Post Office Wrong Target For Conservatives

September 29, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

During the health care debates, a culprit emerged as proof that the federal government is anti-competitive, wasteful and inefficient: The U.S. Postal Service.

Why hate on the post office? The USPS is America's second-largest employer, with 34,000 facilities and the nation's largest vehicular fleet. It's also on track to lose $7 billion this year.

Conservatives say the underlying problem is the post office's monopolistic nature. As the only carrier permitted to deliver non-urgent mail to households, the USPS' lack of competition, coupled with its salary, benefit and pension obligations to unionized postal workers, make for weak capitalistic tea. Approximately eighty percent of all expenditures go to employee pay and benefits.

In a speech last summer defending his health care reform proposal, even President Barack Obama lamented the postal service's problems. Analogizing the "public option" to mail delivery, Mr. Obama tried to assure those worried that private insurers would face a comparative disadvantage that competing with the government wouldn't be a problem.

"I think private insurers should be able to compete," said Mr. Obama. "They do it all the time. I mean, if you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? No, they are. It's the post office that's always having problems."

Conservatives howled. "... Obama, whose intention was to dispel doubts about increasing government's role in health care, has rhetorically linked health care reform with the post office experience," the Washington Examiner's Byron York wrote at the time. "If Republicans can't make something of that, they don't deserve to be called the opposition party."

But those demonizing the postal service, including the president, ought to be careful.

For one thing, Americans like the post office: A 2007 poll showed 92 percent customer satisfaction. And although people may complain about the cost of first-class stamps, when adjusted for inflation, the cost of stamps remains virtually unchanged over the past four decades - something that cannot be said for health care premiums, homes, autos or almost any other consumer product or service.

Still, even if the USPS operates without federal outlays, won't its deficits end up on the already daunting national debt ledger, thus creating a taxpayer-borne subsidy of postal delivery? And, during an era of cell phones, texting and e-mail, do we even need daily mail delivery to every American address anyway?

The respective answers to those questions are "probably" and "probably not." But the caricature of the post office as a fleet of Cliff Clavens - slothful, incompetent bureaucrats living fat on a government-guaranteed salary, benefits and pension, so Americans can send mother's day cards for 44 cents - is unfair and incomplete.

According to the USPS' 2008 annual report, of the 201.9 billion pieces of mail delivered, only about 10 percent originate from households. The other 90 percent comes from businesses, agencies and other nonhouseholds. And although the private letters, bills and magazines we receive at home comprise 40 percent of our mail, the other 60 percent is advertising: credit card applications, coupons and other forms of junk mail.

Which means that the post office is an even more important boondoggle for the companies flooding our mailboxes with solicitations. The trade groups know the score: The magazine publishers support USPS solvency, and the direct mail industry says it will gladly accept five-day mail delivery if necessary. And in 2006, a Republican Congress and Republican president passed a law mandating that the USPS set aside billions to cover its long-term pension obligations.

Big business and the GOP are not trying to starve this federal beast.

Oh, and do free-marketers really think a private company could manage thousands of trucks, tens of thousands of vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of pickup boxes and still deliver any letter from any address in America to any other, from Boston to Los Angeles, Juneau to Miami, for half the price of a candy bar?

No way. Privatizing the postal service would mean higher rates and longer drives to find a post office.

The post office thus doubles as a national Rohrshach test for government performance. Some see the bloat of guaranteed jobs and fixed-benefit pensions. Others see corporate welfare. And few of us want to admit that the true cost of mailing grandma's birthday card from Baltimore to Bakersfield is a lot more than 44 cents.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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