Democracy is a real nuisance

Claiming that Americans receive a whopping 105 billion pieces of unwanted mail every year, a group called Forest Ethics has launched a campaign to help us take back our mailboxes and save 100 million trees in the process. It is trying to create a “Do Not Mail” registry to stop that insidious pulpal home invasion known as junk mail.

Stating that 44 percent of junk mail (848 pieces per household each year) goes unopened to the landfill, Forest Ethics says we spend eight months of our lives opening the remaining 56 percent.


Presumably, recapturing those wasted 5,760 hours of hovering by the trashcan deciding what to do with the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog will free us up to spend more quality time hanging up on political robocalls. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Piggybacking on the five-year anniversary of the wildly popular “Do Not Call” legislation, the Forest Ethics folks say junk mail is not only an environmental crisis, but also violates our privacy and increases the risk of identity theft.

It wants legislation to create a “Do Not Mail” registry so it will be easier for us to just say no to unsolicited catalogs, coupons, credit card offers, et cetera.

Fair enough. Choice is a good thing, I suppose, and if my fellow patriots need this extra tool to help them deal with the complexities of everyday life and also save some trees, I certainly won’t stand in the way.

But I guarantee you that if this “Do Not Mail” movement makes its way into full-blown legislation, you can bet what remains of your 401(k) that the fine public servants who write the bill will carve out a big ’ol exemption for campaign “literature.”  

So instead of hovering over the trashcan contemplating the Victoria’s Secret catalog, you will be deliberating over high-minded political “literature” not only informing you that your congressman is a slimy slouch joined at the hip with evil oil companies, but also containing a quote from his former wife, who eloquently states: “And besides that — he’s dating a white woman!” I will leave it to you to decide if that is a real example or not.

Talking about dealing with those nuisance robocalls, there are, by my count, at least nine separate pieces of legislation pending in the 110th Congress.

Some of those bills would simply add political calls to the existing FTC Do Not Call registry. Others deal with fuller disclosure or penalties for transmitting deceptive information.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight MORE’s (D-Calif.) bill would allow the calls but restrict the hours during which they could be made. Feinstein would also limit the number of calls that a single entity could make to the same telephone number in one day.

Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) take a much broader approach by adding to the FTC list “any politically oriented” calls. I will refrain from suggesting that Doolittle, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, simply wants to get out of Dodge and enjoy a robocall-less retirement.

Obviously, robocalls are a cheap way for candidates to get their message to thousands of people quickly, but one thing confuses me: Candidates want people to like them and then vote for them, right?

If I get a robocall at an inconvenient time, I am quite likely to hold the grudge and vote against that candidate. I know this is not the most sophisticated approach to deciding who should represent me, but all politics is local. Why would a smart politician risk alienating the people he or she is trying to woo?

All that is to say, maybe it’s best to leave this up to the marketplace.

Let the calls continue and let us use our votes to penalize those who repeatedly invade our homes at inconvenient times.  

Democracy and democratic capitalism are messy affairs, and our knee-jerk reaction to its irritations should not be to pass a law restricting the free flow of information, no matter how invasive.

This is America, folks. This is what we do. We try to sell goods, ideas and — as nasty as it sounds — candidates, too.

We should celebrate the fact that we are in the persuasion business and not the dictation business.

Whether in the literal marketplace, or the marketplace of ideas on matters of politics, faith or whatever, we need to let the ideas flow. It’s worth a few trees.

You can reach Jim Mills at