The Politics of a Christmas Tree Fee Fiasco

by on Nov.11, 2011, under general

The Internet is aflame today about what Heritage is calling Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax. Of course, as with any Heritage post, you have to put it through a truth inverter first: it’s not a tax, and it’s not Obama’s. But be that as it may, the reactions to the story are still interesting in how they betray the interpretive frameworks of those reacting to it.

The facts are these: in 2009, the National Christmas Tree Association requested the implementation of a 15 cent fee, per tree, to be levied on growers whose annual production exceeded 500 trees. The fund, which would be collected by the USDA under the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996, would then be used for “research and promotion” by the NCTA.

As the NCTA says:

Although smaller in scope, the Christmas tree program will be similar to recognizable programs for milk, cotton and beef that have brought consumers commodity-oriented messages such as “Got Milk?” and “Beef, It’s what’s for dinner.”

This story hit Drudge, Heritage, and the rest of the right wing blogosphere, and spread like minty pine fire. How dare Obama tax our Christmas trees!! What monstrosity is this??

I don’t like this program either. But for very different reasons. And that’s kind of what’s interesting.

Here’s what one Facebook friend had to say about the Tree Fee:

it’s a stupid idea all around, and it just shows a basic philosophy of those in power that if there’s a problem they can fix it by taxation…That sort of philosophy is timeless, those in power have been doing it for thousands of years and will continue to do if people let them get away with it.

This is the “Obama is a socialist!!” critique. Taxation is the power to destroy, forcing money from the pockets of consumers, etc.

But to me, this is a story of “Obama is a corporatist.” Or at least his USDA (as with other USDAs past) is. What bothers me is not taxation as such, but the idea that an industry trade association which wants to come up with a new series of commercials can finance it via a government facilitated process. It’s a story, in other words, of regulatory capture, not by Big Banks or Big Oil but by Big Conifer.

In a sense, I (gulp) agree with Heritage when it writes:

the Christmas tree sellers are free to pass along the 15-cent Federal fee to consumers who buy their Christmas trees.

That’s exactly what this is. The NCTA decides they want to promote their trees. They want to fund it. Instead of mandating, for example, an increase in NCTA dues, which might cause people to leave the NCTA, they instead go to the USDA, and collect money via a government intermediary.

Heritage doesn’t have a problem with prices being passed down to consumers. That’s the free market. And I don’t have a problem with it either. But we both share (if for very different reasons) a concern about government being lassoed to do something the NCTA could (and should) do itself. Because that bespeaks general problems of industry capture of government.

The other funny thing is that both of these critiques (Obama the socialist vs Obama the corporatist) are fundamentally libertarian. They’re just different kinds of critiques. One is concerned with the power of taxation; the other with the problem of regulatory capture. But which way you choose to frame, and respond to, the Tree Fee betrays which of the powers or problems you’re concerned about.

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