I am a staunch defender of the United States Postal Service. When you think about it, it is a minor miracle that, for 45¢, you can put an envelope in a small box at the end of your driveway (or in some cases, right outside your front door), and in three days or less, that envelope is in the hands of a loved one (or enemy), who appreciates the gesture (or quakes in fear).
Some people, though, do not appreciate the USPS the way I do, or recognize the astonishing bargain we receive as Americans. Some people, believing that electronic communication and overnight carriers are the future, advocate for the privatization of the USPS. I could not disagree more. Perhaps these people pay all their bills online, and never send small packages or postcards. Certainly, they are upset by the massive deficits the Postal Service runs year after year. The latter is an understandable concern, but one, we shall see, can be remedied. The other complaints, however, are short-sighted and, frankly, selfish.
The Postal Service’s woes are in the headlines this week because it just missed a multi-billion-dollar payment to its retired employee benefit fund. It will likely miss another in September. And it is claimed that the USPS is losing up to $25 million every day. So, proposals to end Saturday delivery, close post offices and processing centers, and even privatize the service get floated around in newspaper op-eds and on radio talk shows. Indeed, earlier this year it appeared that Gainesville—which already lost its downtown post office—would lose its processing facility, too, meaning that mail leaving Gainesville would have to travel to Jacksonville for processing, then on to its destination. The Gainesville postmark would no longer be used, and letters would take an extra day to reach their recipients. I viewed this as a minor catastrophe. Congress, which oversees the Postal Service, put off implementing these cuts, but, clearly, unless some changes are made, they will ultimately come to pass. I sincerely hope the privatization never does.
Privatization, according to its proponents, would look something like this: the Postal Service would sever its ties to the federal government, would review its costs and revenues, and would create a new business model centered on making mail delivery profitable. This seems simple enough, and its proponents cite the potential for vast increases in effeciency with congress out of the picture. Fine. But the privatization crowd does not consider some crucial facts:
- The USPS, by law, must provide universal service. It must deliver to every address in America, including countless homes and businesses in far-flung places, from the Gates of the Arctic to the South Dakota badlands, to the remotest Hawaiian island. It delivers to these addresses for no more than the cost of first-class postage. The Cato Institute would have you believe that a privatized system that charges rates based on delivery costs would be more profitable. While it is certainly true that the Postal Service is losing money on that postcard to Barrow, Alaska, it is foolish to believe that raising the price to reflect the true cost of delivery could ever earn the USPS, or any carrier, a profit. Would you mail a birthday card to your grandmother in Barrow if it cost you $47 to do so? Of course not. Rural delivery would instantly cease.
- The USPS delivers approximately a third of all FedEx packages and millions of UPS parcels. Those two companies could simply not exist without the USPS. Indeed, FedEx and UPS readily admit they could not possibly deliver packages to rural addresses at a profit. Instead, they take their packages to the post office and the USPS delivers them.
- Critics often claim that, in the days of electronic mail and UPS, the United States Postal Service is pointless. These critics must hate receiving post cards and letters, or sending books and compact discs across the country for less than $2.00. E-cards are no substitute for the real thing, and the so-called overnight delivery services do not offer a service comparable to the USPS. But books and CDs are technologies of the past, you say? Fact: most books are still read in print, and most music is still sold on physical media, be it compact disc or vinyl. Netflix may someday have every film available for instant viewing online, but for now only a tiny fraction of movies and TV shows can be streamed. And even then, forty percent of Americans lack access to broadband service to enjoy them. Tens of millions of people still get cards and letters each day.
- The importance of this one cannot be overstated: the USPS keeps track of all new addresses. It is a key component of its job. Every new house that gets built, every new high rise, every new restaurant, sports arena, and bank branch gets an address—often from the local permiting agency, but sometimes from the Postal Service itself—and the USPS adds it to the system. This has been happening for hundreds of years in the United States.
Critics are right to be concerned about a USPS bleeding red ink. But the problem is largely an artificial one. That is, almost ninety percent of the Postal Service’s deficits come from the congressionally-mandated pre-funding of future retirement benefits, in spite of the fact that the USPS has tens of billions of dollars already set aside for this expense. Even the president of the union that represents postal workers has been pushing hard to stop this madness. The retirees will be covered. Eliminating this pre-payment will put the Postal Service near the break-even mark. Closing some post office branches is probably advisable. We lost one in Gainesville, but have several left. The same thing could surely be said of some other cities with multiple post office branches in close proximity to one another. Meanwhile, the USPS could probably do without selling stupid stuff like mouse pads and graduation cards in its branch offices. I doubt anybody buys them, and it costs money to keep around. The gradual introduction of a more fuel-efficient fleet will save a ton of money. I have heard other great ideas, too.
All of this is to say that the United States Post Office is undoubtedly the finest in the world and a minor miracle. Its problems are actually relatively minor and have fairly straightforward solutions. To borrow a phrase from the coalition of architects who fought unsuccessfully to save Penn Station in New York City, “Renovate! Don’t Amputate!”