In victory for Big Envelope, feds will mail Social Security statements

A message from Consumers for Paper Options

A message from Consumers for Paper Options in which the sky is made of paper

The Social Security Administration has saved $72 million a year since it stopped mailing paper earnings statements, but it’s about to start mailing again. Under pressure from Consumers for Paper Options, Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) inserted a line in last month’s budget deal to resume paper statements. A lobbying group dedicated to “closing the digital divide” for the elderly and those without internet access, Consumers for Paper Options just happens to be funded by the Envelope Manufacturers Association. Props to Jacek for the link.

If you haven’t been to the Consumers for Paper Options website, I urge you to check it out. You’ll find valuable information about the “millions [who] count on receiving paper tax forms in the mail” and “individuals who are not comfortable with computers.” It is the mission of Consumers for Paper Options to serve these individuals. Quote:

Paper-based communications are critically important for millions of Americans—especially for seniors and the 30 percent of citizens without online access. Yet these Americans are being left behind as the government and private sector goes “paperless” in order to cut costs. It’s crucial to preserve paper-based options for Americans who need it to access information and services. We can go digital without discriminating against Americans who may not, or cannot, use technology. By getting this right, we will bridge the digital divide and achieve significant efficiency gains—without shifting costs to consumers who can least afford them.

By “shifting costs to consumers,” CPO apparently means “saving millions by not printing everything out.” It costs the federal government nine cents to process an electronic payment and $1.25 to process a paper check. The Treasury Department estimates that it will save $1 billion over the next 10 years by not sending paper mailings, and that’s one department in the executive branch. The drive to go paperless—a word that CPO puts in scare quotes presumably because it is antithetical to their very existence—will save taxpayers a lot of money. It might also allow us to communicate and conduct finance without pulping trees.

But it is horrible news for the paper industry. Consider the alternate universe in which the Affordable Care Act is passed in 1990 instead of 2010, and instead of setting up web exchanges, the federal government prints out every insurance plan available in your state and mails them to you.

That universe is worse than ours in all respects, unless you are a paper manufacturer. If you make and sell paper, the modern world is a chilling dystopia. That explains why “the paper industry’s largest trade group, several of North America’s biggest paper manufacturers, and the Envelope Manufacturers Association” have invested so much time and money in Consumers for Paper Options.

It does not explain why Big Envelope has cast its lobbying organization as a crusader for the rights of senior citizens and people without the internet. To understand that, you would need some basic concept of how human beings weigh decency in a democratic system.

Problem: the federal shift away from paper mailings and even records is great. It saves Americans billions of dollars, it reduces waste and communication time, and it lessens my personal odds of losing things. It is not good for the paper industry, but it is a boon for everyone else. A broad-strokes approach to democracy might therefore conclude that going paperless is a something our government should do as fast as we can.

Unless you could argue that it benefited most of us at the expense of the least fortunate/most old. That is a place where democracy goes less merrily. By holding up senior citizens, the poor, and the supposed 73% of Americans who do not think they should be required to interact with the government online, Consumers for Paper Options can pretend that its industry lobbying is a crusade for the unfortunate few.

It’s not. It is plan to direct taxpayer money back to the paper industry, pursued via legislative means at a moment when the free market has turned against it. It’s kind of awesome that the Envelope Manufacturers Association has invented a social justice lobbying group, but only in the rueful way. The rue gets more bitter when you consider that their charade worked. We’re about to start spending $72 million a year on envelopes again, because a few congresspeople are too gullible to see the truth, too lazy to look for it, or too crooked to care.


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  1. You seem to be assuming that there actually are no people who cannot or prefer not to use the internet for their financial business. When you say that the shift to electronic records and transactions is “a boon for everyone else,” I don’t think that includes actually everyone.

    I have personal access to a computer (which is not universal), and I know how to conduct business online (which is also not universal), but I still elect to receive paper statements from my bank no matter how many times they try to convince me to use electronic ones, because I’m anal about my own record-keeping, and I have files of statements going back years. If I were 70, and my only source of income started taking place only in the vague ether, I’d be miffed and make my grandkids print everything out for me. And in that scenario, I think my interests would coincide with those of Big Envelope.

  2. Hey, Joe! Those things wizzing by your head were points – and you missed them. Should most of us – the majority of people who have to pay for things like this – be forced to lose a $72,000,000 savings because not “actually everyone” benefits from it? Should we – those of us not too gullible to see the truth, not too lazy to look for it, not too crooked to care – stand silent while a special interest claiming to be your special advocate rings up a $72,000,000 sale?

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