The United States Postal Service is careening through an engineered crisis, hurtling towards failure. A 2006 law requiring that the Postal Service prepay retiree health benefits 75 years in advance — a provision to which no other government agency or private corporation is subject — has resulted in backlog and delays. This crisis has taught us more about the USPS than we would ever hope to learn. Each year, the Postal Service carries 143 billion pieces of mail — fifteen times more than the combined volume of UPS and FedEx — accounting for nearly half of global mail volume. At the start of this year, the equivalent of around one in 260 American workers was employed by the Postal Service. Each worker earned a living wage and most held union jobs. It should be noted that the Postal Service does all this without costing the American taxpayer a single cent.
While this is useful information, the recent coverage of the crisis has largely focused on what the Postal Service does. It seems well to consider what the Postal Service is. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general. In 1792, the passage of the Postal Service Act created the Post Office Department, which became a cabinet-level department in 1872. The passage of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 abolished the Post Office Department and founded the United States Postal Service as we know it today. The USPS is neither a department of the executive branch nor a government-owned corporation, such as Amtrak. Instead, the USPS is an independent agency of the executive branch, theoretically insulated from political mischief and corporate greed.
When not in crisis, the Postal Service enjoys a degree of invisibility rarely afforded other features of the American landscape. The Postal Service is just so regular. The mail works so well, that we fail to appreciate just how well the mail works — right up until it doesn’t. Anyone living through the present moment should know the consequences brought on by such complacency and ingratitude. If our experiences with the Postal Service have been brief and unremarkable, then our experiences with the Postal Service have been efficient and reliable.
The Postal Service is infrastructure — basic, fundamental, essential. The Postal Service is only for delivering mail in the same sense that roads are only for driving cars. An infrastructure’s intrinsic value might be debatable, but its instrumental value is not. Infrastructure is the foundation on which the entire superstructure of society rests. A threat to any infrastructure is a threat to all society.
Maybe our attitude towards the Postal Service is impersonal and dispassionate. Maybe that’s the whole point. The United States Postal Service was designed and positioned to keep the excitement of good politics firewalled from the boredom of good governance. It is this mundane regularity that lets out-of-state students vote, carries tax refunds to rural Mississippians, and provides necessary and dignified and prosperous work to thousands of people in this state.
Mischief and greed have always had their place in politics, and politics has always had its place in governance. But the extent to which these evils have infiltrated politics and the extent to which politics has come to dominate governance should be alarming. The ongoing efforts to weaponize, privatize, or otherwise destroy the United States Postal System should be alarming. The peril threatening the Postal Service is just one aspect of a peril threatening the United States itself. Even during a time that has all but exhausted our capacity for distress, this particular crisis should leave Americans furious and terrified.
John Hydrisko is a senior English, Philosophy, and History major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.