February 12, 2013

Modern-day Republicans make no secret of their passion for dismantling public institutions — “shrink government to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” in the increasingly discredited formulation of Grover Norquist, the dark wizard of the right’s anti-tax cult. Republicans have waged a multi-faceted campaign against public schools, hoping to use charters and vouchers to supplant this basic public institution. They tried to privatize Social Security under George W. Bush and now relentlessly push for cuts in benefits. They provided billions in subsidies to insurance companies to set them up to compete with Medicare — and then torpedoed a public option in Obamacare that would have provided competition for the private insurance companies.

And now they are after the United States Postal Service (USPS), a bedrock American civic institution that is older than the Republic. This month, Postmaster General Patrick Donahue announced that Saturday delivery of mail would end in August, to save an estimated $2 billion a year. This follows plans to close more than half of the mail processing centers, and the cutting of the workforce by some 200,000 since 2008.

While done in the name of making the USPS solvent, this is death by a thousand cuts. As the American Postal Workers Union President Cliff Guffey noted, “USPS executives cannot save the Postal Service by tearing it apart. These across-the-board cutbacks will weaken the nation’s mail system and put it on a path to privatization.”

Why blame Republicans? The media report the Post Office is dealing with losses of nearly $16 billion last year. E-mail and online bill payment have contributed to declining levels of first-class mail. The private delivery companies, FedEx and UPS, have captured a lot of the high-end corporate business. Isn’t the postman just like the milkman, a relic of a bygone age?

No, as John Nichols of the Nation Magazine (where I serve as publisher and editor) has reported, the post office is far more the victim of conservative mugging and bad policy than technological change.

Few Americans know it, but the post office gets no tax dollars; it is entirely self-funded. Its current travails are a manufactured crisis, hatched by conservatives intent on undermining it. In 2006, acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration, Congress mandated that the Post Office pre-fund 75 years of future health-care benefits for retirees over the course of 10 years. As consumer advocate Ralph Nader points out, the USPS is required to pay some $5 billion annually to cover the future health benefits of employees who are not even born yet. No private company in the country could afford to do that.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont notes that simply ending this bizarre requirement and allowing the postal service to recoup billions in excess pension payments would put the USPS out of the red. “With these changes alone, the Postal Service would be back in the black and posting profits,” the senator said.

Of course the post office needs to evolve in the new digital age. But part of that age is a burgeoning growth of parcel delivery resulting from online retailing, from Amazon and Netflix to small businesses. The post office is more than competitive in that area. It also provides the “last mile” delivery in many areas that the private competitors don’t otherwise reach.

The collateral damage of shutting down Saturday delivery and hours will be extensive — particularly in inner cities and rural areas, where small businesses and working families rely on local post offices, many of which are already scheduled to be shut down.

Americans increasingly vote by mail — particularly workers on strict schedules, and increasingly seniors and the disabled. But that works only if the mail delivery system is secure. Kate Brown, secretary of state in Oregon, a leading vote-by-mail state, argues that eliminating Saturday delivery and other cutbacks in the USPS will create delays, increase burdens on election officials and threaten to disenfranchise voters in Oregon.

Donahue seems intent on killing the postal service with those proverbial thousand cuts. The private companies would like nothing better than to carve up pieces of USPS. And without it, watch rates soar — as in Germany, where a letter costs 78 cents.

But there’s a bigger point here, too often ignored in this age of austerity. The postal service is a civic good, not just a business. In rural areas and inner cities, mail delivery provides a point of connection. For seniors and the disabled, even in a digital age, mail service helps sustain their day. The USPS — the second largest civilian employer in the U.S. — is a source of middle class jobs, particularly for minorities, providing decent pay, pensions and health benefits.

Congress has the power to block the USPS from cutting Saturday service. It should begin there — and then reform rules so that postal centers can be community centers, profiting from a range of services, including digital ones, that are now prohibited. This is a public service worth saving.

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