The United States Postal Service has made headlines in recent weeks due to President Donald Trump’s stated efforts to hamper mail-in voting during the upcoming general election. While many have identified Trump’s latest move as a deadly blow to democracy, what few realize is that the USPS has been under siege for decades. Mark Lloyd, a broadcast journalist and former associate general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about the fascinating history of the USPS and its central role in American democracy from the very founding of the nation.
Lloyd, who is now a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg School and the author of “Prologue to a Farce: Communication and Democracy in America,” reminds listeners that Congress was granted the power to establish a post office in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. To the communications scholar, however, the most interesting era of the post office begins with the Post Office Act of 1792.
“Part of what happened [in 1792] was James Madison said, ‘We are going to make sure that our post office … works to make sure that people in our democracy can communicate with each other.’ And this was vital,” explains Lloyd. “It ended up being the most modern, the largest way of communicating in any government the world had ever seen, and it made the U.S. democracy possible.”
This essential ability to communicate, especially with regards to what the American government should do for its people, has become increasingly imperiled since the Great Depression, Lloyd tells Scheer. After the economic crisis, a combination of funding cuts and a toxic, bipartisan ideology that the government needs to be increasingly diminished brought a once great federal service to its knees. Listen to the full discussion between Lloyd and Scheer as the two discuss how the most popular federal service went from a cherished and protected public utility to a political battleground being used to impoverish the very democratic values the U.S. purportedly promotes around the globe.
- Host: Robert Scheer
- Producer: Joshua Scheer
- Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
- Transcription: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence–a pretentious title, but I say the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, someone of considerable experience about a subject that interests us and the nation these days: the U.S. post office. And Mark Lloyd, who is a colleague of mine at the University of Southern California Annenberg School, a professor of communications, was the associate general counsel and chief diversity officer of the Federal Communications Commission. And before that, before he went to law school, he had a significant career in the Midwest, Michigan and elsewhere, as a broadcast journalist. So a journalist, now a professor, expert on communications, and a legal scholar.
And the reason I wanted to get Mark on today for this–we’ve talked in the past about other subjects–is because the post office is in the news. And I worked in the post office, true confession, right through college; it was a formative experience for me, we can talk about that later. But all the time I’ve known Mark, he’s been telling me the post office is a major institution in our American attempt to have a democracy. And the point of proof is it’s in the main body of the Constitution, Section 8, designating the powers of Congress. It’s even more important in some sense than the add-ons of the Bill of Rights; I’m being a little light about it. But Mark, tell us why for, I don’t know, the longest time you’ve been stressing the post office–and now it’s very much under attack, and people feel Donald Trump is trying to distort it for partisan political purpose. There are questions about its funding. Why have you always been telling us that democracy in the eyes of the founders required a federal post office and postal routes?
ML: Well, I am very glad to see that there is increased attention to the post office. For many Americans, particularly in the early part of our history, the post office was the federal government. And most of the history that I was taught at a very early age about the post office tends to start with Benjamin Franklin. But that’s not the post office that really excited me. The post office that excited me was the post office that was established in the 1790s with the Post Office Act of 1792. And part of what happened there was James Madison said, we are going to make sure that our post office–which is going to be very different than the early British postal system, run by Benjamin Franklin–that our post office works to make sure that people in our democracy can communicate with each other. And this was vital. It was central to actually making our republic possible. It ended up being the most modern, the largest way of communicating in any government the world had ever seen, and it made the U.S. democracy possible. Now, I learned this by reading Richard John, a professor at Columbia with just a fabulous book, and a number of people refer to Richard John, and Richard John teaches and writes about the “civic mandate” of communication.
So part of it is, and part of the argument that I make–and I don’t want to attribute Richard John’s work to this. But part of the argument that I make is that communication–the ability of communication, facilitating citizen communication–is central to our democracy, is central to the unique formation of the American republic. And we’ve forgotten that. We tend to think of communication as being this commercial thing, or something that just happens, or we’ve got freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But again, making sure that citizens have the ability to communicate with each other is what happened with the Post Office Act in the 1790s. And it really changed the post office from what it was before to the post office that operated up until, frankly, Richard Nixon. And that’s the story that I tell in the book that I wrote, which is called Prologue to a Farce.
