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Last week, the US Postal Service announced that it will end Saturday service, cut 150,000 jobs, and close thousands of post offices around the country, starting in August. Packages will still be delivered, but letters, utility bills, and your Netflix DVDs will only now arrive at fewer destinations on fewer days per week.
To supporters of the welfare state, this signals yet another incursion of the profit-driven corporate model into government services.
The postal service, after all, is not a corporation — it literally is part of the federal government’s executive branch, explicitly authorized by the constitution and tasked with providing universal and affordable mail service. While wealthy city-dwellers can arrange to have their correspondences FedExed or iPhoned, rural Americans and those with limited access to technology depend on the USPS for basic communication with the rest of the world.
The Postal Service’s current financial trouble stems from the declining revenue brought in by “snail mail” coupled with a Congressional mandate that all employee pensions be fully funded 75 years in advance. Over the last few years, since postage revenue peaked in 2001, the USPS has been borrowing from the Treasury, and in 2012, it hit its borrowing limit of $15 million.
But this limit is entirely arbitrary, and as with the hysteria over the similarly arbitrary fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, the insistence on profitability from government agencies ignores one of the key advantages of government institutions — their lack of a profit motive. Unconcerned with the bottom line, government institutions can focus on providing key services free of market whims.
In its series on the “virtues” of the public institution, The Realignment Project cites this country’s half-assed attempts at government-funded health care as another example of the advantage of the public sphere. “Medicare and Medicaid: before 1965, there wasn’t a health insurance market for the elderly or the poor because the elderly were too expensive to cover and both the elderly and the poor lacked the necessary income to express their demand for health care. Yet precisely because the government is not like a corporation, the public sector was able to dramatically expand the provision of a vital service.”
FedEx and UPS, the private-sector competitors of the USPS, are obliged by market forces to provide costly services, mostly in dense areas. Partially unbound by such forces, the USPS can be something more powerful: a multifaceted and widely available service from which all can benefit.
Historically, the Postal Service has been much more than just a conduit for college acceptances and supermarket coupons; it has enabled citizen participation in various arenas of society. From its inception, it has furthered the aim of free speech and communication while linking citizens to the means of democracy (notably, electoral ballots and newspapers). Post offices doubled as meeting places for many Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. People even tended to congregate there on Sundays instead of going to church. Instead of sending out sermons by mail, churches successfully lobbied for post offices nationwide to be closed on Sundays, as they have been since 1912.
During the immigration waves of the early 20th century, USPS also ran the Postal Savings System, an alternative banking system for immigrant and working-class people who had limited savings and distrusted large banks. The money deposited through the PSS was reinvested in local banks, with minimum deposits of $1. Several countries still operate postal savings systems, including Israel, Japan, and Brazil, though they are increasingly being privatized or shifting to public-private partnerships.
Of course, not least among those who benefit from USPS are the postal workers themselves. The essential nature of the service provided by these workers was made clear in 1970, when New York postal workers fed up with chronic underpayment, lack of benefits (my grandfather, who was a New York letter carrier in the 1950s and 60s, received no health benefits through his union and joined the Industrial Workers of the World in order to cover his family’s medical needs), and prohibition of collective bargaining, launched a wildcat strike against the government. Inspired by the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, postal workers across the country joined the strike. Not only did it draw attention to the plight of thousands of USPS employees, but it brought the machine of finance capitalism to its knees; Wall Street traders openly feared that the stock exchange would close after days of limited mail delivery.
Richard Nixon brought in scabs from the National Guard to sort the mail, and after two weeks, postal workers returned to the job with the right to collective bargaining, though without any financial concessions from the government.
The strike highlighted the ways in which capitalism simultaneously depends on and negates service work. Postal workers had for years been denied the ability to bargain collectively, and their strike was illegal — after all, they were government workers performing an indispensable duty. The work of the postal service was vital both to ordinary citizens and to Wall Street financiers, though it was naturally the financiers whose interests prevailed.
Today, when most financial trading can be done by computer, the needs of ordinary people who depend on the postal service, whether to receive letters, buy stamps, or pay bills, are replaced by the for-profit logic of the very traders who don’t need the system anymore. We can see this negation at work in the actual coverage of last week’s announcement: while the cutbacks would result in layoffs for 18% of the current postal workforce and the closure of thousands of public offices, the mainstream media’s focus has been on the termination of consumer delivery, rather than the attenuation of stable government employment.
Public institutions are preferable, from a user’s standpoint, in situations where services are to be provided equally to all or most of the population. One example is public transportation, which in most American cities was initially operated by various private companies and then municipalized to ensure consistent service, free transfers, and coordinated investment in infrastructure.
Nowadays, most urban transit authorities, along with the post office and the healthcare system, are facing drastic cutbacks, showing where the public institution’s problem lies: not in a dearth of creative thinking or a lack of management skills, but in a pathological aversion to properly funding the institutions. The Postal Service receives no taxpayer dollars, only Congress-authorized funding, leaving it at the whim of our current fetish for privatization. Sadly, our country is filled with people who would more readily arm pop-culture’s stereotypically maniacal mail carriers with AK-47s than authorize increased funding to maintain their jobs.