In the 1980s, when in real life we came very close to nuclear war, David Brin wrote a novel called The Postman. His main character lives through the apocalypse and is wandering in the woods of Oregon where he finds an abandoned mail truck. He puts on the postman's coat for warmth and carries a mail sack to a nearby town in hopes of getting food. But they think he is a real mailman, and latch onto him as the embodied hope that the United States survives and is recovering. The book is far superior to the Kevin Costner film. As Wikipedia summarizes, "Despite the post-apocalyptic scenario, and several action sequences, the book is largely about civilization and symbols."
So does it matter if the U.S. Postal Service, facing persistent deficits, private competition and the prevalence of email, intends to kill 120,000 jobs, eliminate Saturday service and shut down 3,600 post offices in smaller towns? I think it matters profoundly, and not least on the level of civilization and symbols.
As MSNBC's Bob Sullivan makes convincingly clear, the Postal Service's alleged financial trouble is largely the result of an accounting swindle from the Bush administration. This is backed up by a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Laying off 120,000 people in the worst labor market since the Depression is nuts, and will fall especially hard on minorities who already face much higher unemployment.
To be sure, in pre-New Deal America, the Post Office was a major source of patronage jobs for the party in power. FDR's political fixer, James Farley, was not surprisingly also Postmaster General. But the fact remains that the Post Office was primarily in existence as the most widespread example of the commons. Richard Nixon changed this in 1971, when the department was spun off as the supposedly independent U.S. Postal Service. As with Amtrak, it was mostly downhill from there, as politics combined with funding limitations and a calcified bureaucracy hurt the organization. The reinvention of postal service for a digital world, seen in Europe and especially Germany, didn't happen here.
The Postal Service became dysfunctional — workers "going postal" — but it was also part of a vanishing breed of U.S. employers with large workforces on single sites, and often overseen by bullying or incompetent supervisors. My experience with the Postal Service has been nothing but good. From the Phoenix when I was growing up to later in Willo in the 2000s to now in Seattle, the letter carrier connects a neighborhood. I still remember going to Union Station as a child to watch the mail cars switched from one train to another and see the dozens of Post Office trucks parked at the west end of the elegant old building.
Funny how we can piss away trillions on wars, subsidies for fossil fuels, big pharma, health insurers, et al — and this is never put to a rational test of economics. The costs of unaddressed, indeed hastened, climate change don't pencil out. But the good things. The "we" things. The things that once were a given in America. Whether libraries, train service, mass transit, a good education for all Americans, the social compact or the postman. These are always unprofitable, facing insolvency, unsustainable, socialism! As Salon points out, the public good is dying in America. We're creating our own post-apocalyptic society, with the right-wing Krackpots playing the role of the Mad Max barbarians.