In 1980, future famed environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben published an undergraduate piece in The Harvard Crimson detailing “Six Ways to Argue with a Libertarian.” The first? “Cede the Post Office.” Already three decades ago, even the most staunchly Blue writers could recognize the lost cause that was the United States Postal Service–an increasingly outmoded and poorly-run virtual government monopoly on an important industry.
The USPS has long been the easiest talking point in the libertarian playbook, and for good reason. The rise in email and ebbing tide of snail mail have made the Postal Service increasingly irrelevant and ever more costly to maintain. Indeed, as previously covered at Via Meadia, one of the best places to get paid to do nothing in America has been the mailroom–in the first six months of 2011, as reported by The Washington Post, the USPS paid $4.3 million to workers for “standby time” spent sitting in the break room due to low mail volume.
Belatedly, the agency announced last July that it would be shuttering about 3,600 of its 32,000 post offices. But, as The Washington Post reports, this initiative has turned into yet another episode in the Postal Service’s continuing comedy of errors. Busybody congresspersons, worried about their constituents losing mail service, have begun wrangling with the agency’s choices of which offices to close, causing the plan to be put on hold.
There is tragedy in this comedy. Continued government interference is not solving the Postal Service problem, it is exacerbating it. In the long run, more real jobs will be lost as a result. More congressional meddling and more contradictory mandates (stop losing money! keep loss making offices open!) cannot save the USPS. Rather, for the Postal Service to survive, it will need to adapt to the new reality in which it finds itself by providing services that Americans actually seek, and pruning those offerings for which people aren’t willing to pay.
But the USPS is now trapped in the worst of all possible worlds: saddled with expensive, contradictory and nonsensical government mandates, but forced to rely on the markets to pay its way. Congress needs to take the whole thing over and pay the bills (unlikely in this fiscal climate as well as unwise) or to stop meddling as management tries to salvage a sustainable company from the wreck of a government monopoly.
The failure to choose between these two courses of action guarantees that more money will be squandered and more jobs lost.