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Ominous days ahead for post office

For most of our country's history the postal

For most of our country's history the postal service has played an important, unsung role in uniting the nation. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/KAREN BLEIER

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A strange thing happened last week. The mail didn't arrive.

In a world beset by climate change, racial injustice and a pandemic, the failure of my letter carrier to swiftly complete his appointed rounds is a minor disappointment.

Besides, like most Americans, I communicate largely via email. It's immediate. Messages depart at the speed of light, and responses pop up in my inbox with extraordinary efficiency.

Nevertheless, a couple of times a week I roll a sheet of paper into a classic Underwood Touch-Master Five and hammer out an old-fashioned typewritten letter to a few acquaintances who value such an artifact. It's a pleasant, nostalgic ritual that includes affixing a stamp, depositing the letter in my curbside mailbox and raising the red metal flag to signal my letter carrier that mail is ready for pickup.

One day last week the red flag stayed up all day and the letter, alas, went out a day late, a minor departure from the post office's ordinarily reliable service.

But before we dismiss the incident too readily, let's note that President Donald Trump appears currently to be renewing an attack on the U.S. Postal Service that began in 2018. In December of that year, a Trump task force recommended partial privatization of the Postal Service, reductions in services and increases in postage rates. Some post offices, particularly in rural communities, would be closed and delivery service could be reduced from six days per week to five or fewer.

For the most part, these recommendations have not been implemented, but recently Trump took on the post office again, calling it a "joke" and threatening to withhold coronavirus stimulus support unless the agency quadruples its package delivery rates for online companies, particularly Amazon.

The fact that Trump deeply misunderstands the Postal Service — it actually makes money by delivering for Amazon — doesn't mean that he can't do enormous damage to one of our most important and estimable government services.

In May Trump appointed a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a prominent donor and fundraiser for Trump and the Republican Party. DeJoy has no postal experience, but he is moving quickly to modify postal practices. Last week letter carriers around the country were lectured on new delivery policies: Every stage of the delivery process will begin at a set time, which means an end to the "every piece, every day" principle that has guided postal delivery for years. Some mail will be left behind and delivered the next day.

Furthermore, there will be no more overtime pay. And one carrier reports that she was told that no substitutes will be provided for carriers who are ill; if the carrier isn't available, the mail won't move that day. And last week neither did my quaint typewritten letter.

Trump isn't the first to turn the agency into a target. The Postal Service has long served as a convenient whipping boy for conservatives annoyed by the idea that government is able to provide a service that is effective, efficient and beloved by the citizenry. They reject the idea that every government service need not produce a profit.

But Trump, for whom profit is everything, is uniquely unsuited to understand that some services are more essentially American because they provide the same egalitarian benefits to every citizen for the same economical price. Since 1755, no service has done more to democratize and unify the nation than the post office.

Further, Trump has never shied away from allowing personal concerns to interfere with policy. His focus on penalizing Amazon seems to reflect his antipathy toward its founder, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. And his current attack on the Postal Service probably stems partially from Trump's idea that an effective system for voting by mail will hurt his chances for re-election.

All of this makes my missed mail delivery last week seem a little more ominous. Trump can do a lot of damage to the country in the next four months. May the post office not become another one of the things that we really used to like about America.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.

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