The U.S. Postal Service, which has bound the nation together since its founding, is under intense pressure to privatize, especially from business rivals and libertarians. But Post Offices represent some of America’s finest examples of public space and common purpose, scholar Gray Brechin tells Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
There is a growing grassroots movement to save the U.S. Postal Service from right-wing Republicans who want to privatize it and turn over its most lucrative pieces to the likes of Fed Ex and United Parcel Service. Fed Ex and privatizing advocates have lobbied Congress to make this happen.
Dennis J, Bernstein spoke with Dr. Gray Brechin, project scholar for the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley. Brechin is engaged in the effort to save the U.S. Post Office as a public trust, as well as the people’s art commissioned as a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
DB: I want to read a little bit from this a piece that you blogged in the middle of last year about this: “Thousands of post offices stand to be converted to condos, restaurants, real estate offices or demolished to cover the Postal Service’s largely manufactured deficit. Those that rely on the Post Office are protesting the disappearance of this still vital public service but few have registered what this fire sale represents to the nation’s architectural and artistic legacy…”
….and I guess that’s the door we’re going to come in Gray Brechin. It’s really one of the remaining peoples’ institutions, if you will. And so maybe you can give us just a little bit of history about how the Post Office evolved and why we need a Post Office when we’ve got the Internet.
GB: Well, I never imagined I’d be getting into Post Office studies but I sort of got sucked into it because in the last ten years I’ve been studying the New Deal. We’ve been inventorying and mapping it and it got me thinking about The Public, in general. Because what I realized is what the New Deal was, it was a huge expansion of the idea of The Public, or if you like, the commonwealth. That is what we all own. And very often — as with the Post Office — it’s what we’ve paid for. What our parents and our grandparents paid for and built.
But it also got me interested in the war against the New Deal, against Franklin Roosevelt, and I realized it’s been going on for thirty to forty years. And it really gained strength under President Reagan who was sort of the anti-Roosevelt, you know. Equally as charismatic but to opposite ends.
And what happened was that these neoliberals, as we now call them, and libertarians began taking over under Reagan. And in 1986 they came up with something called “Starve the Beast.” That came out of the White House. First off, it’s interesting that you would refer to your government as, The Beast. You know that’s a great way to begin distancing people from it, and seeing it as the enemy rather than as us. And Reagan was very good at that. But the idea behind Starve the Beast was that you deliberately bankrupt your government through tax cuts and tax shifts; that is, shifting from progressive to regressive taxes.
You do this over a long period of time, it’s a long march through the institutions and in doing that you can actually get rid of The Public. And you can actually make a very nice profit from doing so as you privatize what was the commons and take it away from the public that paid for and built it. And that’s essentially what’s happening with the Post Office.
I’ll tell you another thing that happened because what’s happening to the Post Office is linked to what’s happening to public education, public parks, etc. In the 1990s, I was teaching geography and I gave a tour of the San Francisco Presidio, which was just being transferred from the Army to the Park Service at that time. And as I was taking the students into a building, one of the new rangers took me aside and said “Watch this very carefully.” He said, “No other national park has been required to turn a profit.” He said, “This is the entering wedge for what they are going to do to the national parks.”
And sure enough, what happened was that the Presidio Trust which is appointed by the President is mostly real estate people. So the Presidio serves as a kind of model for what could happen to the other national parks, particularly if we go off the fiscal cliff and there’s no money to operate them anymore. And that’s essentially what happened to the Post Office. In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was passed by Congress, a paid Congress I might add, paid by UPS and Fed Ex and Pitney Bowes and other companies.
DB: A very unprofitable Congress. … I don’t think they made much money … but anyway…
GB: They’ve actually been making out like the bandits that they are. Fed Ex is one of the biggest lobbyists and actually gives huge amounts of money to Congress members, and they want the Post Office. They want the profitable business of the Post Office. They are backed up by the right-wing and libertarian think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Independent Institute, the Peter Peterson Foundation. They’ve all done papers about this, and also, by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose dirty fingerprints I see all over that 2006 act, in Congress, that is now poisoning and killing the Postal Service so that they now, not only have to cut services, and everybody’s noticed it, because we’re essentially watching the dismantling of this public service under our very eyes.
