first class

Review of “First Class:  The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy, and the Corporate Threat” by Christopher W. Shaw.  Foreword by Ralph Nader.  Open Media Series.  City Lights Books.

Herodotus said this of the Darius’s Mail Couriers, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  Over a century ago, this came to be associated with the US Postal Service and was passed down over generations, indicating the doggedness of US mail carriers and their importance to society.

Some years ago, I quipped that what nature itself could not do, Wall Street thinking appears to do easily- indeed cutting down on the ability of the USPS to do its appointed work.  The pitch of the attack on USPS rose to a new height under Trump but appears to have bi-partisan backing.

It is a tragedy that such a venerable and important institution- that serves such a clear service- is thought of by many as “inefficient, unnecessary” and “pathetic.”  The tragedy goes beyond the USPS- it’s about the fraying of the entire edifice that took activists, workers, thinkers, farmers, and concerned citizens centuries to build.

Christopher W. Shaw’s “First Class:  The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy, and The Corporate Threat,” comes at a time when integral institutions are under attack.  It is perhaps the most powerful call to save the USPS that this author has ever seen.  The book is about what many might consider a mundane subject (postage) but is a crucial read for anyone interested in fighting for democracy, decency, and egalitarianism.

The attack on the USPS has been constant, but also complex.  Responding to it logically is like fighting a multi-headed hydra.  Here, Shaw shines.  His knowledge of the history and politics of the USPS but also about the nature of its detractors and the substance (or lack thereof) of their front assaults holds him in good stead.

In fact, the book is broken into sections, each of which effectively address a particular theme – each of which is a pillar of the anti-USPS crowd’s agument:  Privatization, Deregulation, Democracy, Community, Cutbacks, Competitors, Workers, and Governance.  In each, he uses examples drawn from both US history and the experiences of other countries’ postal systems to counter each argument and parry each thrust.

He correctly locates the 2006 pre-funding legislation as a serious impediment to USPS fiscal success- and rightly calls that out as a synthetic, unnecessary, onerous, and unique burden on the USPS. In the section on competitors, he exposes both Fedex and UPS for their nefarious activities, political patronage, and truly anti-competitive behavior.

Perhaps the most piquant chapters are the ones on Democracy and Community in which Shaw   poetically indicates how important the Post Office is to rural and far-flung communities and how historically they have served as gathering places for conversation, camaraderie, and community building.

For tech-drenched and wealthy elites, the USPS might seem to be an anachronism.  It is however incredibly important to large sections of the population- from those dependent on the mail for checks, medicines, and connections to those in rural areas who connect with the rest of the US through the mail.  Tens of millions of people still need the USPS.

Here’s the irony- even for the detractors and the insouciant, the USPS plays a massive role.  The thing is- and this is in fact why the USPS is so brilliant- it does its work quietly, without Tweet storms, Tiktok videos, or PR hacks.

Failing the USPS is failing the very notion of citizenship.

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist


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