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Junk Mail's Endless Summer

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Happy postage increase day: Today the cost of a first-class stamp increases to 44 cents, the third increase in as many years. Though forty-four cents is not terribly expensive, you could be paying as little as 14 cents if you were sending junk mail to total strangers. And this summer, while you and I are once again shelling out a little bit more, the United States Postal Service is sweetening the deal for the junk mail industry: a whopping 30% discount is being given to junk mailers who send more junk mail than they did last summer.

The Postal Service, one of our proudest public services, has turned itself into a junk mail delivery service.

Fully 30% of all the mail in the world is US junk mail. It's been a daily annoyance for so long that many of us think of junk mail like bad weather: it's annoying, but also inevitable. Telemarketing calls at dinnertime used to annoy us too, but the Do Not Call Registry put an end to that. We can do the same for junk mail.

Junk mail's waste and nuisance is obvious; the system supporting it is galling: Our standard postage subsidizes junk mail. Our tax dollars pay for its waste disposal. And our private information is considered a commodity by junk mailers who sell it to whomever they please, resulting in identity theft that costs us billions each year.

If the goal of all this junk mail is profit, the USPS needs to think of something else: Even before the economy went south, Postmaster General John Potter predicted that the USPS would lose a billion dollars in 2008. As it turned out, they lost $2.8 billion. But it probably doesn't take much more than a semester of Business 101 to see that if you're not within a billion dollars of profitability, you probably need to take a hard look at your business model.

And a hard look at the world around you. First class mail volume is shrinking, due to the simple fact that we are living in an entirely different communications landscape than the one the USPS was built to serve. Continuing to pin hundreds of thousands of jobs on the hope that Americans will continue to accept mountains of junk mail is delusional. Generation Y, that demographic of Americans born between 1980 and 1996, simply doesn't do snail mail and in 2010 this generation will represent 32% of the population - larger than the Baby Boomers.

Despite this, the USPS heedlessly soldiers on with its junk mail strategy, and its waste is of an unbelievable scale: The logging, production, and distribution of junk mail generates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of nine million cars. So ubiquitous is our frustration with junk mail that pop-culture references to it are increasingly common, the most recent of which was a Saturday Night Live skit featuring a fictional group called 'the Alliance of Direct Mail Marketers.'

Imagine how nice it would be to fight climate change by reducing our consumption of something we never wanted anyway? Our country may have some tough choices ahead of it, but this is not one of them. In fact, a 2007 Zogby poll confirms that 89% of Americans support the creation of a Do Not Mail Registry. One might expect a democratic political system to immediately represent such a staunch majority, but the junk mail industry, with the help of an army of lobbyists, have managed to quietly defeat Do Not Mail bills in more than 20 states.

But things are changing. Do Not Mail has notched a victory in San Francisco, which in March became the first government body in the nation to take political action against junk mail. The city passed a resolution calling for the creation of a statewide California Do Not Mail Registry. And there is talk of going further - will San Francisco become the first junk mail-free city in the U.S.? Two more states - Florida and New York - have introduced Do Not Mail legislation. More are on the way.

Citizens do have a hodgepodge of junk mail opt-out tools currently available to them - some helpful but none actually enforceable - and none have proved wholly satisfactory. Americans believe that they deserve the choice to opt-out. Like Do Not Call, a Do Not Mail Registry would finally give Americans the choice to stop receiving junk mail. And Do Not Mail's eventual passage is inevitable.

As for the Postal Service itself, there has to be a better way. The USPS has a $15 billion line of taxpayer-backed credit, which it has been using at a worrisome clip. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office predicts that its credit line could be maxed out by the end of 2010. As with the millions of wasteful credit card offers the USPS delivers every day, the bill will have finally come due, and the USPS's spending spree will have gotten us no closer to a functional and just postal system.

The USPS needs a business plan based in reality. And as the beneficiaries of a massive credit line backed by American taxpayers, the USPS should be required to support what Americans want: a Do Not Mail Registry. It's time to reinvent the Postal Service for the 21st Century.

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