But they’re also selling off our real estate, and our art. I say that quite deliberately. It’s not theirs; it’s ours, we all own it, and you should always use the first person plural when speaking about this. It is not theirs. Especially the art, which the Roosevelt administration created, which is unique to the United States.
DB: I do want to take a few minutes to talk about what’s at stake in terms of these structures, the art and what they mean to people in that context.
GB: Well, again, Dennis, I mean that’s how I got into this. Because as I was looking at those buildings I became more and more amazed at their quality. And about how you go into some of these old Post Offices and they uplift you because they have amplitude, they’ve got great spaces, wonderful materials, great craftsmanship. And I found out that’s not accidental.
These are the physical expressions of the federal government across the nation, in every small town, and in cities they become palaces, actually. And the idea behind them was that they would represent for people, that far off Washington, D.C., its integrity and its public service in the case of the Postal Service. … what Ben Franklin, the first Postmaster, set up in 1775 to serve everybody. Too, it was required to provide universal service to bind the nation together and to do it at a very reasonable price. And it’s been doing that quite successfully ever since. But these buildings and the art in them, are unique, they’re beautiful and they’re precious. We can’t afford to lose them.
DB: And, for instance, what’s in them? What is in these Post Offices? When you talk about precious art, that’s not hyperbole. This is extraordinary stuff.
GB: Well, yes, because this is the people’s art gallery. They are most famous for the murals but there are sculptures, too. And these were meant to reflect Americans back to themselves in public spaces. This had never happened before. So Americans could go into their Post Offices — which is often the most public place in their town — and they would see the work that they do. Well, they would also see their history, their legends, etc. But most commonly they’d see their work and it conveyed the dignity of labor, of ranching, farming, mining, fishing, whatever happens to be the local specialty.
But it’s all about work. Now that was important during the Depression, of course, when people didn’t have work, so they wanted to see what gives their lives meaning, that work. And what also has surprised me is how often it is postal workers and I realized that’s to celebrate the sort of everyday heroism of the work that people do to bind the nation together, to communicate with and to serve one another. We don’t think of that. And I didn’t think about it before, about what a miracle the postal system is and the people, the hundreds of thousands of men and women who do that kind of work.
Now I appreciate it enormously and I always thank my postman, because he’s about to get a lot more work, actually, if they eliminate the Saturday delivery, because on Monday he’s going to be having to carry another day of mail, with him if Postmaster General [Patrick] Donahoe gets rid of Saturday delivery. And he’ll be getting to your houses at about eight o’clock at night with a flashlight and looking very, very tired.
DB: Really? And some noted artists, participated in these paintings, as a part of this. For instance, who’s up on the walls?
GB: A lot of the artists are ones that you probably wouldn’t recognize, although they were known in their time.
DB: But the people there will recognize the people in the murals on the walls.
GB: Oh, they’ll see themselves and their surroundings, etc., as I said their myths. … There’s one in Troy, New York, there are wonderful murals of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, because that’s where Washington Irving hung out, in that area. But some of the artists were quite famous actually. Paul Cadmus, Adolf Gottlieb, etc. My favorite, of course, is Ben Shahn, one of the great social realists of that time.
And the funny thing is, I wrote an article last May for the Living New Deal newsletter and I said specifically that when the Postal Service management found out how much that art is worth, they would sell that too. Well, just a couple of weeks ago, it announced that it’s going to sell the Central Bronx post office. A very large Post Office from the New Deal and it’s got thirteen Ben Shahn murals in it that are probably worth more than the building and the real estate it’s on. Thirteen murals and they show Americans doing their work in factories, with jack hammers, etc. And he was asked about that, and he said he wanted to show people in the Bronx what the kind of work that people all around the United States do, not just there but everywhere else. It’s a celebration of labor.
DB: And I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about something you mentioned in an earlier interview about friends and historians come to the United States and do a Post Office tour, right? They study history through the Post Office.
GB: Yes. I have friends in Australia who love to come to the U.S. and take road trips so that they can see our Post Offices, because you never know what you are going to run into in these small towns. You’ll often run into a beautiful building and very often art in it. But it’s always a surprise and actually it’s infectious, because I do the same thing now too. Whenever I travel I make sure to visit the small towns, go in … and sometimes my mind is just blown. Like I was recently up in Oregon, I went into Grants Pass and it’s all paneled in the most beautiful, spider-web marble, with bronze trimming, etc.
