Editors' Note: With the announcement last month that the US Postal Service will stop Saturday service this August coupled with the agency's plans to close the historic downtown Berkeley post office and 3,700 other branches around the nation, we thought this piece by acclaimed journalist and commentator Jim Hightower published last year in Hightower Lowdown was particularly timely.
Consider fifty cents. What does that buy these days? Not a cuppa joe — that'll cost you two bucks. Nor will it get you a pack of gum or pay for bus fare. And Walmart, which promotes itself as the palace of cheap, sells practically nothing for a half-buck. There's one place, though, where you can get a steal of a deal for a fifty-cent piece: your local post office. Put down two quarters or five dimes there, and you'll get a first-class stamp in return ... and you'll even get change. Slap that 46-cent stamp on a letter, drop it in the mailbox, and our nation's postal workers will move your missive across town or clear across country — hand-delivering it to any address in America within three days (42 percent arrive the very next day, and 27 percent more get where we want them to go within two days).
Each day, six days a week, letter carriers traverse four million miles toting an average of 563 million pieces of mail, reaching the very doorsteps of our individual homes and workplaces in every single community in America. They ride snowmobiles to reach iced-in villages, fly bush planes into outback wilderness areas that have no roads, run Mail Boats out to remote islands in places like Maine and Washington state, and even use mules on an eight-mile trail to bring mail to the five hundred members of the Havasupai tribe of Native Americans living on the floor of the Grand Canyon.
From the gated enclaves and penthouses of the über-wealthy to inner cities and rural colonias of America's poorest families, the US Postal Service literally delivers. All that for 46 cents. And if you've written the wrong address or your recipient can't be found, you'll get your letter or package back for no charge. The USPS is an unmatched bargain, a civic treasure, a genuine public good that links all people and communities into one nation.
So, naturally, it must be destroyed.
For the past year, the laissez-fairyland blogosphere, assorted corporate front groups, a howling pack of Congressional right-wingers, and a bunch of lazy mass media sources have been pounding out a steadily rising drumbeat to warn that our postal service faces impending doom: It's "broke," they exclaim, the situation "is dire," USPS "nears collapse," it's "a full-blown financial crisis!" Soon, they insist, the whole shebang will implode: The PBS Newshour alarmed viewers last year about "a complete shutdown this winter."
According to this gaggle of gloomsayers, the national mail agency is bogged down with too many overpaid workers and costly brick-and-mortar facilities, so it can't keep up with the instant messaging of Internet services and such nimble corporate competitors as FedEx. Thus, say these contrivers of their own conventional wisdom, the Postal Service is unprofitable, is costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year in losses, and is plummeting irreversibly into bankruptcy. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. I realize that the Powers That Be never allow truth to get in the way of their policy intentions, but — come on — three strikes and you're out! Let's examine:
Unprofitable? So what? When has the Pentagon ever made a profit? Never. Nor does anyone suggest it should. Neither has the FBI, Centers for Disease Control, FDA, State Department, FEMA, Park Service, etc. Producing a profit is not the purpose of government — its purpose is service. And for two centuries — from 1775, when the Continental Congress chose Benjamin Franklin to be our fledgling nation's first Postmaster General — until 1971, when Richard Nixon's Postal Reorganization Act took effect — America's nationwide network of post offices was fully appreciated as a government service.
In fact, the Post Office Department was considered such an important function of public affairs that it was explicitly authorized by the founding document of our nation's government (Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution). The founders would've laughed their wigs off had anyone proposed that the existence of such an essential civic agency be dependent on its profitability. Be efficient and fiscally responsible, yes, but the bottom line for the Post Office was delivering a public service for the good of all the people.
But Nixon happened. His presidency gave laissez-faire ideologues a long-sought opening to insert blasting caps into the structural framework of government. Their first big success was the 1971 "reform" that shattered the public service model by imposing a bottom-line profit mentality on the agency and installing a corporate form of governance over it. "Run it like a business" was the political demand of the right-wing think tankers, Nixonians, and congressional fixers.
So, overnight, the cabinet-level Post Office Department that was overseen by Congress and funded by taxpayers was transformed into today's Postal Service, overseen by a board of governors and funded by postage sales. Technically, USPS is an independent agency of the executive branch, but operational authority is in the hands of the eleven-member board (whose acronym, aptly enough, is "BOG" — as in a morass that prevents progress).
Will it surprise you to learn that the BOG tends to be quite corporate? From 2005 until 2011, for example, one of its most influential members was James Miller III, who was Ronald Reagan's budget director and a longtime proponent of totally privatizing mail service. He's a product of such right-wing Koch-funded outfits as the American Enterprise Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy (now called Americans for Prosperity) that are ardent pushers of postal privatization.