Last week, a letter arrived from John Tucker of Alexandria. It suggested that we make a private corporation of the Postal Service and offer stock in it for sale to the public.
John thinks we should give the new company all the physical assets USPS now uses. The private firm would begin with extensive assets, but would also inherit the annual operating deficits that USPS now incurs. The annual deficits would be transferred from taxpayers to stockholders.
As a private corporation, the new firm would lose its monopoly on first-class mail. Faced with competition, it would be forced to improve its service or go broke, and stockholders would demand that USPS provide better service. Thereafter, the private enterprise system would again demonstrate that it is superior to any other.
I put John's letter into a special basket I reserve for issues I don't understand well enough to write about. It is, alas, the basket that always contains the greatest number of letters.
This is not as indolent a practice as it might appear to be. If a letter is left in that basket long enough, one of two things happens. Either the issue becomes less pertinent as time passes, so there is no need to write about it; or it becomes more pertinent and therefore more fully debated in public, and I have a chance to learn more about it. Either way, I am less likely to inflict foolish opinions on you.
John's letter had been in the basket for only a few days when staff writer Haynes Johnson wrote a critical column about USPS for last Sunday's Washington Post. Inevitably, Johnson's column recalled John's letter to my mind, and I pondered it anew.
Do we really want to turn over control of our postal system to a private company? Has any other industrialized nation done that? What would happen if the big mail-order firms bought a controlling number of shares and decreed low postage rates for circulars and advertisements and high rates for first-class letters? What recourse would the mailer have if a privately-owned company puts its financial interests ahead of the public interest? What could we do if the new corporation began selling off its valuable land and buildings to meet operating deficits?
The unanswered questions are still flooding through my mind. I think about them within what I hope is a proper context: recollection that Ben Franklin was our first postmaster; that there have been many changes in the service since then, and that more may be needed in the future; that although the Postmaster General was a member of the Cabinet as early as 1829, it was not until 1872 that the Post Office Department was created as a separate executive department; and that in 1971 we changed our minds and threw the Post Office Department out of the Cabinet.
Due consideration for the history of the mail service leaves me with the feeling that making a private corporation of USPS is not our best course at this time. So John's letter is going back into the basket to marinate for a while longer.
Meanwhile, perhaps we can improve what is essentially a sound system, albeit a system in which the quality of service has indeed deteriorated, as Haynes Johnson charged.
I don't know why the U.S. Government Manual says USPS is the only federal agency in which employment policies are covered by collective bargaining. I think that is in error. Nevertheless, for those who think the USPS labor contract is the cause of poor service, it should be noted that a private postal firm would also have to engage in collective bargaining.
The Founding Fathers thought that a publicly owned postal system was essential to the economic and social wellbeing of our nation. They were right about so many things that one must have respect for their judgment. And the Postal Policy Act of 1958 affirmed that respect by stating, "The Postal Establishment was created to unite more closely the American people, to promote the general welfare, and to advance the national economy."
Nevertheless, two major issues must be debated until a clear consensus emerges: Should a publicly owned postal system pay its own way or be subsidized by taxpayers? Must a publicly operated facility be less efficient than one that is privately operated?
One could also ask, "Is it better to build public roads or private toll roads? Would the Army be more efficient if General Motors ran it? Would it be more efficient if Chrysler ran it?
I think our best hope is to look for ways to improve what we have now.