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grange future!

Posted: September 10 2014


It seems like a sinister art project, but it's not.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 11.27.13 AMThe USPS is selling off properties, trying to make up for the estimated 8 billon dollar a year in losses. By some accounts, this represents a failure of state socialism, and a need for privatization. For others it represents a moment of portentous flux, where a new-civic commitment to fairness and transparency can blossom, triggered by crisis. Many other countries have downsized or privatized their postal services, notably my friend Kobe runs an affordable artist cooperative in a former postal-training center in Brussels. It's so adaptive that a 're-use' is a likely outcome of this ' fire sale.' If we can get the economics right, and mimic the wonderful example of cooperative work demonstrated by Caroline and team at Splinters and logs - some of these spaces might be useful, affordable, communitarian habitat for artists, activists and others who have chosen passion over solvency.

Back to the details, the USPS is selling both buildings, and "excess land".  As Grange historians and champions, we remind you that the Grange pushed through Free Rural Mail Delivery (the equivalent in its day of rural high-speed internet access). This was understood as a clear cultural infrastructure that allowed rural people and farmers to access Sears Robuck catalog (here's a 1909 film!). We mourn the contraction of our public institutions in the abstract, but here in my small town (pop 323) it is personal through the very visible stress level of our own post officers, who stopped getting the "new chips" that fit into their scales and help them calculate postage. It is very perplexing to witness the suffering of these small town heroes.  Many of these ladies and gents are running a post office so tiny you could sweep it from a swivel chair. It hurts my heart to watch the indignity as they are forced to do the postage math on a slip of paper, or use a calculator on their computer.
While there is a strong rhetoric of " efficiency" and "technology" as the solutions -- that we should use our smartphone to pay bills, manage our banking, and take care of the mundane logistics of our lives--- which is not only privatization of those transactions, but also strands many  in the uncomfortable digital sphere.  The closure of these facilities makes it even harder for citizens to transact business without internet-access and automatic-billpay from corporate banks, that increasingly tag on 'fees' and 'penalties'. There could never be enough public interest lawyers in all of Massachussetts to keep up with the nips, tucks and slips of these big bad banks-- and without a paper-option, the poorest in our society, and those without citizenship lose their option to balance a checkbook, on paper!
As s student of technology-criticism I must always ask of every techno-expansion: What are the unintended consequences? In this case, it seems the bank closures have provoked not just a contraction, but also a wonderful retort from my favorite public figure Elizabeth Warren. Warren proposes that these likely victims of eroding public infrastructure, those with minimal digital access, and minimal banking access could become the beneficiaries and clients! of a municipal banking system.  In other words, to turn the post office into a banking facility! In Switzerland, most people pay their bills with Post office forms. In practice this means getting a standardized invoice form, filling it out, and brining/ sending it to the local post office to pay. They in turn can get their money from the post office, almost instantly. I'm not telling you because I'm half Swiss, I'm telling you because it's so sensible we should do it here! Elizabeth Warren is a major advocate of such a plan. Read all about it in the post-master general's report.
Now I'm a big fan of Pay-Pal and love that some of its profits go to Kiva.org. It's one of the best stories on the internet. The charity model has been great for micro finance.  So we discover how badly these services are needed--let's not stop providing similar services through our traditional democratic institutions . E.F. Schumacher often quotes Ghandi "Justice before Charity " and I agree. Instead of waiting for the ex-CEOs of venture startups to scale up more worthy endeavors, we can institute the same intervention inside a very large system, that already exists! I'll bet my first bit-coin that young farmers, apprentices, farm-workers and rural people generally, will benefit HUGELY by having these kinds of banking and bill-pay services " as close as town." So listen up Grangers, young and old-- lets start the mumbling and the chatting, the gossiping and the learning, and lets get the word out and about in a powerful way about the fate of our beloved postal office, postal officers, and postal services. It's a commons some people fought hard to enact, and it's still ours to save.