieces that Mr. Trump eats.” Disenchantment with Trump food is a running motif. “After all, how bad can a restaurant be that has Donald Trump’s name on it?” a TripAdvisor user wonders about DJT, a restaurant at Trump Hotel Las Vegas. “Well, pretty bad,” he concludes. “Donald, they don’t deserve your initials,” somebody else says. Drinkers can also no longer enjoy “Donald J. Trump: The World’s Finest Super Premium Vodka, Success Distilled,” which was discontinued in 2011, though it is unclear if anyone ever enjoyed it. A connoisseur at the website Vodkaphiles compares the flavor to “gas station burritos, slightly expired 2% milk, hard boiled eggs, and canned pears.” Perhaps Mr. Trump’s people simply have different preferences when it comes to the human senses. On a fragrances bulletin board, a reviewer says the notes of Success by Trump eau de toilette spray evoke adjectives like “cloying, synthetic, annoyance, headache inducing and maybe even household cleanser.” Another chimes in, “Maybe it could make the dumpster outside my house smell better, but I doubt it.” “We were almost violently ill from the smell,” TripAdvisor’s Rady reports about the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. “The ‘roof deck pool’ was nothing but a used hypodermic needle collection area,” notes Lauren W. Alas, the Taj is just another bankrupt AC casino, not another AC casino whose bankruptcy Mr. Trump caused. He took a buyout in 2009, and his trademark remains because the hedge funds that run the joint told a chapter 11 judge that they lacked the funds to change the “ubiquitous” Trump signage. This brings us to Mr. Trump’s unconventional conceptions of ownership and property. Buildings he no longer controls live on in the Trump pantheon, sometimes because of insolvency but more often because he claims anything with his name on it is “his.” Even companies he has nothing to do with can become Trump companies. Mr. Trump likes to boast that “I have a store worth more than Mitt Romney”—as if the Gucci flagship that leases commercial real estate in Trump Tower agreed as a tenant to become the landlord’s possession. If that’s how it worked, at least it would explain this Yelper’s outlook: “99 Cent Store quality and even worse service.” True to form, this week I noticed that the “Trump Restaurants” section of the Trump Organization website claimed Daniel, the Upper East Side dining room that is among the world’s finest. It has great reviews—though I figured Daniel is no more a Trump Restaurant than Gucci is a Trump Store. A spokeswoman wrote back that


OPINION Donald Trump, Meet Your Customers

The candidate and his merchandise at a March 8 news conference in Jupiter, Fla. the condo building where Daniel is housed is now managed by a different real-estate company and emphasized that the Trump Organization “had no direct relationship with the restaurant other than as manager of the building . . . Daniel is not appropriately listed on the Trump website, which we are addressing with them now.” The Daniel trophy has disappeared from the Trump website, but I saved the screenshots. i i i Mr. Trump seems to do better as a hotelier than steak merchant, albeit with his usual overcooking. “I mean, Chicago, I have one of the greatest buildings, rated the No. 1 hotel in North America, and I’m very proud of it. It’s great, great,” he said Tuesday. Yet Trump International Hotel & Tower isn’t even the greatest hotel in Chicago, according to TripAdvisor. Users rank the place No. 12, behind the Langham (the winner) and the Talbot (the runner-up), as well as the mass-market chain Radisson Blu Aqua (No. 11). Then again, Mr. Trump’s celebrity and mythology profoundly shape perceptions of his properties. “You really do feel as rich as Donald Trump is when you come here,” explains Valerian L. “Trump knows how to entertain his rich guests,” Petras B. says. “I’m not one of them, but it’s nice to pretend.” Amelia568 even says the Trump Hotel Collection delivered “the most amazing experience of my life!!!” She adds that “One special feature among too many to mention was Trump Tower Sparkling Water! I am quite an expert in this field and this was the best in the world!” The point goes to Mr. Trump. One takeaway is that reviewers are as willing to overlook Mr. Trump’s politics as GOP voters are. “Trump, himself, is horrible, but man, are his hotels nice,” Ghia G. writes. Alma L. adds, “As much as I despise Donald Trump, this has to be one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed at.”

