The U.S. government in recent years has stopped selling paper savings bonds, mailing IRS forms and Social Security statements by default, and started the shift away from paper federal benefits checks.
As The Washington Post reported recently, 22 of the largest federal agencies have cut their spending on paper by about 7 percent — to $64 million — in the past year. That’s a development to cheer — a sign that the federal government is adapting to a digital world and saving taxpayers money.
But that trend has the paper industry, a staple of Maine’s economy, alarmed and in full lobbying mode. An industry-funded group, Consumers for Paper Options, is pressing the federal government not only to keep paper options available for those Americans who need them but to, in some cases, even reverse the movement toward digital governance.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine is one of the members of Congress the industry-funded group has in its corner. Michaud scored a victory for the group last year when he managed to have language removed from a pharmaceutical bill that would have required drug and safety information be posted online rather than included in drug packages as paper inserts.
Paper mills in Madawaska and Bucksport make those paper inserts. A shift away from reliance on paper would have endangered Maine jobs.
Michaud also co-authored an opinion piece in the Washington, D.C., publication Roll Call in December that Consumers for Paper Options helped to craft, according to The Washington Post report.
“The government’s rush to go paperless is disenfranchising millions of seniors and other vulnerable Americans and making the digital divide even deeper,” read the essay, which Michaud signed along with Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis.
Michaud’s advocacy for papermakers is not surprising. Papermaking runs deep both personally for Michaud — he worked two decades at the temporarily shuttered Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket — and in the district he represents in Congress.
Some Americans will need paper options for tax forms, Social Security statements and more for the foreseeable future, and the federal government should take measures to ensure the nation’s elderly are aware of how they can access paper alternatives.
The problem is, Michaud’s advocacy against changes that are part of a natural evolution in government, health care and the broader economy isn’t an economic development strategy — even if it temporarily protects an important industry with a powerful local presence.
As Michaud undoubtedly knows, papermakers have continually shed jobs over the past decade: Maine employment in the industry dropped 44.5 percent between 2001 and 2013 — to 6,908 from 12,449, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The industry’s economic output in Maine has also dropped — by more than 48 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
As the world moves increasingly online, and the demand for paper drops, papermakers themselves are adapting. More of them are positioning themselves to make tissue, for which demand is resilient, but not infinite.
If digital is the way of the world, it’s also the way of the economy and jobs. We would prefer to see Michaud spend his time pushing hard for measures that help Maine secure some of the highest Internet speeds available. Michaud supported the federal grant that paid for the construction of Maine’s Three Ring Binder, a fiber-optic network that spreads through much of the state but doesn’t connect directly to households. Maine needs more.
Many more jobs will be Internet-dependent — indeed, they already are — in the future than dependent on making paper. And Maine has some of the slowest Internet speeds in the nation; a recent survey ranked the Pine Tree State 49th.
Michaud places an emphasis on expansion of high-speed Internet in the economic and business investment plan he released Wednesday as part of his gubernatorial campaign platform. If elected, he’d need to follow through. It will require leadership to push through bond packages that make high-speed, fiber-optic Internet connections available in every Maine town.
It will also take forward thinking. He can’t stake an economic development strategy on the way this state’s economy used to be.