Policy choices drove the Postal Service into debt, but we can still choose to save it.
The news last week that the U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of regular mail provoked a wide range of reactions: anger from those who hope to prevent the cuts, praise from those who see it as a bold and necessary move, sadness from those mourning the end of an era, and denial from lawmakers who noted that it’s not entirely legal. Whatever their take, the fact that nearly everyone has an opinion on this policy shift shows how thoroughly the Postal Service has become woven into the fabric of American society. Many government agencies are facing cutbacks, but few have an influence as personal or as pervasive as the mailbox outside the front door. And when we check that mailbox by force of habit and remember why it’s empty, it may make us think twice about letting yet another pillar of public life in the U.S. be knocked down.
The blame for the Postal Service’s downward spiral is usually split between the Internet (you can’t include a funny video of a cat in a physical letter, so what good is it compared to e-mail?), private competition, and the most usual suspect of all, the United States Congress. The first two have some merit, but Congress, which has lately become the Kevin Bacon of looming disasters, never more than a few degrees removed from a crisis, is the biggest culprit here. In 2006, it imposed a wholly unique mandate that required the USPS to prefund health benefits for future retirees for 75 years, to the tune of about $5.5 billion a year. So far it’s placed $44 billion into that account while running losing about $30 billion. Now it’s planning service cuts that will save about $2 billion a year. You can work out the math on that one, even if our lawmakers can’t.
While contemplating the costs of the Postal Service, it’s also important to consider what we’re paying for. As of 2011, there were 35,119 postal facilities across the country processing 554 million pieces of mail every day. It may not be as polished as FedEx, but then again, FedEx couldn’t be as polished as FedEx without the help of the Postal Service, which delivers 30.4 percent of FedEx Ground shipments thanks to its presence in rural areas where private carriers fear to tread. To do all this, the Postal Service currently has 546,000 career employees, about 20 percent of whom are black. Further layoffs and service cuts will take a significant toll on communities that have already been disproportionately affected by the recession, from economically devastated towns that can’t sustain private carrier routes to minority groups suffering sky-high unemployment.
The USPS also has value beyond the daily churn of correspondence, commerce, and junk mail. Historian Gray Brechin notes that the New Deal’s public works projects included the construction of more than 1,100 post offices “designed…to elevate and inspire the public” and “distinguished by fine architecture, materials and detailing, as well as by a lavish programme of public art that, for the first time, reflected back to patrons and workers their regional identity.” FDR, himself an avid stamp collector, understood the value of public spaces and oversaw the construction of a vast network of facilities that would bind disparate communities together while serving as a vital supply line. It was also meant as a reminder of what Americans can achieve when united by common purpose. And now some people are ready to give up on it because the lines are too long.
In this light, attacks on the Postal Service look like another symptom of the general anti-government sentiment that has been undermining FDR’s legacy and the strength of our public institutions for decades. Like any service, public or private, the USPS should look to trim costs and adapt to customer demands if it can do so without compromising its quality of service or labor standards. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s hard to blame the agency for the fiscal hole it’s in when Congress has opted to micromanage it to death. Indeed, the prefunding mandate that’s driving the USPS into debt is a classic example of the conservative governing philosophy: come in, break stuff, then complain that it never worked in the first place. Some private firm must be able to do it better, even if it depends on publicly funded resources to get it done. And of course the object of their fixation would be postal workers’ future health benefits. As we’ve been taught from the endless attacks on Social Security and Medicare, the essence of greed in the modern workforce is the desire for a comfortable retirement.
We don’t have to let this narrative play out this way. With this and other public services on the chopping block, it’s time for Americans to have a serious debate about what we want from government and what it’s worth to us, in terms of both our budget and our national identity. Through its sheer omnipresence, the Postal Service and the cuts it’s facing may help Americans to grasp the full scope of what we stand to lose if we buy into the mantra that nothing that costs something is worth anything. It’s up to all of us to decide that the mail must go through.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.