This is a cute example of the power of hindsight. Today’s Guardian has a discussion of the christmas tree that appeared in front of Downing St: you can read David Cameron’s twit about it here[1]. The Guardian helpfully points out that Cameron got a rare “tall” tree, once again proving inequality is a potent force in British life. Apparently tall trees are now rare because the EU changed subsidies back in 2005, causing Irish and Danish growers to switch from this type of fir tree to something else – biofuels for santa’s sleigh, maybe. Which just goes to show that the European Union’s Leprechauns and Vikings are in league to destroy British christmases.

But cuter still, the Guardian has a link to the article in which the change to subsidies was announced. This article contains predictions by the responsible grower’s organization:

Supermarkets and wholesalers are turning to British varieties of spruce, pine and fir.

After initial worries that British growers would struggle to cope with added demand, their representatives are predicting a £10m increase in profits

Compare with the statement from the same organization today:

While he insisted that the shortage did not equal disaster, Hay said it was inevitable that “the numbers are not going to meet the demand”. Some suppliers have been panic-buying and importing up to 100,000 more European trees than in previous years, Hay said.

I wonder if they ever got their original 10m pound profits? It certainly seems that the “initial worries” were correct. Maybe this is why people just don’t buy British anymore? Finally, we see some evidence that private ownership of environmentally sensitive goods is not necessarily the panacaea for responsible management (at least in Britain):

The other problem was that, as the British public fell back in love with real trees, growers have been selling them at a shorter height, he added. “Over recent years, growers in the UK were inclined to cut their trees as soon as people wanted them and therefore did not allow them to grow larger.”

Maybe the Christmas Tree Growers Association was originally responsible for forestry management on Easter Island?

Privatization of the resources of the commons (fish stocks, white rhinos, etc.) is sometimes suggested as an effective method of conservation, since people will be less inclined to kill off their last white rhino if they have a financial interest in its future[2]. Obviously the Christmas Tree Grower’s Association didn’t get the memo on that one … One argument against this form of stewardship is that as the size of the available stocks decline, the price will go up and the owner may be able to retire permanently on the sales of their last few white rhino horns/christmas trees, giving an incentive to exhaust their stocks as quickly as possible. I think this is why some resource economists would prefer a license system, since an environmentally-minded technocrat can vary the allowable permit as stocks change. I’m guessing that the christmas tree market in the UK is not a perfect analogy for the market in white rhino horns[3], but maybe some of the principles are transferrable. Left to their own devices, owners of a private but exhaustible good may not respond to price signals in a way that is inherently pro-conservation. I guess the perfect market theorist would argue this means that the British preference for christmas trees now outweighs their interest in preserving the stock, and the price reflects this, but I’m not sure if when people pay 10 pounds extra for a bigger tree they are really saying to themselves, “this 10 quid represents the entire extent of the value I place on having a tree at all my future christmases.” But then, the entire concept of perfect information and rational consumers[4] is pretty suspicious if the information marketplace includes the Daily Mail, which will no doubt blame the entire shortage on unelected gypsies in the European parliament.

fn1: would you be comfortable living in a country run by a man who can’t properly orientate photos before he uploads them?

fn2: A method of resource stewardship that reached rock bottom in one of the cannibalism scenes in The Road.

fn3: You have to get up pretty early in the afternoon to outsmart me!

fn4: I’m only pretending to know what these concepts even are.