Everything that is wrong with our political process can be found within the sad, miserable story of the Christmas Tree Tax That Never Was. Some of you have already heard this story and don’t wish to re-hash it. That’s fine; you can go read something else. This is for the rest of you.
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
In 1996, Congress passed the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act. The idea was to let farmers vote in a self-funded marketing campaign, and if the vote passed, some small fee would be assessed on farmers (who voted for it in the first place) and the money would be collected by the USDA and spent on a marketing camapaign. This was widely seen as a good thing, and milk, honey, pork, avocado, and blueberry producers have all voted in a fee to fund a marketing effort. You’ve seen those commercials. But it’s more than the commercials–it’s having someone who can talk to the media, someone who can fund research, someone who can place a magazine ad or sponsor a parade or whatever needs to be done.
And this is a good idea on so many levels. For one thing, we all want our blueberry and avocado farmers to have a good market for their fruit, right? And in general, we want to see blueberries advertised at least as well as Pop-Tarts are, right?
The fact is that Big Industry has deep pockets for marketing. Soft drinks, potato chips, candy–all that crap benefits from massive ad campaigns. Strawberries don’t stand a chance–unless the strawberry farmers organize.
And asking farmers to voluntarily chip in for some little effort run by some little group has been tried and didn’t work, which is why Congress, at the request of the farmers, created a mechanism by which a larger and more official process could be put into place to fund these ad campaigns.
So that’s what they do! And it’s great! They vote themselves in some small little assessment, everybody pays it, and commercials for their products appear on TV. If they liked how that worked out, they can vote to keep it going, and if they don’t like how it worked out, they can bag the whole thing. As a small business owner, I can assure you that banding together with other local businesses for a shared marketing campaign is the way to go. One blueberry farmer can just not do this on their own.
Which brings us to the Christmas tree farmers.
Christmas tree farmers have seen a decline in sales as artificial tree sales have gone up. During that same period, the artificial tree manufacturers have spent big bucks on ads, while the tree farmers have spent bupkis.
And before you get all “artificial trees are better anyway because (insert your reason here),” just remember that (a) having a live tree does not deprive some forest of its young–they’re grown in rows on farms, and (b) young, growing trees sequester all sorts of carbon, so they’re probably good for the planet overall, and (c) it’s a farmer growing a thing here in the United States, and I’m just generally in favor of us having farmers who grow stuff. Period. Oh, and (d) some of us like a live tree. You don’t have to. Some of us do.
So the vote passed, on and November 8 the USDA published a final rule, and offered reasonable, thoughtful responses to a few minor criticims and mostly unfounded complaints, and the program was all set to move foraward. So then what happened?
The Heritage Foundation. That’s what happened. I refuse to link to their website, but the gist of it was: “The economy is barely growing and 9 percent of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?”
And then Fox News got involved, and others of that ilk I also refuse to link to, and we got “This new tax is a smack in the face to each and every American who celebrates Christmas.”
That’s right. Of course. President Obama woke up one morning in his usual Christmas-hating mood and, casting about for a way to take more money out of the pockets of starving Americans, personally enacted a new onerous, fifteen-cent tax on Christmas. He personally did this because he hates Christmas. And America.
If it had ended there, this whole story would have been just another example of how silly things get here in These United States. But that’s not where it ended. Believe it or not, the White House actually caved to the pressure and suspended the rule pending further review.
So there will be no marketing program for Christmas trees. Even though the farmers wanted it. Even though we’re all supposed to be pro-small farmers and pro-small business. Even though the fifteen cents per tree could not possibly hurt hard-working Americans shopping at the tree lot, and probably wouldn’t even show up in the retail price of the tree. Even though really small farmers–under 500 trees–were completely exempt, so it didn’t even hurt the really small tree farmers.
It’s pathetic. And even though it doesn’t matter what I think, and even though nobody’s listening, I would just like to say for the record that I am in favor of farmers tending to their fields of living green things. And I am in favor of some of us–not all of us, you certainly don’t have to, but some of us–bringing fragrant evergreen boughs indoors in December.
But most of all? I am in favor of small groups of farmers or other businesspeople coming together and organizing and creating a plan that will allow them to work and grow and prosper. That just sounds so very American. It seems like only a crazy person would object to that.
And that’s precisely what happened.