As you’ve probably heard already, it has been decided that the United States Post Office will cease Saturday delivery of first class mail in August of this year – only packages will continue to be delivered on Saturdays (though operating hours will remain the same). This effort at savings comes after a loss of $16 billion last year, and is projected to reap $2 billion each year hereafter.
To understand the predicament of the Post Office – the myriad reasons it is failing, a lot of which has to do with meaningless restrictions imposed by, you guessed it, Congress, and the two significant opposing schools of thought on how to fix it – and in an effort to reexamine the significance of this surprisingly functional government service, and its place in the modern world, I refer you to an excellent article written by Jesse Lichtenstein for Esquire magazine that does all of this and more.
Want to send a letter to Talkeetna, Alaska, from New York? It will cost you fifty dollars by UPS. [Postal employees] Grabenhorst or Lipscomb can do it for less than two quarters: the same as the cost of getting a letter from Gold Hill to Shady Cove, Oregon, twenty miles up the road. It’s how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country. From the moment Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775, the purpose of the post office has always been to bind the nation together. It was a way of unifying thirteen disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia.
Today the postal service has a network that stretches across America: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles, the largest civilian fleet in the world. Trucks carrying mail log 1.2 billion miles a year. The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet’s mail. It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact.
What is perhaps most interesting is that the cost of the Post Office’s survival brings us back around to the healthcare debate. One big reason the USPS is so cash-strapped is because it is doing something almost unthinkably conscientious and righteous in today’s cynical landscape: paying its employees’ future health benefits early (granted they were compelled to do so by a self-serving and ill-advised piece of Congressional legislation, but I can’t help but think the USPS deserves credit for doing the right thing, even if it was for wrong reasons).
When [Postmaster General] Donahoe testifies on Capitol Hill, as he has done several times over the past two years, to describe just how dire the postal service’s situation is — losing $25 million per day! — he talks in even, polite tones. Because there he’s not telling, he’s asking. Five hundred thirty-five members of Congress ultimately decide how to run the postal service: what it can charge for postage, which services it can offer, how it operates. Donahoe is the person who implements their policies, despite the postal service not being a federal agency or taking any taxpayer money; it runs solely on the postage it sells — or lately, doesn’t.
Take the most contentious issue: the seventy-five years’ worth of future-retiree health benefits that in 2006 a lame-duck session of Congress legislated the postal service prepay over the following ten years as part of a broad overhaul of the way the postal service operates. No other government agency must do this, and most private companies would have spread those payments over forty years. But the postal service was flush at the time, and Congress figured out that since health-care payments are counted as general government revenue, it could use them to prop up its own books. (Five-and-a-half billion dollars a year coming in from the postal service was $5.5 billion less Congress would have to cut elsewhere to remain budget-neutral, as the Bush administration was demanding.) But then the economy crashed and with it the amount of first-class mail being sent around the country. Suddenly a law designed to keep the postal service solvent in the long term began bankrupting it. Of the $15.9 billion the postal service lost last year, 70 percent — $11.1 billion — was in future health-care payments.
Read on, and be informed.