The United States Postal Service very quietly changed one of their bedrock rules this week. Up until this point, in America, you had to be dead to be on a stamp. Now, anything goes -- the living will get their chance to be immortalized on an American stamp alongside the dead. This is a very bad idea, and Congress should really step in and put a stop to it as soon as possible.
It is understandable why the Post Office would attempt such a radical change -- to make money. Philatelists (or "stamp collectors"), after all, pay full price for mint stamps and then never actually use them. They are paying for a service which they then don't use, in other words -- meaning pure profit for the Post Office from such sales. The U.S. Mint has been pushing the collector idea for years now, with their "state quarter" series -- enticing numismatists ("coin collectors") to purchase not just one quarter (which they then take out of circulation) but over fifty (a difference in profit between $0.25 and $12.50). This sort of thing has been going on for years in the comic book and trading card industry, so it's little wonder the American government has recently caught on.
But if there's a reason why the Post Office changed their rule, there is also a very good reason to argue against such a change. For 164 years (since the very first American stamps were issued) I am aware of only three stamps which showed living Americans -- and two of them are virtually identical. In 1945, the public called for a stamp with the famous image of the flag being raised over Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. The problem was, this was a photographic image, therefore of real American soldiers -- even though none of their faces are actually visible in the image. Congress had to intervene, and the stamp was for many years the most-popular stamp ever sold. In 1995, a 50-year commemorative Iwo Jima stamp was issued, with a different layout of the same image.
After the 9/11 attack, a similar stamp was called for, using a similar iconic image of three firefighters raising an American flag in the wreckage. Once again, this was a photo of living Americans, so a special exception had to be made in the "no living persons" rule. For both stamps, the people depicted were heroic icons, and were not being depicted to further their own fame or glory, it bears pointing out.
All that is about to change, however. After issuing hundreds and hundreds of different designs using the "no living people" rule, the Post Office has now announced it will issue stamps (by popular demand) of famous living persons. News organizations are, of course, having a field day over suggesting who will appear (I've seen Lady Gaga used in graphics of fake stamp mockups in two separate newspapers, for instance). One has to assume that jokes will be forthcoming on latenight television about who you'd want to "lick the backside of" in the coming days (although these jokes will be dated themselves, since most stamps these days are self-adhesive).
But once you get past the sophomoric glee or rage over a Lady Gaga stamp or a Bob Dylan stamp, there is a larger issue to consider, which is why the rule existed in the first place: what is going to happen when politicians realize they can appear on a stamp while still alive? This may sound like a silly question, but it's not.
American stamps were unique, when first issued, because they did not commemorate the sitting leader of the country. British stamps, to this day, still have an image of the current Queen (by way of comparison). How contentious an issue would it be if, say, a group of citizens demanded a stamp be issued in 2012 for President Barack Obama? Take a moment and just picture the fracas that would cause, in an election year. And it wouldn't stop there, either. Pretty soon political action groups of all stripes would be demanding their favorite politicians be immediately placed upon a stamp, and they'd indignantly demand to know why such a stamp was not forthcoming.
Think this is some nightmare scenario which will never happen? Well, I'll try not to say "I told you so" when it does, I promise.
There was a simple, bedrock idea behind not commemorating live persons on American stamps: we, as a democratic republic, were better than the rest of the world. We would not have such trappings of royalty, and our politicians could wait until they were 10 years in the grave before they got a stamp (this was reduced to 5 years, recently -- although ex-presidents got a stamp one year after they died). This would ensure that America would never succumb to a "cult of personality" the way other, lesser countries did -- whose leaders' images are unavoidable.
Which is still a very good idea -- because the impulse to do so always lurks just below the surface. And the battles which will inevitably be fought over who gets a stamp and who doesn't are likely to rage on until the Post Office realizes the error of their ways, and reinstates the dead-only rule (or until Congress acts and prevents them from this folly). For instance, stamps regularly mark "firsts" in American life and government. So, of course, nobody could object to a stamp commemorating the first-ever female Speaker of the House, right? Republicans wouldn't have any problem putting Nancy Pelosi on a stamp, would they? To be fair, consider what Democrats would say about putting Vice President Dick Cheney on a stamp. Or Sarah Palin, for that matter.
Sure, it's fun to spin worst-case scenarios, but none of them have to come true. Congress needs to step in, and immediately pass a law banning any living person from appearing on a United States stamp -- with a proper historical exception for semi-anonymous heroes. This policy has stood up the test of time for over a century and a half (since 1847), and there is simply no need to change it now. The Post Office can figure out another way of making a buck. The underlying principle is more important than the bottom line of the Post Office. Lady Gaga notwithstanding.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant