moneypolitics & government

A very metric Christmas

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It was slow in coming but fast in going. If you blinked, you missed it: the Christmas Tree Tax. As government grasping goes, it was pretty thin sauce. The proposal was for a 15-cent levy on every cut Christmas tree sold, collected by the Dept of Agriculture and released to an as yet non-existent Christmas Tree Promotion Board or somesuch. Let’s not ponder overlong how it is that a government scarcely able to mention “Christmas” finds no issue of church/state separation in collecting the lunch money for the National Christmas Tree Association. Also we will ignore that the White House will never pay that fifteen cents since their trees are donated which is considered a high honor, if not a fine commercial, for the grower. And of course, as the resident gunslingers explain, this is not a tax and is being delayed with far more fanfare than which it was proposed. To next Christmas? They do not say.

It was not the President’s preference for Kwanzaa over Christmas that inspired this insult. There are many of these compulsorily funded marketing boards for eggs, honey, beef, apples, lamb, dairy… there are some two dozen promotional and research boards under a 1996 agricultural law but Bill Clinton doesn’t hate Christmas, does he? A guy who eats like that? No. And neither do the ladies and gentlemen of the National Christmas Tree Association, fine folks who have never had their fingers glued together with sap nor risked a chainsaw injury. Nor do the large growers who have turned to this highest margin and lowest spoilage of agri-product. Even less do the small growers (under 500 units), who are exempt, who have a patch of dreadful land fit only for growing pine trees. No Grinches here, no Scrooges or anti-Christmas martians. And yet we have this public declaration, denounced as The Christmas Tree Tax that is the product of all these actors toiling in obscurity if not secrecy producing a thorny crown for the Administration, one they hastily threw off.

The gunslingers are technically correct. There never was a Christmas tree tax. It was a levy. What is the difference? To you there is none except that this dunning and many others that happen before you get to the retail level, does not go to fund the federal government. It is, as they say, a Checkoff. Yeah, you just check it off, you don’t actually pay it. Except that you DO pay it. And failing to pay it has all the same punitive ramifications as failing to pay any other levy, tax or assessment. But the amount is tiny, yes? The fifteen cents a trunk was arrived at by taking an average retail price from 1996 or thereabouts and drawing one percent from that; avg price $15. It is the grower who pays this so you will never “feel” it, will you? No. That is the rational for all these tiny excisions. Like the mosquito or the tape worm these marketing levies claim gleaning rights; the ability to take an infinitesimal drink without being swatted. Unlike the biological parasite, the marketing boards also promise great rewards not only to their members but to the whole industry, to the nation, and in this case, to Christmas itself!

That’s a pretty good buy for a penny, isn’t it? Oh but it isn’t a penny, it’s fifteen pennies, still. But the idea that one percent at retail is a puny burden isn’t quite informed. First off, just by the seat of our pants we know that retailers command a 50% markup. For seasonal tchochkes it is usually much higher but for ordinary items it is a bit lower so for our figuring we can value the tree, wholesale, at $7.50. But that levy comes from the grower, as you recall, so now it is not one percent but two percent to the fellow who actually grew and cut the tree down. Still, that isn’t much. If your county proposed a two percent general  sales tax, or say, just on cigarettes, that would be no big deal, would it? Let’s say we have a small grower who sells 1000 trees. This means about five acres of land with minimal inputs but land taxes, erosion maintenance, insurance… all the things a farmer is subject to, and we assume that the land is not good for any other crop. Also, a tree does not grow in a season. For the largest, highest priced trees, fifteen years is about enough. So these are long-term investments in Christmas trees, probably the longest running investment on the farmer’s balance sheet, and it must be a rolling investment. He will not have five acres but fifty, each at a different stage of growth so even a small operator is investing large piles of certainly borrowed money (guaranteed, if not loaned by the government). If he expects to sell the 1000 trunk crop at $7.50, carried away, for a total of $7,500 on about a ten year investment, averaging out big trees and smaller ones, he would have to keep his costs below $2,000 so that the remaining $5,500, after taxes, will net him a decent $3,000. It is from this princely sum that the $150 is actually subtracted, plus the costs of record keeping that can withstand an IRS audit. Is it too much to think that the numerous small growers, for whom the Christmas tree biz is a puny sideline, will simply withdraw from the business? Or if not that, he may simply cut fewer trees this year, either trying to stay under the threshold of 500 trees to avoid the whole contraption or hoping to mitigate the tax by only cutting larger, more pricey trees so the unit burden is less. The result in any case is fewer trees on the market only with the giant growers, the kind of folks who will staff the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, commanding a larger share of a more monolithic market. That could not be the intent from the beginning, could it?

