Some days you come across a longform article that feels tailor made just for you. I had one of those yesterday, when I found Jesse Lichtenstein's wonderful (if a tad over-long) Esquire feature on the postal service. Besides tying into my love for sending and (ahem) receiving letters, postcards, parcels, and magazines in the mail, I've also been having a lot of conversations about the extraordinary history of the United States Postal Service for an article I can't wait to share with you.
In the meantime, some shining lights from Lichtenstein's story:
The postal service is not a federal agency. It does not cost taxpayers a dollar. It loses money only because Congress mandates that it do so. What it is is a miracle of high technology and human touch. It's what binds us together as a country.
Want to send a letter to Talkeetna, Alaska, from New York? It will cost you fifty dollars by UPS. Grabenhorst or Lipscomb can do it for less than two quarters: the same as the cost of getting a letter from Gold Hill to Shady Cove, Oregon, twenty miles up the road. It's how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country. From the moment Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775, the purpose of the post office has always been to bind the nation together. It was a way of unifying thirteen disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia.
Today the postal service has a network that stretches across America: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles, the largest civilian fleet in the world. Trucks carrying mail log 1.2 billion miles a year. The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet's mail. It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact.
In 2011, Delta airlines announced it would stop flying to twenty-four small-market destinations in the Midwest and South, despite being eligible for millions in federal subsidies through the Essential Air Service program — the whole point of which was to keep service available for smaller communities following airline deregulation. For Delta, the routes were simply too expensive. It's the same with high-speed Internet access. Despite the best efforts of Congress and a $7.2 billion stimulus investment, between 5 and 10 percent of Americans, mostly in rural areas, still lack broadband access. The federal government can encourage private companies to offer universal service, but they cannot compel them to. The cost of building infrastructure is often deemed too high, the savings from cutting unprofitable services too attractive.
There is a lot more, of course, so read on; On the Records has even given the article a soundtrack to accompany you. See also some of the New Deal murals painted in post offices, because they were a daily point of contact citizens had with their government, here. Sign a White House petition for Congressional action in support of the postal service here.
And then, after you're finished with all that, mail your lover a postcard, why don't you?