The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Going Postal: The Continuing Tragicomedy of the USPS

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.

Published on January 2, 2012 3:35 pm
  • Corlyss

    I was an attorney for IRS for 8 years (not in tax law). Exposed to the machinations of that agency, which combines all the worst traits of auditors and lawyers, I realized that Gingrich’s ambition to halve the agency workforce from 130,000 to 50,000 was a pipe dream. Why? Because the National Treasury Employees Union runs the IRS. Every commissioner, regardless of party affliation, has to pledge to the Union’s Congressional minions during the confirmation process that no one will lose his job as a result of automation. Roughly 50% of the work force is data entry clerks, whose jobs should have been eliminated 50 years ago, even with then-primative ADPE equipment. Looking at the situation, and how it might be possible to right-size IRS, I realized that the base closure model was the only feasible way. There were too many employees scattered around the country in every congressional district to lay siege to the agency and raze it. It’s the same situation with the Post Office. There’s just too [darn] many employees and post offices scattered around the country in every congressional district to make any other model feasible. Only when it is too small to matter will Congress permit the outsourcing that modernizing the service demands. Just because it’s mentioned as an enumerated governmental power in the Constitution doesn’t mean government employees have to do it, any more than maintaining an Army and a Navy requires every function to be performed by a government employee. Given the mountain, I don’t expect to see it climbed in my lifetime, any more than I expect to see the IRS halved.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I appreciate the ease and general dependability of the postal service’s Click and Ship website.

    Its delivery of time-sensitive magazines is so spotty (and always has been, in five metro areas where I have lived) that I am shifting nearly everything to online subscriptions. Why wait two or more weeks for a paper copy when a PDF awaits me?

    I would be happy to pay the USPS an annual subscription fee for a service like Swiss Post Box (swisspostbox.com). With considerably less chaff in the system (I’m looking at you, credit-card marketers and catalog-mongers), perhaps the postal service could deliver the important items more punctually.

  • Toni

    @Corlyss: FDR’s court-packing scheme effectively intimidated the judiciary, and the IRS pitched in with audits of politicians. Result is the tax court system. See For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization.

    There’s no other crime you can commit (that I know of) where you then enter an arcane, specialized system governed by millions of pages of tax code, laws and precedents. Like other closed systems, it oppresses ordinary folks, and I think it’s meant to.

  • Toni

    1. Why not set up a board like the military base closing commission of the 1990s? Then the pols could fight directly and more efficiently.

    2. Prof. Mead, what do you have against shrinking government programs that no longer serve the people well? Like the FAA, the CDC and the Census Bureau, the USPS serves a specific function. Unlike the others, the USPS’s function has been superseded by technology.

    Western Union was once the US stock market’s largest company. Its telegrams were superseded by another communications technology, the telephone. Telegraph operators did not get bailed out by taxpayers.

    In the 1980s, due to low prices, the oil and gas industry lost more jobs than the steel and automakers’ unions combined. Nobody wrote tearjerker stories about the energy workers’ plight, which was eased only by existing government programs — i.e., not unemployment for ~90 weeks, and certainly not government union benefits.

    Like workers at the FAA, CDC, Census Bureau, Nucor Steel, GM, Exxon and Halliburton, USPS workers are trained to do specific jobs. They’re not hired to be innovators or entrepreneurs. If technology should bring a day when we no longer need air traffic controllers, should we give the controllers a pot of money to innovate with, to see if they can find something else useful to do that other Americans will like?

    It’s simply impractical to think that people trained to be mail carriers and postal managers can put their heads together and morph the USPS into a multifunction organization. Any idea they came up with, like taking in dry cleaning at post offices, would take capital to install new equipment and retrain workers. That is, even more than USPS’s present bloated budget.

    I daresay it’s immoral to keep borrowing cash to lavish on a single class of government worker when we know future generations will have to repay it. Isn’t your approach another front in the War on the Young?

    Blacks and Hispanics will have to find useful tasks to do elsewhere, along with Caucasians, Asians and postal workers of every other hue. People of a certain age and complexion should have no special call on the funds of everyone else, especially young people and their progeny.

    To say otherwise is, I believe, its own form of condescension, and thus a form of racism.

