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Long live the Post Office!

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, February 11, 2009 16:18 EDT
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I must vociferously protest Matt’s post about the post office. That he even wrote it shows how powerful repetition of talking points is—the libertarian worship of Fed Ex and dismissing of the post office has been uncritically repeated so often it starts to make sense. But take a breath and think about how foolish libertarian philosophy is. It’s about creating a government so localized that the best living example of it is the fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons whose child rape compounds keep getting raided by the real government they refuse to recognize. In other words, we’re not talking theories that have been thought out as thoroughly as they should be.

Matt’s post starts off innocuously enough by entertaining the idea that reducing mail service from 6 days a week to 5 days a week might modernize the post office a bit and save money. If it would mean that I can use an entire book of stamps before the rate changes, I’d accept it, though I do like myself some Saturday delivery. What can I say? I like mail. It’s probably a leftover fetish from my ill-spent youth in a small town in West Texas where we didn’t have cable, our satellite dish was hard to operate and commandeered by my stepfather, we only had one crappy movie theater, and there was no music store to speak of, much less a decent bookstore. As such, catalogs and Entertainment Weekly (as well as Vogue, GQ, Sassy, etc.) were exciting forms of entertainment, and I would bicycle to the post office regularly to pick up the mail because I really wanted a new magazine to read. If only we had the internet then.

But it does highlight the value of the post office that pretty much 100% of all magazines use it for distribution. Which means that despite some nay-saying libertarian nonsense, the post office clearly is the best financial choice for many businesses. Despite the obviousness of this, Matt bites off some half-baked libertarian pseudo-theorizing.

When our country was founded, timely delivery of the mail was a critical piece of infrastructure and not something the private sector was ready to do. Modern conditions have led to the emergence of viable private sector parcel delivery firms, and have also led to a sharp decline in dependence on parcel delivery as a critical mode of communications. There’s the phone, fax, e-mail, etc along with UPS, DHL, FedEx, and the US Postal Service. The USPS is a useful entity in that mix, but modern-day conditions mean that postal policies don’t really matter in the way they once did.

Maybe the USPS has lost some business to these private entities, but unless you’re working in a business that can afford to have delivery and pick-up service from UPS or FedEx, the USPS still matters as much as it always did. And that’s true for most of us. After all, it might be more convenient if you work at a business to have the UPS guy come and pick it up for you, but if you’re a customer at home waiting for the package, finding out that they sent it UPS is usually a moment of doubt and pain. When I had an office job, the two primary uses for my truck were a) to visit my boyfriend and b) to drive out to buttfuck nowhere to pick up packages that UPS wouldn’t deliver because I wasn’t home. Oh, they’d give you 3 tries to be at home on a weekday at 2PM, which just made me even more irate, because it meant that they were wasting time and money and the UPS guy’s day to make a pointless effort at trying to deliver an undeliverable package. FedEx was not much better and just as far out in the middle of nowhere.

In contrast, if the post office couldn’t deliver a package because I wasn’t home, instead of sticking something on my door that had a strong chance of blowing away and requiring me to drive 20 minutes in each direction to get my package, they would put a slip in my post office box and I could walk down to the post office and pick up my package. Which inclines me to point out that even if they do reduce to 5 day delivery, they absolutely must keep branches open on Saturday. Some people have full time jobs, you know.

I can safely say that one reason I was able to sell my car and reduce ours to a one car household is because I work at home and won’t miss the UPS guy. Because outside of that sticky problem, I live in an extremely walkable part of town. Ironically, Matt has a post a few up from this one where he talks about what it’ll take to make suburbs more walkable. The post office is still a critical part of the carless lifestyle. Which is why this statement annoys me:

Something I wonder about that’s perhaps more interesting is whether there isn’t a case for trying to privatize the Postal Service by selling it off to private investors. Presumably you wouldn’t want to do that in the middle of a financial panic, because you’d get low bids. But in general, though I understand why the USPS was established as a public agency in the past, it’s not obvious to me that if it didn’t exist today we’d be clamoring to create it.

I’m glad our Founding Fathers were such socialists myself, because we probably wouldn’t be clamoring to create it, and my life would be much harder than it is now. Because even though I’m at home to receive packages, I don’t have a viable way to send packages without the post office. And I can just imagine how impossible Netflix would be without the post office. Privatizing the USPS and putting profit before customer service as a motivator is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Imagine how quickly all the mailboxes on the street would disappear. Imagine losing your local post office that you can walk to disappearing in a cost-cutting move, and taking your ability to mail something quickly, painlessly and cheaply with it. Cost-cutting for the private USPS would be done on the customer’s backs—you’d be the one to bear the costs of transportation to the central post office, the only one left once they’d cut costs. Goodbye slapping a stamp on your rent check and dropping it in the mailbox. Goodbye being able to use a postal scale to figure out if your parcel is light enough to be slipped into a mailbox. Privatizing a service means creating an adversarial relationship between the customer and the business, each of who are trying to maximize what they get out of the other just short of breaking the relationship completely. But public entities have a much more generous attitude towards the customer, who is the only reason they exist. (Profit is the only reason businesses exist, in comparison.)

Libertarians hate the USPS because its existence proves that the government can easily outperform the private sector in some areas if it’s given full permission to do so, and isn’t cobbled by a bunch of obstacles thrown up by Republicans who are trying to force it to fail. All the more reason to support it, I’d say.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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