Two months have passed since I’ve been to Walgreens, but this morning with my mask on I made it to the pharmacy window (now plexiglass protected) for a prescription. On my way along the aisles I spotted another item I was running short of — manila mailing envelopes. I have postage stamps at home, but envelopes large enough for 8.5-by-11-inch paper? It was a lucky find.
Here’s why: My father, who just celebrated his 96th birthday, lives independently in a ground floor rental in Queens, New York. He gets the New York Times every day, but with his vision loss it takes a magnifying glass for him to struggle through the 9.5-size type font. There’s no internet in the picture, and he’s too old to learn to use a computer. But he gets the mail every day. I’ve taken to sending him articles off the web that might interest him, and I print them using a 14-point font with double spacing.
Just now I used one of the manila envelopes for a piece from the Atlantic by Adam Serwer, “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying.” My print-out came to 12 pages. I guessed at the postage — $1.80? — and stuck it out on the front porch for the letter-carrier to pick up. He comes by around 11:30 a.m. these days, without fail. From Salem to New York it’s 220 miles, but my dad will get the piece — right to his front door — in four days, maybe even three. Bless the post office.
The post office. This is about the U.S. Postal Service. A recent piece in the Boston Globe began, “Americans consistently rate it their favorite federal agency, and with a workforce of more than half a million scattered across the country, it employs more people than any government entity outside of the military.” The article reported that Republicans are reluctant to spend the money to shore up the agency while the Democrats are pushing for $25 billion-plus. President Trump wants to withhold help until the Postal Service boosts rates for packages by 400%, a move intended to undercut the profits of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who happens also to own the unfriendly Washington Post. Such a rate hike would, additionally, advantage the agency’s private competitors, FedEx and UPS. Did I say private? Ideally, from the Republican standpoint, all the functions of the post office should be privatized.
The Republican Right has its reasons for sinking public mail service. It’s not just that the Postal Service has been, according to the Globe, “an engine of growth for the black middle class,” nor that it is “one of the last strongholds of organized labor.” Beyond that, the problem is its popularity — its very existence as a successful public service representing “big government.” People “consistently rate it as their favorite federal agency,” remember? The Globe piece ends with a quote from labor leader Richard Trumka: “The Postal Service is like Social Security — it’s beloved by everybody.”
Actually no, not everybody. To those aligned with the Koch network, anything that puts “big government” in a positive light is a problem. Much of the messaging from the libertarian right over the past 40 years has been to portray government itself as the bad guy. To the Koch network’s way of thinking, from the New Deal onward, the growth of federal power has meant big spending — and big taxes — and regulations. Even if the great majority of people benefit from such “big government” services as Social Security, public schools, public health agencies and so on, the libertarian far-right bristles at having to help bear the costs. And it will be far easier for the right to accomplish its agenda of shrinking big government if so many voters stop being its devoted fans — or at least its satisfied customers.
So, the big message that the far right wants to convey is that government services don’t really work. How did Reagan put it? “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
The far right has worked hard over the past four or so decades to persuade us that our government is “inefficient, bureaucratic. and wasteful. And most (all?) politicians are corrupt.” They want this sentiment to be part of our conventional wisdom. Add to it the idea that the private sector is more efficient than government. I’m quoting here from “Dismantling Democracy” by Donald Cohen, of In The Public Interest (ITPI). Cohen identifies a few other memes pushed by the right — “Government serves someone else, not you,” “regulation and taxes hurt the economy, threaten your job and your freedom, and increase prices for the things we all need,” and “America’s real heroes are individual entrepreneurs, who are the engines of economic growth, while public workers are lazy and incompetent.”
Such ideas are pushed on us as established truths because they further the assault on democratic institutions. But this assault is undermined when Americans continue to love their Medicare or their children’s public school teachers or everyone’s public health protections, and so on.
And it’s a problem for the right if a national public service can charge less than a private carrier to get a copy of “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying” to a 96-year-old two states away. Are public workers lazy and incompetent? I’m grateful for the letter carrier who picked up that manila envelope while I was typing this essay and I’m grateful to the one who will deliver it well before any of you reads these words.
Rod Kessler is a retired professor of English and writer living in Salem.