No, the real enemy here is the fake tree industry. China and other overseas manufacturers are the ancient faux. For this struggle the levy is levied. If the proposal had gone through we would have seen generic ads for real Christmas trees the way we see those from the Cheese Board advocating cheese; a family would be desperate and dissappointed as some clueless dad pulled an inflatable tree from under the mattress. Grinning he would puff into it for hours only for it to pop when the first ornament was hung, then burst into flames. Cue next year and dad has wisely bought a safe, American grown pitch pine and decorated it with real candles; that is the sort of thing we are missing this Christmas. And yes, it would have been this Christmas. Even though the funds would only trickle in at first, the Board (which would be a corporation) could immediately borrow against that income stream or even sell bonds, get on the air, get in the face of the Asian tree fakirs and more importantly, establish the Board up there with the great triumphs of “got milk?” and “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” Oh, who would be the voice? Wilford Brimley? Certainly Wilford Brimley. The projected $2 million budget would make some nice ad buys, pay a handsome retainer for six, eight or maybe ten Board members who would meet monthly…. Maybe quarterly except during the season but foremost it would set a government hook into the belly of a renegade, seasonal, cash, quick turnaround industry that makes money, an irresistible bait. But that is the Christmas That Wasn’t, on several grounds. Let’s look at the Christmas That Might Have Been in the Land of the 28th Amendment, commonly known as The Metric System, which every schoolchild knows, states “No federal levy shall be other than ten percent.”

With the first blow, the gunslingers’ complaints, “Hey, this ain’t no ‘tax!” are burned to cinders. The term “levy” encompases all government demands except fines, and some of these are also levies. No legalese can prevent the escape of every wiggling worm in the Legislature or in the government but this simple declarative sentence comes closest. For clarity and brevity the 28th will be the gem of our Constitution. And before the Christmas tree hustlers ever asked for a penny we were in compliance with the 28th, since there was no levy at all. What would the tree magnates face under the 28th Amendment? Their strategy of taking gnat-sips from a minor artery would have been a non-starter; Unconstitutional. Fifteen cents on a twenty dollar purchase might be a trivial deletion but ten percent is another matter. Here we see some of the intricacy always present in politics; high, low and low down. The 28th seems to GIVE to the lower level statists who have been getting by on three percent for decades but what it really does is blow their cover. Incrementalism is the first friend to the encroaching state. No more salami slices disappearing from the fridge overnight. If you want anything you will have to take a big bite, leaving dental impressions. But there would be a little something in the stockings of the Christmas Tree Bundlers. Under the 28th, there would be a ten percent tariff on the hated and perpetually green (or silver or flocked) artificial trees, unless made in the USA, of course. The gains the Boardmen hope to make over fakies with their program is a few percentage points. With a ten percent tariff on the competition, where would they be? Probably better off but in any case, if they are going to represent the tree growers against a common enemy can’t they get their fifteen cents from them voluntarily? The answer is no. For years they tried. For years they failed. At first the revenues poured in, but then they trickled off and stopped. It is the same with all the other commodities with their levy-funded industry boards. What they could not accomplish through persuasion they will instead seek through coercion, co-opting the power of the Department of Agriculture (a mighty critter indeed) and damn it do what everyone knows needs doing! Under the 28th, that is what they would have to explain… not a great Christmas toast. This is the sort of predicament the 28th is meant to create.

And there are plenty of presents in the 28th for all the good little boys and girls out there. Who likes ten percent income taxes? Who likes ten percent fuel taxes? Who likes ten percent tariffs? Hmm, not so many but you know, under the 28th you have a choice of ten percent or zero percent. I like the latter but we can discuss those on a case-by-case which means the corporate board types who are trying to create their own positions, coercively but secretly, will not be all out of work. We wouldn’t do that in December. What we will not have is the tactical skooch; wrestling over a few basis points or a certain sales level that triggers terms. It is in the impenetrable meetings and influence dealing that weasels ferret out a million here or there from our national pockets. This must end. In short we will have simplicity and light where those who sell Christmas Tree Futures want complexity and fog. That’s more of a practical Christmas present but that is what you expect during difficult times. So tell everyone, “All I want for Christmas is ten percent.” No, you won’t get it but maybe next year.

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