Thursday, February 14, 2013
Killing the Post Office
This is the second installment of my new monthly column in the Deming Headlight. "Killing the Post Office" appeared in today's edition. To see the link on the Headlight's page, click here.
On a recent Saturday morning, the sight of mail trucks navigating Deming's dust storms brought to mind the famous inscription on the Farley Post Office building in New York City: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." This vow of public service was once so iconic it was widely assumed to be the official creed of the United States Postal Service.
The USPS does not have an official motto, but it does have a legal mandate to provide universal service. As established in Article I of our Constitution, the postal service is a public agency accountable to the Congress. Unlike a private business, the postal service is required to serve rich and poor alike, from our thriving cities to our rural areas, at affordable prices. Moreover, it is required to be financially self-sufficient. The post has become known for its financial problems. We pay more for less service while it closes thousands of offices and processing centers, and cuts jobs.
Now Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has announced the end of letter delivery on Saturdays, beginning in August. It is not clear whether Donahoe can do this without Congressional action. If he prevails it will be the most drastic reduction in service we've seen yet, eliminating millions of work hours for unionized employees already losing their jobs to "permatemps."
While it is true that the postal service has seen a drop in revenue due to the recession and the rise of email and internet transactions, the postal service suffers mainly from a manufactured crisis.
What other explanation can there be for the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA)? This law requires the Postal Service to prefund its retirement benefits 75 years in advance, in just 10 years. Imagine paying a 30-year mortgage on an expensive home in just two and a half years, or all of your paycheck going into Social Security. The post office must pay a staggering $103.7 billion by 2016 for employees who have not even been hired yet; and this is on top of current pensions. No business could survive such a mandate.
It gets worse. According to the post's Inspector General, the USPS has overpaid the Civil Service Retirement System for current retirees by billions of dollars in multiple fiscal years. These funds could be refunded to the postal service by a simple executive order. Requests for refunds and a more reasonable saving formula have been ignored. How much money will be saved by cutting Saturday letter delivery? $2 billion, a drop in the bucket that won't solve the real problem.
As citizens of the republic, we do well to ask: why does this happen? Why did legislation in the previous Congress, attempting to correct the PAEA formula, die in committee? Why does the Postmaster General not challenge these policies as he announces the elimination of union jobs, price hikes, and cuts to services that are vital to the economy and the general welfare?
This is "starve the beast" neoliberalism. The postal service is under attack because the public sector is under attack. This is a long campaign to privatize all of our economy. The notion of public ownership, of a strong, accountable public sector dedicated to service above profits and executive salaries, is under attack.
Congress helps by forcing important and popular institutions, like public schools and the postal service, to fulfill impossible mandates so they fail and go broke. We are then instructed that public agencies are not viable, and we must let business take over.
When New Zealand privatized its postal service in 1998, investors profited handsomely as money was redistributed to the private sector, but working and rural people paid the price. This is where we are heading, but the postal service must be broken first.
It is a shame that Congress, and even the postmaster general, are working towards this goal. The post office could survive and compete, and do so without the kind of bailouts that have buoyed the private sector. We just need our lawmakers to stop killing it.
Maybe we should think twice before electing politicians who profess to hate government.
[Image: Deming's post office, built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration.]