I’m not sure why yesterday’s Christmas tree tax story struck such a chord (with me and everybody else in the blogosphere, apparently). I mean, it’s a $0.15 tax on something you buy once a year. What’s the big deal?*
A new USDA program would be set up and the secretary of agriculture would appoint a board to oversee promotion of live Christmas trees. That’s a PITA. But hey, what’s one more government program and 18 more pages of regulation among so many? “Got Milk?,” “Pork: The Other White Meat,” and “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” (among others) are already imposed via government regulations and taxes and we’re not exactly dying or going bankrupt or being sent to labor camps because of them.
In part I’m sure the fascination just came from the colossal ham-handedness of the Obama administration. Seriously, people. Putting a tax on Christmas when we’re in the fourth year of the Great Recession? Then going OOPSIE! and un-putting the tax until January? Does this administration never consider how its decisions are going to look to the rest of us? Does it never think things out in advance?
Still, when you consider everything from ObamaCare to assassinations of American citizens without a hint of due process, paying a nickel and a dime more for a tree … well, it pales.
Nevertheless, the whole business had a peculiarly bad smell about it — and it’s a stench that a certain Mr. Orwell would have sniffed out in an instant.
I’m far from being an investigative reporter, but when I learned that there is actually an organization called the National Christmas Tree Association and that some of its members initiated this idea of getting the government to force their members to pay for advertising, I just had to ask some questions.
I was surprised to get a response — and a fairly fast one — from the NCTA’s PR guy. I have to say kudos for his responsiveness; yesterday must not have been the easiest day for anybody associated with that tax-on-Christmas fiasco. He sent along an industry statement and even cc’d my email to one of the growers who most vigorously promoted the plan in case she wanted to answer my question about why — if this is something the tree farmers themselves want, they don’t just band together, raise the money and promote away. I haven’t heard from that lady yet and don’t know whether I will.
In my email, I called the new, mandatory fee a tax. The PR man responded (caps and punctuation his): “It is NOT A TAX Claire. It is a checkoff program like many other crops have. It is simply an effort by farmers to pool their dollars to promote their crop and fund research. IT HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with taxes.”
I’ve heard the term “checkoff” in these contexts before. But I never gave two seconds’ thought to what it meant. Sounds voluntary, though, doesn’t it?
And sure enough, when I went to the National Agricultural Law Center, here’s what they had to say:
Checkoff programs, also referred to as research and promotion programs, promote and provide research and information for a particular agricultural commodity without reference to specific producers or brands. The term “checkoff” is derived from programs that were not mandatory; producers marked a checkoff box if they wished to contribute to the program. Mandatory programs do not have such forms, but the name has remained.
So there you have it. A voluntary act was turned into a mandatory one, but the name was kept. Sounded better, apparently.
Just like it’s supposed to sound better when the IRS tells you that paying income tax is voluntary, even though they’ll hurt you if you don’t do it. Just like it’s supposed to sound better to be detained than arrested, even though these days being “detained” can put you in durance vile for years without charges.
But that’s getting off the topic. The point is: everything is okay because it’s a checkoff and not a tax!
The .pdf position statement the PR guy sent along also states, in bold, “The program is not expected to have any impact on the final price consumers pay for their Christmas tree.”
Yeah, I know it’s only $0.15. But has there ever been an instance in the course of all human history when the costs of taxes and regulations have not eventually been passed along to the customer? Why lie about it?
Then there’s the matter of the new government-appointed board-to-be. The position statement refers to them as “… an independent 12-member board of small business owners who grow and sell farm-grown Christmas trees.” Well, since we’re talking Christmas trees, not huge industrial operations, maybe they really will be small business people — before they’re appointed to the board. But as The Ethicurian points out, it’s typical for the biggest producers, the ones who “contribute” the most money to the programs, to have an outsized say.
Opportunities to use this position of power to screw over smaller competitors are rife. And even though the Christmas tree board will at first be administering “only” about $2 million of government-channeled money (infinitely smaller than some of the other big ag boards), they’ll still have reason to be more loyal to government, the All-Provider, than to their much smaller and less powerful fellows in the tree farming business.
The one question I keep asking still hasn’t been answered: If this is really something the farmers themselves want, then why don’t they just band together and do it? Why involve the government?
Of course, the answer to that is obvious. Some growers don’t want to be taxed for promotion. They wouldn’t “checkoff” the checkoff box if they were given a chance. As the recession has affected us all, genuinely voluntary efforts to promote real Christmas trees have fallen in recent years. So all this is is an attempt by some growers to force the rest to promote their products.
For now, the whole business has been put on hold. And who knows? Maybe the Christmas tree tax will actually die the ignoble death it deserves. It would be nice if all the other government-regulated, government-sponsored, and yes, government-taxed industry promotions die with it.
But here it stands as a perfect example of how Big Government, big regulation, and big power accumulate out of small lies for the small benefit of small people.
Yes, Mr. Orwell would recognize involuntary “checkoffs” that have “ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with taxes.” And he’d recognize all the rest of the sleazy — and oh-so-typical — baubles hanging off this particular Christmas tree.
They are what makes the governmental, crony-capitalistic world go round.
* ADDED: Here is Silver with his usual astute analysis of the real, hidden costs. He also quotes and links to many angry comments about this program from Christmas tree growers.
I do thank the NCTA for responding. If anyone from the organization gets back to me with anything more that’s real and informative, I’ll post it.