Here’s something that should come as no surprise — 88 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of the United States Postal Service (USPS). After all, there are few things more essential than mail delivery, and postal workers not only do a great job, but the service is delivered at a low cost to the public while reaching every community in the country, no matter how small.
Yet despite being held in such high regard, the post office doesn’t get much respect from lawmakers.
Since 1970, when the Post Office Department was reorganized into the modern-day USPS, the agency has seen its subsidies slowly whittled away. It is now expected to fully cover its operating costs, forcing it to function more and more like a private business than a public service.
USPS was already struggling from the internet-induced drop in mail and Amazon’s decision to deliver a greater share of its orders with low-paid contractors. But with the impact of COVID-19 on mail volumes, USPS is facing an even more uncertain future. While the House was prepared to give USPS $25 billion in assistance in its COVID-19 stimulus package, President Donald Trump personally nixed any such support.
The post office could be bankrupt as soon as June. We can’t allow such a vital institution to go under or succumb to privatization.
The post office plays an essential role beyond mail delivery, dropping off over a billion prescription drugs every year and playing a key part in national emergency planning. Its connection to every city and town across the country also puts it in a unique position to act as the foundation for a socialist transition by promoting public ownership, worker control, and decommodification of more sectors of the economy, including – for a start — banking, telecommunications, and software development.
We should fight to save the post office – and extend its logic of public service and democracy into more precincts of the economy.
Postal banks operate all over the world, including in France, India, New Zealand, and South Korea. It’s also not unheard of in the United States. From 1911 to 1967, the Post Office Department operated the Postal Savings System, which allowed Americans to make secure deposits and earn a bit of interest on their money. It was particularly valuable in the years before 1933 when deposits in private banks were not backed by the government, but deposits didn’t start to decline until 1947. And while it didn’t offer full banking services, a postal bank of the future could do just that.
In the United States today, 6.5 percent of households are “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have a bank account, and another 18.7 percent are “underbanked,” lacking access to adequate financial services. Some of these people don’t have the money to open up bank accounts, while others don’t have access to banking services in their communities. After the financial crisis, more than ten thousand bank branches closed across the United States, with rural areas hit the hardest. Online banking can fill some of those gaps, but people will still need to access a branch for some services. The USPS has seventeen thousand locations in ZIP codes with one or no bank branches. It’s perfectly positioned to both provide those services and offer a superior alternative to the predatory private banking system.
Wells Fargo, to name just one bad actor, spent years signing customers up for accounts and services they hadn’t agreed to, sticking them with additional banking fees just so branches could meet the impossible targets that corporate management had set. The company was later forced to pay a $3 billion settlement, and a number of its executives were charged. But Wells Fargo’s actions were simply an extreme version of a broader problem with the consumer banking system: it makes money by slapping people with fees, penalizing those who are simply struggling to get by. That’s a tax on poverty.
A postal banking service could provide a non-predatory option. Plus, imagine how much easier it would’ve been to deliver $1,200 COVID-19 checks — just wire them through the postal banking direct deposit system.
There’s a growing push for public broadband in the United States, with more than nine hundred communities now connected to municipal or cooperative networks. Users not only receive internet at a lower cost, but typically enjoy faster service, especially in small communities that are not as profitable for the telecom Comcast to serve well. In cities like Chattanooga, even Republicans politicians praise the public network, because “when people experience the benefits of a public network in their immediate lives, they see it more as an issue of common sense than one of partisan politics.”
Still, the United States is a global laggard on fiber-to-the-home service, with just over 30 percent of households connected and only 50 percent expected to have access to the service by 2025. Countries like Spain and Japan have connected over 90 percent of their populations.
A postal telecommunications service could give a boost to the movement for municipal internet by helping spread public systems to more parts of the country and advocating for more federal support. Bernie Sanders, for instance, has called for high-speed internet for all — but we could go further and insist that internet should be considered a free public service guaranteed free to everyone in the United States, as the British Labour Party proposed last year.
