Montana Viewpoint: The Post Office is America

Jim Elliott

I love the Post Office as much as I love the Flag that flies over it. In every city or small town in Montana, the American flag flies proudly over the buildings that house the oldest public service in America.

It was founded in 1775 and Benjamin Franklin was its first postmaster. I do not understand the attacks on a public institution that is older than America itself, whose people go the extra mile to deliver service promptly and pleasantly. The only objection I can fathom some people having against it is that it is not run by a private company, to which I say, “Good!”

The President says, “The Post Office is a joke.” Here is a man, I bet you, who has not been inside a post office to buy a stamp or mail a package in over half a century. The people who actually use the Post Office like it. They like it a lot.

Last Spring the Pew organization polled Americans on how they viewed the performance of government services in America. Ninety-one percent of those polled thought the Post Office was doing a good job. That is slightly more than double the percentage of those Americans who think the president is doing a good job.

There are a lot of things to say in defense of the Post Office that are important, but the first is that it is a symbol of whatever communities we live in. There are two institutions which define where we live, one is the local school, the other is the Post Office.

When a community loses a school because of a lack of students there is a public outcry followed by a sense of mourning. When a school closes the community begins to lose its sense of identity. When a Post Office closes the community has died. Why else would people in Montana towns like Ingomar (with about nine postal patrons and the Jersey Lily Saloon) fight to keep their Post Office open? When the Post Office in my mother’s hometown of Barlow, North Dakota, closed a childhood friend sent her a post card that said, “Last letter from Barlow.” She kept that letter until her dying day. The Post Office is the thread that links every American town together.

That’s the emotional argument. Here’s the practical one. The post office works. Internationally it is rated as one of the top 10 postal systems in the world. Nationally, at 91% approval, it is rated the best of all government agencies.

But the Post Office has not made enough money to fund its operations in about 12 years. Let me put that differently, it has made enough money to fund its operations but not nearly enough to pay off the potential debt from paying the estimated costs of pensions and health care for its retirees far into the future.

This recent mandate costs the Post Office billions and billions of dollars a year. That mandate was created by Congress because it was worried that the Post Office was not financially secure. This is a Congress which does not seem to be much concerned about whether the nation itself is financially secure. This is also a Congress whose members do not have to pay postage for the letters, cards, and propaganda that they mail to their constituents.

While the most recent actions against the Post Office have been surmised as a way to suppress voting by mail, there is a bigger picture. There are very rich and influential people who believe that true liberty is having the ability to make as much money as possible without being restricted by government rules and who do not want to pay taxes for services that support those Americans with little money.

In essence, all government entities should be run as a business, a business that they personally control. But that is a topic for a future column.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.