Stamp Out Pervasive Commercialism

For some time now, it has been pretty much impossible to parody the incursion of commercialism on the public realm.

The latest evidence?

The U.S. Postal Service last week announced plans to let corporations customize the stamps they use, to include advertisements for their products, services or corporate image.

Beyond issues of taste, does this matter?

It does.

The public realm represents, or should represent, a set of values that are distinct from, and at times in contradiction to, commercial values. It also embodies, or should embody, a distinct approach to managing resources and providing services — one that advances common as opposed to private interests.

There is also an insidious regulatory impact from omnipresent commercialism. (For a sampling of commercial intrusions, see lists maintained by the Portland, Oregon-based Commercial Alert here, here and here.) Pervasive advertising and marketing — especially in association with public and community institutions — makes corporations seem part of the fabric of the public sphere. Another member of the community. A neighbor who shouldn’t be subjected to special rules or regulations. This cultural impact may be intangible, but it is real and important.

Here’s what Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert says about the Postal Service’s latest commercialism innovation:

It is not the proper role for the U.S. Postal Service to advertise for private interests on our public stamps. The stamps have a long and glorious tradition of promoting heroes and history, and now they are being degraded to promote businesses — and perhaps the next Enron. It is not the proper role for the U.S. Postal Service to prop up companies with PR problems or who are polluters, tortfeasors or corporate welfare recipients.

Tobacco and Trade Agreements

Essential Action recently filed comments with the US Trade Representative urging that tobacco be excluded from the ambit of the proposed US-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement.

Our basic position is that there is no legitimate purpose for inclusion of tobacco products in trade agreements, which are designed to facilitate trade and remove tariff and non-tariff barriers to commercial transactions — an inappropriate goal for tobacco products, consumption of which is harmful.

Our comments very briefly review tobacco control efforts in Malaysia, and then explain why inclusion of tobacco products in the FTA would threaten such efforts.

The full text is available here.

Crime and Punishment

You have to be awfully hard-hearted to watch testimony from the family members of victims of a 2003 deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island and not feel deeply moved. A local Boston TV channel has posted video here and a slideshow here.

The family members were testifying at the sentencing hearing for Daniel Biechele, who was the manager of the rock group Great White and who set off a pyrotechnics show that started the fire. One hundred people died in the blaze. A judge is expected to decide on Biechele’s sentence on Wednesday.

Imagine how wrenching the discussion must be among family members, many or most of whom want Biechele to get the maximum sentence — 10 years in prison — but some of whom are reportedly supporting his request that he be sentenced to community service in a hospital burn unit and work as a safety advocate.

Biechele was charged with a crime, and pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Owners of the nightclub still face criminal charges, based on allegedly maintaining the club unsafely.)

By way of contrast, consider the way corporate wrongdoers are treated.

In what Dr. David Graham, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug safety official and whistleblower, calls “maybe the single greatest drug-safety catastrophe in the history of this country,” Merck permitted the anti-arthritis drug Vioxx to stay on the market despite evidence of its cardiovascular risks. Graham estimates that people who took the drug suffered between 88,000 to 139,000 excess heart attacks or strokes as result. As many as 40 percent of these people — as many as 55,000 — died, Graham estimates. This, said Graham, was “a catastrophe that I strongly believe could have, should have been largely or completely avoided.”

Merck is facing serious financial trouble as a result — but there are no criminal charges pending against the company or its executives. There is no debate going on about the most appropriate sentence to impose on the executives who made the decision to leave the drug on the market despite evidence of its hazards. Those people are not forced to sit in a room and listen to the heart-breaking testimony of family members of the victims who died.

Although there is a very occasional exception, the Merck case is the norm.

For example, in a case with some parallels to the Rhode Island nightclub fire, in March 2005, 15 workers were incinerated, and more than 170 injured, following an explosion at BP’s sprawling refinery in Texas City, Texas.

In the aftermath, there was not even a criminal investigation.