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The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

Postal Rates and Democracy

Lee Drutman

Berkeley, California Consider junk mail — about 100 billion pieces a year in America, or 5.8 million tons. It's almost half of all mail delivered today, and about half of which just goes straight into the trash (a truly idiotic waste of paper). One wonders: Might that daily deluge of glitzy credit-card pre-approvals diminish if the U.S. Postal Service started, say, charging direct marketers a little more for bulk mail? (Though without all that external approval, where would we all then turn for validation?)

Of course, there's politics in this. The credit-card companies and other direct marketers like things the way they are. And in an era when old-fashioned letters aren't what they used to be, the U.S. Postal Service, an "independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States," which is expected somehow to break even despite being an inherently losing proposition, needs whatever business it can get. This year, it is projecting a $5.2 billion loss. Which takes us to rate hikes.

Last month, the cost of a first-class stamp went from 39 cents to 41 cents. Postcards now cost 26 cents. Parcel post, $4.50. Gotta make up the difference somehow, blah, blah, blah. But don't let your the eyes glaze over yet. Because something troubling is brewing in the minutiae of postal- rate hike policy — something that threatens the viability of small, independent magazines of ideas and politics and literature, the kinds of publications that tend to have a hard time staying solvent as it is, but that are essential for a democracy where thoughtful and reasoned deliberation of politics and values continues to flourish and even occasionally inspire. (The blogosphere is fine, but its click-through ephemera are not an adequate substitute for thought-through essays on paper; The Daily Kos is not the New York Review of Books.)

Thus we get to the substantial magazine-rate hike, a troublingly unequal one in its effects. The large, big-subscription glossy magazines, chockablock with disposable gossip and teeming with Technicolor advertising (which makes them cheaper to subscribe to), will make out fine. They can absorb a 10 percent rate hike. But the small, independent magazines, with narrower audiences and much less advertising, are looking at rate hikes as high as 40 percent (No bulk discount rates for them, apparently).

The rate plan appears to have been largely drafted under the radar by the likes of media conglomerate Time Warner, which spent $4.5 million lobbying the federal government last year.

Fortunately, media activists are leading a charge to get the Postal Service to rethink the hike before it takes effect on July 15. They have a Web site — www. — with an online petition. Let's hope it's not too late.

Like most public policies, postal-rate hikes are ultimately a competition between competing values. On the one hand, we could view the U.S. Postal Service as something that should be run like a business (the current view, it seems). As such, it makes sense to offer customers bulk discounts, because such bulk discounts tend to increase sales. Think about your last trip to Costco. The consequence, of course, is that the mail then essentially becomes a conduit for advertising, which is both a waste of resources (think of the trees) and a waste of time (think about the hours you spend each year throwing out half your mail).

The other possibility is to think of the Postal Service as a public service (the original conception), and a public service that is even worth subsidizing a little, especially considering how many private corporations the U.S. government directly and indirectly subsidizes through a massive corporate welfare state. In such a view we would care much more about the social consequences of postal rates than whether the Post Office makes or loses money.

We would like, for example, to have low rates for small independent journals of ideas, because we know that a vibrant free press is essential to democracy. (Remember the thinking behind the First Amendment? Anyone?) But we would not care so much if the Postal Service was losing money because higher rates pushed direct marketers to be more selective in assaulting us with unsolicited credit-card offers.

Hopefully, the U.S. Postal Service will realize the consequences of what it is about to do and not force even more small, independent magazines into extinction. But more broadly, we all ought to realize that postal- rate hikes —dull as they may seem — actually have some important consequences for our everyday lives and the quality of democratic discourse, and they are actually worth fighting over sometimes.

—Lee Drutman

© 2007 The Providence Journal

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