Civil rights, Elections, Politics, Populism

Trump, the Mail and the Unbinding of America

Aug 19 2020

By  Paul Krugman* – The New York Times

The Postal Service facilitates citizen inclusion. That’s why Trump hates it.

In June the independent website Factcheck.org made a dig at Joe Biden, publishing a post titled “Biden Floats Baseless Election Conspiracy.” Biden, you see, had suggested that Donald Trump “wants to cut off money for the post office so they cannot deliver mail-in ballots.” There was, said the post, no evidence that Trump’s “stance toward the U.S. postal system is related to the presidential election.”

A few days ago Factcheck.org conceded that Biden had, in fact, been right. The confirmation? Trump’s own statements.

Nancy Pelosi is calling the House back from summer recess to consider legislation on the issue, and for good reason: There are not one but two possible constitutional crises looming. In one, millions of votes never get counted. In the other, delays in the counting of mail-in votes lead Trump to claim victory in an election he actually lost.

These November nightmares are the reason we need to act urgently to secure the integrity of America’s mail. But there’s also a larger, longer-term aspect to the assault on the postal system. It’s part of a broader attack on the institutions that bind us together as a nation.

There was, after all, a reason the Constitution specifically granted Congress the ability to “establish post offices and post roads.” Clearly, the founders saw some kind of national postal system as one way to help turn the still shaky idea of the United States as a nation into reality. In fact, in its early years one of the post office’s key roles was the delivery of newspapers, as a way to keep Americans informed and connected.

Paul Krugman’s Newsletter: Get a better understanding of the economy — and an even deeper look at what’s on Paul’s mind.

The Postal Service as we know it now didn’t emerge all at once. Instead, it evolved gradually, through an accumulation of both formal legislation and precedents.

Direct delivery of mail to urban homes didn’t begin until 1863, and permanent rural free delivery until 1902. The Parcel Post wasn’t created until 1913; previously, rural customers had to rely on a cartel of private companies that conspired to keep shipping rates high.

All these changes, however, had a common theme: bringing Americans into better contact with one another and the world at large. A key part of the post office’s ethos has long been that it has a “universal service obligation,” “binding the nation together” and “facilitating citizen inclusion.”

For much of America’s history this largely involved bringing remote areas access to the fruits of urban economic progress; it’s hard to overstate how much difference the rise of the mail-order business, made possible by postal expansion, made to the quality of rural life. And postal delivery remains crucial in rural areas, which are poorly (and expensively) served by private delivery companies.

But it’s not just the rural population; the Postal Service remains a lifeline, sometimes literally, for many Americans who for whatever reason have limited ability to, say, visit a pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. The Department of Veterans Affairs delivers about 80 percent of its outpatient prescriptions by mail.

As the mail-in voting crisis has erupted, some of the usual suspects on the right have taken to denouncing the Postal Service as a bad, money-losing business. But the founders didn’t put the postal clause in the Constitution because they saw it as a business opportunity; the Postal Service was supposed to serve broader national goals — and it still does.

But, you may ask, why should this logic apply only to the mail? Shouldn’t we support other institutions that bind the nation together? Yes, we should — and do.

The Rural Electrification Administration, created in the 1930s to bring power to rural areas, was about national integration as well as economic development — and beginning in 1949 it subsidized the expansion of rural telephone networks, too. The Interstate Highway System was justified in part with dubious claims about national security, but it had the effect of reinforcing national unity.

What about the internet? Should we have a policy to ensure that Americans have access to modern telecommunications, too? Actually, yes.

Internet access in America is far more expensive than in other advanced countries, because largely unregulated private providers abuse their market power, much like the private shippers that exploited farmers before the creation of the Parcel Post.

Of course, we don’t expect every service in the modern economy to be subject to a universal service obligation. We don’t all need golf course memberships or private boats to participate fully in our national life.

But most Americans — presumably including most of the 91 percent of the public with a favorable view of the Postal Service — believe that there are some things that should be universally available, even if providing those things isn’t profitable, because they’re important components of full citizenship.

Unfortunately, Trump and those around him don’t share that belief, perhaps because they don’t really buy into this notion of “full citizenship” in the first place. And that’s one reason they might have been trying to cripple the post office even if it weren’t their best hope of stealing this election.

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*American economist, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times . He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2008.

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