Last Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Treasury officials over something that affects a tiny number of their clients: The right to get their Social Security checks. Like actual paper ones.
"In July, you're going to issue another letter," Warren told Treasury's Fiscal Assistant Secretary Richard Gregg, "that's basically a letter threatening the last two percent. They've got to move over to electronic transfer, suggesting that they're breaking the law if they don't do that, and not making any indication in that letter that there are waivers available to people."
Treasury has been pushing for all-electronic distribution for a decade now, with tremendous success. And it makes sense, because direct deposit is much more effective: In fiscal year 2012, the Social Security Administration found 500,000 cases of checks that had been stolen or lost, and only 7,000 interrupted electronic transfers. Or at least, it's a lot easier to handle for an agency that has enough trouble staying solvent.
Against that backdrop, it looked like Warren was defending the vulnerable and the few, in the form of an elderly woman who came to testify about losing her benefits to electronic identify theft. But that old lady has some big corporate allies: Consumers for Paper Options, a group that takes funding from trade associations like the Envelope Manufacturers Association and Printing Industries of America, to establish a "right" to printed communication.
A few days earlier, Consumers for Paper Options put out a survey with conclusions like this: "An overwhelming majority of American adults across all demographic groups believe that consumers should not be forced to receive information in an electronic format." Even young people prefer receiving paper bills and statements, the group reported, and most people think it's wrong for the government to force everyone to obtain public services online.
That's just one piece of the paper industry's outreach in recent weeks and months. In early June, the Printing Industries of America went to the Hill for its annual summit and lobby day. The American Forest and Paper Association hosted a fly-in for executives last week, sponsoring a few days of Politico's widely read Playbook newsletter and rolling out a video called "Paper: Making Life Better." One of the country's biggest paper manufacturers, Domtar, went with a simpler slogan: "Paper Because."
And that's against the backdrop of a long-term rise in political giving from the printing and publishing industry, to more than $41 million last election cycle.
It's easy to understand why the companies might be upping their presence in Washington: The Internet age has devastated traditional paper products, with newspapers, magazines and print advertising at historic lows. At the same time, e-commerce has boosted demand for packaging, so they've pressed for things like reform of the United States Postal Service, to keep it as cheap as possible for vendors like L.L. Bean and Pottery Barn to send large volumes of glossy mailers. Paper manufacturers were even active on the Farm Bill, asking for wood pulp to be included in the bill's priority purchasing programs for bio-based products.
Allowing the public to access services in many formats seems like a reasonable argument. It's also worth highlighting how the printing industry has evolved, with companies becoming integrated digital marketing and design firms that don't necessarily depend on physical products for much of their revenue.
The industry is on weaker ground, though, when it tries to argue that printing something out is actually better for the environment than corresponding online, which it's done in attacking companies like Google and Toshiba for orchestrating "go paperless" campaigns. The paper industry has gotten more efficient, but one promotional Web site goes a little further, claiming that "Junk Mail is Green Too" (because it's printed on recycled paper) and "Spam email wastes 33 billion kilowatt hours annually" (as if the same volume on paper would waste less).
"Electronics are inanimate, they give instant gratification, electronics are sexy," says the Printing Industries of America's Gary Jones. "People don't think about the fact that you have to plug them in."