DB: I’d love to do a tour of interviews of small town post master generals…
GB: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
DB: We’re talking a little bit about what we’re going to lose and who’s going to lose it. Who gains? And there are specific people who are engaged that we need to know about, right?
GB: Well, yes, there’s a lot to gain. As I said, United Parcel Service, Fed Ex, and Pitney Bowes all want the profitable business from their public rival. And so they were probably backing this unconscionable act in 2006 which is now killing the Post Office, very successfully. I would say that Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe probably has a very cushy job waiting for him at FedEx.
DB: That seems pretty obvious.
GB: Oh, I think so, that’s the old revolving door. But the main thing is the press has shamefully fallen down on this. Basically it has not seen the big picture. It occasionally mentions the 2006 act as the proximate cause of why this is all happening. But it hasn’t noticed something very important, and that’s the real estate. These post offices were designed for the centers of every town and city, because it had to be most accessible, and to serve all the businesses as well as the people in those places. So suddenly, what happens, if all of this goes on the market? Well, it’s been conservatively estimated that the real estate portfolio held by the U.S. Postal Service in trust for us, is worth about $105 billion. And if anybody can get their hands on that they are going to make a very nice profit.
So in July of last year, the Postal Service gave an exclusive contract to a giant real estate company called CBRE. CB. Richard Ellis is a giant company which is part of a holding company owned by billionaire, private equity financier, Richard C. Blum, a regent of the University of California, who has been busy privatizing my university. But he also happens to be married to Senator Dianne Feinstein, probably the most powerful senator in Congress. This is an extraordinary conflict of interest but it’s not uncommon in Senator Feinstein’s history. She’s had many conflicts of interests that the mainstream press has not really investigated. But this is a really stinky one. And so CBRE is busy selling our property, and our art is going with it. It’s kind of a package deal often. And the press hasn’t noticed this at all.
DB: Well, conflict of interest here? You know, what’s Senator Feinstein’s position on saving the Post Office?
GB: Oh, well she says she’s really, sort of, in favor of it. The only paper that’s really reported on this was the little La Jolla Light newspaper because their downtown Post Office with a very fine mural is for sale.
DB: Doesn’t she have a house out there, or something?
GB: That’s one of the few places they don’t have a house. They have about seven or eight, I can’t keep track. These people do very nicely. Indeed, their mansion in San Francisco is just below the Getty’s actually, with a fine view of the Bay. But, yeah, her office said that she was actually trying to help the people in La Jolla save their Post Office and its mural. Well, I can well imagine she was because La Jolla is filled with a lot of very wealthy people who are campaign contributors.
DB: They don’t want to lose their beautiful mural.
GB: No. So she’s been very solicitous to the people of La Jolla. But she hasn’t been to us in Berkeley, or Ukiah, or Canby, Oregon, or the Central Bronx, or all those places. She hasn’t been nearly as solicitous about those Post Offices. As a matter of fact she’s been completely silent on them. And I can understand why.
DB: I do want to conclude this interview by giving you a chance to sort of sum up and say what is at stake, what is the heart of the matter here? What is this battle really about?
GB: Well, the heart of the matter is The Public. Everything in our commonwealth is being stolen from us. I was recently threatened with arrest for trying to go into the Philadelphia main Post Office which I found out had been sold. And I said to the guard, I said “They are taking everything away from us.” And he said, “Yes, I know. Now get out of here.” And I was threatened with arrest and confiscation of my camera. This is what is happening. It is the enclosure of our commons, of everything. And, Dennis, The Public is central to a republic. This is what we all own. When it is all taken away from us, we are all immensely impoverished, and They are immensely enriched.
Only a very, very few people will own everything, and govern us. And we see that example in Dianne Feinstein and her husband who are getting in at the hog trough, in taking away what really belongs to all of us, what our parents paid for, what the artists painted, the sculptors sculpted. We can’t allow this to happen. This belongs to all of us and is central to what America, at its very best, once was. We can’t allow them to steal it from us.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.