Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Post Office Isn’t a Business

The United States Post Office will stop delivering mail on Saturdays beginning August 1. Why? Because the Post Office has been losing too much money and Congress (or at least one party in Congress…) doesn’t want to keep subsidizing those losses with government (i.e., taxpayer) money. Thus, the Post Office has to cut costs and has elected to do so by eliminating Saturday mail delivery.

Personally, I’m not that worked up about losing Saturday mail delivery. Other than my Time and Entertainment Weekly, I’m not sure that I get much mail on Saturday that couldn’t wait until Monday (and I’d rather get my Entertainment Weekly on Friday, anyway…); for that matter, I’m not sure how much mail I get that I really care about anyway. Junk, trash, junk, junk, bill, junk, bill.

Nevertheless, something feels wrong with the elimination of Saturday mail delivery.

You see, I think of the Post Office as being a part of the function of our government. I mean, think about it: Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants to Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”. The Constitution doesn’t mention an Air Force or space agency, it doesn’t mention a national institute of health or a reserve bank, and it doesn’t mention a spy agency or national museum. But it does make specific reference to the Post Office (as well as post roads which were necessary for the movement of mail between post offices).

It seems to me that the delivery of mail from place to place is actually a core function of our government that ought not to be scaled back just because it isn’t cost effective. Think for a moment about how many people there are in our country and just how big our country really is and then contemplate the fact that you can send a letter to anyone anywhere for just 46¢. That’s really pretty remarkable. In how many other countries is that possible?

Or think about it this way: Does the Air Force turn a profit? What about NASA? Or the Veterans Administration? The Smithsonian, Holocaust Museum, or Yellowstone Park? It seems like the only governmental agency that really makes a profit is probably the Internal Revenue Service. Should we care if some of the core functions of government actually cost us something?

I can even imagine the next step, when a Republican Congress requires the Post Office to raise rates to be similar to those charged by FedEx or UPS or decides to eliminate the governmental subsidy to the Post Office entirely, thus ending the guaranty of low cost mail delivery.

I’ve also read, but have not independently researched, that one cause of the Post Office’s monetary woes is that Congress required the Post Office to pre-fund pensions for 75 years. I don’t think any other business or governmental (or even quasi-governmental) entity has been required to pre-fund pensions for 75 years. Is it really fair to require the post office to do all that it does for as low a price as it does, but also require it to make expenditures that far exceed what others are required to make, and then criticize it for not being cost efficient?

I’ve also read that the goal of forcing the Post Office to scale back is actually to weaken the postal workers union. Again, I don’t know this to be true and haven’t done any independent research. But given recent Republican attacks on unions, this wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if it were true.

Look, the Post Office isn’t a sacred cow to me. Like everyone else, I’ve certainly had my share of complaints about the Post Office. But the ability to cheaply and efficiently deliver mail from place to place seems to me to be a core function of our government, especially given that it is specifically referenced in the Constitution. It may be that Saturday delivery isn’t really a big deal. But I do question weakening the institution or the assumption that the Post Office should be treated as and compared to a for profit business.

Again, the elimination of Saturday delivery may be fine, before we force the Post Office into further reductions in the services it provides, we need to have a broader conversation about the role of the Post Office in our system and the degree to which providing those services is an essential component of our government that should be paid for, at least in part, through our tax dollars.

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