Benjamin Franklin must have been the coolest guy in the world to hang out with at a coffee shop. He had the brilliance to look at the small stuff (and had to invent bifocals to do it) while seeing the big picture: America can be the strongest and most democratic country in the world, he knew, but it needed a postal service to connect its growing communities.
So politicians listened to Franklin and began the work of uniting the country with a fast, reliable network for exchanging goods and information. In its charter, the U.S. Postal Service was charged with “binding the nation together.” In short, it emulated the very building of our democracy.
Now that is falling apart.
Our post office in Canyon, a small community in unincorporated Contra Costa County, is on its way to closure.
We have good company. The U.S. Postal Service is closing down hundreds of post offices. Lots of media coverage has focused on what small community offices provide that will be missed: camaraderie, chances to catch up on gossip and news of the town.
That is all true, but that is not the point.
What such foolhardiness signals is not prudent government cost-cutting, but a continuing slide toward the privatization of our national resources. We’re already selling our forests to timber companies and privatizing our national campgrounds. Now we’re downsizing our democracy in the way companies downsize their workforces and products.
It’s important to remember that we as Americans own these resources – timber, wilderness and post offices. Yet the government is selling them off like items on eBay, and we’re not getting a percentage. Plus the “new” jobs are minimum-wage work with no benefits. The long-time employees who were paid enough to make the rent are being laid off.
This is not the direction our country should be heading.
In Canyon – an independent enclave settled by renegades in the early 1900s – public life revolves around two institutions, the Canyon School and its post office. We don’t get home delivery of mail. Everyone goes to the post office. Now we are losing our postmaster, Elena Tyrell, who will be replaced by a clerk working limited “window” hours, and won’t know a soul.
In covering the downsizing of the federal postal system, media have bought into what most Americans believe: that e-mail and digital delivery is gradually replacing an obsolete service. We see the demise of our postal services as the natural result of an emerging technological world.
The problem is, that concept is a lie. The post office is not in financial trouble. It’s all in the accounting. The postal service is the only branch of government that requires prefunding of pensions and has turned a profit for years. Tell your congressional representative you won’t stand for the downsizing of democracy.
At a community meeting Wednesday night, when a full quarter of the 270 citizens of Canyon were present to ask questions about the gradual shutdown, visiting postal officials tried to reassure them that limited hours with a contract clerk would not affect the community. But that is impossible.
We don’t get home mail delivery in Canyon. When our post office closes, we will have to expend fossil fuels driving into Moraga, where we won’t get our local news, or find out that we need to sign up to take a sick neighbor meals until she gets better.
Ben Franklin would have been the first to object.