Murderous Reform: A Plan to Privatize Postal Profits at Public Expense


January 10, 2013

BY GRAY BRECHIN

The National Academy of Public Administration has released a “Work-in-Progress” report entitled "Restructuring the U.S. Postal System: The Case for a Hybrid Public-Private Postal System."  The Academy is now embarking on a study of this proposal, which would privatize a large portion of the country's postal system.  

The Academy's study is billed as an “Independent Review of a Thought Leader Proposal to Reform the U.S. Postal Service.”  Unfortunately, no study conducted by a four-man panel chaired by David M. Walker, the former President and CEO of the libertarian Peter G. Peterson Foundation, can seriously claim either the independence or non-partisan objectivity that the Academy itself boasts.   

It has been my experience over the past 30 years that "hybrid public-private partnerships" are often little more than a sedative euphemism for the private sector taking the profits while the public bears the costs.  Such is the case with this "reform,” which will, as is so often claimed in such instances, "unleash the power of market forces" by transferring the USPS profit centers to the private sector while saddling the public with the cost for "the last mile."  Meanwhile, the public is already being stripped of its assets in broad daylight while the media sleeps.

The proposal is predictably one-dimensional — as befits men who seemingly have little or no sense of the public service mission for which the Post Office was created 238 years ago under the direction of Benjamin Franklin.  Its purpose, then as now, was democracy and equality, not efficiency or profit. Thus, the report omits much. 

Nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of unions, let alone of living wages, so one can only presume that a primary means of reducing costs will be to drive down the income of those postal employees who remain after the USPS is radically downsized and diminished as proposed.

The report also simplistically states that "the root cause of the postal crisis is the historic change in how we communicate," omitting other forces now undermining it such as Congress itself.  Nor does it mention the invaluable artistic, historic, social, environmental, and commercial function of many post offices currently being thrown onto the market with virtually no oversight.  It neglects to say that a commercial real estate firm (CBRE) chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, is profiting from the sale of properties paid for by taxpayers for well over a century. 

Finally, there is no serious discussion of alternatives characteristically described in such reports as “out of the box” for making the USPS solvent again, such as reviving the U.S. Postal Savings Bank and providing other public services currently available outside this country. That is because the self-proclaimed thought leaders who framed the report do not actually seek to save the Postal Service but to “reform” it virtually out of existence.

My studies of the New Deal have revealed an ethos of public service that seems entirely alien not only to the men who produced the Academy’s blueprint but to current postal management as well as to those in Congress who saddled the USPS with fiscal obligations seemingly designed to eliminate it as a competitor to private carriers, a goal long sought by those very carriers and by the libertarian think tanks they lavishly fund.

Several WPA-built structures here in California bear an inscription by the Roman poet Virgil: "THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD."  The Academy’s preliminary report contains nothing noble or new.  Quite the contrary, it is yet more of the same demonstrably failed neoliberal experiment that has, over the past three decades, so disastrously despoiled the U.S. economy as it has demoralized our citizens.

Unleashing the power of market forces did not work so well in 1929 or in 2008, and it will not do so again as those very forces seek to finish off the public sector as a competitor once and for all. 


Dr. Gray Brechin is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. He is the founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal Project based at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography.  He works with others to stop the sale of the National Register-listed Berkeley Post Office. 

Photo Credits: David M. Walker; Dr. Gray Brechin (Steven Finacom)

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