Since the pandemic shut down much of American life back in March, I have worked mostly at my kitchen table in a suburban house in Bismarck, N.D. I chose the kitchen table because it has seven big bay windows around it. I like to work in the natural light. But I also like to watch for the moment when the white Jeep crawls up the street on the other side delivering the mail.
In this subdivision, we have a contract mail carrier. I know her a little. No matter what I am doing, even meeting a screaming deadline, I walk out the door to get the mail within minutes of its arrival. It would drive me nuts to just let it sit there. When I get nothing (very occasionally) or only junk mail, I feel a little deflated. Mostly I wait for packages of books. If there is a card or personal letter, I stop everything and devour it. I leave her cookies at the holidays. She brings fragile parcels straight to my door.
The national controversy touched off by President Trump’s offensive against the U.S. Postal Service has called much-needed attention to the beleaguered semi-independent federal agency that delivers our mail. For one thing, it turns out that the American people like the Postal Service and have been willing to speak out strenuously (even fiercely) to protect it. According to recent studies, the U.S. Postal Service consistently ranks as the American people’s favorite federal agency. And though almost everyone grumbles about mail service now and then, it has an astonishing 91 percent approval rating. That compares with the CIA (60 percent), FEMA (52 percent), the IRS (50 percent), the Environmental Protection Agency (43 percent), and the Veterans Affairs (39 percent). The post office delivers 150 billion “letters” and more than 5 billion parcels per year. It delivers a staggering 1 billion Christmas cards per year, even now. There are 230,000 designated delivery routes in America and more than 500,000 career USPS employees, not counting contract carriers.
The USPS has suffered severely since the coronavirus caused massive disruption to life in America. Required by law to be revenue-neutral, i.e., not to be a drain on the U.S. Treasury, like so many other business and government entities, the USPS is going to need huge subsidies if it is going to survive the COVID-19 crisis. What otherwise would be a mostly fiscal problem has been transformed into a whopping political controversy by President Trump’s undisguised declaration that he wants to starve the USPS so that it cannot meet the demands of mail-in voting in the runup to the November presidential election and that he will veto any congressional legislation that provides bail-out money for the post office.
His recently appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has initiated a series of perplexing and counterintuitive cost-cutting “reforms,” including the removal of more than 500 Delivery Barcode Sorter machines from around the nation. These sorting machines process mail in nearly unbelievable volume. They make up the bulk of the USPS mail sorting operation. If you are looking for greater efficiency in the post office, removing these robotic wonders would seem to be counterproductive. They don’t take coffee or bathroom breaks, and they are never caught toggling through Facebook on company time.
Even now, a quarter of a century after email revolutionized the way we all communicate, there is nothing quite like a letter or a card that arrives in the mailbox. In fact, a physical letter now has a greater power than it previously did because it means that the other person penned or printed it on paper, folded it, inserted it into an envelope, affixed a postage stamp and dropped it in the appropriate receptacle. Each of these steps takes time and intentionality. It’s way more purposeful than just pushing “send.”
I suppose I write 10,000 emails per year now, some of them long and intricate, passionate and detailed, but on that handful of occasions per year when I really have something I regard as very important to communicate, especially to close friends or members of my family, I get out my old Hermes 3000 manual typewriter and pound out my letter.
It’s a physically painful thing to bang out a letter on a typewriter keyboard now, at a time when our fingers have learned to just dance across the computer keyboard. But when I was a young man, I thought my Hermes 3000 was the greatest word processing machine in the world.
When I write a personal letter as email and push send, I always feel that I am cheating the friendship or family relationship a little. How hard was that? The intentionality required to put a letter in the mail gives it a slight sacramental feel.
I refuse to use the term “snail mail.” I still regard it as little short of a miracle that I can put a note in the mailbox today and it will arrive at someone’s apartment in Los Angeles three days later.
The first-class stamp now costs 55 cents. For half a buck, I can send a three-page letter from Bismarck to Caribou, Maine (1,848 miles), Key West, Fla. (2,372), Barrow, Alaska (2,457) or to El Centro, Calif. (1,629), and everywhere in between. For half a buck, I can send a letter (or a check or a receipt or a vote) to such easy-to-reach places as Denver or New York City but also to such difficult locations as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or to Ersi, Nev. 89412, the most isolated ZIP code in the continental United States. Ersi (near Gerlach) has the distinction of being the farthest point in the lower 48 states from a McDonald’s. Moreover, almost every legibly addressed, properly stamped letter or parcel actually reaches its intended recipient (the USPS lost mail rate is miniscule), and within a handful of days. If you think about that for a moment, you have to shake your head at what a bargain it is.
What else can you buy in America for 55 cents? The great majority of items even at “dollar stores” cost much more than $1. You can’t buy a candy bar for 55 cents or a pack of gum or a cheap ballpoint pen or even an apple or banana. What can you buy today for 55 cents? Well, you can buy a postage stamp, lovingly designed by a visual artist and adopted after a rigorous national vetting process. When there is no one else in line, I often browse through the available stamp designs to choose one that suits my personality or touches on my historical or natural history interests. If you had to pay a private courier (as Thomas Jefferson routinely did, since he was an extremely fastidious and private man) to drive to your house, pick up an envelope, drive or fly it to Seattle, and put it into the hands of the intended recipient, what would that cost you?
In recent years, USPS detractors have suggested that we eliminate the agency and let private enterprise take over the task of delivering the mail. A few years ago, I watched an Inns of Court lecture by Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich. He asked aloud why our experiences at the DMV — licensing our cars or renewing our drivers’ licenses — and at the post office are so inefficient and frustrating, while FedEx and UPS routinely provide efficient and satisfying customer services, with none of the snarky Nurse Ratched style you get at the DMV. Why should we settle for lousy service from our government (at every level) when private enterprise has mastered the same or similar transactions and you invariably get service with a smile? It was a strangely compelling lecture, and I remember thinking that every government service agency should watch it, even if they disagreed strenuously with some of Rep. Gingrich’s conclusions.
