Not Going Postal

There’s a secret war going on in the United States that has drawn even less attention than the nation’s secret war in Pakistan. It’s a war in which Americans are being subtly asked to cut off their noses to spite their faces. It’s a war against one of our oldest institutions, one dating to the founding of the country, the US Postal Service.

Never heard of the conflict, you say? That’s because the corporate mass media refuses to cover it, those who oppose it are strangely silent, and those perpetrating it use indirection and chicanery. There’s also a muffled but constant drumbeat for this war emanating from an amen chorus of elite opinion makers, whose hawkishness equals that of proponents for a military strike against Iran.

Fittingly perhaps, the original instigator of this postal war was one of the most sinister figures in American history, the infamous 37th President, Richard M. Nixon. Until the Nixon-sponsored Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 changed its character, today’s post office was a government department, the Cabinet-level Office of Postmaster General. As such, it operated with reasonable efficiency for almost 200 years. Nixon’s desire to cut federal spending and inculcate a business culture ended all that.

Under what amounted to semi-privatization, mail delivery became a function of the current US Postal Service (USPS), a quasi-independent government corporation that is self-supporting and revenue-driven. The USPS was removed from the Cabinet, tax subsidies were permanently withdrawn, and the direct federal role was reduced to management and rate-setting powers conferred on presidentially appointed commissioners, thereby stripping away traditional congressional oversight and budgetary authority.

The new USPS was intended to operate like a private corporation, while at the same time meeting required responsibilities in the public sphere. And there’s the rub. The USPS had to make enough money to offset costs, but if someone living on a mountaintop in Alaska needed mail delivery, it had to go there. At the same time, unlike typical corporations, it was limited in its entrepreneurial options.

Most foreign postal services are allowed, for instance, to provide banking and insurance services; not so the USPS, whose creators declined to permit government competition with those industries, even though Federal Express and UPS can freely compete with Postal Service package deliveries. The old Post Office Department did formerly offer consumer banking to its customers (from 1911 to 1966), but that’s socialism, of course, and we can’t put competitive pressure on the too-big-to-fail banksters.

The USPS is also limited by law (since 2006) in its ability to raise revenues by pricing its own stamps and its other services, forced instead to follow rigid, prescribed formulas. This has led, among other things, to the spectacle of postal employees acting as hustlers, hawking USPS wares and appealing to the lowest common denominator among consumers. Thus, the emphasis on tacky, new stamp issuances in eye-popping colors and Warhol-like imagery. Don’t worry, that Whitney Houston commemorative will be out shortly.

The USPS has its problems, no doubt. Mail volume, which reached a record 213 billion pieces in 2006, is down by 22%, mostly due to the Great Recession; so are revenues, which have fallen by $5.6 billion annually over the course of the economic downturn. Even at relatively low postal rates, using the mails costs money, a consideration if you’re unemployed. The end result is an agency struggling with debt.

This state of affairs has provided an opening for those who have always disliked the USPS, an excuse to shrink it or abolish it. Postal management, which now has a corporate rather than a public-service mentality, has become a willing participant in its own agency’s demise; it has proposed closing 3,700 post offices (over 10%) and laying off 120,000 of its 560,000 employees (over 20%), on top of the 110,000 already let go since 2007. Management also talks of ending Saturday deliveries and contracting its work out to non-union venues, such as groceries and convenience stores.

With leadership like that, the USPS doesn’t need enemies; nevertheless, it’s got them. An unholy anti-postal alliance has developed between advocates of all-encompassing technology and political ideologues of the Right. Among those we might call techno-fascists, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera is typical, campaigning for email’s replacement of a supposedly obsolete USPS with the rhetorical question, “Who sends letters in the mail anymore?” Quite a few people, actually. Christmas mailings totalled 16.5 billion last year, prompting another question: Who would send holiday greetings by email, Joe? Certainly not the estimated one-quarter of Americans without computers and Internet access, who value postal service.

It’s political conservatives that are really out to get the Postal Service, however. Washington Post free enterpriser George Will, who believes anything worth doing is only worth doing for a profit, made their case succinctly in a November 2011 column: “Surely the government could cede this function to the private sector.” Will is seconded by West coast correspondent for The Economist, Andreas Kluth, who accuses USPS advocates of being in denial about its creeping obsolescence.

But conservatives have done more than opine. They view the USPS as expendable for two reasons: it’s connected, however peripherally, to the hated federal government, and it’s unionized; both are intolerable affronts to the Right. To undermine the American Postal Workers Union and speed full privatization — that is the ultimate goal — congressional Republicans hit upon an ingenious strategy during the 2006 post-election session of Congress. A defeated and outgoing GOP majority legislated that the Postal Service would henceforth have to prefund 75 years of anticipated retiree benefits within a decade. The USPS has been financially hamstrung ever since, focused entirely on downsizing.

Considering the persistence of chronic recessionary unemployment, Democrats, presumed defenders of the nation’s second-largest civilian workforce (after Wal-Mart), have been curiously subdued and restrained about the gutting of the USPS. When I was in college some decades ago, the then Post Office was considered a prime source of summer and holiday jobs for students — good work at good pay — as well as a desirable career path. Considering that history and precedent, the Great Recession should have been a time for its expansion as a public-jobs program within an existing infrastructure. Remarkably (and tragically), we’re going in exactly the opposite direction.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2012


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