The Perfect Storm: How everything is coming together to take the Postal Service apart

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[The following article was written by a postmaster.  "Save the Post Office" is proud to present it as our first "guest blog post."  Although the author was perfectly willing to have his name published, it did not seem prudent, given the possibility of trouble with USPS management.  When you read it, you’ll understand why I asked the author to remain anonymous.—SH]

 

Patrick Donahoe may be the last of the Postmaster Generals.  He will certainly go down in history as one of the worst. 

The United States Postal Service isn't dying because of its fiscal deficit.  It is being systematically dismembered by a management team that lacks vision, soul, and ethic.  It is being taken down by calculating politicians looking for short-term political gain, who see advantage in pandering to the new American ethic of “beggar thy neighbor.”  And eventually, it will probably be taken apart and sold off in pieces to private corporations more interested in personal profit than public service, and that will be the end of the Postal Service.

 

Pushing things to the brink

Postmaster General Donahoe and the USPS Board of Governors have been playing the worst kind of brinksmanship.  As pushback against post office closings has intensified, the latest announcement of cutting the workforce and pulling out of federal benefit programs seems designed to throw a hand grenade into the crowd. 

Donahoe had announced months ago the board's intention to forgo the retiree health payment. This newest announcement actually only rehashes what's been out there for months, but it does so in the most inflammatory way possible.  It transparently bows to the right wing anti-unionists in Congress (ironically those most likely to have offices being shuttered in their district), while virtually marginalizing any oversight by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Sadly, it looks like what the PMG may have accomplished is to short-circuit any meaningful conversation about the value and the future of the Postal Service. The arguments now become about how and when it gets taken down, not what it’s supposed to be and what it could become. 

By pushing employees out the door, Mr. Donahoe is only adding to the economic woes of small communities across the country.  Postal workers are paid decently, and their pension and health benefits are fully funded.  These good jobs solidify middle-class communities.  Two hundred thousand fewer jobs will have a measurable economic impact.  And if Mr. Donahoe also succeeds in undermining access to the Federal retirement and healthcare systems, he will have helped cut a gaping hole in the country's safety net.

It’s a perfect storm, and everything is coming together to take the Postal Service apart.  How in the world could we have arrived at such a moment? 

 

The Post Office Becomes The Company

After the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971, it became increasingly fashionable to think of the Postal Service as a business.  This thinking really took off in the mid-eighties, and by the mid-nineties we were “the company” and everything was redefined in corporate speak.

It was during this period that the large mailing companies began to organize and assert themselves as stakeholders.  Automation took off, the complicated rate system grew, and the tendency to see the Postal Service as “the linchpin of a trillion dollar mailing industry” became more ingrained. 

The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) was another step toward the business model.  It’s PAEA that mandated pre-payment of retiree health benefits.  The goal, as conceived by Senator Collins and other drafters of PAEA, was to create incentives for efficiency within senior management.  Pre-funding was just supposed to force the Postal Service to improve its efficiency and find ways to save money. 

Now that the pre-funding requirement has put the Postal Service in a hole so big the PMG is talking about cutting a third of the workforce and closing half the post offices, the drafters of PAEA appear to have succeeded in making the Postal Service “efficient” in a way beyond anything they could possibly have imagined.

While it’s important for any institution to perform effectively, viewing the Postal Service strictly as a “business” causes several problems.  First and foremost, the idea of the Post Office as simply a mailing company is completely antithetical to the universal service mandate.  Congress and people in the industry focus too much on what they see as the “monopoly” of the Postal Service.  And they don’t give enough consideration to the financial burdens of providing service to parts of the country — small towns and struggling neighborhoods — where a post office costs more to operate than they could possibly bring in as revenue.  That’s especially true given the way the Postal Service does its books.  A post office only gets “credit” for the revenue it brings in and nothing for the mail it delivers.

Unfortunately, beginning with the Reagan era, the country lost sight of the value of government as providing an underlying foundation, and instead took the cynical view of government as an impediment.  The dance of deregulation from Reagan to Clinton has eroded a view that sees the true potential of government to do something good — the view that dominated thinking during the New Deal.

Smaller government can be a good thing, but it has to be an effective government, and it should be a government that fulfills its responsibility to provide a fundamental physical infrastructure as well the intellectual infrastructure embodied in maintaining the rule of law and a set of regulations that holds markets accountable.  Even Adam Smith, hero of the “free market,” recognized this, and a few paragraphs after his description of the “invisible hand,” he points to these responsibilities of government.

 

The Vision Thing

So, the paradigm of the Postal Service as a mailing company rather than an essential component of the country’s infrastructure was faulty in its basic conception.  But there was another problem: the insular management culture of the Postal Service has been completely unable to objectively evaluate its own plans and objectives, to articulate a vision that would move the institution forward, and to sustain the morale of its workers.

Over the past twenty years, the managers of the Postal Service have consistently confused short-term tactical goals with long-term strategy.  There really has been no vision other than somehow turning the Postal Service into something more corporate in its behavior, outlook and performance — without recognizing how completely unrealistic this was, given the regulatory requirements and the universal service obligation.

