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A First-Class Institution

Despite the clamor raised over cutting Saturday delivery, the Post Office is not broke—and it hasn't taken any of our tax money since 1971

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Consider 50 cents. What does that buy these days? Not a cuppa joe—that'll cost you two bucks at Starbucks, and even McDonald's wants a dollar for a small. Nor will it get you a newspaper, a pack of gum, a shoeshine or a bus token. And Walmart, which promotes itself as the palace of cheap, sells practically nothing for a half-buck.

There's one place, though, where you can get a steal of a deal for a fifty-cent piece: your local post office. Put down two quarters, and you'll get a first-class stamp in return—and you'll even get change. Slap that 46 cent stamp on a letter, drop it in the mailbox, and our nation's postal workers will move your missive clear across the country—hand-delivering it to any address in America within three days (42 percent arrive the very next day, and 27 percent more get where we want them to go within two days).

Each day, six days a week, letter carriers traverse 4 million miles toting an average of 563 million pieces of mail, reaching the very doorsteps of our individual homes and workplaces in every single community in America. They ride snowmobiles to reach iced-in villages, fly bush planes into outback wilderness areas that have no roads, run mail boats out to remote islands in places like Maine and Washington state, and even use mules on an eight-mile trail to bring mail to the 500 members of the Havasupai tribe of Native Americans living on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

From the gated enclaves and penthouses of the über-wealthy to the inner-city ghettos and rural colonies of America's poorest families, the U.S. Postal Service literally delivers. All that for 46 cents. And if you've written the wrong address or your recipient can't be found, you'll get your letter or package back for no charge.

The USPS is an unmatched bargain, a civic treasure, a genuine public good that links all people and communities into one nation.

So, naturally, it must be destroyed.

THE POSTAL PANIC

On Feb. 6, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced plans for the post office to stop Saturday delivery of letters, theoretically saving the USPS $2 billion a year. The cut in service, which would take effect in August, plays right into the hands of those who want you to believe the post office is broke. For the past year, assorted corporate front groups, a howling pack of congressional right-wingers and a bunch of lazy mass-media sources have been pounding out a steadily rising drumbeat to warn that our postal service faces impending doom: the situation "is dire," USPS "nears collapse," it's "a full-blown financial crisis!"

According to this gaggle of gloomsayers, the national mail agency is bogged down with too many overpaid workers and costly brick-and-mortar facilities, so it can't keep up with the instant messaging of internet services and such nimble corporate competitors as FedEx. Thus, say these contrivers of their own conventional wisdom, the Postal Service is unprofitable, is costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year in losses and is plummeting irreversibly into bankruptcy.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. I realize that the Powers That Be never allow truth to get in the way of their policy intentions, but come on—three strikes and you're out! Let's examine.

Unprofitable? So what? When has the Pentagon ever made a profit? Never. Nor does anyone suggest it should. Neither has the FBI, Centers for Disease Control, FDA, State Department, FEMA, Park Service, etc. Producing a profit is not the purpose of government—its purpose is service. And for two centuries—from 1775, when the Continental Congress chose Benjamin Franklin to be our fledgling nation's first Postmaster General, until 1971, when Richard Nixon's Postal Reorganization Act took effect—America's nationwide network of post offices was fully appreciated as a government service.

In fact, the Post Office Department was considered such an important function of public affairs that it was explicitly authorized by the founding document of our nation's government (Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution). The founders would've laughed their wigs off had anyone proposed that the existence of such an essential civic agency be dependent on its profitability. Be efficient and fiscally responsible, yes, but the bottom line for the Post Office was delivering a public service for the good of all the people.

But Nixon happened. His presidency gave laissez-faire ideologues a long-sought opening to insert blasting caps into the structural framework of government. Their first big success was the 1971 "reform" that shattered the public service model by imposing a bottom-line profit mentality on the Post Office and installing a corporate form of governance over it. "Run it like a business," was the political demand of the right-wing think tankers, Nixonians and congressional fixers.

