By Michael I. Niman
Saturday mail delivery is about to go the way of affordable college tuition, but no one is paying much attention. I’m not here to wax nostalgic about the United States Postal Service, postcards, letter carriers, or much of anything having to do with our disappearing mail service. This is more of a warning than a swan song. The loss of Saturday mail delivery is more than an inconvenience. The causes are far more complex than just the inevitable demise of a dinosaur technology. And the consequences add up to a whole lot more than just empty mailboxes. This is a big historic win for corporations. And they’ll keep winning if we keep letting them. And if they win, we lose.
The Postal Service financial crisis that ultimately brought down Saturday mail delivery, along with a few hundred thousand middle-class jobs, was purposefully created and engineered by corporate lackeys in the US Congress. What they did, essentially, was hit the Postal Service, and only the Postal Service, with an onerous mandate to prefund pension obligations such as healthcare 75 years into the future. No private business or other government agency has to face such a burden. Add to that restrictions preventing the Postal Service from offering lucrative, cash-generating services in competition with profitable corporations, and mandates requiring them to deliver mail to every remote location in the country, starting at seven cents for nonprofit mail and 11 cents for media mail, and you get a perfect storm.
The demise of the Postal Service will not come all at once. Instead it will slowly bleed out, while its services diminish or disappear one by one. Up until last year, 40 percent of first-class mail was delivered in one day. Since then the Postal Service has shuttered around half of its processing centers, laying off about 30,000 well paid middle-class workers and rerouting mail into less efficient and slower paths. Now they’re cutting Saturday delivery, axing more middle-class jobs and closing more post offices, making it more difficult to access an increasingly clunky and slowing system, just at the time when other media and delivery organizations are focusing on speed. Essentially, we are taking a healthy business model, one that provides both cost-effective services and hundreds of thousands of workers with middle-class careers, and forcing it into a death spiral.
Absent the burdens that Congress has thrust upon the Postal Service, there is ample evidence that the agency would be profitable. This argument is lost in a media zeitgeist that’s already sold on the meme that the Postal Service is old school, ironically represented by that 17th-century piece of legacy media—the letter. “When’s the last time your mom mailed you a letter? That’s why the Postal Service is dying.” That’s how the story goes.
While ignoring the fact that the agency could be profitable, no one is asking why anyone would expect a government service agency to be profitable. We don’t expect the armed services to turn a profit. Ditto for police departments, departments of transportation, highway departments, fire departments, health departments, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and so on. The Postal Service is a public service, albeit one that is thwarted and crippled by Congress, which also doesn’t turn a profit.
This expectation that the Postal Service should turn a profit dates back to the Reagan era, when Congress cut all funding to the agency. This leaves the United States nearly alone in the world as one of the few countries that does not fund a national postal service. And if Republicans in Congress have their way and actually shut down the Postal Service, the United States and Somalia will stand alone as the only two nations on earth not to maintain postal service. Somalia, I must mention, embodies the ultimate libertarian ideal, essentially having no government, having outsourced governance to “warlords,” which is a regional variation on what we commonly refer here to as “gangs,” “crime syndicates,” and “terrorists.” Pay enough money and someone in Somalia will deliver your message.
Given the reality that our government has not funded the Postal Service for over a generation, the fact that it is currently being killed by congressionally ordered government imposed mandates—mandates that apply to none of its competitors—is especially ironic and infuriating. Here we have Congress actively working to thwart an otherwise healthy “business.” The crime the Postal Service has committed is that its charter focuses on providing a service rather than making a profit. The threat is that it will expand this service and its service model, delivering new media communication services at the same nominal cost it charges for legacy media delivery.
Other nations have moved into the 21st century with government-supported, universal, high-speed Internet services offered at a fraction of the price that our for-profit corporate monopolies charge for a slower connection. The US Postal Service is ideally placed to offer that service to us, along with the economic and educational payoffs associated with universal, low-cost, high-speed Internet access. The problem is that Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast, and other media giants are among the top federal campaign contributors in the country. The politicians who carry their water are the same people who are killing the Postal Service. UPS and Fed Ex are two more of the biggest contributors to federal campaigns. They are also the two corporations that stand to gain the most, raising rates as low-cost competition from the Postal Service wanes.
The Postal Service is also one of the nation’s largest employers of middle-class workers. Kill the Postal Service and the wage floor drops. Their union is a major proponent for middle-class economic interests, especially in the fight for decent pensions and benefits. Without postal workers, that voice is gone.
And then there’s that Somalia factor. If the US joins Somalia as one of two nations without a postal service, that is truly radical, and an incredible victory for corporate libertarians who want to take over all public services. The end result would be a world run by and for corporations, with Wall Street taking a skim on all human needs and activities. Is the path from Saturday mail service cuts to corporate dystopia really that hard to see?
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication. For more information about the war on the Postal Service, see the previous article in this series at artvoice.com/issues/v10n51/getting_a_grip. For more information about corporate campaign contributions, see www.opensecrets.org/pacs/.
Return to mediastudy.com