RS: Give us the title again?
ML: Prologue to a Farce: Communication and Democracy in America.
RS: Ah. So that’s a good point to start off on. But let’s take the pre-1790. You mentioned Benjamin Franklin was running the post office for the British, and then it was turned to a revolutionary purpose, at least legend has it, because they–the people who wanted independence figured out a way to game the system, hack it if you like, to use the post office to send mail to each other and not have it observed by the Brits. And many people feel that’s where the very idea of the revolution germinated, and then it was enshrined in the Constitution. And it was not just the existence of post offices, but postal routes.
And it is important to remind people that there was a high degree of literacy, certainly among the population that was empowered to vote; estimates were as high as 80, 90 percent. And letter-writing; much of the literature we have about, or the insight we have into the U.S. Constitution, for example, and its formation comes in letters written by these different writers of the Constitution to each other. Jefferson and Madison and all these people were legendary for their letter-writing. And there’s another aspect of the post office, which was that it was a unifying form. And it was also–correct me if I’m wrong–subsidized pretty early on. I believe it was Madison’s intention to allow the print form of its day–magazines, pamphlets, early newspapers–to start circulating in this new nation. Isn’t that the case?
ML: Well, one of the most interesting things about the change in the post office from the time that Benjamin Franklin ran it for the British in the early American republic, under the Articles of Confederation, was that the postal service for most countries–countries in Europe, going really very far back–was a tax. So that the government would allow you to use the government routes to communicate with other people, and you would pay money for that, and that funded government services. That was the idea of the postal service; it was considered, really, a tax to fund government.
What Madison did with that first federal congress was shift it so that it was no longer something that was going to be used as a tax to fund government. The post office was now going to be subsidized by government to support democratic engagement. It was a very different way of thinking about it, and it directly relates to how the post office was destroyed, and the sort of challenges that we have now. The post office established by Madison made business and personal correspondence more expensive; it allowed for the subsidy of the much heavier newspapers and pamphlets that were so important during the revolution, like Thomas Paine’s pamphlet about Common Sense. These were now subsidized by increased taxes on the personal correspondence and business correspondence that was the main use for the post offices back during Franklin’s days.
So the big change was, are we going to make sure that this government actually subsidizes the communication of citizens, mainly through associations, mainly because of newspapers? Or are we going to make sure that the post office is this separate, solvent, money-making enterprise that funds government? So it had moved from making sure that what we were funding–again, in the early days of the republic–what we were funding was making sure the newspapers were funded, and magazines and pamphlets and things like that were funded, and it was the way that associations communicated with each other about what it was that government should do. So a major change in policy. So post offices were there; it was the policy that changed dramatically.
RS: Well, that’s a really important point, because the post office has been under attack–just as Amtrak, the trains, were under attack–to become profitable. And if you weren’t profitable, we’re going to turn it over to the private sector. And it wasn’t expected to be profitable, as you pointed out, because it was an essential service, public service. You know, like safety, clean air and so forth should be. But the idea was that in a democracy that was now becoming continent-wide, expanding, that you had to have communication.
ML: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. It was a service for democracy. It was meant to actually promote democratic deliberation. It wasn’t meant to make money; it was meant to make sure that our unique form of government actually operated. And it was one of the reasons, again, that the founders decided that they were going to put the post office in the Constitution–not in the Bill of Rights, but in an article under the Constitution. Congress was going to have the power to establish post offices and post roads to make sure that communication could happen.
It’s extraordinarily important. And part of what happened was the postmaster general, from the time of Jackson on, was a member of the Cabinet. He was part of the Cabinet-level officers of the United States. You know, as high as the department of commerce, as high as the secretary of state–I mean, this is where the postmaster was. Moreover, the post office was the largest part of the federal government. It was larger than the department of the treasury, it was larger than the secretary of state’s office, it was larger than–it had more people, it had more money, it took more money in, it spent more money out, it had more people working for it.
