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Admittedly, public reactions can be hard to predict. But a plan to tax Christmas trees should have been a no-brainer.
Even if you buy the Obama administration's line that the 15-cent per tree charge really was a fee, not a tax, the difference is lost on a lot of regular Whos in Whoville. Either way, pal, you're messing with Christmas.
A lot of people saw the irony right away. A government that shies away from the word "Christmas," and whose courts don't let school kids sing religious songs, shouldn't tell us what type of tree to buy. Washington can't have it both ways.
Give the administration credit for being nimble. After the uproar hit on Thursday, the White House quickly went from arguing the technical differences between a tax and a fee to announcing that the Department of Agriculture "is going to delay implementation and revisit this action." The tree tax got run over by a runaway public-relations disaster reindeer. With the one-year clock ticking on a difficult re-election bid, the president didn't want the label Grinch anywhere near his campaign.
But being quick enough to smell a political disaster isn't the same as losing a tone-deaf misunderstanding of the free market and why this tax (sorry, a forced government surcharge on a product can't be called by any other name) was a bad idea in the first place.
It never was a question about whether it was a tax or a fee. It never had to do with whether Christmas tree growers supported the extra charge. They did, overwhelmingly, because it would have helped them against their main competitors, artificial trees. Government has no business choosing sides in free-market competition, and that is why this idea was bad from the start.
The money would have gone to a 12-member board whose job would have been to "strengthen the Christmas tree industry's position in the marketplace." The government said this would be no different than how it promotes milk, cotton, beef or pork with ads and slogans that have become part of American culture (got milk?).
In each of those cases, however, the ads promote a type of product that is produced by several competing businesses. No one of them gets an unfair advantage.
The Christmas tree promotion would have pushed one type of product — fresh-cut trees — over another. It would be like promoting one particular brand of milk over another.
You can argue about whether promoting milk or pork generally is a government duty, either. But those arguments probably won't be as heated as the ones over real vs. artificial trees. This was impressed upon me at a young age when the parents of my friend down the street erected an all-silver tree with a revolving multi-colored light disk at the bottom. I was shocked when Santa came anyway.
The federal government says annual sales of real trees fell from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007. Sales of the fake ones, meanwhile, nearly doubled in that time, although they still only amounted to 17.4 million in 2007. Yeah, so? Lots of products are losing market share because of changing consumer preferences.
If this tax had proceeded any further, we were bound to hear from the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes artificial trees. Its web site points out that real trees are a fire hazard, and that artificial ones are much more environmentally friendly, especially if you reuse them for several years.
That would have put the administration, which likes to see itself as environmentally friendly, in another difficult spot. But then, irony seems lost on some government officials. In an age when governments of all kind in this country are careful about being neutral on the subject of religion, and especially Christmas, doesn't a Department of Agriculture campaign to urge people to put a warm and cozy real tree into their Christmas celebrations strike anyone as a bit uncomfortable?
Revisiting this action is a good decision, so long as "revisiting" means to put it where all natural Christmas trees end up in December.
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