  • joe watusi

    You mentioned management, we do not have any type of management compared to private Industry, the buddy and nepotism system, the waste of billions of dollars on mail systems that did not work, then the bonuses and incentives for the failures then the trickle down effect, lower management inflating numbers, for bonuses and incentives, then the APWU telling members that the union was giving up 40 hour weeks, people cannot live on 40, and less?, yet upper Union officials and management work less than 40 and get paid
    for a lot more, the USPS needs real true managers, the USPS culture is self serving and is self destructing, the Unions are no better, coming from a Union Official; “Privatize”!

  • Grannybunny

    The Postal Service has adapted, and is adapting, and has managed to remain profitable in its operations. However, the problem is Congress, which has managed to not only siphon off all of USPS’ profits, but to throw the Service into multi-billion dollar losses, leading to the ridiculous scenario of USPS having to borrow from the Treasury — at interest — only to turn right back around and tender the money back to the Government, allegedly to prepay 75 years’ worth of future retiree health benefits within 10 years, a requirement to which no other entity, public or private, has ever been subject, and it is bankrupting the Postal Service. Without that single, draconian, requirement, USPS would have been profitable 4 out of the past 5 years. In addition, due to errors in the statutory formulae setting the payment amounts, the Postal Service has overfunded its 2 retirement programs by $61-86 Billion — depending upon which audit one accepts — so no “prefunding” should be necessary. Congress is using the $42+ Billion “prefund” to render “revenue-neutral” some of its other (over)spending. The solution is not to return USPS to total Congressional control, but to free it — totally — from Congress’ greedy, partisan political clutches.

  • Kyle

    Simma down, nah!

  • Corlyss

    @Toni

    The Adams book was one of my favorites. I loved his take that the civil war may have had consequence for slaves but it was fought over tax policy. Lincoln was prepared to let the South go in his first inaugural, but he demanded that they continue to pay its 70% share of federal revenues, even if no longer affiliated with the North.

  • Corlyss

    @ Granny

    If setting aside future pension and health care liabilities makes the post office a candidate for bankruptcy when accounting for pensions and health care like the rest of the government does allow it to retain the appearance of profitability, it’s functionally broke. Just like the rest of the government. When the phony-baloney privatization scheme arose in the mid 60s to permit Congress to claim it was getting rid of a stroppy union and companion strikes. I believe it was common industry practice at the time to fund pensions. With the Studebaker bankruptcy and the revelation that they had not funded their pension plan, the new era of defined benefit plans and taxpayer liability for private industry pension promises was born. O unlucky post office, to be stuck with an obsolete system at its birth as a “private” entity!

  • Dancelot

    I can’t draw but envision a cartoon of a person, representing the USPS, tied up with ropes, the ropes labelled with all the restrictions and unnecessary requirements that Congress has inflicted, the clothing labelled “decent wages”, with a libertarian-type pushing the figure over the bridge into the water below saying, “Sink or swim!”

  • postal widow

    In 2000, 2001 postal employee paid in an extra 15 percent to their retirement systems under the 1997 budget reconiliation act, for budget reasons only, then it was reported back to congress with notice of overpayments in to the retirement systems 15 billion for fers, 140 billion for csrs, then congress chose to pass by voice vote, the paea, which places the current top managment on a pay per performance givng them more bonues while undercuting the work force for having paid too much money into retirment then forcing the usps to place profits of 5 billion a year into escrow, for workers not born or working for the usps for the next 75 years from 2006 until 2016, many of the workers, are then forced to do more and the fair labor standards act is ignored. ,some workers have been worked to death due to the paea, the following links are for information, http://www.awpu3800 first area tricounty local, PA, library , how the ongoing violation of the usps guiding principles are creating a toxic work enviorment, stress in the workplace artical, http://www.bill burrasjounal.org- misc, ( goggle to find) elevator page, phoney excuses for diverting usps revenues, ALEC/Koch cabal the privitization of USPS for Ups and FedEx, bob sloan, vltp, april 2012, examiner.com, Tim McCown , behind all the schemes and lies of the privitization of USPS, http://www.savethepostoffice.com, michigan american postal workers union, the truth behind the postal crisis, google books, the post office, its past record, it present condition , it potential relation to the new world era, Daniel Calhoun Roper, chairperson united states tarriff commision, first assistant postmaster general, 1913- 1917.

