I’m not planning to buy a Christmas tree this year. I didn’t buy one last year either. But as a consumer who’s interested in American retailing, I was disturbed to learn what happened in the Christmas tree industry in 2011.
According to a report that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Christmas tree farmers were (and undoubtedly still are) struggling to compete with artificial-tree producers, who spend millions of dollars each year persuading shoppers to buy fake trees instead of real ones. In an effort to improve their own sales, tree farmers united behind a program that promised to be helpful. They petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to administer a fund they would pay for themselves, and the USDA agreed to do it.
The growers wanted to contribute 15 cents—15 cents—from the sale of each real tree. This tiny amount would have created a Christmas Tree Promotion Board that would remind shoppers of the delights of a real tree.
What happened? The politicization that has infected so much of our public life suddenly spread to the very non-political world of Christmas trees. Although the USDA has overseen at least 20 of these kinds of programs for many different types of farmers during the past 45 years (including the popular “Got Milk?” program for the dairy industry), some conservative commentators got wind of the tree farmers’ plan and decided to make it a political football.
Suddenly critics became incensed by the idea that shoppers would have to pay an additional 15 cents for each tree purchased. They decided to dub this miniscule amount as a “tax,” even though it was nothing of the kind. The 15 cents was to be paid by the farmers, who hoped the new Board would persuade shoppers to return to putting real trees in their living rooms.
But instead, these critics seized on the fact that the USDA, as part of the Obama administration, would administer this program. President Obama became the target. He was described by one U.S. Senator as the Grinch who stole Christmas and likened to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” A member of the U.S. House called the 15-cent amount a “new tax” that was “a smack in the face to each and every American who celebrates Christmas.” Huh?
As criticism became more heated, the Obama administration backed off and pulled its support for the program. The whole scenario baffled the tree farmers. They were disillusioned by the critics on the right, who described the farmers’ contribution as a tax and skewered the President for supporting it. But they were also disheartened by the President’s staff, which buckled under what one farmer called “misinformed pressure.”
This farmer noted that “unlike artificial trees exported from foreign countries, ours are from America and create jobs for Americans.” Unfortunately, knee-jerk politics got in the way and stopped a valuable program in its tracks.
As Christmas nears, tree buyers are once again considering their options. But whether or not we plan to buy a Christmas tree this year, all of us should reflect on what happened last year. Should we allow American farmers to spend their own money to promote their products? Or should we let dysfunctional political leaders shut them down in order to gain a cheap political advantage?
[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]