Two competing visions are defining the great postal debate of 2011.
The management of the Postal Service, along with the mainstream media and many stakeholders in the mail industry, are advancing a narrative that blames the Internet and postal workers for the “crisis” in the postal system. The Internet is making the post office “irrelevant,” and workers’ wages and benefits are egregiously out of line with the private sector and other federal workers. The solution? Optimize the system by closing post offices and cutting the workforce and benefits.
There’s an alternative narrative, but it’s not getting much play in the media. According to this vision, the Postal Service continues to play a vital role in the nation’s social and economic life. The fault for its financial problems lies not with the Internet or postal workers, but with a Congress addicted to half measures and feckless posturing and with a postal management that’s become a prisoner of its own circular, dead-end thinking. ...
The General Accountability Office's report, “Allocation of Responsibility for Pension Benefits between the Postal Service and the Federal Government,” should come as no surprise since it reflects the GAO’s consistently negative appraisal of the reasons for the existence of the Postal Service. In this case the GAO takes a position contrary to the wishes and desires of the management of the Postal Service, but ironically the GAO conclusions flow logically from the visions expressed by postal management.
Essentially the GAO found that it is just wishful thinking to believe that the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) has been over funded as a result of the accounting principles utilized in apportioning pension costs to the old Post Office Department. The GAO concluded that the original legislation creating the USPS, as well as subsequent legislative efforts, does not sustain the idea that the accounting methods ought to be in any way adjusted. Their contention is that this is not a matter of equity. Rather it is solely a matter of policy. ...
For years many have believed that second-class publications — periodical mail — don’t carry their proportional weight in institutional costs. The recent report from the PRC and USPS, Periodicals Mail Study, seems to confirm that. The question here becomes not how to bring this class of mail into rate compliance but whether it should be brought into compliance at all.
We need a serious discussion in this country about the value of public goods. As the beginning of the report’s executive summary points out, the distribution of periodical mail was seen as an essential function that promoted our democratic values. In their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols discuss journalism as a public good, something that brings value and benefit to society as a whole. To some degree we already recognize that in the context of postal services. We provide special rates for non-profits and free matter for the blind.
Periodical mail — the county newspaper, the news-and-opinion magazine, the journal of scientific thought — are necessary and important parts of our society. We are told that print is a dying technology and to some degree it is in decline, but it is a technology that has unique properties that we will not easily discard. Print provides a finite accuracy, a point in time when something was directly recorded in a complete way. A digital newspaper story may take fifty iterations — which one do we archive? Print is a neutral technology when distributed through a postal system providing universal service. ...
Congress and postal management have joined together to define a narrow and simplistic vision of the potential value of postal infrastructure. Management particularly has insistently tried to redefine the post office as simply another mailing business, a coequal stakeholder standing alongside the direct mail and advertising industry. For their vision of the postal service to come to fruition they must abandon both the universal service obligation and dismantle the postal network’s infrastructure, which includes several hundred thousand well paying jobs. In today’s economy such a vision borders on criminal.
This narrow vision is given intellectual respectability by conservative think tanks that publish papers advocating the privatization of the post office. They pay great respect to philosophers like Smith, Locke, and Mill, but they completely deny the existence of anything resembling a public good. They somehow ignore the generations of postal workers — many of them veterans, people of color, and people with disabilities — who were able to join the middle class, buy homes, and send their kids to college thanks to their postal salaries. ....
by what measure would strangling the Postal Service provide any “efficiency” to the public? What is efficient about closing thousands of post offices that cost next-to-nothing to operate but that provide crucial services to their communities? Why is it efficient to drastically raise postal rates on the newspapers, journals, magazines and publications that educate and inform the public? Will it be more efficient to let these publications go out of business, to be replaced by blogs that have no editorial oversight? What’s efficient about putting 220,000 people out of work, whether through layoffs or “attrition”? Will it be more efficient to pay them unemployment benefits than it would be to collect their income taxes?
Wouldn’t it be more truly efficient if we simply solved the real problems facing the Postal Service? Transferring back to the Postal Service the $6.9 billion in FERS money and relaxing the health-care pre-funding requirement would go a long way toward addressing the deficit “crisis.” It would also create opportunities for examining some ideas that might provide real efficiencies. Like changing the law so the Postal Service could get involved with the census, which might save billions of dollars. Like energizing efforts to promote last-mile delivery and thinking about other ways to take advantage of our existing physical infrastructure. Like using the Postal Service and the nation’s credit unions to bring the “unbanked” more solidly into the economy. Like convening a commission that could direct a serious discussion on the public value of a neutral ubiquitous post. ...
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