A few did seem to dislike Trump hotels because they disliked the man. Brett M. says the Trump Ocean Club in Panama “is a bit like Donald Trump himself: showy and full of flashy style and big rhetoric, but almost wholly lacking in substance and attention to detail.” In general, a consensus jells about the merits of Trump properties, which fall into the upper half of the ratings distribution on both TripAdvisor and Yelp. It’s weird the bathrooms in the guest rooms of the Trump Soho don’t have doors. Trump Las Vegas is too far from the strip. Guests like the welcome letters from Mr. Trump that are left on the beds. Trump International Hotel & Tower Waikiki Beach Walk sounds lovely. There is less unanimity about value for money. Reviewers conduct debates about whether Trump accommodations, however opulent, are worth the high prices. “Pricey as hell—but what do you expect? It’s the Trump!” notes Stephanie L. “If you don’t have the money to spend, go to a cheaper option.” Evelyn A. adds, “I’m not going to pretend the price tag isn’t etched in gold, but screw it. You’re worth it!” Keri N. provides the opposing argument in a post on the Trump Las Vegas. “While the hotel is nice, it’s comparable to your average business hotel that you would find in any other city.” “I travel a lot,” remarks Mercedes M., “and frankly, what you get at a Courtyard Marriott far exceeds what I’ve experienced the last couple of days.” Bill Z. puts it more bluntly in a post about Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto: “At the risk of sounding condescending, I can’t help but wonder how many of these five-star reviews were written by people who frequent fivestar hotels on a regular basis and know what their expectations of such hotels should be. I do . . . As a hotel, the Trump is above average. As a five-star, elite luxury hotel, the Trump falls short.”

Amid this conversation, one emotive word appears again and again, and that is “splurge.” These reviewers are not regular patrons of establishments where the faucets are gold-plated, and they typically discuss one- or two-day getaways to celebrate a special occasion. “This is a place everyone should splurge on at least once in their lifetime,” says a TripAdvisor user about the Trump Chicago. Another notes, “For the average person like me, one would think it would be unaffordable and out of reach . . . I think once in a lifetime everyone should surround themselves with this kind of luxury. I was quite happy with the TV in the bathroom, so I could take a shower and continue watching my show I was watching in the bedroom.” The nature of luxury economics is that the more so-called Veblen goods cost, the more they are desired. Nearly all of the splurgers were satisfied, by their own testimony. But when you read person after person describing once-in-alifetime Trump purchases, it’s hard to shake the woebegone impression they’re being sold an overpriced caricature of what someone who is not rich imagines being rich would be like. i i i Deep into Amazon reviews of Trump apparel—“This shirt makes no pretense of being top quality. But it’s not cheap garbage either”— I became fatigued and decided I needed to give something back after taking so much. I went with a friend to get lunch at the notorious tourist trap that is the Trump Grill, in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. My review: This place couldn’t make a Gentleman’s C at Trump University. A lobster ravioli appetizer ($14) appeared to be frozen food, which offered reassurance: “unlikely to be poisonous.” Meat was riskier. To the cows that gave their lives in vain for the Gold Label cheeseburger ($20) and the Trump Tower steak sandwich ($23), we apologize. Our glasses of “red wine blend” from Trump Winery—a Meritage, the 2013 vintage ($11), and a 2012 New World Reserve ($16)—also disappointed. The esophageal burns speak for themselves. Afterward we repaired to Trump Bar and did catch sight of Don Jr. The thrill was no compensation for my friend’s signature cocktail, the Doral ($16), which he said tasted like the golf course it is named after. The Billionaire Martini ($20) was unworthy of a mere millionaire, much less the average-looking Americans who were opening their wallets for products that had been expertly hyped but couldn’t deliver. Sad! Mr. Rago is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

The state of Alabama is openly defying the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to squeeze millions of dollars of tax revenue from CROSS COUNTRY businesses beyond its borders. Tax ofBy Hamilton ficials in MontgomDavison ery are insisting that out-of-state firms must, effective Jan. 1, collect and remit sales and use taxes if they annually sell over $250,000 in tangible goods to Alabamans. This unconstitutional tax grab cuts to the heart of the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate trade “among the several States.” Alabama’s regulation directly contravenes the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Quill v.

