On July 26, 1775, the U.S. postal system was established by the Second Continental Congress, with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general. In its profound wisdom, the Postal Service chose July 26 to release a list of 3,653 post offices that will it be studying for closure over the coming months. The list even includes the B Free Franklin post office, a museum dedicated to Ben Franklin and the creation of the post office.
The next day the Postal Service released a second list, this one with 727 post offices, stations and branches already heading for discontinuance. (A list of 727 post offices released on 7/27. They know how to pick their dates.) That’s 4,380 post offices, and it doesn’t include at least 150 that have been closed over the past several months, and probably a few hundred that have fallen in the cracks.
If you want to get a sense of what all those closures look like, check out the interactive map of the closing list presented on Tuesday. You’ll see the whole country blue with markers indicating the post offices slated for closing. The map says it all.
We’re witnessing the largest effort to close post offices in the country’s history. For the past 40 years—since the Postal Service was created out of the old Department of the Post Office—they’ve closed post offices at the rate of about a hundred a year. Over the coming year, they want to close 30 or 40 times that many, and over the next six years, 16,000—half the country’s post offices.
There have been over three thousand news reports about the release of the closing list this week, and nearly every one says the same thing — basically the USPS press release about how much money the Postal Service is losing and how everyone is using email, and nothing about what's really behind the mass closures, nothing about the huge corporations that have been making billions off the Postal Service for years, nothing about how "rightsizing" the postal system is part of a plan to privatize it.
Most of the articles also repeat the Postal Service’s line that just because a post office is on the list doesn’t mean it will ultimately close. Some articles make it sound like the Postal Service isn't really serious about closing all those post offices—it's just "mulling" it over. This is just wishful thinking designed to put everyone back to sleep.
(By the way, speaking of how the news media are covering the story, don’t miss the Washington Post editorial endorsing the Ross-Issa Postal Reform Act. Who wrote this thing, Fred Smith or the Cato Institute?)
Nowhere in the reporting on what’s going on will you read what should be obvious. The Postal Service is not going to stop with the lists this week. It is closing down our post offices, period. It will continue to develop its “alternative retail network” of kiosks, contract postal units, and internet business so that in six years, there will be no need for post offices at all, and they can proceed to close the rest, perhaps leaving the cream, a couple of thousand of the big money-makers, probably to be sold off to a private corporation.
The best part is the way the Postal Service puts an Orwellian spin on the whole sorry business. Downsizing postal workers out of their jobs is called "rightsizing," and now they call the push to close 3,653 post offices a “Retail Access Optimization Initiative." On the website where the Postal Service lists the post offices being studied for closure, they call it the “Expanded Access Study List.” Only the Postal Service could close thousands of post offices and call it “expanded access.” And killing post offices—oh, that’s called “consolidating,” “discontinuing,” and “optimizing.”
It gets better. The latest exercise in Postalspeak this week—the Village Post Office. Talk about cynical. The Postal Service presents a plan to close thousands of small town post offices, and then offers as a “replacement model” the old contract postal unit (CPU), now dressed up in “village” garb, complete with the rhetoric of “mom-and-pop” and “community.” It’s like the developer who comes to town and cuts down all the trees and puts up a housing project and calls it “The Woods.”
The Postal Service doesn’t give a damn about moms and pops and villages. It is simply proceeding in a step-by-step way on a backdoor path toward privatization. This is not about helping a small town get a new lease on life by opening up a post office inside a cute little general store. Contracting out postal services to private businesses is big business.
The leaders of the Postal Service—the Board of Governors and the executives in L’Enfant Plaza—are committed only to the major “stakeholders” like FedEx, Northrop Grumman, Pat Salmon, and the bulk mailing companies. And the goal is simple—maximizing profits. That's why the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a lobbying group composed of the largest commercial users of the mail system, has endorsed the closing of the 3,600 post offices. It's good for business.
But the Postal Service is supposed to be fulfilling the “universal service obligation.” Instead, it's become simply an obligation, something to get around whenever possible. The small rural post offices and the post offices in struggling urban neighborhoods that were on this week’s lists are the casualties of the Postal Service’s master plan. They cost very little to operate and not much money will be saved in closing them, especially when you consider outstanding lease obligations, the cost of appeals, and so on.
But if the Postal Service can save a nickel, it will do it, no matter the real cost to the country—the cost in gas, carbon footprint, and time it will take millions of people to drive to a post office further way, the cost in lost income to the businesses near the post office, the cost in the morale of a small town struggling to maintain its identity. That’s because the Postal Service is thinking just like those corporate stakeholders, and it’s forgotten the biggest stakeholder of all, the American people.
Mark your calendars. July 26, 2011—the day the United States began to dismantle its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices.
(Photo credit: Ye Olde Shoppe and Post Office)