The most important thing to understand is that the post office–and most importantly, the post office policies–were established to make sure that a democracy could actually work. That people could communicate with each other about what it is that government should do. That’s why the post office policies were created. They weren’t created to make money for the government; they weren’t created even to make sure that the post office was solvent. It is important to understand that communication was viewed, particularly by Madison, as central to making a popular government possible. As a result of that, the post office became the biggest, most robust form of–not form, but office in the federal government. The postmaster general was a member of the Cabinet; the post office had the largest number of employees; the post office had the greatest reach of any other department. Again, it was bigger than the department of the treasury; it was bigger than the department of commerce; and it was bigger than the military, because there was no standing army.
The post office was, for many Americans, it was the federal government. That was the only part of the federal government they saw. The post office remained the largest national entity up until shortly after the Civil War, when we got Western Union. And again, it is important to understand, for many Americans, for most of our time in this country, the post office was the largest part of our country. And the fact that we allowed communication to move from something that is supported by government, to something that now we’re relying on private corporations to make possible, has really left us in the state that we are in right now. The founding fathers would roll over in their graves to see what is happening.
Now, this really didn’t change until after World War II. Before World War II, the post office was still highly respected; not only that, but it operated effectively and moved easily. But the post office, like every other part of the federal government, was affected by the Great Depression. Less money coming in, but they continued to operate effectively.
RS: So you were saying that it started to go haywire–when? Was it all really Richard Nixon, or is it all Donald Trump just now, undermining the post office–
ML: No, no–so it’s interesting. So part of what happened, after World War II, the federal government had started–after World War II, after the Great Depression, when much of government services were being moved to actually sort of support the war effort, and then later on a variety of other things, funding for the post office was not quite as robust as it had been before. As a result of that, and because people didn’t have money, there was lots of pressure on Congress, which was at the time still in charge of determining postal rates and other things. Congress was not going to raise the amount of money that it was going to cost you to send mail. They were still going to allow newspapers and magazines and pamphlets to be distributed at reduced rates. As a result of that, the post office was not bringing in as much money. And Congress was not spending as much money to fund the post office.
So from World War II up until roughly the 1960s, the post office was under a tremendous amount of stress and deficit. But another thing began to happen. A large part of the way we began thinking about federal government was we began focusing on commerce; we began focusing on what’s going to make money for the country, and that was the most important thing. The big shift from Roosevelt to Eisenhower was really sort of the shift focusing on not only austerity, but making sure that Congress was not wasting money, and that the focus was going to be–rightly or wrongly–on making sure that private industry was robust and active and all the rest of that. At the same time, there are a number of other entities that began to compete more effectively for delivery services–of parcels, but also news and everything else, and news services and things like that. So the post office was under a tremendous amount of stress from both ends, from folks who did not want to spend more money on stamps, and folks who didn’t want Congress to spend more money on federal offices, including the post office.
The response to that was used by Nixon and the person that he appointed, who was the former head of the chamber of commerce. And what they did, they came in immediately and said, well, we’re going to remove the post office from the Cabinet-level office; we’re going to make sure that the post office is actually operating more efficiently, spending money better. There was this whole sense of, you know, how can we make the post office operate more like a business again. Rather than making sure that the post office was actually serving democracy, how can we make sure that the post office is making money to support itself. And again, that shift happened after World War II, and really came to fruition during the Nixon administration under this guy who was the former president of the chamber of commerce, a guy named [Winton] Blount. And that changed everything. It just, it changed the way that people thought about the post office, the way policymakers understood the role of the post office to supporting democracy, and all the rest of that.
Now, the subsidies to newspapers and magazines didn’t change. The fact that the members of Congress still had free privileges to communicate with the people who were in their districts–none of that changed. But the demands on the post office to act more like a business changed dramatically. Under Nixon, the post office was removed from Cabinet-level office. And there was this [Legislative] Reorganization Act of 1970. It was the thing that really moved the post office from being responsible to Congress, and now the post office was much more like an executive branch, administrative office like the FCC or the FTC or something else. It became this strange sort of quasi-government, quasi-business enterprise. It was no longer the U.S. post office; it was now the U.S. Postal Service. That was the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. Again, signed into law by President Nixon.