  • Val Nostdahl

    The United States Post Office, was formed in 1775 , by Continental Congress Members Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin, for the purposes of communication during the revolutionary war and winning the war of independence, it predates the forming of the Nation and the Constitution and is the only quasi-federal agency to be listed in the constitution of the United States. Background information to be read by every American can be found online in the book, The Post Office, its past record, its present condition and its potential relation to the New world era. Daniel Calhoun Roper, First Assistant Post Master General, 1914-1917 at google.books or amazon.com search inside this book. From this era collective bargaining was formed with Postal Workers disliking the terrible working conditions marched in mass on Washington D.C. and the united front won collective bargaining to settle matters of disputes but would still take some 20 some years . In 1935 the right to unionize was formed, and then improvements in the labor field happened with the fair labor standards law, social security, child labor laws, wage and benefit laws and pensions, health and safety on the job. In 1970 the great postal strike took place due to the postal workers having to either be on welfare or working 3 jobs due to congressional requirement for raising wages with congressional action. Since that was denied the postal strike took place removing the USPO from the Presidents cabinet, and placing a board of governors over sight of the service and changing the USPO into the USPS, plus placing the labor department over it for management purposes. In 2000, 2001, after years of taking cuts in pay, wages , health benefits, pensions for both working employees and retirees of the USPS worth about 200 billion, the USPS workers were forced to pay in extra to their retirement accounts known as FERS and CSRS under the 1997 budget reconciliation act for budget reasons only. The President and both sides of congress thanked the postal workers for their sacrifice ( NALC Legislative Sheet 2003) This is the action that overpaid FERS and CSRS, for postal workers, and then congress started new legislation on the postal retirement in 2003 after a request had been made by Senator Collins and other congress members on the ” hypothetical postal funding ” of CSRS for postal workers. OPM then discovered over funding would eventually happen for the CSRS and FERS account. COB sends a letter to the honorable Jim Nussle which can be read on line in January of 2003, then EMA ( envelope mailing association) Institute meets with the Presidents Commission on Postal Studies February 12, 2003, which recommends legislation for recognizing the postal overfunding of CSRS, in which according to GAO was 103.1 billion, that amounts lowers the payment schedule of 32 billion in to CSRS for the USPS from that amount to 5 billion to be paid back in to the account for future payments for 40 years. Because of the lobby efforts to destroy the USPS by right wing extremist group ALEC/Koch for over ten years from 1990 until 2006, ( see alec/Koch cabal pursuing the privatization of USPS for Ups and FedEx, bob sloan, vltp.net , April 2012) the CBO then steps in and states if the postal service does get lowered payment then it might not raise stamp rates, the PMG making a deal to get the PAEA passed and aiding with non raising stamp rates, since getting pay per performance bonus money and 5.5 million dollar retirement, then refuses to raise stamp rates. The PAEA is passed by voice vote in December with 2 over paid retirement accounts ( CSRS by 140 billion outstanding balance of 200 billion and FERS, 15 billion with outstanding balance of 90 billion) now takes 5 billion a year for over ten years from postal profits instead for 5 billion at 40 years in a intra agency transfer that would have no effect on the USPS, no effect on workers, federal budget or federal budget scoring. ) taking approximately 47 billion at current rates for postal workers not born or working yet for the next 75 years starting in 2006 through 2016. The PMG retired in 2010, but not before shutting down post office, selling them off , and gain for Richard bloom *( spouse of senator from CA) and also does non replacement of attrition or retirees for some having retired and not replaced in postal union craft workers, so more deaths on and off the job take place and injuries. Over 700 some USPS workers die from 2006 onward, due to the effect of the PAEA on postal office, and many more injured. 50 more since 2010 die. The manufactured crisis by congress continues. http://www.savethepostoffice.com, community and postal workers united on face book, USPS widows on face book, APWU 3800 , PA library stress in the workplace article, how the ongoing violation of the USPS guiding principle are creating a toxic work environment, 2008, the battle for democracy and the USPS, tim Burleson scibd( net) , examiner. com, Tim McCown, behind all the schemes and lies of privatization of the USPS.