Postal management never really appreciated the ultimate weight of the pre-funding requirement and didn't do much to bring costs in line.  When the recession hit, they scrambled and actually did a reasonably good job of getting costs down.  But as we can see with the economy as a whole, too often the cuts were penny wise and pound foolish, since they undermined the ability of the institution to move forward.

The original role of the Postal Service as a guarantor of the free flow of information and as a medium of communication infrastructure is still valid.  The print medium is not going away over night, and there will be plenty of mail to deliver for the foreseeable future.  While everyone reading this article may be hooked up, the internet is still a couple of generations from being universal in the same sense as electricity or the mail system.

But the leaders of the Postal Service don’t just lack vision.  They seem blind, and their actions will, in the end, destroy the entire enterprise.  They are hell bent on converting an essential piece of the national infrastructure, an integral component of our democratic institutions, into a privatized purveyor of low level marketing materials. They have treated the beauty, brilliance and foresight expressed in the universal service mandate into little more than an obstacle to be gotten around.

The idea embodied in the concept of “binding the nation together” has driven much of the economic success of this country. Thankfully those with foresight and vision won the debates on internal improvements that took places in the 1820s and 30s.  And although the execution led to much excess, the vision of a nationwide network of railroads supported economic growth and opportunity, as did the idea of land grant colleges and other embodiments of infrastructure that were designed to increase not merely the incomes of a few but the participation of the many in a sustainable national commerce.

 

The Postal Service as Infrastructure

Rather than looking at the Postal Service simply as a mailing company like FedEx and UPS, it would be better to see it as a complex infrastructure — a network of physical nodes (post offices and processing facilities) connected by a fleet of vehicles, with everything kept in motion by an army of postal workers.  In its early years, the Post Office even built post roads — many of them are still the main artery of a city — and helped develop the country’s airline system.

A postal system for the 21st century will need to understand its role as infrastructure.  We need to see the legacy network of post offices, processing plants, vehicles, real estate, and workforce as an asset, rather than as overbuilt industrial capacity that needs to be “right-sized” and “optimized” down to bare bones.

We have always had a tension between those who would hoard economic benefit as personal treasure and those who understand that broad access and participation in the economy result in growth and plenty across social and class lines. The ideal of an America with unlimited potential for social and economic mobility was built on the understanding of a robust national infrastructure — internal improvements, rural electricity, the interstate highway system and one of our greatest gems, a national means of communication and commerce that served universally and equitably, that bound the nation together in a grand idea of shared prosperity.

Viewing the Postal Service as infrastructure, a network with many nodes and the virtually unlimited capacity to bring both intellectual and physical property to every physical corner of the nation, is a grand idea that transcends changing technological capabilities.  Universal service and the presence of government as an effective service provider in every hamlet, small town, suburb and urban neighborhood is an idea without an expiration date.

The challenge is to find utility in the network of buildings, people, vehicles, and technological capacity that we have created. And that utility exists whether it be in assisting challenged state and local governments or other Federal agencies, or perhaps in using ubiquity to collect detailed and specific data, or in providing a backstop for those communities and individuals who have not made the jump into cyberspace. The American way is not to leave our fellow citizens behind but to give them a leg up and a hand over, because in our brighter moments we have understood that a rising tide must lift all boats not swamp our neighbor.

At some point several years ago senior Postal leadership abandoned the idea of the postal network as essential infrastructure and jettisoned the promise of universal service. The blame is not entirely theirs.  They have enablers in Congress, and the entire culture has more and more come to define success as instant gratification — what were this quarter's profits? — and nothing more.

If only we were more focused and businesslike, we have been told.  And so the country spurned manufacturing in favor of the instant profits to be garnered from financial manipulation.  And we ignored our infrastructure, both physical and intellectual, because the costs of real investment led to future payments, not immediate returns.  Success is no longer determined by what we build but by how well we cut and trim.

The Postal Service joined that culture wholeheartedly and began dismantling itself and its ideal. The businesses that grew and thrived because of the growing postal network — the so-called “stakeholders” like FedEx and the bulk mail companies — began to believe that they were the engine that drove the train.

 

Where we are, and where we’re going

Today we have 200,000 fewer good, middle-class postal jobs than we had only a few years ago, and we are likely to have 200,000 fewer within a couple more years.  Without jobs and incomes, who will buy things and provide the demand that drives economic growth?

And now, in his most cynical act yet, Mr. Donahoe presumes to take the Postal Service out of its federal benefit programs.  Pull half a million people out of the health plans and see what happens to premiums.  Watch as a plan that could have been a model for healthcare is undermined.

My grandfather fought in WWI. He served proudly because of an innate love of country and community.  The country often failed him.  He lost most everything in the Depression, and he watched with sadness as MacArthur rode down his former comrades in the Bonus Army.  He often hated things his government did, but he never hated his government.  He understood the fundamental brilliance of the American experiment — the government is us, we are the lifeblood and sustenance of our institutions.

If the Postal Service is going to survive, it’s not going to be thanks to draconian cuts to the workforce and the legacy network of post offices.  It’s going to be because the American people demanded that their government preserve an infrastructure that’s taken centuries to build, that has served the country well, and that still has the capacity to bind the nation together.  Take that institution apart, and you’ll be doing irrevocable damage to the nation.

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