Alabama and other states are trying to impose sales taxes on retailers far beyond their own borders. North Dakota. In that case, the court held that North Dakota could not require an out-of-state officesupply company to collect sales taxes because the firm had no offices or employees there. To get around that, Alabama’s revenue commissioner, Julie Magee, is putting forward an untested and suspect legal theory: The state claims that if its residents buy more than $250,000 a year from a remote business, then the seller has an “economic presence” and should be treated the same as a brick-andmortar shop in Mobile or Birmingham. Online retailers have three options: They can comply with the regulation and start collecting Alabama’s sales taxes. They can decide

that the new regulation violates Quill and disregard it—in which case they face audits and tax assessments from Montgomery. Or, worst of all, they can stop selling their products to Alabamans. This sets a terrible precedent and will encourage other cash-hungry states to flout Quill—and, in essence, the Supreme Court. About a dozen states, including Utah, Nebraska, Mississippi and Louisiana, are openly considering similar laws and regulations. In January a task force of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) voted to send out model legislation that lawmakers could use to undermine current precedent. The NCSL’s president, Utah state Sen. Curtis Bramble, argued a novel theory that “states have the ability to enact legislation to overturn” the Quill decision, according to an article in Bloomberg BNA. Clearly, this is headed back to the courts—and the organization that I run, the American Catalog Mailers Association, is strongly considering filing suit to block Alabama’s unconstitutional tax imposition. What’s needed instead is federal legislation to codify how Internet and catalog retailers should collect and remit sales taxes to jurisdictions where they have no physical presence—and to create a level playing field for in-state stores and remote sellers. This is an issue that cries out for congressional action: There are around 10,000 sales-tax jurisdictions in the U.S., with varying rates, rules and holidays, and different definitions of what is taxable. Keeping track of this ever-changing patchwork is a burden, and forcing retailers to scramble to comply would profoundly hinder interstate commerce in the Internet age. But two of the major proposals in Congress to address the problem are tilted in favor of big-box chains and would impose a huge burden on small businesses. The Marketplace


How State Revenuers Are Going After E-Commerce

Fairness Act—a version of which passed the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House—and its cousin, the Remote Transactions Parity Act, would subject retailers to significant complexity and expense. They would be under threat of audit from 45 states and the District of Columbia, and subject to intrusive reporting requirements from thousands of local

tax jurisdictions across the nation. A much better approach is the one put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.). Rather than require remote retailers to comply with all the differing requirements where their customers are located, Mr. Goodlatte would focus tax collection on the seller’s location. A small business would be subject to only a

single tax filing and would face potential audit only from the state in which it actually operates. This would do away with considerable complexity, lessening the regulatory burden. The bottom line is that states that try to overturn the Supreme Court by regulatory fiat are irresponsibly circumventing the legislative process. Instead of challenging the existing legal framework, they should work cooperatively with catalog and online merchants to develop federal legislation that will be fair to all concerned parties: businesses, consumers and state governments. Online and other remote retailers must stand together. Now is the time to fight the troubling and unconstitutional efforts of Alabama and other states to impose their own tax regimes on businesses everywhere. Mr. Davison is the president of the American Catalog Mailers Association and co-founder of TruST, the True Simplification of Taxation coalition.

Notable & Quotable: On ‘Darkness at Noon’

From the current issue (dated April 7) of the New York Review of Books, scholar Michael Scammell writing about a recently discovered typescript of Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel “Darkness at Noon,” written in German and pre-dating the “unintentionally misleading” English-language translation “that is unfaithful both to Koestler’s literary sophistication and to his penetrating analysis of the devastating consequences of Communist psychology”: When Darkness at Noon appeared in 1940, it illuminated realities that were little known (and sometimes denied) in the West: show trials, confessions, prison conditions, totali-

tarian psychology, and human oppression. After the Soviet Union became the West’s ally during World War II, the book’s topicality faded, only to reassert itself with the start of the cold war. Moreover, when the cold war ended, Darkness at Noon did not fade away as many cold war books, movies, and other cultural artifacts did. Like Animal Farm, 1984, and a few other novels from that time, Darkness at Noon had staying power, for Rubashov’s story, like all good stories, transcends time and place. The book has little in the way of conventional plot, but it powerfully illuminates the human condition, men’s moral choices, the attractions and dangers of idealism, the

corrosive effects of political corruption, and the fatal consequences of psychological and ideological fanaticism. This is all the more impressive given the novel’s flawed translation, and it is a tribute to the quality of Darkness at Noon that it has had such a strong impact on readers despite this handicap. Now we no longer have the excuse of being denied the original text. It’s not only possible, but in my view imperative, that someone undertake a new translation that will communicate the book’s artistic qualities more accurately and offer a richer and more nuanced account of Koestler’s complex narrative.