What are people — and the Post Office — for?

On May 15, 2012 Mark Jamison wrote a heartfelt valedictory letter to his community.  He begins,  “It’s likely that I will be the last postmaster to serve the town of Webster, North Carolina.”  And goes on to tell us what he thinks the post office was and should be and what it is becoming.

As most informed observers do, Mr. Jamison sees the passage in 2006 of the laughably misnamed bill, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) as the moment when Congress and the President abandoned the post office.  PAEA imposed an arbitrary and unprecedented $5.5 billion a year payment that predictably resulted in a financial crisis that in turn has led the Post Office to propose closing over 10,000 post offices and hundreds of mail processing centers and ending Saturday delivery and all in all decimating this most public of all public goods.

Mr. Jamison’s letter was to his community but its message I hope will resonate with us all. Here are some excerpts.  Read the full letter at the ever useful web site, Save Our Post Office.

One might cynically conclude that PAEA was designed to create failure, and while it may not have been the actual folks in Congress who understood that, it is likely that those who crafted the bill did. The more insidious damage of PAEA was to create a business model that completely moved the Postal Service away from defining mission as infrastructure into something more akin to a Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE), a bastardized construction that confuses corporate imperatives with governmental functions. The GSE is a reflection of our acceptance that all things are creations of the marketplace, which fits an ideological presumption that markets are natural phenomena rather than manmade creations designed to solve a problem.

This presumption turns our economics on its head, and it is the cause of a great number of our problems today.  It monetizes every transaction and interaction and reduces society and culture to nothing more than a series of economic events.  It turns a method of explanation and understanding into a comprehensive worldview that discards much of what makes us human and motivates us.

In failing to understand the value of public goods and the social value of employment and the productive imperatives of including people in our calculations of efficiency, we are succumbing to a system and society based on and motivated by little more than narrow greed for profit.

The postal network is a basic public and social good that has helped communities, both urban and rural, thrive.  It is a fundamental utility that has provided useful employment, in a responsible and cost-effective manner, and that too is a basic good.

The Kentucky poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry asks, “What are people for?”  I wonder, once we’ve modeled, optimized, rationalized, and perfectly justified everything, once we’ve become maximally efficient thanks to our sophisticated software and algorithms that dictate the parameters of our existence, once we’ve given the marketplace complete authority to determine the worth of our existence, will we then have an answer to that question?

People don’t seem to figure much in the current calculations surrounding the Postal Service.  There doesn’t seem to be much space for them, whether they are members of a community served by a post office or employees or simply “We the People” who sought to make a compact to provide for the “general welfare”.



Avatar photo
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.