Pride in Ownership: The United States Postal Service

By JT Haines — July 26, 2020

There’s plenty to be concerned about these days. Too much, obviously. With that said, there may not be a single issue more emblematic of the pickle we’re in as a republic than the bizarre and anti-factual attacks on the US Postal Service.

The USPS is an engine of democracy. It is a vehicle for connection. It is a jobs program. It is for many a matter of actual life and death. It delivers to every remote corner of our fair land whether it’s “profitable” to do so or not.

It is a “public good,” and a gem of one at that.

Investment in public services make sense when there are public benefits, as there very obviously are in the case of the USPS. This is true even when — especially when — those benefits are hard to measure. It’s incredible to me how often this needs to be explained.

Nonetheless there has been a lot of debate, especially in the last 15 years or so, about whether the USPS is “losing money.” A lot of this actually has to do with the special accounting for pre-paid retiree benefits required only of the USPS, but let me also have a little bit of an attitude here and say I don’t give a shit. It’s not supposed to be “profitable.” It’s a public service. In addition to doing all the things mentioned above, it also literally subsidizes private mail services simply by existing as the only universal service provider.

Rather than waste time listening to fools bloviate about whether the USPS made or lost $10 billion in a particular year, or whether we should attempt to save a billion dollars paying postal workers less or charging more for shipping, what we should be doing is focusing on how much this public good is worth.

Meanwhile $10 billion dollars is not real money. The Pentagon costs us $700 billion a year, and that doesn’t include all the secret unconstitutional stuff. We just spent multiple trillions of dollars in coronavirus bailouts mostly benefiting private interests and the rich.

It makes less sense to start from a proposition that the USPS should cost zero dollars than it would to just assume it is worth, and should therefore cost, $100 billion dollars. At least the latter would save us from stupidity about whether we should pay APWU members hazard pay during a damn pandemic. In any case, $10 billion is not a real thing, especially during a time when we need to be looking for smart investments not running from them.

Fortunately, it seems most people do actually understand this. A recent Pew poll found that the 91% of us favor the USPS, and 92% of us support direct financial aid as part of coronavirus relief. (Fortune). Thank goodness.

The US Post Office Department was created in 1792. We didn’t expect it to be “self-funded” until the Reagan 80’s. It has been a crown jewel of our democracy. It is real world evidence that good and smart government actually works, and that citizens of a republic are actually capable of understanding the importance of a public good. No wonder the right-wing anti-government forces spend so much time and energy attacking it. We need to ignore them.

And if we find out, as is lightly implied by this Fortune Magazine article, that the Trump White House is actually causing the USPS to impede democracy by (intentionally) slowing mail through (intentionally) terrible management, we must react vociferously. And we certainly cannot waste any time talking about whether the damn thing costs a billion dollars.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These are the words of men and women who actually care about our country. 

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Update, Washington Post, July 30:

The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing days-long backlogs of mail across the country after a top Trump donor running the agency put in place new procedures described as cost-cutting efforts, alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.

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