The Postal Service and the Internet

The U.S. Postal Service and Internet access providers may prove that government monopolies and private sector oligarchies don't always measure up in meeting national expectations.Americans face a slowdown in communications — from a pending loss of Saturday mail delivery to competitively more sluggish access to the Internet. Both slowdowns have an impact on jobs.

The financially beleaguered U.S. Postal Service will drop Saturday mail delivery in August as a way to trim $2 billion from its hemorrhaging budget. While most Americans, especially those who pay bills and talk to friends online, have shrugged their collective shoulders at the cut, some people are bracing for the inevitable pinch.

Philip Rubio, assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T, told NPR's Scott Simon that since the Civil War the Postal Service has been a reliable employer of minorities and military veterans. 

For African-Americans, delivering mail was a path to middle class, with a decent salary, solid employee benefits and Civil Service protection. Rubio said mail delivery provided many African-Americans a paycheck as they pursued advanced degrees to become doctors or lawyers. By 1940, 28 percent of black postal workers had attended college, five times the average in the overall population. 

For veterans, working at the Post Office was a stable job. After World War II, Rubio said as many as half of the employees at the Post Office were veterans. More than 30 percent of current Postal Service employees are veterans.

Rubio says layoffs will undoubtedly affect postal workers who are 50 years or older. They may have difficulty finding jobs matching their current pay and benefits and could wind up lengthening the line of long-term unemployed Americans.

The Internet is blamed for the Postal Service's plight. Why bother with paper bills and the cost of stamps when you can do everything online? However, Susan Crawford, a former technology advisor to President Obama and author of a new book about the telecommunications industry, tells Bill Moyers many Americans don't have access to the same high-speed Internet access as consumers around the world or, if they do, pay too much for it.

In her book, "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age," Crawford blames media conglomerates for "rigging rules, raising prices and stifling competition."  "The rich are getting gouged," she says, "the poor are very often left out and this means that we're creating, yet again, two Americas and deepening inequality."

What's missing, says Crawford, is a national policy that puts a premium on affordable and widely accessible high-speed Internet access. Or, in other words, a policy like we have on postal service.

As the Post Office goes bankrupt and Americans pay more for high-speed Internet access, if they can get it at all, we seem to have the worst of both the old and new worlds. We have a government monopoly that is crumbling and a private-sector oligarchy that is profiting, but neither is exactly meeting the needs of the nation.

Unintentionally, the Post Office and Internet providers may be pointing to a needed communications policy where there is a compatible role for government and the private sector — and for policy and profits.