And yet there was something a little heartless about what Gingrich advocated. FedEx is more efficient than the U.S. post office, but the base rate for a flat document is $9.05, which is 16 times more expensive than a first-class stamp. Perhaps wealthy Americans and most businesses can afford to pay that rate for overnight service, but for tens of millions of Americans, that is literally cost prohibitive. There are, in fact, millions of Americans for whom 55 cents is significant. FedEx and UPS are marvelous in their way, but they don’t have the constitutional burden of delivering mail to every single ZIP code in the United States, no matter how isolated, how low in overall volume, how unprofitable from a business point of view. Imagine what it costs to get a prescription for heart medicine to a shut-in in Peerless, Mont., population 87, miles from nowhere.
I sent a birthday gift to my daughter recently. I needed to get it there in four days. I could not use FedEx or UPS because they cannot guarantee timely delivery to the remote western Kansas village where she lives. The USPS agent who handled the parcel assured me that my gifts would arrive on time. And they did. I fretted through the whole transit time, because although my daughter would have understood if the package arrived one or two or three days after her birthday (especially now), she would have been disappointed. At midday on her birthday, she called me in glee to say she has just opened the box and was delighted with the contents. Who does not love to receive a care package, no matter how young or old you are? Her satisfaction was as much for receiving the box on her birthday as for what was inside. I was so relieved I nearly cried.
And that was a mere birthday gift. Think of the people who wait by the mailbox for their medical prescriptions, for their Social Security checks, for payment for their hard work, for those important family documents, for their IRS refund, for acknowledgment of their 5th or 95th birthday or their high school graduation. Some USPS critics say these people need to “get with the 21st century” and do all their financial transactions online, that there is no USPS service that cannot be handled in other ways. It is certainly true that the digital revolution has put extraordinary pressure on the post office and made a number of its services seem redundant or no longer vital. It is also true that if the USPS were required to generate cash flow on every delivery, that first-class stamp would be many times more expensive than it is under our subsidized system.
Still, the U.S. postal system has been with the American experiment from the beginning and it is deeply imbedded into the very idea of what we all expect from our national government. The USPS has had its ups and downs through the course of American history. Until Theodore Roosevelt stepped in as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner (1889-1895), the post office was synonymous with cronyism, nepotism, the spoils system and graft. It was perverted in the American South from 1845-1960 to prevent racially incendiary materials, including abolitionist tracts and newspapers, from disrupting slavery, the Black Code, Jim Crow laws and segregation. It was misused during the Red Scare that followed World War I — one of the darkest attacks on civil liberties and free speech in our history —and it was perverted until the 1970s in some places to prevent the dissemination of information about sexual hygiene and women’s reproductive freedom.
And yet, from the beginning in 1792, the USPS has tied the vastness of America together, kept friends and families apprised of the health, sickness, marriage, divorce, career advancement and career setbacks of their loved ones. It has cut the loneliness of hundreds of millions of people isolated either geographically or socially. It has permitted American soldiers to keep in touch with their anxious families back home. And it has allowed people here and abroad to vote when they cannot get to the polls on Election Day, this year perhaps more than ever before.
To say that the postal system is as American as apple pie may sound like a cliché, but it is actually true. When the American colonies realized that they were being taxed and regulated by the British government without their consent in a way that violated their rights as Englishmen, they began the revolution by forming Committees of Correspondence so that the people of Virginia and the Carolinas could stay abreast of what was happening in New York or the Bay Colony of Massachusetts. They wanted to forge a continental response to such British actions as the closing of the Boston Harbor in response to the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773. The men and women of the resistance wanted to explore common strategies, report British depredations and human rights violations, exchange best practices, develop a common narrative of rebellion and build public support for American independence. When Thomas Jefferson served as governor of Virginia (1779-81), he arranged for a system of galloping post riders to provide him “instant field reports” from battles hundreds of miles south of the new Virginia capital at Richmond.
After the peace treaty in 1783, the Founding Fathers realized that the ad hoc confederacy that won the war would only survive as a nation if some way were found to knit the 13 highly independent former colonies together. Jefferson and James Madison were particularly anxious about this predicament because they were committed to creating an American republic, and they knew from their reading of Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws“ (1748) that republics tended to disintegrate unless they were modest in size or held together with a tight and emphatic infrastructure.
The first U.S. Postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, understood that creating an efficient postal system that would facilitate the dissemination of newspapers, pamphlets, letters and magazines, would be critical to the success of the American experiment. This concern about what we call connectivity caused the makers of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia to include the creation of a postal system among the powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the national charter. Congress was empowered “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”
The U.S. Postal Service has survived crises (and bankruptcy) before. It will surely survive this unprecedented moment in American history. The president’s offensive may or may not have legitimate political purpose (that’s for others to decide), but it has produced one unexpected and one much-needed benefit. In the past few weeks, the American people have made it unmistakably clear that they like the post office and they do not intend to see it eliminated, eviscerated or weaponized for partisan politics. I think everyone has been a little surprised by the passion with which average Americans have made their loyalty to the good old post office clear to their representatives in Congress.
Perhaps more important, the crisis is forcing a national debate about the future of the USPS. It is clear that it is going to have to dig deep into the world of innovation to find a way to serve the needs of the American people in this era of disruption — in technology, communication, terrorism, globalism, mobility, alternative systems of distribution, robotics, and the demand for instant gratification — and yet find a way to cash flow, too.
For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book,“Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available at Amazon.com.