Superheroes

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When Sarah* was six or seven years old, all her friends dressed up as superheroes for Halloween. Batman, Superman, Aquaman. She dressed up as the mailman.

“This is what I wanted to do my whole life,” Sarah—which is not her real name because postal workers can be reprimanded or even fired for speaking to the press—told me about a month ago. She's now a clerk at a small town's post office. She was drawn to the post office because of the role postal workers play in their communities, the postal service’s history in shaping this country, and the pride she has in serving fellow citizens. She wanted to be part of something that matters. To other kids her age, that meant saving Gotham from the Joker or reversing the rotation of the Earth to turn back time to save Lois Lane. But not to Sarah: “The mailman was my superhero,” she said.

Is it really so odd to think of the mailman as a superhero? The same person comes to our home six days a week with pieces of paper or boxes filled with goods from all over the world. I like to imagine little Sarah asked the mailman one day how he got all these things, and he gave a cute reply, something like I went to all these places and got them myself, just for you! That sounds like a superhero to me.

Of course, the real answer is a mail carrier is just a small part of a 633,000-strong group of people, all working together to get the mail from one place to another because it is something our society has decided it wants to do. Delivering the mail is something we have wanted to do since before we even had a country. And it is something we have consistently done, without prolonged disagreement or interruption, for 245 years.

But mailmen and mailwomen are not superheroes. Not because what the USPS does every day—as just one example, bringing life-saving medicine to people who otherwise couldn't get it—fails to qualify as a superpower, but because superheroes aren’t real. The post office is even better, because it is real.

This is no small point. The post office is an anomaly to the United States of America I know, one that asks not what big business can do for you but what you can do for big business. I have lived my entire life in a country that, almost without exception, believes as a matter of faith that the private sector will address our needs, that government involvement in our life is to be avoided. Yet, here is this government service, created by the very "Founding Fathers" our country worships, that delivers to every single American six days a week, a service many of our fellow countrymen, including our retired soldiers, literally cannot live without

Over the last few months, I've spoken to dozens of postal workers around the country, corresponded with dozens more, and received emails from hundreds yet more. I've read five books on the post office—there are, to my surprise, relatively few books about the post office, and only a handful that cover the last 50 years in any detail—and reviewed countless government reports about the post office. I've received thousands of pages from public records requests. 

Which is to say, I've been obsessed with the post office, even before Louis DeJoy took over and instituted changes that have made the USPS a consistent news headline. I've been obsessed with it because I want to know what it says about our country that the post office was created, survived through a revolutionary war and a civil war, but is now facing its greatest crisis yet: a financial crisis created by the very people who take an oath to support and defend it. I have come to view the post office as living, breathing evidence that the worldview which has dominated our society for the last several decades is fundamentally flawed, because even as it has been hobbled and weakened, the post office still works. If the post office, long decried by conservatives as the poster child of government inefficiency and therefore undeserving of our tax dollars, is consistently rated the most popular part of the government even without those tax dollars, then maybe inefficiency isn't the pernicious disease they say it is. Perhaps there's something more important than efficiency.

Over the next few months, this newsletter will be a story of the post office, told through what has happened before and what is happening today. With apologies to Sarah and all other postal workers, it is not a story about superheroes—or, for that matter, supervillains. It is a story about people who have done remarkable things and people who have profoundly erred, and the hundreds of thousands of people who show up in what can often be a very difficult, even hellish, place to work. 

But the story of the USPS is mostly one of contradiction and confusion. It must cover its own costs without government subsidy, but must also serve nearly all Americans six days a week, something private carriers like UPS and FedEx would never do because it cannot possibly be profitable. It must put aside tens of billions of dollars in future retiree benefits, but has almost no control over what it charges for stamps and packages. It cannot rent out unused retail space or open new lines of business, even something as simple as installing a copy and fax machine in the lobby (although, if a post office already had one prior to 2006, it can keep it). It is, in other words, a "business" that is legislatively barred from doing what businesses do.

This isn't to say the postal service hasn't innovated. To pick just a few examples, it was one of the first entities to utilize optical character recognition computer programs, wisely deployed to read addresses on mailpieces. Sorting mail has evolved from a manual, laborious task to a largely mechanized one. It has cut its workforce by more than 100,000 people over the last few decades while still delivering the mail six days a week.

But the USPS has not been rewarded for these advances. In fact, it has effectively been punished for them, since its productivity has made it a constant target for budgetary chicanery to make the federal deficit appear smaller than it is. The modern USPS has been defined by an extended, bipartisan effort to cut costs, especially what it pays its workers, even as every government and consultant review acknowledges delivering 48 percent of the world's mail to some 330 million people is an inherently labor-intensive task, made more intensive every year as there are more people and businesses to deliver mail to. From 2009 to 2018, the USPS had to make deliveries to 8.5 million more homes and businesses with 77,000 fewer employees. And now, in 2020, we are being told yet again the USPS must be more efficient and cut costs. It's no wonder the post office has become an increasingly difficult place to work.

This conflict between "efficiency" and the quality of life for its workers is at the heart of the postal service's troubles, and it is not a new conflict for the post office (or, for that matter, the industrialized world). In 1919, Postmaster General Albert Burleson, a fervent anti-unionist who re-segregated the post office based on race, called unions "a menace to public welfare and should no longer be tolerated or condoned" shortly after declaring it was his goal to get the post office to make money every year (it is worth noting postal unions didn't even have collective bargaining power at the time). In response, National Association of Letter Carriers president Edward Gainor retorted in a union newspaper in early 1920, "Shall a postal surplus be achieved at the expense of inadequate service or underpaid postal employees?" (This reply was documented in historian Philip Rubio's indispensable book Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service.) Gainor's question is the question that has haunted the USPS for a century.

In recent weeks, millions of Americans have woken up to the USPS’s plight. Americans are aware the post office will serve as a critical link in the chain of democracy, bringing empty ballots to voters and completed ballots back, and they are worried about whether the post office will be able to do that without major incident. But what makes the post office a major source of concern is fundamentally the same thing that concerns us about the state of the country as a whole: that our critical institutions have been starved of resources, that our government is no longer robust enough to deal with new challenges, that it is being run by people uninterested in serving the agency’s stated mission. With respect to the post office, it is an overdue awakening. “Save the post office” has become a widespread sentiment. Indeed, the post office needs saving; it has needed saving for a long time.

We don't need a superhero to save the post office. We need something equally rare. We, as a country, need to agree on something important: that the post office is not a business but a service every American directly benefits from, and therefore every American should pay into. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anything more deserving of tax dollars than a peaceful, civil service that binds every American together, promotes commerce, and serves as a link of last resort to vulnerable populations. Instead of feeding the good thing, we, as a country, have decided to starve it. Reversing this policy would require not just reversing a bad law, but admitting we were wrong about some very big ideas. That is what makes it so difficult, and also so important.

But if there's anything that can possibly accomplish this, it is the post office. I don't believe in superheroes, but if the post office can manage to do that, I just might start believing in one.


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VICE Media c/o Aaron Gordon
49 S 2nd St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211