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Aaron Regunberg: Don’t Kill the Postal Service

Friday, February 08, 2013

 

Photo: David Guo's Master/Flikr. The announcement this week that the US Postal Service intends to cut Saturday delivery has been met with much debate and discussion in Congress.

On Wednesday, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced that beginning in August of this year, United States Postal Service letter delivery will drop to five days a week. Donahoe argued that the elimination of Saturday delivery is a necessary cost-cutting measure for the Postal Service to deal with its oft-reported financial struggles (USPS has been operating at a loss for a number of years, to the tune of billions of dollars).

There are three major problems with the Postmaster’s plan. The first is simply legal: U.S. statute requires the Postal Service to deliver mail six days a week. Donahoe has said that his cutbacks are not in violation of the law, arguing that the federal government is currently operating on a stopgap budget measure that does not explicitly mandate six-day delivery and so he has a window to make the change. However, many members of Congress have already disputed that assertion, and I do not know how well Donahoe’s loophole will stand up to a vigorous challenge.

There is also a moral argument to be made against these kinds of cuts, which (like most public service cuts) will cause the greatest harm for those in the most need. In this case, the damage will be deepest in rural communities and in inner cities, where access is already the most difficult and where many of the post offices that folks depend on—both as individuals and business owners—are already targeted for closure.

Then there is the business argument. It is difficult for me to see how further weakening the Postal Service will help turn it around and make it profitable.

Not a Viable Plan

In the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, “The postmaster general cannot save the Postal Service by ending one of its major competitive advantages. Cutting six-day delivery is not a viable plan for the future. It will lead to a death spiral that will harm rural America while doing very little to improve the financial condition of the Postal Service.”

In other words, providing poorer quality and less convenient services is simply going to cause more customers to seek other options, putting the Postal Service into an even deeper hole. It’s a great plan if you want to break up USPS and sell it off, but it is a terrible plan if you want to protect this robust public service for all Americans.

This is particularly true when you consider that much of the Postal Service’s financial crisis is completely manufactured. In 2006, conservatives passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which compelled USPS to “prefund its future healthcare benefit payments to retirees for the next seventy-five years.”

This is an infeasible business model that no successful companies currently utilize—in fact, it is this arbitrary act of Congress that has forced USPS to divert more than $5 billion annually to prepay the health benefits of retirees who have not yet been hired, which makes up a huge proportion of the Postal Service’s losses.

A Need to Adapt

Now, full disclosure, I should admit something; I love the mail. I think it’s absolutely terrific that for a couple of coins in my pocket I can send a physical item anywhere in the country. I find it incredible that every small business, every potential entrepreneur, every emerging nonprofit can affordably utilize this immense infrastructure.

But in the end, the United States federal government has a responsibility to provide this service to the citizens of America. The Constitution of the United States is not a detailed document, and the list of specific government duties it outlines is not a long one. Yet there it is, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7, directing Congress “To Establish Post Offices and post Roads.”

The Postal Service needs to adapt to a new, digital age. It will need to go through some significant changes to reclaim financial stability. But the only road on which this five day delivery plan moves the Postal Service forward is the road to privatization, and that is an end that would be disastrous for the common welfare of this nation.

 

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