Going Postal in the Digital Age

postal worker postal police post office mail
John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.

Domestic policy debates of late have degenerated into an absurd argument about whether government can do anything right. Even Democrats can be heard mouthing the false premise that private markets are always the answer to the nation's public problems. But government does do things right; indeed, it does something right every day on a massive scale. The oldest of America's major public services--established by decree of the Continental Congress, brought into being by Benjamin Franklin and enumerated in the first article of the Constitution as a vital tool for binding together the new Republic--carries on in the twenty-first century as an essential and possibly transformative arm of the federal government, a service that has only begun to tap this agency's potential.

This is the proper starting point for progressives to enter the great debate about the future of the US Postal Service--and enter they must if there is to be any hope for maintaining it at a time when public services are under overwhelming political and economic assault. Because of declining mail volume and Congressional reforms that transformed the Postal Service from a taxpayer-supported institution into a "revenue neutral" agency that is expected to pay for itself, the Postal Service recorded a $3.8 billion loss in 2009 and is, according to an extreme but oft-quoted estimate, on track to accumulate a $238 billion deficit by 2020. The service has also been harmed by poor political and managerial choices--not to mention accounting errors that have socked it with pension liabilities that are as unsustainable as they are unreasonable.

The Postal Service's economic turbulence has fostered the fantasy that it is no longer necessary in an age when "warp-speed Internet" is constantly juxtaposed against "snail mail." Yet the USPS is anything but "an anachronism" on "a slow march into oblivion." It is a national treasure that provides an immense and irreplaceable public service. The scope and character of that service will change in the twenty-first century--ideally to provide a broader range of information, vote-by-mail systems, community services and even banking options to hundreds of millions of Americans who continue to rely on their local post office as the nerve center of their neighborhood or small town. But before any of this can happen, we must recognize that the Postal Service can and must remain public if we are to maintain the essential infrastructures of democracy.

Americans do not often talk about the Postal Service as a crucial underpinning of the democratic infrastructure, but we should. At a time when 35 percent of all Americans and 50 percent of rural residents have no broadband Internet access at home, the Postal Service is universal. Its 596,000 career employees travel more than 4 million miles to deliver more than a half-billion pieces of mail each day. It goes to extraordinary ends to assure that no citizen or community is neglected; it contracts commercial planes to move parcels across the country in a matter of hours, yet it still sends bush planes into Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness Area and organizes mule trains to deliver mail, food and supplies to the Havasupai Indians on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The Postal Service maintains a network of more than 35,000 retail outlets--the largest in the world, with more locations than McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart combined--which are visited by more than 7 million Americans each day. The postal workers they encounter in these offices and on their doorsteps are reflective of their communities, as the service has historically been and remains one of the surest sources of employment for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and the poor. In short, the USPS forms a vital network of service, connection and community that provides the steadiest link between Americans and their government. As Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) chair Ruth Goldway puts it, the service is "part of the fabric of the nation."

Ending Six-Day Deliveries?

Unfortunately, the Postal Service is not profitable. That's a problem because, under the absurd constraints placed on it by successive legislative "reforms," the service must be "run like a business." And the businesspeople who run the USPS these days, though they may want to save the service, are so fixated on the bottom line that they cannot see the public good. So they have proposed a process of downsizing that could lead to the dismemberment of what should be understood as a core civic institution.

If the wrecking crews are not stopped, they will tear a hole in the fabric of the nation, further isolating Americans from one another, deepening the decay of urban neighborhoods and remote villages, hiking unemployment in our hardest-pressed communities and accelerating the decline of newspapers and magazines, drying up content for the Internet and curtailing civic and political discourse. "We need the Postal Service," says Illinois Congressman Danny Davis, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees the nation's post offices. Of course the Postal Service is going to change, Davis acknowledges. But Americans should start with the understanding that the Postal Service is "indispensable"--not with a debate about how much will be cut.

Regrettably, the latter approach is the one being taken by Postmaster General John Potter and members of the Postal Board of Governors, who are floating proposals to eliminate six-day mail delivery, close thousands of post offices and cut 26,000 full-time and 13,000 part-time jobs through attrition and layoffs. Overreacting to changes in the way Americans communicate while underestimating ideas that could reposition post offices as touchstones for the information revolution and a more consumer-friendly financial-services landscape, Potter and his compatriots imagine that the only response to a rough stretch is to slash the USPS. The madness of the cuts is summed up by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who says, "The Postal Service cannot expect to gain more business, which it desperately needs, if it is reducing service."

Even the service's most determined defenders say that if the restructuring proposed by Potter goes through, the end result will not be the "leaner, more market responsive Postal Service" the postmaster general imagines. Rather, as American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus says, "It would be the beginning of the demise of the Postal Service."

But, of course, Americans will still need to communicate using paper and printed materials, and they will still need to ship all those parcels ordered over the Internet. The Postal Service's demise would not mean the end of those enterprises, just the end of postal workers' jobs and the service's commitment to communities that might not be the priorities of private companies like FedEx. Indeed, the downsizing of the Postal Service has often been discussed as the first step toward a huge bartering off of its responsibilities. Burrus has been saying for years that the service "has begun to travel resolutely down the road of privatization." And the Washington Post is editorializing, "Given the state of technology, privatization is probably the only long-term solution for the USPS."

Thankfully, privatization has a powerful critic. In response to a question posed in February about selling the Postal Service to the highest bidder, President Obama said that privatization is a "bad idea most of the time" because "oftentimes what you see is companies want to buy those parts of a government-run op that are profitable, and they don't want to do anything else. So, for example, the US Postal Service; everybody would love to have that high-end part of the business that FedEx and UPS are already in--business to business, you make a lot of money. But do they want to deliver that postcard to a remote area somewhere in rural America that is a money loser? Well, the US post office provides universal service. Those companies would not want to provide universal service."

Like many members of Congress, the president has sent signals suggesting a discomfort with cutting mail delivery down to five days. But he's been less engaged with the equally serious threat posed by proposals to increase stamp prices and rates for weekly newspapers and magazines, two moves that threaten to drive more paying customers away from a service that has seen annual mail deliveries drop from 208 billion pieces in 2000 to 177 billion pieces last year.

That drop in mail volume is often blamed for the Postal Service's fiscal troubles, but as economist Dean Baker notes, the service "has been scaling back its workforce more than proportionately to the decline in mail volume, increasing the productivity of its workforce. This is exactly how we would expect a private business to respond to the decrease in demand for its services." According to Baker, "The cause of the [current] shortfall has been the requirement put in place by Congress in 2006 that the Postal Service pre-fund 80 percent (up from 50 percent at present) of retiree healthcare benefits. The rule required that they reach this funding level in ten years. The Postal Service spent $12.4 billion to reach this pre-funding target over the last three years, an amount considerably larger than its $11.7 billion shortfall over this period."