A postal telecom service could also work with municipal broadband providers and public electrical utilities to build out a national public 5G wireless service with a mandate to better serve rural parts of the country. Not only would that bring much more equitable internet access, but it would break the private oligopoly that’s overcharging and underserving so many.
Historically, governments have played a role in ensuring new communications technologies serve public goals. In the early days of the US post office, one of its primary functions was to transport newspapers throughout the country. Later, as broadcast television emerged in the twentieth century, European governments largely relied on public companies to make sure television served the public good, while the United States heavily regulated the commercial broadcasters. But the advent of the internet corresponded with the era of deregulation and neoliberalism, which short-circuited efforts to restrain the market or create the digital equivalent of a public broadcaster. It’s now become clear that was a huge mistake.
The internet, especially in the United States, is dominated by a few massive companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft — that use the wealth they amassed monopolizing their core industry to subsidize or acquire their way into others. Amazon began in the bookselling business, expanded its e-commerce platform, then moved into cloud computing, film production, hardware development, artificial intelligence, and more. Google did something similar by harnessing its advertising profits from search monopoly to build out a suite of digital services, buy Android and YouTube, and extend its dominance into physical space with autonomous cars and smart cities. While delivering wonderful services, these monopolies have come with immense downsides, including business models that rely on tracking every aspect of our lives and employing low-paid contractors and gig workers with few benefits and little employment security.
Some say we should break up these behemoths and let competition reign, ignoring the digital reality that network effects would simply cause a re-monopolization in the future. A better solution would be to take them into public hands and shift the power of digital solutions toward workers and the democratic public.
In a report that reimagines the role of the BBC for the twenty-first century, Dan Hind proposes a British Digital Cooperative that could serve as a model for an expanded USPS. As a cooperative institution run and controlled by the public “through random selection, election, and general participation,” this vision for an expanded USPS would see it establish teams across the country, including in cities and towns outside the major coastal hubs, that would build platforms and software responding not just to the broader public interest, but to the needs of local communities. Post offices would be scaled up to act as spaces where the public could use and learn about the free software and open hardware being created by the digital cooperative, with people on hand to provide education.
In practice, this would mean having teams work with public institutions like libraries, universities, museums, and theaters to provide informative and educational materials for a public social media platform that’s built around fostering community and discussion, not engagement, clicks, and data collection to better sell ads. It would mean building a public online payments system, integrated with the postal bank, and an e-commerce platform with transparent and equitable terms of service. It would mean having teams work with workers and public institutions to develop democratic alternatives to Uber and delivery apps that workers control instead of being exploited by. Finally, it would mean building publicly funded and maintained alternatives to the software monopolies we’ve been forced to rely on, whether it’s Microsoft Windows and Office (which requires us to pay) or Google’s suite of services (which force us to give up our data and privacy).
Above all, we need to get past the idea that tech must be a private, for-profit endeavor and start rebuilding it to serve workers and democracy.
This expansive vision for a reinvigorated post office — a thoroughly democratic institution offering banking services, expanding telecommunications infrastructure, and taking on the tech monopolies — is just a taste of the role the USPS could play in fostering radical reforms and greater worker control over the economy.
The USPS could also use its unique logistical infrastructure to revive the 1914 Farm-to-Table pilot program to deliver fresh food to people in need. It could partner with libraries to set up a national lending system that provides noncommercial access to things like tools, toys, bikes, and a whole range of other items.
USPS’s unique infrastructure puts it in the position to deliver even more services in an equitable fashion, shooting doses of socialism into the economy. We should seize this opportunity not only to defend the post office from attacks, but to build out programs that act as “engines of solidarity” — making a material difference in people’s lives while showing them the superiority of universal services owned and run in the public interest.
And what better time to make that push than in the middle of a crisis, when political norms have been tossed out the window?