"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Post Office–The Last Truly Democratic Institution

The Post Office, says Ethan Hauser (New York Times 5.18.15), is the last bastion of pure American democracy.  No VIP lines, no premium fast lanes, and no preferential treatment. It is a dinosaur, however, doomed to extinction thanks to the market-driven efficiencies of FedEx and its competitors.  No one wants what the Post Office has to sell, let alone its one-size-fits-all brand of consumer service.  Times have changed, and savvy American consumers see value in the relatively high-priced but remarkably efficient private mail and package delivery services.

Post office

The Post Office does not stand alone.  The DMV and Jury Duty are similarly populist institutions.  Everyone needs a driver’s license, and no matter how rich or influential we might be, no one can stand in for us.  The picture on the license must be ours, and it is our eyes that have to be tested.

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Jury Duty is in the same category as the DMV and the Post Office – everyone is called - but there are enough ways to avoid serving that it lacks the purity of the others. A shaky, handwritten and incoherent letter addressed to the Court is usually enough to get anyone older than 65 excused from service. Fabricated, thinly-veiled racist statements by prospective white jurors means a quick exit from the pool as are hostile statements about the police from prospective black jurors. 

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Despite their essentially democratic nature, most Americans avoid the Post Office and DMV at all costs. In most large cities they are sinkholes of bureaucratic inefficiency, bad attitude, and abusive service.  Those few postal workers left amidst the many forced closings and layoffs see the end coming and are even more surly and offensive because of it.  They have long since discarded any semblance of civility and manners knowing that especially now no one is monitoring their performance let alone their attitudes. In other words, the Post Office has become an even worse frightening nightmare.  Clerks with no accountability, looking in to a dim future, and nearing the premature end of the line are even more dismissive, arrogant, and hostile.

Not long ago I brought my car for inspection.  DC’s inspectors had every bit of postal clerks’ inefficiency and bad attitude, but they were feared because of their arbitrary power and willingness to use it.  Not only were they surly, uncommunicative, and dismissive, but they failed cars with glee.

As I was waiting for my car, I saw a wealthy matron standing at the window, looking at her car making its way up the inspection line.  “Is it always like this?”, she asked me.  She had recently lost her husband, and this was her first time ever in an inspection station.  She looked around at the dingy, stained, and curled linoleum floor, the scratched and scored plastic windows, the indifferent claques of ‘off-duty’ agents cackling and fist-bumping, the indolent and careless treatment of her car, and replied, “Oh God. It’s horrible.”

Most people have figured out ways to avoid the Post Office, the DMV, and Jury Duty. Differential pricing has been a boon to express mail companies, and customers are free to choose the best service for their budget.  Few wealthy Northwest Washington residents ever visit the Half Street inspection station and pay neighborhood gas station attendants to do it for them.  Money and influence can always buy favors in Washington, and the only time the rich and famous show up at the District Court is when they want to make an appearance and be photographed doing so.

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There is nothing new in this desire to subvert the democratic system. Wealthy Northerners paid their poor relations good money to fight the Civil War for them. Most educated, well-connected, and wealthy American men never served in Vietnam.  Getting out of the draft because of political influence, elaborately crafted medical certificates from well-known clinics, or ably-designed legal strategies was easy.

The fact is that although Americans express a belief in democracy, that conviction is very shallow indeed.  Freedom of expression and the vote are the two principles espoused in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights the most cited as foundational and inalienable. As for the rest? Everything is for sale. The rule of law can be skirted if not avoided with enough well-paid lawyers.  Lobbyists skew the electoral system through savvy PR and insider influence. PACs and other interest groups generate enough funds to tilt elections in their favor.

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Pay-as-you-go highway express lanes, preferential boarding and seating on aircraft, and VIP security lanes are now common.  Most Americans are quite happy to jump the democratic line if they have the means to do so.

America’s capitalism and democracy are often cast as two sides of the same coin; and to some degree this is true.  Capitalism will not work without a system of contracts, legal recourse, and accountability. Democracy is the facilitator of capitalism.

At the same time, however, capitalism always trumps democracy. The privatization of government agencies, the increasing expansion of private enterprise into formerly public domains, and the increasing wealth of most Americans has completely transformed the country from a 19th century populist one to a 21st century universally capitalist one.

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There are idealists who would like to return to a former age and recapture what they see as a universal democracy, one with a large base and few distortions; but this socialist vision resonates with only a very few.  For a long time to come, democracy will be measured in economic terms.  The freedom to buy privilege is perhaps the most important element of 21st century capitalism.

For those who have managed to avoid the Post Office, the DMV, and Jury Duty but still want to experience a truly democratic experience, the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike are the best places to visit.  Everyone travels on the Jersey Turnpike – executives, drug dealers, pharmacists, clerks, homeboys, models, truck drivers, and welfare queens.  They all have to relieve themselves, and the great hall of the Molly Pitcher rest area is the most heterogeneous, diverse, eclectic, and fully democratic place in America.  Not exactly democracy in action, but a voluntary assemblage of all of us. Just a reminder for those who need one.

Image result for images rest areas jersey turnpike

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