Brechin: “History is Repeating Itself”

Gray Brechin’s latest on the Post Office and the role of the press in keeping the public under-informed about the crisis of the selloff of our common heritage:


May 28, 2013 /  In 1906, surveyor Stephen Puter wrote a tell-all book from prison, Looters of the Public Domain, which details how Puter transferred thousands of acres of prime timberlands in Oregon and Washington from public to private owners. This sort of hustle was common in the 19th century, when much of the public domain was enclosed and converted into private fortunes with congressional help.



History is repeating itself today with the nation’s postal service, and much of the press is asleep at the wheel.

The public in 1906 became aware of frauds like Puter’s because the U.S. then had a diverse and competitive media environment willing to

support gumshoe journalists as well as a president willing to investigate and prosecute criminal activity at the highest level — even U.S. senators of his own party. How times have changed as we now watch the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) looted like prime timberland. A venerable institution that helped build the country is being gutted. This is not, as the mainstream media slothfully claims, because the Internet has rendered it obsolete, but because it represents lumber ripe for the taking while what’s left of the press takes an extended holiday from curiosity.

Last July, the USPS succeeded in uniting a famously fractious town when it announced plans to sell Berkeley’s century-old downtown post office. Berkeley has, ever since, proved a public relations migraine for USPS management. USPS occasionally meets its legal obligation to take public comment on pending sales, and it did so in Berkeley on February 26 at a meeting where USPS representatives endured hours of abuse and outrage from an overflow crowd at the old City Hall. The city council and mayor unanimously condemned the proposed sale. Activists demonstrated at the historic post office, gathered petition signatures, and — in lieu of local press — leafletted town residents about what they were about to lose.

Perhaps because of that unprecedented resistance, Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe paid Mayor Bates the courtesy of a letter he said would “clarify the facts about the Postal Service’s financial crisis.”

That crisis, Donohoe claimed, has forced him to radically shrink his agency while selling properties paid for by U.S. taxpayers for over a century. Among those properties are architecturally distinguished, landmarked and centrally located post offices like Berkeley’s, many of them containing a gallery of unique New Deal murals and sculpture intended for and belonging to the American people. The handsome buildings marked by flagpoles are often the only federal presence in small towns where they double as community centers — and those public venues are vanishing under Donohoe’s watch.

The Postmaster General insisted that his agency’s nearly $16 billion deficit is notthe result of a “manufactured crisis.” He neglected to mention the Republican Party’s stated intention to “modernize” the 238-year-old agency by privatizing it. Nor did he cite the pro-privatization white papers churned out by right-wing and libertarian think tanks like Cato and American Enterprise, or the political contributions lavished on congressional representatives by private carriers lusting for the USPS profit centers, or that some of those representatives and their spouses would like to “reform” the USPS right out of existence.

Absent, too, was any mention of the ruinous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act passed by Congress in 2006 that requires the USPS, within 10 years, to fully fund its retiree health benefit fund 75 years into the future while simultaneously barring it from offering services that would compete with the private sector. Donohoe instead fell back on the “Internet-made-us-do-it” meme so often parroted by the U.S. press when it bestirs itself to report on the postal crisis at all. He explained that in order to put the USPS back onto a sound financial footing, he had slashed the size of its workforce by 193,000 employees through attrition, pared some 21,000 delivery routes, and reduced operating expenses by $15 billion. Despite all this and his recent effort to eliminate Saturday delivery, he clamed that the leaner and meaner USPS had “provided increased access to postal products and services.” Tell that to postal customers and workers these days.


Read the rest of this essay here, on Alternet.


is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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