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February 2012, Week 4

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Mon, 27 Feb 2012 21:03:20 -0500
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Going Anti-Postal What kind of nation won't fund a Post
Office?

by: Michael I. Niman

Published in the March / April 2012 Humanist Share |
http://thehumanist.org/march-april-2012/going-anti-postal/

There was a time not too long ago when mantles lined
with Christmas cards were as ubiquitous as Christmas
trees, when birthdays bestowed us with similar arrays,
when the letter carrier would regularly visit our homes
and drop off tangible graphic reminders that people
loved us--that we were part of a community. Now our
hundreds or thousands of Facebook "friends" hit a key
and post to our pages. Our email inboxes might clog for
a day or two with similar messages, laden with banner
ads to market us happiness or merriment in accordance
with what the date requires. Love, hate, and business,
the pundits tell us, have migrated to email and social
media, and hence that molluscan dinosaur, snail mail,
is extinct.

But my disgust with the radical scheme to kill off the
United States Postal Service has nothing to do with
nostalgia or romanticism.

The Postal Service is not a mere delivery service, an
outdated, inefficient alternative to FedEx or UPS. It's
a public service that every nation on earth, except for
Somalia, maintains. In fact the United States joins
Somalia as one of the only nations that doesn't fund a
postal system. We used to fund it, from the birth of
our nation until Ronald Reagan's presidency. It's one
of the only public services specifically addressed in
the U.S. Constitution--right in Article One. Its genesis
dates back to the Second Continental Congress, which
appointed Benjamin Franklin as our first postmaster
general.

The original purpose of the Postal Service was not to
deliver Christmas gifts or iPads but to deliver
democracy. It was the conduit for political discussion
and debate, tying a geographically dispersed population
into a single, somewhat informed electorate. That's why
magazines and newspapers historically enjoyed a low,
government-subsidized rate. The Founding Fathers
realized that a large nation must communicate through
media, and that privately funded media would skew the
national debate toward the interests of the rich.
Hence, they established the Postal Service and gave it
a mandate to subsidize independent media with deeply
discounted media mail rates. That's why its formation
was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution--for the same
reason the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech
and names journalism as the only profession that it
specifically safeguards. A free press, including a
means for disseminating that press, are paramount
necessities for a democracy to function.

Today, one could argue that the Internet fills this
function, rendering media mail obsolete--at least for
the 60 percent of the population that have dedicated
Internet connections. But there are a few major
differences between the Postal Service and the Internet
that undermine the latter's ability to protect our
democracy. First off, our Internet connection comes via
a private portal. A handful of corporations monopolize
ownership of this infrastructure and keep trying to
exert control over what passes through it and at what
speed, if at all. We must never forget this, and never
take the Internet, or its temporal anarchy, for
granted. We've already seen governments and compliant
corporations around the world employ simple algorithms
or outright filters to censor the Internet. The Postal
Service's media mail provides the redundancy that we
need to guarantee a free press.

Also, unlike the cable and telephone monopolies that
control our Internet connections, the Postal Service is
legally required to provide uniform service, quality,
and pricing to all Americans, regardless of where they
live. By contrast, approximately 40 percent of the U.S.
population doesn't have dedicated Internet access, and
about a quarter have no access at all to the so-called
information superhighway. Those of us who do enjoy
Internet access pay exorbitant rates, usually to
maintain a subpar connection. One way to correct this
would be to have the Postal Service run a
government-subsidized Internet system, with the same
guaranteed, universal access to affordable service that
the postal system has historically provided. This would
be in line with the founding fathers' original charge
to build mail highways, with the information
superhighway being the modern equivalent of a road
specifically constructed to facilitate communication.
Also in line with the original intent, an affordable
Internet with guaranteed net neutrality would protect
future access to a free press. In a democracy, access
to information should be a public service and a
guaranteed right.

A postal Internet, however, would challenge entrenched
corporate interests in the communication
sector--entities that persistently rip us off and openly
work to undermine our democracy. It's no surprise that
these communication corporations employ an army of
lobbyists on the state and federal level, and are among
the largest political contributors to pro-corporate
politicians who carry their water in the halls of
Congress. These are the same politicians who cut all
subsidies to the U.S. Postal Service during the Reagan
years, and now want to finally see it completely
decimated.