RS: And so it’s really a high water mark of the conservative revolution, in the sense of anti-government. You know, that you had from the founders a notion of at least a solid, robust infrastructure of communication, and suddenly the post office was seen as–oh, another business. The same thing they did with the rail system. You know, after all, Transcontinental Rail, whether it was privately owned or public, was supposed to provide a service; so was the telephone company, even though it was privately owned. It had to, was seen as a utility, public utility. And certainly the post office was such a thing, from the time of the founders.
And I’m a little bit familiar with that transition period, because just before it happened I worked in the general post office in New York–actually, I worked at the Grand Central Station right through my college years. And then my brother-in-law, who lived with me, he’s retired now, but while he was living with me he was working at the post office here in Los Angeles, and we would compare notes. And a number of things have changed, and I want to, I think, help explain some of the attacks that Donald Trump is waging on the post office.
One, the obvious one that his critics point out, is he’s not so happy to have people voting by mail, and so they want to hurt the system. But he’s always been attacking it, and it’s part of this conservative idea. And what happened in the post office when I was there was the development of a trade union movement. And it went from being civil service to actually having representation that meant something, of the letter carriers, of the people who worked inside the station. And the result was actually that the postal workers became an organized entity with decent wages. And one of the conflicts right now is that a lot of people who are working on delivering, say, Amazon packages and so forth, are not represented by unions, and they’re not getting good wages. Whereas the people who work in the postal service still do. Do you think that was a factor in the attack on the postal workers, that they’re a pretty highly unionized and organized group, just like local police and firemen and others?
ML: Well, yeah. So during this period of increased pressure on the post office, during World War II up through till the Nixon era, postal workers were not being paid as well as they had been paid before. Again, there was an increased amount of pressure on the amount of mail that they were doing as business picked up, as the U.S. population expanded, as the advertising industry began using what we think of now as junk mail, direct mail advertising, which was sort of a major thing, particularly after World War II. So you had an increased amount of mail, an increased amount of pressure, but you know, not as much money being spent on the post office after World War II.
As a result of that, you had much more union activity among all public-sector employees. So not only the postal service, but you know, police officers, people who were working for the airline industry, a wide variety of public service–ah, teachers, other folks, began to unionize more after World War II, particularly after the support for unionization under the Roosevelt era. So this, again, ended up being another set of pressures with folks who were anti-union, another reason to attack the post office, because you had these postal workers who were now unionized. And it became another set of pressures on the post office.
But again there was, as you suggested, an increased amount of public policy thinking–not just among so-called conservatives, but among liberals and everyone else, with the sense that–well, government really needs to work more efficiently, more effectively, much more like a business. And the post office is making lots of money; it’s this large, national enterprise; they should be bringing enough money in to do this. But then on the other side you had pressures saying, well, yeah, they should be making more money, but we can’t, as members of Congress, we don’t want to start raising the postal rates. And so you had these conflicting pressures.
And so part of what Congress did–not just Nixon, but part of what Congress did was they just punted it: well, we don’t want this problem anymore. As a result of that, we had this very strange set of policies that were established developing this board of governors, you know, that would determine post office policy, a separate board that would determine postal tax rates. And these folks were largely appointed by the president with the supposed consent of the Senate; the Senate never denied any appointees of the president. As a result of that, you ended up with this strange, quasi-governmental enterprise that was supposed to make money, but that was still under an increased amount of pressure. Congress still had its free franking privileges; there were still subsidies for newspapers and magazines.
The post office changed amazingly. And the purpose of the post office–again, to support democratic deliberation–was lost. People no longer understood what it was. And a large part of that had to do with, you know, the focus was no longer on newspapers and magazines; it was now on radio and television, and how important they were. The idea that newspapers and these other ways of communicating, magazines and others, were as important began to be lost. This was, again, a tremendous–a tremendous blow. We went from a government-subsidized operation under the direction of the legislature to this strange, government-business hybrid that was supposed to make money. And you know, Congress–again, with Nixon’s help–just punted. They said all right, fine, we don’t want to be responsible for this mess anymore; we’re going to let you do it.
