Nearly every American schoolchild learns the unofficial United States Postal Service motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Nearly every scholar and student of American politics knows that the Post Office is explicitly authorized by the Constitution.
Still, the Post Office is a frequent punching bag for pundits of varied political persuasions and for ordinary customers too: it cuts crony deals, it bankrupts itself, it’s too expensive, it’s too cheap, the workers are too lazy, it subsidizes far-flung low-density living arrangements, it’s a dinosaur from a vanished age of centralization and bigness. Critiques flow in from libertarians, finance hawks, consumer advocates, environmentalists. One wag cautions against privatization of the Post Office like so: its “ongoing existence as a government-operated monopoly is a constant reminder to the electorate of the impressive incompetence that is government itself.”
This is all not to mention President Trump, who isn’t very interested in saving the Post Office even as it careens toward a potentially catastrophic and crippling insolvency this fall. At least some commentators believe the Post Office as we know it is finished.
The aesthetics of the average postal branch probably haven’t helped. The local post office I grew up with looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago, as do innumerable others across America: muted businesslike greys and blues, plain tile floors, angular, trapezoidal formica counters with built-in trash cans (a little particle board peeking out under chips), front desks with grimy rubberized edges, a “menu” of services backlit with flickering fluorescents that almost makes me want to be a wise guy and order a Big Mac, but with the expectation that Big Macs are sold out. Many more remote branches did not even get that decor package. As best I can tell, there have been no new, system-wide decor upgrades in the last quarter-century. The Post Office can feel like a Soviet simulacrum of a business: its ancient, slowly failing trucks can resemble Cuban cars if you squint, and it even has five-year plans!
Yet isn’t it slightly unsettling when a company with a familiar everyday presence, like a budget hotel or fast food chain, changes its logo and decor style? At some point, these private entities meld into a shared commercial and social culture, and their signs and styles into physical and mental landmarks. A little something is lost when it’s unilaterally taken away.
The Post Office’s hopelessly outdated branches are a little oasis of physical continuity in a churning commercial world where fast food menus are eye-straining screens, McDonald’s restaurants are demolished and rebuilt for remodeling purposes, and the Comfort Inn logo looks like a piece of cracked macaroni. You can be sure the beleaguered, inefficient Post Office, like the perfectly serviceable private label at your supermarket, won’t be taking your money and spending it on stuff like this. Sure, a little freshening up wouldn’t hurt, and the Post Office knows that. But would you really like to pay more to mail a package so the USPS can take on more design consultants?
All of this, however, is just a bonus. The Post Office is admirable and important less for its curmudgeonly time-capsule vibe and more for its status as that rare government service that’s a genuinely universal civic amenity. It’s the largest single civilian employer other than Walmart (and the federal government), and it operates about 30,000 locations throughout the United States. That’s double the number of McDonald’s locations and about the same as the number of dollar stores. Walmart has about 5,000 U.S. stores. The Post Office certainly competes with private enterprise for ubiquity and consumer awareness.
But while many large chains are pulling out of rural America and poor urban America, leaving people with long, lonely drives for groceries or complicated trips on public transit, the USPS, for now, remains nearly everywhere. If America were the world, the sun would never set on the Post Office. In the tough post-2008 years, they toyed with closing low-traffic rural branches, but decided to cut operating hours instead, with some consolidation of branches in more densely populated places. USPS delivers packages everywhere and operates thousands of tiny, low-traffic locations.
When you consider how much work it takes to get a letter from coast to coast, and that a stamp costs the same no matter where in the U.S. the letter goes, it’s nothing short of remarkable. It is also terribly inefficient. And extremely egalitarian.
Maybe Milton Friedman was right that private mail would outperform it; maybe Yuval Levin is right that we live in an age of de-consolidation; and maybe James Howard Kunstler is right that we’ve nearly exhausted the fossil fuels that allowed us to build such a society in the first place. Maybe there’s a better use of labor hours and gasoline than trucking Christmas cards miles and miles down unpaved roads to rural homes miles apart. But getting that letter in your mailbox isn’t just a service; it’s a promise. It says that we’re willing to put resources behind the proposition that every American, as an American, is entitled to take part in the commercial and cultural benefits of regular mail delivery, and that the postal network and its history as a disseminator of communication and free speech is an indelible piece of our national inheritance. The Post Office has always been a vaguely political yet completely innocent institution, equal parts Rooseveltian and Rockwellian.
For years, the USPS has struggled under reduced mail volume, competition from Amazon’s private shipping network, and a 2006 Republican-backed law mandating retirement expenses to an extent that applies “to no other federal agency or private corporation.” Now, with the coronavirus shutdown forcing it further into the red, President Trump has vowed to block any congressional bailout or relief for the Post Office. Even before the pandemic, in 2018, Trump assembled a Post Office task force whose recommendations some viewed as threatening the universal service mandate. The dreaded and barely averted rural cuts from the early 2010s may finally come, if not something even more drastic.
It’s ironic that the politicians claiming the mantle of forgotten Americans and rural living are the same ones who seem poised to deliver a coup de grace to already struggling post offices out in America’s vast expanses. In small towns—often just an intersection with a church, gas station, restaurant, and post office—the loss of the post office generally means the loss of the zip code as well, which can spell the de facto end of a place’s existence.
Open Google Maps and try looking up the towns in this 1976 New York Times piece on post office closures and retired zip codes. Some of these places, perhaps, are tiny and insignificant. But these are places that people call home. But the local post office isn’t just a convenience or a status symbol. It’s a way to communicate in places where reliable, high-speed internet and cell service is still a dream. It’s a way to participate in e-commerce, if you’ve managed to get that internet. And it’s above all about America’s social contract. The smallest post office branch in America, in Florida’s Everglades, serves three large counties, and those people are full and fellow citizens too. “Government,” in these cases, doesn’t mean faceless bean counters in the imperial city. It means a social and economic fixture of small and remote towns charged by law, not merely motivated by profit, to serve.
Congress has bailed out banks, they’ve bailed out cars, and hell, if it came to it they’d probably quietly bail out fast food and porn. And none of those have their own clause in the Constitution. The humble Post Office is a community fixture, a civic inheritance, a rural lifeline, and one of the last vestiges of a shared civic culture in America. Tolerate it, treasure it, and don’t let the vicissitudes of global capitalism, contempt for government, or a viral outbreak take it away from us.