Real Versus Artificial: Not the Christmas Tree, the Story About the Christmas Tree Tax

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As American Christians begin making their annual decision about whether to go with a real Christmas tree (love the pine aroma!) or an artificial one (love the easy clean-up!), there is another real vs. artificial question hanging.

That’s about a story on the Drudge Report claiming the Obama administration is taxing sales of real Christmas trees. The answer is: FAKE.

Ads for fake trees are run by big box retailers like Walmart and Target, leaving Christmas tree farmers outgunned

In the Drudge Report’s world of sensationalist all-caps headlines, it doesn’t get much better than “OBAMA’S NEW ‘CHRISTMAS TREE TAX.'” In five sparse words, the headline captured pretty much everything Drudge and its readers believe about the current administration, in which big-government liberals would figure out a way to tax Christmas during hard economic times.

The only problem? It wasn’t true. The 15-cents-a-tree charge that caused so much commotion earlier in the week was not a tax, and it has little to do with the Obama administration.

But sad experience has taught that things don’t have to be true to be repeated in the rightwing echo chamber and instituted as memes on FOX News, and next thing you know, outraged seniors (who make up the majority of FOX’s viewers) and other low information voters (who make up the rest) are calling their elected representatives demanding change. Which, in this case, is a dumb idea. Read on to find out why.

Drudge was repeating a distortion from the Heritage Foundation, the rightwing “think” tank founded by Joseph Coors that has given us Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America, and which advised Bush I to invade Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. David Addington contributed the post under the tag, “Ongoing Priorities.”

To pay for the new Federal Christmas tree image improvement and marketing program, the Department of Agriculture imposed a 15-cent fee on all sales of fresh Christmas trees by sellers of more than 500 trees per year (7 CFR 1214.52)…

Acting Administrator Shipman had the temerity to say the 15-cent mandatory Christmas tree fee “is not a tax nor does it yield revenue for the Federal government” (76 CFR 69102).

That “temerity” is based on the fact that Shipman is right. The 15 cents is not a tax and does not raise one penny for the government.

ChristmastreeNCTA
The ill-fated logo

What the Department of Agriculture actually set forth is a commodity checkoff program: a common means of allowing industry groups to pool their resources for marketing and research purposes. Moreover, the effort was led by the National Christmas Tree Association itself, which touts support from over 70% of the industry.

Familiar campaigns such as “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” are the result of similar checkoff programs — and a testament to their power. They allow industries to engage in national marketing campaigns that would be impossible at a local level. From blueberries to soybeans, over 15 such programs exist.

But not, thanks to this artificial uproar, one for Christmas tree farmers. The program was put on hold after the Drudge- and FOX-fueled backlash heated up.

Ad Age spoke with three Christmas tree industry insiders, each of whom were incredulous over the developments — especially considering the effort’s been three and a half years in the making…According to data gathered by tree farmers and provided to the USDA, sales of fresh cut Christmas trees decreased by 15 million trees from 37 million trees sold in 1991 down to 22 million trees sold in 2002.

A public relations (or “earned media”) campaign supported by voluntary industry contributions raised sales 40 percent over the next five years, when tree farming leaders decided to go nationwide and to follow the meat and dairy industries’ leads in financing the effort. In 2007 (Let’s see, who was president back then? Oh yeah, not Obama.), they succeeded in pushing for a USDA regulated checkoff program.

Considering that most ads for fake trees are run by big box retailers like Walmart and Target, which have very deep pockets, Christmas tree farmers are outgunned. Without such a program, it’s likely that more people will be persuaded by the argument that artificial trees save money (even though the retailers always find ways to make last year’s design obsolete, by, say, offering pre-lit trees), or that they are easier to assemble and clean up.

Which, I guess, is not the end of the world. It just means real trees will continue to increase in cost as volume decreases, so that some day, they will be considered luxury items and the land used to farm them will be more profitably converted into subdivisions with lots of nearby big box retailers selling artificial Christmas trees. In October.

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