Jacobin - April 15, 2020
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.
Reviving the Postal Bank
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.
Making Internet a Public Service
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.
Developing Tech for the Public Good
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. ...
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