The Postal Service and its enemies

The U.S. Postal Service yesterday announced a downsizing of service.  It will close more than 200 mail processing centers, which will delay many first class mail deliveries for at least a day.

Up until now more than 40 percent of first class mail has been delivered the following day, 69 percent within two days and 99 percent within three days.  I’d say that’s a bargain for 44 cents (or even 45 cents after Jan. 22).  Under the change, according to the Associated Press, 51 percent of first-class mail will be delivered within two days and “most of the remainder” in three days.  Periodicals will take up to nine days.

Mail-order businesses, such as L.L. Bean and Netflix, will be hurt.  They can shift their business to Federal Express or United Parcel Service, but those businesses rely on the Postal Service to fill gaps in their coverage.

The Postal Service has been losing money for five years, even since Congress imposed a requirement that it fund employee retirement five years in advance.  I believe this requirement is due to a right-wing ideology that opposes government providing a universal service to all Americans rather than just those it is profitable to serve.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe wants to downsize by a different method.  He has asked Congress for authority to reduce delivery to five days a week, raise stamp prices and cut benefits for postal employees.  This what the CEO of a failing corporation would do to postpone the inevitable.

For most of the 20th century, the Postal Service was a model for all public utilities.  Theodore M. Vail, the chief executive officer of American Telephone and Telegraph Co., in 1913 settled anti-trust suits by committing AT&T to providing a universal service to all customers at the same rates and to allow independent telephone companies access to its long-distance service.  Electrical utilities in a later era were prodded into the same commitment.  Employees of telephone and electric companies took pride in quickly restoring service interrupted by storms and floods, just as mail carriers took pride in delivering the mail no matter how bad the weather.

In the 1980s and after, this ethic came under attack.  A commitment to universal service came to be regarded as socialistic (by supporters of Ronald Reagan) or monopolistic (by supporters of Ralph Nader).  What was wanted was competition.  When I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, telephone executives spoke disparagingly of POTS (plain old telephone service).  Instead they admired the people who could create new products—call waiting, caller ID, automatic call forwarding and so on.  Innovation of course is a good thing, but the first duty of a public utility is to maintain basic service.

Mail delivery is a Constitutional function of government (Article I, Section 7).  It seems to me the Founders wanted all Americans to be able to communicate with each other, and that their reasons are still valid today.

If it was up to me, I would not reduce lay off postal workers or reduce postal service—because, among other reasons, the effect of eliminating 28,000 jobs on our recessionary economy.  I would hire postal workers and expand mail delivery to seven days a week.

A question.  If the Postal Service is shut down or privatized, what happens to that 75-year employee retirement trust fund.  Does it go to the private company to use for its own purposes?  Does it revert to the federal government’s general fund?  It certainly isn’t going to be refunded to us postal patrons.

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