The big hit for the Postal Service really came in 2006 with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.
In 2006, Republican Tom Davis, co-sponsored by Democrat Henry Waxman, passed the House and Senate, signed by President George W. Bush, saddled the post office with the responsibility of tens of billions of dollars of debt by requiring that it prefund the retirees’ health benefits. Again, these are folks who had been working for the post office way back, well before Nixon. And now the post office had to prefund [Laughs] all their retiree health benefits. So it was instantly in billions of dollars’ worth of debt. Again, this happened in 2006. This was what Congress did–this is, both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for it. Again, signed by a Republican president, but cosponsored by the Democrats. Congress once again did what they have done; they sort of punted the responsibility of the retirement benefits, and then decided to lay that off on this strange service that they’d created called the U.S. Postal Service.
And that’s destroyed the post offices. The idea that somehow the Postal Service is in trouble because people are using the internet is just crazy. That’s not the problem with the post office. Once again, it’s policy; it’s not the fact of new technology, it’s not the fact that, you know, people aren’t using the post office anymore. It’s the U.S. Congress in line with Republican presidents especially, but also a sensibility that this is an office that is established to make money, rather than to make sure that our democracy works by enhancing and enabling communication. So the whole idea about the post office has changed.
RS: Why did the Democrats initiate–you say Henry Waxman, our congressman from here in L.A.; I like him, good friend–why would he do something to hurt the post office?
ML: Well, again–again, there was this whole way of thinking about how government ought to be operated.
RS: But a liberal like Henry Waxman?
ML: Liberal Democrats were as responsible for this way of thinking and moving policies along these lines as Republicans were. And unfortunately, we’re still in this way of thinking about communications as something that ought to make money, that ought to be competitive, you know, with business. Again, this is–it’s what some scholars call neoliberal, but it really is sort of an abdication of responsibility by Democrats and Republicans alike, about making sure that our government is set up to actually support democratic communication and deliberation. We are still in this problem. I mean, people are complaining about things like Facebook now rather than sort of thinking about, well, why don’t we have a government enterprise making sure that we’re all able to communicate effectively?
So again, the way of thinking about communication now–it is so divorced from the way that we thought about communication prior to World War II. We think about communication as being primarily a private-driven enterprise, rather than something that is subsidized and supported by government. The founders thought–this is not about, you know, what commies did or what socialists do. The founders supported making sure that the government was supporting, was facilitating citizen communication. We have completely abandoned that way of thinking. Democrats and Republicans alike.
RS: Well, this is a big idea that I actually don’t think has–we’ve heard about neoliberals, but you know, the idea–now, you’re making a really powerful point, actually. All the complaints about the internet, about Facebook–Facebook is important, and the other communication tools, precisely because the public utility tools had become anemic. You know, the phone system had become anemic; the post office had become anemic; they were old-fashioned, they were stodgy, they were slow to adapt. And they didn’t have the funding to fulfill their public responsibility, or at least thought they didn’t. Is that the big takeaway from this?
ML: Well, I mean, but part of it is also the notion that somehow our problem is government, right? [Laughs] The notion that somehow the challenges that we face in the United States is because we have too much government. This didn’t start with Reagan. This started, you know, much earlier on. And the pressure was–understandably, the pressure was, if there are things that business can do to make money, and government is doing it, we need to get government out of the way and let private industry take over. One of the things that they took over was making sure that we could communicate in a democracy as citizens about what we ought to be doing in government. And people completely, completely forgot the central role that the founding fathers established for making sure that we had democratic deliberation. That citizens could speak with each other about what government should do.
And again, this isn’t what the commies were doing; this isn’t about–this is what the founding fathers did. [Laughs] There’s so much sort of note about, you know, the founding fathers established freedom of the press–what the founding fathers did was subsidize communication. The thing that’s closest to what it was that the founders established is probably broadcasting in the United States, which is, again, it’s sort of a really pale, pale imitation of what it is that the founders established regarding the post office. Again, the post office was larger than the department of the treasury; it was larger than the military. The post office was the largest part of the federal government. It was central to making our government operate.
