By Paul Waldman
Last Friday, the president took a shot at the U.S. Postal Service over Twitter, alleging that they aren't charging Amazon enough to mail packages, "making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer." In response, I took the opportunity to go on a little Twitter rant of my own, in which I sought to dispel some of the myths about the Postal Service. I figured it would get a few retweets and likes, and that would be that. What happened instead was an overwhelming response from tens of thousands of people, sharing my comments and their affection for the Postal Service as customers, employees, and the loved ones of both. That response convinced me that there's more to say about this topic and what it says about America.
To begin, let me explain why the U.S. Postal Service, target of so many derisive portrayals in popular culture, is actually a marvel.
There are many parts of modern life that are so routine that we take them for granted and never contemplate how much planning, effort, time and resources goes into them. So take a step back and consider what the Postal Service does for you. It will come to your house, take a letter that you've written, move that letter by truck or plane or boat thousands of miles as far as it needs to go, and deliver it to the person you've sent it to, all in just a few days.
The fact that this has been the case for your entire life doesn't mean it isn't amazing. The scholar and commentator Zeynep Tufekci wrote last year about how upon coming to the United States she was astonished at the efficiency and ease of the American postal system compared with the one where she grew up, including how simple it is to mail a letter. "I told my friends in Turkey about all this. They shook their heads in disbelief, wondering how easily I had been recruited as a C.I.A. agent, saying implausibly flattering things about my new country."
The Postal Service will take that letter to any address in the United States no matter how much it costs to do so, because they're required to by law, no matter how far they have to go. FedEx and UPS don't deliver to many addresses, and when they have a package that needs to go to someplace off the beaten path, they often literally bring their packages to the post office and mail them, because it's much cheaper that way.
Just to check, I went on the websites of those carriers to see what it would cost to get a letter picked up at my house and taken across the country to Los Angeles. The cheapest rate at FedEx was $29.68; at UPS it was $34.55. As you probably know, the Postal Service will do it for 49 cents. Forty. Nine. Cents.
And they do it hundreds of millions of times a day. In 2017, they delivered 149 billion pieces of mail, or more than 400 million every day. They process almost half of the entire world's mail volume. They maintain 31,000 post offices, many of which are in places where no private company would put an outlet because it isn't profitable (these figures are taken from the latest USPS annual report).
That brings us to the question of money. You may have heard that the Postal Service loses money, which is true. Even if we put aside the fact that nobody asks whether the Army or your local fire department are turning a profit, there are two big reasons why the Postal Service is always in the red. The first is those incredibly low rates they charge, and the second is that by law they are required to prepay retiree health benefits for current employees, which no other government agency or private company has to do. If they were not laboring under that requirement, they'd be profitable.
But that doesn't get to the heart of how so many people feel about the Postal Service, if anyone would bother to ask. That's what I found out as I scrolled through all the responses to my Twitter thread. Let me share just a few, starting with this one from NBA journalist David Aldridge:
My dad was a mailman. He did it for 30 years. He did it when it was freezing cold, when it was ungodly hot, when it was snowing hard, when it was pouring rain. He got up every Monday thru Saturday at 3:30 am and did it for 10 hours a day. For 30 years. Thank you, @paulwaldman1. https://t.co/6dyH6IWH0l
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) December 30, 2017
There were many like that—people whose parents worked at the post office, and with that secure job with good benefits they could carry their families into the middle class. This has always been particularly true for members of minority groups, and that became part of the discussion in my feed as well:
I think there's a strong connection between anti-black racism and disdain for public employment, specifically in the direct service agencies like USPS
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 30, 2017
You may be right. When I started carrying mail, the only black guy was the custodian. By the time I was done 30 years later we were close to 1/2 black, and yes I heard comments, which I discouraged. Everyone worked hard. I miss those guys& girls
— Rocky mccoy (@RobertJMccoy1) January 1, 2018
I suspect that Prospect alum Jamelle Bouie is right, and the fact that the Postal Service has for so long provided good jobs for African Americans is no small part of the animus directed toward it. I also heard from small-business owners who praised the Postal Service for enabling their businesses to function, and ordinary people offering tributes to the dedication and caring of their local mail carrier or the importance of the post office to their communities. And carriers themselves, who thanked me for praising their work.
I know some of you will say, "Yeah, well it wasn't so great when I lost that package last year." Which does happen. But name me a private company, nonprofit group, or government agency that never makes a mistake. Apple, which some people treat like a religion, was intentionally slowing down your phone without telling you until they got caught. Ask anyone who has served in uniform how often the military screws up. Hundreds of millions of people are still devoted to the Catholic Church despite the fact that it essentially ran a pedophila ring for decades.
Given the magnitude of what we ask them to perform, the Postal Service does an extraordinary job. But more than the execution of a practical task, our mail service binds us together as a nation. When the founders created it and made Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster General, they saw the dissemination of information as critical to the maintenance of a free and democratic society. As one author put it, for over two centuries it has remained "one of the few American institutions, public or private, in which we, the people, are treated as equals."
From the top of Trump Tower, President Trump probably never had to talk to his mail carrier or think about what it takes to provide that service every day. The rest of us on the ground, however, can have a better appreciation of how fortunate we are as a country that the Postal Service does what it does for us as well as it does. So I'll just leave you with this:
50 cents to send a letter coast to coast? $6 to send a package. It's a bargain and a miracle. pic.twitter.com/FPqx8pbzEr
— Chandra Greer (@GREERChicago) December 30, 2017