By Bill Bonvie
The 1997 movie The Postman depicted one man's attempt to reintroduce cohesion to society following the collapse of civilization.
The hero, played by Kevin Costner, is at first pretending to be a postal representative of a newly restored U.S. government. Eventually, however, his charade morphs into a mission, as he inspires a group of young recruits to begin reinstituting postal service while battling a self-styled warlord and his army.
It's not my favorite film, but The Postman does convey how essential basic government services such as mail delivery are to our very existence as a country.
I thought of the film after hearing that the real U.S. Postal Service is in imminent danger of default. It could conceivably shut down by this winter unless Congress agrees to some Draconian measures aimed at reducing its operating expenses. The potential cuts include ending Saturday delivery, shutting down up to 3,700 postal facilities considered to be unprofitable, and overriding a postal union contract by laying off 120,000 employees - about a fifth of its workforce.
The Internet, of course, has cut deeply into postal revenues. E-mail has replaced most personal and business correspondence and many other transactions - including the filing of income taxes - are done via websites. But web traffic is not an indicator that a fully functioning and comprehensive postal service has ceased to be a necessity for a great many Americans.
In fact, to many places, the importance of a functioning post office in maintaining community coherence and identity is not unlike the role the local tavern played in colonial America. An early Connecticut law made having such an establishment a requirement of a town's incorporation.
Some will argue that the "free market" - perhaps UPS or FedEx - would quickly assume whatever responsibilities the Postal Service were to forsake, and do it more profitably. But such enterprises would not restore a postal presence to the hundreds of communities that now stand to lose it.
And while the end of mail delivery as we know it might seem an unlikely scenario under ordinary circumstances, given the growing right-wing calls to all but dismantle government, it's not implausible.
But what choices do we have now that the Postal Service is no longer self-supporting? My answer is, why does it have to be?
My grandfather used to say, "Not everything in life is to make the price of eggs cheaper." In other words, there are other worthwhile purposes besides being economically viable or profitable.
Taxpayers support plenty of things that don't pay for themselves - most notably, a hugely bloated defense establishment that is in no danger of folding. So why not fund something as vital to the integrity of our nation as its ability to ensure a functioning mail-delivery system?
Instead of seeking permission to close facilities and put hardworking federal employees out of work, why not subsidize the Postal Service in the same way the military is?
Just as the law now affords protection for species whose extinction would diminish the planet, it should also be modified to protect and preserve institutions whose downsizing would diminish America's quality of life - and whose disappearance would move civilization closer to collapse.