The post office is the part of the federal government that made the telegraph work. When Morse was funded by Congress to experiment with the telegraph service, that was run through the post office. The post office was the enterprise that made sure that we could figure out how to make electronic communication in the United States work. That was the post office. When there was the Pacific Telegraph Act passed in 1860, the money was given to the post office to make sure that the telegraph lines could expand from the East to California. That was the post office that made that work. Understanding the central role of the federal government with regard to communication is extraordinarily important, and it has been forgotten.
RS: Was that true of telex, too?
ML: Yeah, the post office established the foundation for electronic communication in our country. Mainly the telegraph, but that was the role of the post office. So it is important to understand that the central point is that making sure that the government subsidizes and supports, facilitates, does whatever it can do to make sure that people can communicate in our democracy, again, has to be realized and embraced. Congress has not done this. They’ve been helped by Republican presidents–Nixon, Bush, right. But it is Congress’s responsibility, because they are given the power under Article 1 of the Constitution to establish the post office. It was Congress that sort of set the road, that set what it is that the policies ought to be, and why they are established. Those policies were established to make sure that our democracy works. That’s why.
RS: I think the key thing for people listening to this–I’m talking to Mark Lloyd, Professor of Communication at USC’s Annenberg School, University of Southern California. But he was also, before, once a broadcaster; he was on the FCC as associate general counsel and chief diversity officer. And the great attack on government’s role is of course that it will be prejudicial; also, as you point out, it will cost money. But the strength of treating utilities as public utilities is the assumption that they will be neutral. The old phone system–yes, AT&T owned it, but they had to respond to government regulations that kept them neutral, as far as passing content. The internet, we want to have net neutrality; it keeps being hacked away at by the FCC, because for a democracy, your roads of communication have to be unfettered by tolls, by money, by censorship, by the desire for profit, for trivialization.
So the difference between the post office that the founders envisioned–as a neutral form in which they could send letters to each other without interference from ads and people mining the data, you know–comes to be replaced by Facebook. Our common, main utility now for communication is Facebook, or some variant of it from Google or somewhere else, OK. So we have entrusted the main highway of democracy, we’ve turned it into a toll road for data mining, for profit-making, enormously profitable companies–and not just here, throughout the world, to these private-enterprise companies that make incredible amounts of money. But they don’t preserve the neutrality of it. They’re spying on you, they’re directing you, they’re manipulating you, they’re gaining your data, they’re selling your things. So it’s really quite the opposite of what the founders had in mind.
ML: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question about it. But you know, despite all the challenges facing the post office, the post office remains probably the most popular part of the federal government. It is certainly not the post office established by the founders, but again, it’s important to understand that the changes that have occurred, have occurred not because of new technology. They’ve occurred because of people that we elect; they’ve decided to either punt and put the responsibility on funding the post office and the services it provides to other people.
But the other point that I want to, you know, make sure that I make clear: If we can have the post office make sure that the telegraph operates–in the early part of the years, make sure that the telegraph operates, and operate the telegraph–why can’t the post office operate other communication services? If the purpose of government action is to make sure that our democracy works, that our citizens are able to communicate with each other about what government should do, why can’t we have a federal office that actually does that work? Again, this is not about what it is that communists do or socialists do; this is what the founders do. Why can’t we go back to what it was that the founders established, and making sure that we have a federal government that protects our ability to communicate as sovereign citizens? We no longer have that. We lost it; we’ve given it up to private industry.
And so part of what it requires is, again–and I’m really very, very happy for the amount of attention to the post office. But we need to understand that the problem isn’t, you know, Trump doing something terrible to the post office, and all of a sudden this is a new problem. This is a problem that Congress created, going back to Nixon. They made things even worse in the era of President [George] W. Bush. Again, this is Congress’s problem and responsibility, and Congress needs to go back and fix it, and take responsibility over the post office that the founding fathers gave it. The post office is in Article 1. It’s not in Article 2, it’s not in the articles that lay out the powers of the executive branch. The post office is in the articles laid out under powers of Congress. In the Constitution. And this has been changed without amendment to the Constitution, without a great deal of thinking, frankly, by our representatives in government. And we simply need to go back and make sure that, you know, we are subsidizing and facilitating citizen communication.