So overnight, the cabinet-level Post Office Department that was overseen by Congress and funded by taxpayers was transformed into today's Postal Service, overseen by a board of governors and funded by postage sales. Technically, the USPS is an independent agency of the executive branch, but operational authority is in the hands of the 11-member board (whose acronym, aptly enough, is "BOG"—as in a morass that prevents progress).

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Will it surprise you to learn that the BOG tends to be quite corporate? From 2005 until 2011, for example, one of its most influential members was James Miller III, who was Ronald Reagan's budget director and a longtime proponent of totally privatizing mail service. He's a product of such right-wing, Koch-funded outfits as the American Enterprise Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy (now called Americans for Prosperity) that are ardent pushers of postal privatization.

Also, prior to the 1971 transformation, the postmaster general had status as a cabinet official appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate. Now, though, the top postal executive is hired (and fired) by the board. This helps explain why incumbent Donahoe—who started as a postal clerk and rose through the ranks—has been a willing member of the sledgehammer crew that's out to "save the service" by demolishing it.

NOT FUNDED BY TAXPAYERS

The anti-government ideologues have had to concede that profit's not the point, but still they groan that the USPS is losing billions of dollars a year. Why should hard-pressed taxpayers be expected to keep shoveling money from the public treasury into this loser of a government agency?

They're not. Important factoid No. 1: Since 1971, the postal service has not taken a dime from taxpayers. All of its operations—including the remarkable convenience of 32,000 local post offices (more service outlets than Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald's combined)—are paid for by peddling stamps and other products.

But wait, what about those annual losses? Good grief, squawk the Chicken Littles, the USPS has gone some $16 billion in the hole during the past five years—a private corporation would go broke with that record! Important Factoid No. 2: The Postal Service is not broke. Indeed, in those five years of loudly deplored "losses," the service actually produced hundreds of millions in operational profit—$100 million of it in just the first quarter of 2013.

What's going on here? Sabotage of USPS financing, that's what. In 2006, the Bush White House and Congress whacked the post office with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, an incredible piece of ugliness requiring the agency to pre-pay the healthcare benefits not only of current employees, but also of all employees who'll retire during the next 75 years. Yes, that includes employees who are not yet born! No other agency and no corporation has to do this. Worse, this ridiculous law demands that the USPS fully fund this seven-decade burden by 2016. Imagine the shrieks of outrage if Congress tried to slap FedEx or other private firms with such an onerous requirement. This politically motivated mandate is costing the Postal Service $5.5 billion a year—money taken right out of postage revenue that could be going to services. That's the real source of the "financial crisis" squeezing America's post offices.

But it's not the only hocus-pocus that has falsely fabricated the public perception that our mail agency is "broke." Due to a 40-year-old accounting error, the federal Office of Personnel Management overcharged the post office by as much as $80 billion for payments into the Civil Service Retirement System. Last year, a Senate bill allowed the USPS to recoup less than 14 percent, or roughly $11 billion, of those funds. Restore the agency's full access to its own postage money, and the impending "collapse" goes away.

A MANUFACTURED CRISIS

That's all well and good, claim postal-agency opponents, but there's no disputing the fact that government-delivered mail is a quaint idea whose time has gone. They point out that the USPS' first-class business has fallen by about 7.5 percent in each of the past couple of years, and even Postmaster Donahoe says flatly, "That's not going to change." This funereal school of despair breaks into two groups: "Kill it" and "Shrink it."

The killers are the outright privatizers who've pushed for decades to get the post office out of . . . well, out of our mailboxes. In the 1960s, AT&T chairman Fred Kappel headed a presidential commission on postal reform, and he told a congressional panel, "If I could, I'd make the Post Office a private enterprise." FedEx CEO Fredrick Smith (a former board member of the Koch brothers' Cato Institute) has been the leading corporate champion for, as he put it in 1999, "closing down the USPS."

The greater danger at the moment, however, are the shrinkers. They propose to fix the proud public service by cutting it down. Postmaster Donahoe is presently the shrinker-in-chief, having put forth a plan that will close 3,700 of our post offices; shut down about half of the 487 mail processing centers across the country; cut more than 100,000 jobs; and, as announced this month, restrict mail delivery to five days a week by eliminating all Saturday postal services.

Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine is among the people of common sense who recognize that the post office "cannot expect to gain more business, which it desperately needs, if it is reducing service." Likewise, Fredric Rolando, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, sees that compromising "high-quality service" is a boneheaded business move: "Degrading standards not only hurts the public and the businesses we serve; it's also counterproductive for the Postal Service, because it will drive more people away from using the mail."

Such drastic cutbacks, consolidations and eliminations create a suicidal spiral that will slowly but surely kill the USPS.

SMALL MINDS AT WORK

While it's certainly true that emails and tweets are faster than mail, there remains a vast demand for postal services, especially where broadband internet does not reach, as well as when hard copy and physical delivery are essential. FedEx has its place, but its self-serving priority is always to go after maximum profit; it has no interest in or ability to deliver universal service at an affordable price to the whole nation. (Letter delivery through FedEx, for example, starts at $8.)

Postal privatizers and downsizers have reams of data on the price of everything USPS does, yet they are completely unable to calculate value. The post office is more than a bunch of buildings; it's a community center and, for many towns, an essential part of the local identity. As former senator Jennings Randolph poignantly observed, "When the local post office is closed, the flag comes down."

This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the list of 3,700 postal facilities suggested for closure includes the historic Franklin Post Office in Philadelphia, located on the very site of Old Ben's house in Franklin Square.

THINK LARGE

The biggest lie of all is that USPS is an antiquated, unnecessary, failing civic institution that simply must give way to electronic technology and corporate efficiency. Obviously, the Postal Service is no longer the only player making the rounds, and it must make some major adjustments to find its proper fit and new opportunities in the marketing and public-service mix. But this requires top management and political overseers to be a bit more creative and business-like than constantly cutting, closing, outsourcing and eliminating.

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Innovation could start with three phenomenal assets that the USPS has: (1) that network of 32,000 retail outlets that form the most extensive local presence of any business or government in America, drawing more than 7 million people into them each day; (2) an experienced, smart, skilled and dedicated workforce of nearly 600,000 middle-class Americans who live in the communities they serve; and (3) the general good will of the public, which sees their local post office and its employees as "theirs," providing useful services and standing as one of their core civic institutions (in a 2009 Gallup Poll, 95 percent of Americans said it was personally important to them that the Postal Service be continued).

There are a few ways to build on those big plusses. Going digital is one. John Nichols reports in The Nation that the USPS already has the world's third-largest computer infrastructure, including 5,000 remote locations with satellite internet service. Expand that into a handy consumer service offering high-speed broadband all across the country.

Services could also expand. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to let post offices sell products and services that they're now barred from offering (thanks to corporate opposition and congressional meddling). Sanders suggests allowing sales of cell phones, delivery of wine, selling fishing licenses, offering photocopy services, notarizing documents, etc. This would be a boon to the people in poor neighborhoods and rural areas who don't have convenient access to such services.

Instead of five-day letter delivery, how about seven days? Think about it: the post office could be the only entity that offers reliable delivery service to every community in the country, seven days a week. And here's a big one: banking. From 1910 until bank lobbyists killed it in 1966, a Postal Banking System operated successfully through local post offices all across the land. It offered simple, low-cost, federally insured savings accounts to millions of "unbanked" Americans who couldn't meet the minimum deposit requirements of commercial bankers or afford their fees. This small-deposit banking system could be brought back to serve these people and create loan funds for investments in local communities.

America's postal service is just that—a true public service, a grassroots people's asset that has even more potential than we're presently tapping to serve the democratic ideal of the common good. Why the hell would we let an elite of small-minded profiteers and their political hirelings dropkick this jewel through the goalposts of corporate greed? This is not a fight merely to save 32,000 post offices and the middle-class jobs they provide, but to advance the big idea of America itself, the bold, historic notion that "Yes, we can" create a society in which we're all in it together.

That's worth fighting for.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 'Hightower Lowdown.' www.jimhightower.com.

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