Retailer Restoration Hardware sent me a glossy, shrink-wrapped brochure—junk mail—so heavy I had to weigh it. Addressed to “Occupant,” my postal nickname, the package tipped the scales at six-and-a-half pounds. Gym rats do exercises with less than that; newborns can weigh less than six-and-a-half pounds. Nothing against Restoration H, but its leviathan was far too massive to simply recycle; that would have been akin to sighting Moby Dick and yawning, oh, just another fish. So I asked around. The neighbors had received them, too, and none could recall heavier junk mail.[contextly_sidebar id=”9887431dd07fc5dd112c279024ba93c6”]A few days later, 29 separate pieces of mail filled our mailbox. It lacked Moby’s heft, but this batch was impressive in another way: Like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, its awe was its sheer lack of diversity. Of the 29 pieces, two might have been considered consensual: a magazine and a medical bill. The remaining 27 were solicitations from non-profits (as opposed to real estate, the intentional sort), brochures, flyers, announcements and old-fashioned mailers.
China requires those facing a firing squad to reimburse the government for the cost of the bullet. (Paid in advance, one presumes.) While junk mail is seldom fatal, we are still forced to pay for it. According to its official Web site, the U.S. Postal Service lost $15.9 billion in 2012 on gross revenue of $65 billion. The USPS states that junk accounted for only half of all mailings last year—79.5 billion of the 160 billion pieces of mail delivered. It also says that junk accounted for 25 percent of total revenue, $16.4 billion. Thus, even if junk mail is truly only 50 percent of total mailings (about as likely as a federal balanced budget), this means we subsidized Restoration Hardware and countless other major American retailers by $16 billion in 2012. We had to spend $16 billion for something none of us wants and—sadly—something that has a huge impact on the environment.
The USPS is pleading for a government handout to stem its losses. Many would no doubt approve a $16 billion tax to cover the shortfall if the bill included a provision outlawing junk mail. That could happen…in Oz. Or, as part of a Faustian bargain, we could require that the USPS charge what it truly costs to deliver junk mail. But if we did, would retailers still send it? And what would happen to the post office if they didn’t.
With letter writing a lost art, the question is simple: Can the post office survive without being a carrier—in the mosquito sense as well—of junk mail? And if it cannot, what should we do? The Post Office has 522,144 career employees; they may not be world-beaters, but they do accomplish something useful, delivering birthday cards, letters of condolence and National Geographic magazine. And today we have 20 million people looking for full-time work; do we really need to shut down the Post Office and put another half a million people on the street?
Taking the 30,000-foot view—middle-class jobs are melting faster than the Arctic and preserving half a million of them may be worth a little junk mail. We could raise rates on junk mail as high as commercially and politically feasible, but keep the post office going. If we drop Saturday delivery, we’ll save a few billion more, and pretty soon, as the saying goes, we’ll be talking real money.
Besides, Google is full of ways for individuals to wage personal war on j-mail. There is even a 12-step program for those sufficiently fanatic to devote themselves to routing the scourge. While it may be no more successful than other more famous 12 steppers, one would at least get the sense of going down with a fight.
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