RS: You know, it’s interesting. We’ve kind of stumbled–I’m going to wrap this up soon, but stumbled on a really important point. We celebrate our model of governance; we think it’s a great gift to the world, you know; we admit we inherited some things from the Greeks, and maybe from the Roman empire. But you know, the fact is, we think we created the greatest political system. And yet we have been attacking, smearing, denigrating the very system that we claim is wonderful and that everyone else in the world should follow. We say government is corrupt, that government can’t be trusted, that government can’t create neutral highways of communication, and therefore we have to trust private companies, right? We have to trust Google and Apple and Facebook and so forth.
And we’ve stood this idea of popular governance on its head. You know, instead of having a government of the people, by the people, for the people–that we can make better, and we can interact with–we’ve bought into the idea that the private sector is the best guardian of our freedom. And so therefore, we leave it up to Google, Facebook, Apple, others to protect our freedom. Basically denying the value of government. How can we dare tell people they ought to vote, that they ought to care about the political process, that it’s their civic duty, if all the decisions that really matter are made in the boardroom of Facebook, which is a far more important institution right now than the post office? Right?
ML: Well, yeah, except you can’t vote through Facebook. And this is the challenge. And so the sort of services that the Postal Service, that people are concerned about now regarding the Postal Service–that people are actually able to vote using the Postal Service. You can’t vote through Facebook or Google or Twitter or any of these other services that people are using, but you can vote using the Postal Service. People get their prescriptions, their drugs, using the Postal Service. There is no doubt about the importance of the Postal Service.
But the point that you made is extremely important. We have forgotten about what it is that our democracy is supposed to be, and that the central role of communication, established by the founders–not some, you know, communist takeover or some socialist, or some strange entity, or what Sweden is doing, but by the founders of our country. Making communication central to the way that our democracy works has been completely forgotten. And now people are taught, journalists are taught–well, we don’t want to have the government have anything to do with communication. If the government had nothing to do with communication, we wouldn’t have the strong newspaper industry that we had. We wouldn’t have the internet.
Again, we have these strange notions that people are taught that have become so important to them that they are willing to fight for. We don’t want to have government have anything to do with communication. It’s like the people who were saying, you know, we want the government to get their hands off our Social Security, right? It’s crazy. We have completely forgotten the central role and importance of what it’s going to take to protect our democracy. And that the government, a democracy, ought to be first and foremost responsible for preserving that democracy. And you don’t do that by turning it over to Facebook, by turning it over to Google, by turning it over to some private industry, to NBC or CNN or Fox or someplace else. It’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that we can communicate effectively as citizens, and government has abdicated that responsibility.
RS: Well, I think that’s a really important point to end on. But right now people think of the attacks on the post office as all Trump, Trump, Trump. And there’s a lot of Trump-washing; you know, compared to him, everybody else who’s running for office, or around, looks good. But just to put a fine point on this, I wish it were so simple. Because actually, if you think about it in terms of the unleashing of the communications industry, it was Bill Clinton who gave us the Telecommunications Act, which basically sanctified the concentration of media control and big power in the private sector. And that, I was shocked to hear right now in this recording that Henry Waxman would have favored hurting the post office. I’ll have to check with Henry, maybe do a podcast with him on this.
But really, there’s a key issue here. If we really believe in democracy, you have to think it has the potential to provide service; that it has the potential to have a pipeline of information, it has the potential to have utilities that are neutral, and that they can do it better than profit-making utilities. Otherwise, what is government? If government can’t–you know, Eisenhower built the highway system, right, or more important than anyone. If we didn’t have the highways, if we hadn’t had the whole transportation, if we hadn’t had the post office and all that, you wouldn’t have a functioning society.
And right now in this pandemic–in this pandemic, we’re up against the limits of the private sector. You know, even the Trump administration says, well, we’re going to have to give the vaccine out free; now, we’re going to have to pay the private sector a lot of money, but we’re at least going to have to provide it free, or free to most people. And the whole notion of the vitality of government–not that government is the enemy; that government is a facilitator–I think is something we have lost. And both liberals, neoliberals, and conservatives regard, basically, the functioning of government as potentially reprehensible–as mostly reprehensible. They want to restrain it, and they want to turn it over to the private sector.
