I’m riding in my car this morning and I hear this ad for beef on the radio. The voiceover is a quintessential cowboy voice. It sounds just like Sam Elliot, the guy who played "The Stranger" in "The Big Lebowski." He’s talking about the primal experience of cooking meat on an open fire and then eating it.
The ad ended this way:
"Beef—it’s what’s for dinner. Funded by America’s beef producers with Chekhov dollars."
Chekhov dollars? I know he wrote "The Cherry Orchard." Did he also write "The Cattle Range?" Naw. I must have heard it wrong. It must have been "check-off dollars." That’s weird, I thought. The only "check-off" funding I know is on my tax return.
Unfortunately, there is another.
Actually, there are a lot of them. There’s a mushroom one and an avocado one and a potato one and a popcorn one and a lime one and, well, you get the idea.
I always assumed those ads were part of a coalition of producers that somehow evaded the antitrust laws. Actually, it turns out that the Department of Agriculture creates the coalition by taxing the producers, then using the money to promote consumption. Not surprisingly, how the money gets spent is a source of endless bureaucratic delight:
In accordance with the Beef Promotion Research Act and Order,
the Cattlemen’s Beef Board must contract with national
industry-governed organizations to implement programs funded with beef
checkoff dollars. The Beef Board solicits proposals from potential
contractors through an annual Request for Proposal process. The Beef
Promotion Operating Committee reviews proposals from contractors for
programs to be pursued with checkoff dollars. The Board approves a
budget, and the Operating Committee then chooses from the submitted
proposals " or its amended versions of them " to determine the best use
of beef checkoff dollars in the authorized areas of promotion,
research, consumer information, industry information, foreign marketing
and producer communication. Final approval must come from the USDA.
This section of the Web site provides an overview of some portions of
those programs completed with checkoff dollars, under the requirements
of the Beef Act and Order.
While it’s called a "checkoff program" which suggest it’s voluntary, it appears to be mandatory in the beef business. Each producer pays $1 per head of cattle. A somewhat comprehensible description of the program is here.
Fortunately, the constitutionality of the program appears to be before the Supreme Court. A history of the litigation is here.
I wonder how much of the burden of this tax falls on consumers. What a great country we live in where the government helps raise money for farmers to use to convince us to buy their products.