When then–New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke to the Economic Club of Washington a few years back, he delivered a typical billionaire speech that assigned equal blame to the Democratic Party of President Barack Obama and the Republican Party of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for a “paralysis” in Washington that was “standing in the way of a full recovery.”
Echoing the messaging of a number of billionaires at the time, Bloomberg preached an austerity-inclined gospel with a heavy emphasis on deficit reduction.
But buried in the speech were references to rural America and to services that are vital to small towns and farm country, like the United States Postal Service. They ought to raise alarm bells regarding Bloomberg’s current quest for the presidency.
“Cities that need infrastructure investment to drive job growth don’t get it for political reasons, even though our taxes support the rest of the country. And I think exhibit A is Amtrak’s profitable Northeast Corridor, which Washington uses to subsidize money-losing lines in rural areas rather than invest in high-speed rail and better service for the Northeast,” he complained in 2012. “Members of both parties spend money to protect public sector jobs in antiquated industries—maintaining traditional postal service in the Internet age is a good example of that—and they buy private sector-produced goods, including military hardware the armed services say they don’t need in order to protect jobs in their districts and their own job.”
Bloomberg has faced a storm of criticism in recent weeks regarding what many read as disparaging remarks about farmers: In 2016, the former mayor told an interviewer that it takes “a lot more gray matter” to work in an information economy than it once did to make a living in agriculture.
The Bloomberg camp has pushed back and argued that he was speaking about historical trends and that his remarks should be read in a broader context. As someone who has written a great deal about industrial revolutions of the past and the current automation revolution, I understand that the former mayor was talking about complex issues and may simply have done so in ways that he might want to reconsider as he campaigns in farm states. But I doubt that Donald Trump or his political allies will be so forgiving.
I also respect that, as a 2020 candidate, Bloomberg has been saying some good things about investing in rural broadband access and using “a placed-based Earned Income Tax Credit” to spur rural development. His late-starting campaign is at least trying to send some good signals.
What I am concerned about is the billionaire candidate’s deeper thinking regarding the role that an active federal government can or should play in rural America’s future.
Bloomberg’s “Exhibit A” gripe in his Economic Club speech was that money that could have been directed to the “Northeast Corridor,” where high-speed trains run from Washington to New York to Boston, was instead going “to subsidize money-losing lines in rural areas.”
Bloomberg’s second gripe was that “members of both parties spend money to protect public sector jobs in antiquated industries—maintaining traditional postal service in the Internet age…”
I happen to think that transportation services in rural areas are a huge issue. In this regard, I share the view of former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg when he says, “Rural counties have more limited public transportation options than urban ones, which creates barriers for many residents, including aging Americans.” I like Buttigieg’s plan to allocate $12 billion to expand rural public transportation.
I also agree with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders when he argues not just for preserving but for expanding the Postal Service—and how vital it is for rural America. When a billionaire candidate starts talking about the USPS as an “antiquated industry,” that’s heard as a threat to villages and towns that are already struggling. Post offices and schools are essential building blocks of rural communities. When they are well-funded and well-maintained, everything else takes shape around them. When they disappear, communities frequently begin to wither and die.
This is a political issue of particular consequence in upper Midwest battleground states such as Wisconsin. I was born and raised in rural Wisconsin. My family roots run deep in southwestern Wisconsin communities such as Blue River (population 434), Lone Rock (population 888), and the comparative metropolis of Mineral Point (population 2,487). Despite the decline of the Democratic Party in much of rural America, the party still runs reasonably well across the region where my ancestors began to settle in the 1820s—winning or finishing credibly in most elections. The party has the potential to finish well in 2020, after the battering that farm country and small-town America has taken from a Republican president who has used farmers as pawns in his trade wars. But that won’t happen if Democrats nominate a candidate whose message is out of touch with rural America.
What kind of candidate is that? The kind that parrots the fantasy that the Postal Service is an “antiquated industry” kept afloat by “members of both parties [who] spend money to protect public sector jobs.” The truth, as Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents much of southwestern Wisconsin, notes, is that the Postal Service is a modern, tech-savvy network that connects the most remote parts of America to Mike Bloomberg’s New York City. Even as its flexibility has been hamstrung by Congress, the USPS has earned the respect and business of firms such as Amazon.
The Postal Service has highly profitable components that corporate speculators would love to get their hands on. That’s why the Trump administration and its congressional allies have been trying to begin a process of privatization that could break apart the USPS. As the Office of Management and Budget observed in 2017, “A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure…and make business decisions free from political interference.”
Translation: A privatized Postal Service will not have to bend to the demands from members of Congress for the maintenance of rural post offices that mean the world to the communities where they are located but that don’t turn big profits.
Bloomberg may come around. It’s notable that his “Financial Reform Policy” features a one-line reference to proposals for postal banking. But his statements from the none-too-distant past should give Democratic strategists pause. They echo too much wrong thinking with regard to the needs and the possibilities of rural America.
Democrats will not renew their political fortunes in battleground states such as Wisconsin if they mount out-of-touch campaigns rooted in the sensibilities of Wall Street speculators and conservative proponents of austerity and privatization.
If they are serious about building a mass-movement politics that combines urban and rural voters of all races and backgrounds, they have to reject the false premises of Wall Street and embrace the reality of Main Street—where, thankfully, you will still find the post offices that are hubs of community and commerce for crossroads towns, villages, and cities.