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A First-Class Institution

Despite the clamor raised over cutting Saturday delivery, the Post Office is not broke—and it hasn't taken any of our tax money since 1971



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The killers are the outright privatizers who've pushed for decades to get the post office out of . . . well, out of our mailboxes. In the 1960s, AT&T chairman Fred Kappel headed a presidential commission on postal reform, and he told a congressional panel, "If I could, I'd make the Post Office a private enterprise." FedEx CEO Fredrick Smith (a former board member of the Koch brothers' Cato Institute) has been the leading corporate champion for, as he put it in 1999, "closing down the USPS."

The greater danger at the moment, however, are the shrinkers. They propose to fix the proud public service by cutting it down. Postmaster Donahoe is presently the shrinker-in-chief, having put forth a plan that will close 3,700 of our post offices; shut down about half of the 487 mail processing centers across the country; cut more than 100,000 jobs; and, as announced this month, restrict mail delivery to five days a week by eliminating all Saturday postal services.

Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine is among the people of common sense who recognize that the post office "cannot expect to gain more business, which it desperately needs, if it is reducing service." Likewise, Fredric Rolando, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, sees that compromising "high-quality service" is a boneheaded business move: "Degrading standards not only hurts the public and the businesses we serve; it's also counterproductive for the Postal Service, because it will drive more people away from using the mail."

Such drastic cutbacks, consolidations and eliminations create a suicidal spiral that will slowly but surely kill the USPS.


While it's certainly true that emails and tweets are faster than mail, there remains a vast demand for postal services, especially where broadband internet does not reach, as well as when hard copy and physical delivery are essential. FedEx has its place, but its self-serving priority is always to go after maximum profit; it has no interest in or ability to deliver universal service at an affordable price to the whole nation. (Letter delivery through FedEx, for example, starts at $8.)

Postal privatizers and downsizers have reams of data on the price of everything USPS does, yet they are completely unable to calculate value. The post office is more than a bunch of buildings; it's a community center and, for many towns, an essential part of the local identity. As former senator Jennings Randolph poignantly observed, "When the local post office is closed, the flag comes down."

This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the list of 3,700 postal facilities suggested for closure includes the historic Franklin Post Office in Philadelphia, located on the very site of Old Ben's house in Franklin Square.


The biggest lie of all is that USPS is an antiquated, unnecessary, failing civic institution that simply must give way to electronic technology and corporate efficiency. Obviously, the Postal Service is no longer the only player making the rounds, and it must make some major adjustments to find its proper fit and new opportunities in the marketing and public-service mix. But this requires top management and political overseers to be a bit more creative and business-like than constantly cutting, closing, outsourcing and eliminating.


Innovation could start with three phenomenal assets that the USPS has: (1) that network of 32,000 retail outlets that form the most extensive local presence of any business or government in America, drawing more than 7 million people into them each day; (2) an experienced, smart, skilled and dedicated workforce of nearly 600,000 middle-class Americans who live in the communities they serve; and (3) the general good will of the public, which sees their local post office and its employees as "theirs," providing useful services and standing as one of their core civic institutions (in a 2009 Gallup Poll, 95 percent of Americans said it was personally important to them that the Postal Service be continued).

There are a few ways to build on those big plusses. Going digital is one. John Nichols reports in The Nation that the USPS already has the world's third-largest computer infrastructure, including 5,000 remote locations with satellite internet service. Expand that into a handy consumer service offering high-speed broadband all across the country.

Services could also expand. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to let post offices sell products and services that they're now barred from offering (thanks to corporate opposition and congressional meddling). Sanders suggests allowing sales of cell phones, delivery of wine, selling fishing licenses, offering photocopy services, notarizing documents, etc. This would be a boon to the people in poor neighborhoods and rural areas who don't have convenient access to such services.

Instead of five-day letter delivery, how about seven days? Think about it: the post office could be the only entity that offers reliable delivery service to every community in the country, seven days a week. And here's a big one: banking. From 1910 until bank lobbyists killed it in 1966, a Postal Banking System operated successfully through local post offices all across the land. It offered simple, low-cost, federally insured savings accounts to millions of "unbanked" Americans who couldn't meet the minimum deposit requirements of commercial bankers or afford their fees. This small-deposit banking system could be brought back to serve these people and create loan funds for investments in local communities.

America's postal service is just that—a true public service, a grassroots people's asset that has even more potential than we're presently tapping to serve the democratic ideal of the common good. Why the hell would we let an elite of small-minded profiteers and their political hirelings dropkick this jewel through the goalposts of corporate greed? This is not a fight merely to save 32,000 post offices and the middle-class jobs they provide, but to advance the big idea of America itself, the bold, historic notion that "Yes, we can" create a society in which we're all in it together.

That's worth fighting for.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 'Hightower Lowdown.'

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