ML: That’s right, and again, it’s important to understand that this set of ideas began particularly after World War II, and part of what it was that conservative and business interests wanted was to make sure that if there were things that it was that government was doing, and the private industry might be able to make money, then we need to get government out of the way and let private industry do that. It’s the reason that under President Kennedy we turned the satellites that we put up into space to private industry; instead of having the government make money from use of the satellites, private industry was making money using the satellites.
And we’ve done this over and over–and we did it with the internet. We’ve done it over and over again. Again, it is a way of thinking about it. And again, it’s not about partisanship; certainly, you know, before Bill Clinton sort of assigned the 1996 Telecommunications Act–passed under a Republican Congress, but signed by Clinton, no doubt–we had consolidation. Murdoch came to the United States in the eighties, seeing again what Reagan was doing with his chairman of the FCC, Mark Fowler, calling television, why should it be regulated any differently than a toaster. And that’s when media consolidation took off, in the mid-1980s. Not in 1996; in the mid-1980s, after the destruction, frankly, of an entire public service regime that was established by the Civil Rights Movement.
But again, part of the challenge is we need to make sure that we understand that the ideas of having government fund a way for citizens to communicate effectively goes back to the founders. It is consistent with the founding of our country. This is not something from the communists; it’s not some radical, left idea. This is something that was supported by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and, you know, and the rest of our pantheon of heroes. And if we can’t go back to that–I mean, if we cannot go back to what it was that the founders established–again, making communication service the largest part of the federal government–if we can’t go back to that, we’ve clearly lost our way.
And again, I’m very happy that Trump has brought a great deal of attention to the issue of the post office. I think he is being rightfully criticized for saying that he wants to limit the post office because that’s going to limit mail-in voting, which is not what he does and other Republicans do. But again, that’s not the core problem. The core problem is that, just as the founders subsidized the Postal Service, the post office, we need to subsidize the post office. For, at the very least, making sure that people can vote. Maybe we even care about people getting their prescription drugs. We need to subsidize the Postal Service to make sure that people get the information, the packets, the services that they need, that only the federal government has proved able to deliver without extracting profit and making things more expensive than they ought to be.
RS: Well, that’s a good point on which to end. But let me–I always say “but”–just throw in the irony here. I’ve seen the polling data, and an enormous majority of American people value the public post office, the Postal Service. I still call it “the service” because when I worked in the post office, we all were very proud to work there, but mostly they were World War II and Korean War vets when I was working there as a college kid for about four years. By the way, just as a footnote, in 1957 I was the smartest postman in New York. [Laughs] I learned a few things, I was so nervous about losing my job, I did well on the postal test that they required you to take. But you know, we really had a sense of obligation, and I know from my brother-in-law, who worked in the post office the last decade, that he had that also. So it’s ironic that the post office was made the subject of jokes at one point, going postal and everything. Yet there it is, year after year, delivering the mail. [Laughs]
And the irony is the military, which has had a much more checkered record of failure and success–I mean, it’s a long time since the United States fought a war that the public really believes in, and that accomplished anything; you’d have to go back 70 years for that claim. And yet the one area of government activity that we treat as sacrosanct, including in this election–I listened to Joe Biden the other day, and he’s right with Donald Trump that you need a big military, and no one should push us around, and you know, we don’t attack the military budget. So anything that does actual service for the people, like the post office–that gets attacked, but the military spending, no. And the irony is, the founders were more worried about a big military and foreign entanglements. And they stressed that over and over again, including General George Washington. And the one thing they did want was the post office, that service.
So that’s a good point on which to end. Thanks, Mark Lloyd of USC’s Annenberg School, formerly with the Federal Communications Commission as associate general counsel. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, the engineer who posts these programs–KCRW, a great FM station, a public radio station, NPR station in Santa Monica. Natasha Hakimi writes the introduction for this. Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence.