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O My America: The Post Office and American Politics

Lawrence Bush
March 18, 2017
by Lawrence Bush Reviewed in this essay: How the Post Office Created America, by Winifred Gallagher. Penguin Press, 2016, 326 pages with index. ABOUT THREE YEARS ago, Jewish Currents had to abandon a printer we were using in Boston, a workers' collective that did excellent work, for a New York union shop, because for some reason the Boston post office was failing to get our magazines delivered successfully. Folks on the West Coast were waiting up to six weeks for a delivery that should have taken no more than ten days (usually less). I made contact with a senior guy at the Boston P.O., who investigated and could not understand the problem. I then learned from my own local postmistress that the mail distribution center in Newburgh, NY had been shut down to economize, which was creating havoc, she said, in Albany, to where the mail from Boston had likely been rerouted. I felt very frustrated that after all of our efforts to get Jewish Currents (and its editorials!) out in a timely manner, we were being sabotaged by forces way beyond my control. I had already been outraged by the abolition of rates other than first class for international shipments a couple of years earlier, which made overseas and even Canadian subscriptions to Jewish Currents a money-losing proposition for us and eventually drove us to find a private, international courier service that delivers our magazine to Israel, to China, to Australia, to Brazil, to Europe, and so on, at half the cost of first-class mail. Why, I began complaining to everyone, should the post office be mandated to make a profit? It's a Constitutionally mandated government responsibility, so why treat it like a private enterprise? We don't insist that the Pentagon or Environmental Protection Agency make profits from their operations, do we? Yes, I was a great defender of the post office, because I LOVE the post office, where I go nearly every business day to collect our magazine's mail, send out packages of all kinds, and shoot the breeze with the counter clerks and various of my neighbors. Living in a rural setting, I am provided with daily opportunities for social interaction with someone besides the cow herd across the road from me -- and I'm always, always impressed with the fine and inexpensive level of service that the United States Postal Service provides. I therefore couldn't resist the title of Winifred Gallagher's new history of the post office -- How the Post Office Created America -- and I've learned a great deal from her research. For example: • The post office was a key force powering the creation of our country's earliest roads and highways, as well as the magazine and newspaper industries. So vital was its role as an energizer of American growth that, at the start of independence, mail theft was treated as a capital crime. • The same can be said for railroads, which received handsome contracts for mail transportation in the early days of the iron horse. In the latter half of the 19th century, in fact, the post office developed a vast system called the Railway Mail Service, which "allowed most of the nation's intercity mail," Gallager writes, "to be sorted as well as transported aboard moving trains -- a tremendous boost to the country's booming industrial economy and its population of passionate correspondents alike." • The same goes for steamships and airplanes, technologies that were first enlarged into commercial industries by the federal government's bestowing of large contracts for mail transportation. • From 1910 until 1966, post offices served as savings banks for the low-income sector of America, who have been historically denied service by commercial banks. At the start, customers "could start an account with $1 but could not invest more than $500, later raised to $2,500. They received a 2 percent interest, which not coincidentally pressured private banks to raise their own rate to 3 percent. (Even children could have accounts, and married women could open accounts under their own names that were not subject to their husbands' control.)" The net result was to put a lot of loan sharks and pawnshops out of business -- and to "familiarize average Americans with finance and ultimately [make] them savvier consumers of commercial banking services." • The famous Pony Express, the source of many legends, operated for only eighteen months. (Of the 120 riders who worked for the short-lived service, I have managed to identify one Jew, Solomon Barth, who rode between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Prescott, Arizona.) GALLAGHER'S BOOK is far more than a great source of table-talk (or postal counter) trivia. She delivers a convincing account of how the post office, which was the only point of contact with their government that many American citizens had, especially in rural states and territories, was a foundationstone of the federal government at the very beginning of the American republic, and became the epitome of government at its best, binding together our vast nation and spurring both literacy and commerce like no other force. Gallagher also makes clear that the ideological struggle over profit-making versus deficit spending, over "private enterprise" versus government responsibility, dates back to the founding of our country, and has beset the post office and at every major historical juncture compromised its potential as a vast delivery network. While most of the founders "wanted a radical, thoroughly American institution," she writes, "that would help to unify and expand their new republic, in which the people were sovereign, not the king, and in which information about public affairs was not a privilege but a right" -- at every step in the post's development (including its launching of a postal inspection bureau that prevented mail theft and mail fraud; its commitment to rural delivery of mail and, eventually, house-to-house delivery service; its creation of its own fleet of vehicles; etc.), the post office was opposed by states' rights advocates, private entrepreneurs (including monopolists), and "small government," "free market" ideologues of many stripes. The troubles encountered by Jewish Currents in getting our magazine efficiently and cheaply delivered reflect an ascendancy of that kind of ideology in matters directly affecting the post office. In the past several years, Gallagher notes, "the USPS management has already shut down half of its major distribution centers, with consequent delays in mail delivery that are particularly noticeable in rural states. It has also eliminated 10,000 jobs, mostly by attrition, and reduced hours at 13,000 small post offices." Such "innovations" derive from the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, which designated the post office as an "independent establishment of the executive branch" and insisted that it be run as a profit-making business. That it even came close to succeeding at fulfilling that mandate for a number of decades is astounding, given how cost-ineffective the delivery of mail door-to-door is, especially for postal rates that are among the cheapest in the world. At the conclusion of her book, Gallagher envisions three alternatives for the post office of the future (implying her own preferences through the length of her treatment of each): 1) Full privatization or, at least, de-monopolization -- which is already underway in the growth United Parcel Service and Fedex, both of which cooperate extensively with the post office in the transport and delivery of packages. "If the post were privatized, or even turned into a regulated private industry like the airlines and railroads," Gallagher notes, "management would naturally place revenue over the commonweal. . . . As of 2015, the USPS charged forty-nine cents to send a first-class letter from Deposit, New York, to American Falls, Idaho, but a private carrier, like an airline, would ask much more, thus effectively compromising universal service." 2) A status quo arrangement, only stripped down to be leaner and meaner. "The businesses that produce at least three-quarters of the nation's mail would handle all the 'upstream' activity," she speculates, "that precedes delivery," while "the USPS would become a public utility that, aside from doing some collection, was primarily a delivery system of carriers." 3) Expansion of the post office's public role:
The post's progressive supporters . . . want to retrofit the meaning of 'postal service' and . . . provide Americans with broadband access and a secure electronic 'home base' that would unify their scattered online lives, link their digital and physical addresses, and provide hack-proof services such as an electronic mailbox, a lockbox for important private data. . . The nation's growing problem of financial inequality could provide the post with an opportunity to run a . . . 'nonbank bank' -- the awkward term for an institution that doesn't handle both loans and deposits. Customers would receive a postal card that they could use for purchasing, withdrawing from an ATM, depositing and cashing checks, paying bills, and making international money transfers. . . . Its huge workforce, which moves house-by-house through America's neighborhoods nearly every day, could provide more services, such as checking on the elderly and inform and contributing to 'big data' on air pollution, traffic patterns, and other public concerns. Better use could be made of the nation's nearly 32,000 post offices by allowing them to handle state and local matters. . . . The local Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts could even move into the post office, space permitting. This type of public-private collaboration could attract more customers for both enterprises; save on new construction; and preserve architectural landmarks . . .
You can guess which of the three options I'd vote for, just as you guess which is the least likeliest to come to pass in our conservative times of capitalism deluxe. Winifred Gallagher's book, like the post office she envisions, "delivers" on numerous fronts as a popular history, full of surprises and insights. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.