Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2007 Issue

The United States Post Office and Politics


The Post Office has more important concerns than advertising.

I checked the Post Office's website, and at least three of the four top execs are lifelong Post Office workers, not refugees from the Bush/Cheney campaign, or ex-Haliburton or former Enron leaders. I do know that there has been a lot of pressure from the thank God formerly Republican-dominated Congress to privatize the Post Office, or eliminate it so that our free enterprise system can take over this essential communications utility. There may be a conspiracy, but I can't put my finger on it exactly.

What I do know is that the Post Office leadership has evolved into the worst of both worlds - it has the attitude of a state-run monopoly (i.e. it doesn't listen well) combined with the poor decision-making of a free-enterprise monopoly (i.e. it serves its bottom line first rather than the people). With a 95% completion rate, last time I checked, the post office regularly loses or misplaces a huge amount of mail. Unlike many countries, it does not offer a modestly-priced tracked service either domestically (I'm not counting Delivery Confirmation, which is a poor cousin) or internationally. It does not think it important enough to provide its local offices with supplies it needs, but allows corporations to order whatever boxes and such they want. And it shamelessly promotes, for money, private commercial interests like Walt Disney, Hershey's Chocolate, and Star Wars, while rarely using its powerful bully pulpit for ideas and issues that really matter.

The Continental Congress did not create the United States Post Office as a private business; they correctly saw it as an absolutely necessary public utility, essential for a democracy. One of the first questions before the delegates at the Continental Congress of 1775 was how to convey and deliver the mail and Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General. Article IX of the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, gave Congress "The sole and exclusive right and power ... establishing and regulating post offices from one State to another ... and exacting such postage on papers passing through the same as may be requisite to defray the expenses of the said office ..." The Postmaster General was to report to and be appointed by Congress, not by a bunch of executives from interlocking corporations whose sole motivating factor was profit.

In my opinion, the Postal System is an essential public utility which must remain just that -- public. That means it must be available; that means the cost must be reasonable; that means it should support the dissemination of knowledge and businesses, like ours, that purvey it. This poorly-conceived rate and service change needs to be rolled back and we need a new view and probably new leadership at the United States Post Office, more in line with the thinking of the Founders.

Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at renee@roses-books.com.

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