This great people’s institution, we are told, knits us all together as a nation and must be preserved in its current form, at the cost of possibly billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. House Democrats have proposed $25 billion to start.
There’s even a new folk song, touted in the pages of the Nation magazine, about “fully funding” the Postal Service. Never mind that Congress established the USPS in 1970 as a self-sustaining entity, and its official website boasts that the agency receives “zero” taxpayer dollars.
Yet when you look at what the agency actually does, a lot of it turns out to be a federally underwritten service for — profit-seeking businesses.
Of the 142.6 billion pieces of mail of all kinds that the USPS handled in 2019, 53 percent was advertising material, a.k.a. junk mail, up from 48 percent in 2010. Junk mail makes up an even bigger share — 58 percent — of what individual households receive.
Fun fact: In August 2016, Public Policy Polling asked voters nationwide, “Do you have a higher opinion of Donald Trump or junk mail?” Trump won, 47 percent to 43 percent, though junk mail did outpoll mosquitoes by three points.
Companies pay a special rate, 19 cents apiece, to send these items (in bulk), as opposed to the 55 cents for a first-class stamp.
This daily flow of government-facilitated ink-on-paper advertising poses two non-trivial environmental issues: the cutting down of carbon-absorbing trees, and the burdening of landfills and recycling plants. Local governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars on such costs each year, according to the New York Times.
The Postal Service’s dependence on junk mail has grown since technology killed what used to be its cash cow: a monopoly on first-class mail. First-class mail declined from 82.7 billion pieces in 2009 to 54.9 billion in 2019.
Perhaps 91 percent of Americans do have a favorable view of the USPS, as an oft-cited Pew Research poll says. What they actually use to communicate are cellphones, sending 5.5 billion text messages per day in 2018. That compares to 16.5 billion cards and letters in the entire year of 2019.
Some progressives are stuck in the pre-Internet age. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, apropos alleged mail delays: “I am not exaggerating when I say this is a life-and-death situation. The Post Office is delivering medicine to millions of Americans during a pandemic. It delivers Social Security checks to seniors who rely on those benefits to survive.”
He is exaggerating — a lot. Over 99 percent of all Social Security payments are sent by the more secure route of direct deposit; a 2013 law mandates it. As for mail prescriptions, they have indeed increased during the pandemic, to 5.8 percent of the market, according to the Wall Street Journal. In-person pharmacies handle the overwhelming majority.
Crying “privatization” is the perennial scare tactic of progressives who oppose postal reform. That’s an odd one, too: Several European countries and Japan — justly admired by American liberals for their rational, humane health-care policies — have either fully or partially privatized their postal services.
Actually, privatization is highly unlikely in the United States, given resistance from the two key lobbies — junk mailers and postal unions — that most influence Congress on this issue. Their pressure has thwarted far milder reforms, such as giving the USPS greater power to raise prices, shifting some retail functions to Staples, having Medicare take over postal retiree health benefits or eliminating Saturday delivery (which most Americans support).
Progressives are right to this extent: Even in the 21st century, essential delivery of physical items — ballots being one example — can be a public good, valuable enough to merit some government support. The USPS connects rural and urban America and provides steady jobs, of which people of color hold a greater share than their share of the overall population.
These considerations warrant saving the USPS — sustainably. The situation calls for a grand bargain: debt relief in return for permanent, structural reforms and cost control. It worked for General Motors.
Instead, between Trump’s venom and the progressive left’s denial of obvious technological and financial realities, we’re getting a decreasingly rational debate, quite possibly to be followed by an expensive disaster.