Essentially, the war against the U.S. Postal Service is
part of the same corporate-funded war against democracy
that brands itself as a supposed libertarian battle
against "big government." The obvious contradiction in
this rhetoric, however, is that you can't have
libertarianism while corporations are left standing.
Remove the "we the people" checks on a plutocracy that
government is supposed to provide, and we're left at
the mercy of unfettered corporatism, no matter how
seductive the brand marketing is.

Here's how the cards were stacked against the Postal
Service. Congress passed a law mandating that the
Postal Service, and only the Postal Service, pre-fund
parts of its retirement system seventy-five years into
the future. This mandate, which costs the Postal
Service $5 billion per year, does not apply to any
other government agency or private corporation. Take
away this burden, and the Postal Service, amazingly,
would be profitable. I say "amazingly," because the
Postal Service still provides media rates, as low as
eleven cents, to deliver magazines and newspapers, and
as low as seven cents to deliver nonprofit mail--all
without the subsidy that similar agencies enjoy around
the world, and that our Postal Service previously
enjoyed for more than two centuries.

Even the regular first-class postage rate, which has
gone up to forty-five cents, is remarkably cheap,
considering that it includes pickup at your home and
two-day delivery to almost the entire nation. Now think
about UPS, FedEX, or DHL coming to your home to pick up
anything for forty-five cents.

And it's not just ordinary people who enjoy this
service. As much as we hate junk mail, small businesses
often survive by using bulk mailings to send parcels of
up to 3.3 ounces for as little as fourteen cents. None
of this is really lucrative business, which is why
postal services around the world are subsidized. Ours
is not. Add to this disadvantage the fact that
corporate delivery entities like UPS and FedEx can
cherry-pick services that are profitable to provide,
much like charter schools cherry-pick problem-free
students, and it becomes obvious how the deck is
stacked against the survival of the Postal Service.
It's no coincidence that FedEx and UPS are two of the
largest campaign contributors funding politicians
working to kill the Postal Service altogether. Such a
move would eliminate their primary barrier to
unfettered profits, much like the absence of public
service Internet has allowed communication companies to
saddle us with the some of the most expensive and
slowest internet connections in the developed world. I
believe this is racketeering.

On December 5, 2011, the Postal Service, facing a
predicable budget shortfall and the unwillingness of
Congress to restore any funding to the agency,
announced that it will close half of its mail
processing centers and end next-day delivery of
first-class mail. This would essentially initiate a
downward spiral of service cuts followed by revenue
drops, eventually leading to the total collapse of the
Postal Service. This plan, temporarily on hold, is
already being prematurely celebrated by the corporatist
press. In a December 15 column in Forbes, Roger Kay
looks forward to the day when the mail system is
privatized. He writes, "I predict that the shift will
be a net benefit to the overall system, despite the
loss of jobs for more than a half-million postal
workers. I hope they don't go postal on me for saying
so."

The Postal Service has been able to hang on to life,
thirty years after it lost all public funding while
retaining all of its public service mandates, thanks
only to its work force. These are, for the most part,
highly educated workers who secured their jobs through
a competitive process. They've kept this unfunded
public service system running against all odds for
decades. They not only handle mail but keep an eye on
disabled shut-ins, senior citizens, and our homes,
often being the first ones to notice if anything is
amiss. Most chose this public service career because it
offered secure employment with a guaranteed pension.
The very precepts of this agreement are now in jeopardy
because of a corrupt Congress beholden to corporate
special interests that, in their unfettered greed, want
to privatize and profitize all government services, no
matter the cost to society, our democracy, or our
freedoms.

I'd rather see these middle-class postal workers keep
their jobs and continue to provide an essential
communication service while Forbes's Roger Kay queues
up in a bread line, or, better yet, tries to find some
honest work. Perhaps he'll move to Somalia and
experience the bliss of a postal-free society.

As the Postal Service creed goes, "Neither snow nor
rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers
from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Let's hope they can also survive a Republican Congress.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and
media studies at Buffalo State College. This article
was originally published by ArtVoice on December 21,
2011. Previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at
www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through
syndication.

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