Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: The politics of Christmas tree farming
Vail, CO, Colorado
Successful companies brand their products. What’s branding? It builds instant costumer recognition, using mascots and taglines. Ronald MacDonald, for instance, is no stranger to parents whose children beg for Happy Meals. Ronald brands the MacDonald picture on our psyches.
Political parties use branding to attract voters. The donkey competes with the elephant.
Peggy Noonan, once Ronald Reagan’s speech writer, describes the Democratic Party’s brand. “It is the party of the little guy, the outsider. The party of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ of great movements-civil rights, feminism, the environment. The party of ‘Listen, isn’t this country rich enough to afford a little for the old, the infirmed, people who need a boost?’ You can argue the facts and legitimacy of this all day, but it lingers as a powerful part of the Democratic Party brand” (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 5-6, 2011, p. A-15).
Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt used branding to promote themselves as gentleman farmers. Coming from classy patrician backgrounds, they appealed to common folk who got dirt under their fingernails. Jefferson raised tobacco as his No. 1 cash group. On horseback, he liked to show visitors his abundant fields.
During the 1920s and ’30s, FDR raised Christmas trees at Hyde Park, his New York estate overlooking the Hudson River. His voter registration form listed Roosevelt as a “tree farmer.” He gushed about what was “close to his heart” as an occupation. “The planting and the raising and the selling of Christmas trees” gave FDR great delight, and a brand attractive to common folk.
“I pay several people — some of them schoolboys — to go in and cut them (Christmas trees) off,” FDR exclaimed. “Along comes a department store or chain store with a truck, and they themselves load these little trees — this is 10 years after planting — into a truck. They take them down to New York, and sell the trees-at a profit. … And then they do send me a check.”
FDR’s business model smacked of replicating the Republicans’ “exclusive” brand. It irked the GOP when the president co-opted it. FDR was proud of his small-business savvy. He didn’t expect Uncle Sam to pay his bills. He wasn’t covetous of his neighbors’ wealth. He exuded no out-of-control lust for material gain at the expense of others. He labored. He saved. He invested his profits.
Candidates running for president brand themselves on the campaign trail. Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich sees himself as an inventor of ideas. Like a volcano that spews lava, Gingrich erupts with thoughts for fixing the broken American economic engine. Some of his ideas, though, are as cold and hurtful as deposits lava leaves when it turns hard. Asked what the Occupy Wall Street crowds should do, Newt exploded. “Go get a job, right after you take a bath,” he barked to loud applause. Does callous Newt assume people out of work delight in their plight?
The elephant and donkey brands differ because of how they run the Christmas tree business. The GOP assures us that lower tax rates on the wealthy will stimulate capital formation. With the economy roaring, even Tiny Tim can buy a tree rather than beg for it, promises the elephant.
Democrats press for higher tax rates on Christmas tree owners who are in the top 1 percent of their industry. This added revenue provides tax relief for the poor and middle class (the donkeys) who strive to own their own Christmas tree farms.
Since Christmas trees became popular in the Victorian era, Republicans have promised that cutting taxes on the rich proves to be the quickest way to build capital, lower interest rates and multiply investments.
This strategy, say the Newts of our world, will lead to prosperity, a growing economy, which in turn will provide the government with higher revenues paid by workers who will get heftier paychecks.
The GOP continues to sell us plastic Christmas trees, swearing they are the real deal. Their trickle-down theory is a fake remedy for economic vitality.
Jeffersonian scholar Joyce Appleby, in her book “Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism,” points to disease leading to rot in the GOP’s Christmas tree economic philosophy that leaves many citizens treeless: Since Reagan’s presidency, “the median income of American households has fallen about 4 percent. This leads to a massive inequality gap between the super-rich and the rest of Americans. Consider the top one-tenth of 1 percent (of the American well-heeled). For the two decades before the recession, the American economy saw greater productivity and more wealth generation, but despite the predictions of supply-siders, little of that wealth trickled down. Instead, it rebounded in a hugely disproportionate way to the benefit of the 13,000 households in the top tenth of the top 1 percent.”
Those citizens Newt Gingrich scorns as lazy with pungent body odor know more about Christmas trees than he does. Greed and graft, acting like pine beetles, bore into Yuletide trees. Alas, they turn evergreens into sawdust, worth as much as Newt’s fiscal fantasies that allow him to horde most of the Christmas trees.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.