Thursday, November 10, 2011

A most revealing bad idea from the government

Big government people come up with loads of bad ideas: Obamacare, Cash for Clunkers, stimulus for union workers, etc. The list goes on and on. But sometimes it is the small policy ideas that reveal the most about how big government supporters think. And such was the story yesterday about the Department of Agriculture's brainstorm to add a 15-cent tax onto Christmas trees in order to fund a Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

Why does the federal government need to promote Christmas trees? Isn't that the job of the Christmas Tree industry? Admittedly, they are facing a drop-off in their business as more and more people buy artificial trees. Lots of people prefer spending once for their artificial tree and then reusing it for years without having to clean up after the live tree or worry about disposing of the dead tree. It's a choice. People are making that choice. What business is it of the government to help the live Christmas tree industry over the artificial industry? This is simply an example of how a new industry or technology replaces an older one. It's sad for the industry being replaced, but that is how innovation works.

The only reason as Derek Thompson of the Atlantic explains is because of the rent-seeking of the Christmas tree lobby.
The Christmas Tree Lobby rightly freaked out. They lobbied the Department of Agriculture in 2008 to fund a "national research and promotion program for Christmas trees" paid for with a fee on large domestic producers.
Then there is the ridiculousness of the Acting Administrator of Agricultural Marketing trying to explain how a tax wasn't a tax.
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). The Federal government mandates that the Christmas tree sellers pay the 15-cents per tree, whether they want to or not. The Federal government directs that the revenue generated by the 15-cent fee goes to the Board appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to carry out the Christmas tree program established by the Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. President, that’s a new 15-cent tax to pay for a Federal program to improve the image and marketing of Christmas trees.
With people protesting against corporate welfare, what is this but a small example of such policies? Why do we even have federal officials in charge of Agricultural Marketing? Why can't they market their own products? Why should there be a federal tax collected to funnel money to any industry so that they can work at selling their products? This is how big government people think. An industry is facing losses, let's impose a tax to help them fight such bad trends. Sure, that's the ticket.

The reason this is objectionable is not because this is a "tax on Christmas." It is objectionable because it is a dang stupid idea. Government shouldn't be extracting money to help any industry sell its own product. That is not the purpose of government. But there are entire agencies in the government whose sole purpose is to do that very thing. This seems like an excellent example when candidates are asked about agencies they would cut out.

Then it takes the ridicule of conservative commentators sparked by a Drudge Report link for the Department of Agriculture to shamefacedly try to sweep the story under the rug by announcing that they are "going to delay implementation and revisit the action."

No one, apparently, had the good sense to see this as a remarkably stupid idea until it was exposed to laughter and criticism. And that is the real problem.