The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

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W.J. Astore

I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service.  Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit?  Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service.  But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?

Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).

Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on.  When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.

Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit.  Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking.  Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.

There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy.  Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits.  Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?

In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.

People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service.  While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.

To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education.  We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.

A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it.  A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example.  It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.

What do you think, readers?

25 thoughts on “The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

  1. The USPS is largely privatized already. According to my mom, who recently retired after 29 years with the USPS, the majority of “mail” is bulk mail [junk], packages are often FedEx or UPS (which contracts with USPS for mass air transport AND passes off packages off to USPS carriers in smaller markets). Post offices in some towns are little more than boxes sorted by a part-timer with no benefits, box trucks & drivers are contracted for collection and transport, and new hires in large ZIPs [those ending in “01” indicate a processing center] are essentially “on call” with no guarantee of hours every week and little chance of long-term employment, healthcare or pension.

    Those calling for privatization are almost certainly those who think they can make a buck, which really isn’t the issue. The concern is whether a private entity can use public resources, in what way, for how long, without competition or compensation-essentially a new monopoly funded by taxpayers but with less oversight by taxpayers (or the clown-fondlers empowered by taxpayers through voting).

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    1. Excellent overview by Jim and his Mom of “What’s Goin’ On” – Marvin Gay, RIP.
      Your Mom’s correct the USPS has been gutted for decades, and being in advertising, saw how “powers” changed things. As a ‘gopher’ in the early 60’s, had to visit the grand NYC USPS to get approval from them for a new logo on envelopes design. It had to pass, or we’d be stuck with them: Color, design, placement space. This was not “Dictatorship”! Just readable return addresses. Fair enough!
      Then comes junk mail, which we didn’t do, but a friend on the VISA account rejoiced over lunch: Congress had approved USPS was forced to deliver heavy crap for practically nothing! I freaked! The USPS wanted 1st class mail to move fast, thus our new logos needing approval.
      Today I can’t believe our Congress was smart enough to vote for this terrible change, hoping to ‘Privatize’ USPS – probably a bribe from VISA. But your last paragraph says it all to me. Like Thatcher’s City of London boys, they are robbing America of US taxpayer’s assets, then when in trouble through incompetence go back for more taxpayer funds.
      Thatcher claimed her ‘system’ worked perfectly, but this Christian woman insisted on cremation, afraid her grave would be desecrated.
      So goes ‘free markets’! + BREXIT!
      LOL, but you & Mom are right!!!

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  2. There was a time when both the Post Office and the School were intricate and beloved aspects of our local community. Am I right or wrong believe that Benjamin Franklin thought that a Postal Service was of great value to our society?

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  3. “Ripe for privatizing?” You bet! In fact, my favorite Senator to hate, Dianne Feinstein, already tried with Berkeley’s beauty (FDR work program art deco extravaganza). The University went wild, and they backed off. For now at least.
    As one whose read Ayn Rand*, Milton Friedman, etc. their ‘free market’ (supposedly) philosophies actually don’t work – or make money – in certain industries; post offices, public transportation, and I’ll guess in the future airlines. (*Rand loved to rant about our railroads, but she misses key ingredients: The land was stolen from Native Americans, financed by European bondholders (Guaranteed by US Government!), engineered by US Army Corps (for free!), at a wonderful time in history: no cars, roads, or airplanes. You couldn’t miss!) Ben Franklin’s US postal service by charter had to BUY the land. Imagine what THAT’s worth today?! So the idea stinks, but don’t believe me, look to Great Britain.
    Under Margaret Thatcher, all was ‘privatized’, and it’s been a disaster. The train’s huge subsidies today, necessary from government to keep the country alive far out cost the slight amounts years ago. Why? Because the City of London banksters, still get a cut, and robbed them blind during ‘privatization’. British Airways & UK postal service ditto.
    I’m still a ‘capitalist’ in many industries, cars, fashion, coffeepots, etc. I can’t imagine a government agency doing any of them right!
    The jury is still out on defense contractors and health providers.
    Or is it, with F-35’s sucking up more money than air, and lower life expectancy rates at astronomical costs??

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  4. I had a page from some years ago on the Post Office as part of a multimedia and webwriting course. The Post Office has always been far more than a delivery service. Here is a text copy from my page and a reference to the book most of it came from and a reference to another book I found. Sorry for the length but this has been a remarkable piece of the interstitial tissue of this nation. I was going to do this earlier but had to go to the VA, another government institution which does well. As far as I am concerned (despite various public attacks, only a few of which are on target or true) I’ve not only gotten great results, the VA could be a core model for a public health care system. All privatizing does is hand over public good to become private-profit goods. A public good has the public purpose as “the job” – not a profit margin.

    == start of my copied text =====

    A Post Office For Democracy … and a Model for Net Neutrality Today

    Without information the United States would not be the United States. The Post Office created a national identity we didn’t have at the start. In 1792, the fourth year after the constitution replaced the Federation, the modern Post Office was formed. The existing Post Office was vulnerable to government surveillance, to patronage, to postmasters who were often printers and who might or might not transport a rival printer’s newspaper.

    The Post Office Act of 1792 would be very important to the development of democracy. It had four factors which were central to the role it would play in the nation.

    1 – All postal routes were created and set by congress (an actual worthwhile use of “pork barrel” favors).
    2 – There was no minimum required revenue to setup and run a post office.
    3 – The privacy of the mail was protected – no government surveilance (yup, a concern in 1792 also)
    4 – Newspaper exchange between printers was free (before wire services and not unlike blogs republishing material today).

    When the constitution was created there was almost no sense of a nation. The states were what the average citizen related to. The Post Office became almost the only visible connection with the federal government. By 1831 postal employees made up 74-percent of all federal employees and by 1841 the figure was 79-percent. There was no federal income tax and very few other federal agencies which intruded on average lives. The post office was the federal goverment to most people.

    In England and Europe at the same time new post offices had to have a return in revenue. France required $200 a year. In the US congress members appointed postmasters everywhere. Often the appointees were part timers but they were a gathering point for information. Although these appointments were made by congress members there was no central plan. They followed the scent trail of settlement. There was a small set of rules which produced an emergent effect which went well beyond the operating rules themselves. Little by little a sense of a national identity emerged. As Ken Burns noted, before the civil war we called ourselves these United States and after the war we called ourselves the United States

    The Postal Act of 1792 set up the free exchange of newspapers between printers. Printers shared information from the largest cities to the most remote frontier outposts. They re-published each others’ information – very much the way bloggers currently re-publish information today. There were neither wires nor wire services at first, just correspondence.

    When Alexis de Toqueville visited the US he was impressed, he remarked, that the most back-country citizens knew more about European affairs than most citizens in his own country who were not in a capital city.

    The US Post Office was an information revolution of its day. It was a web of connections which supported a cheap and reliable flow of information between all areas of its coverage. Much as the world wide web would do 200 years later. People felt a connection across geographic distances where before they would have remained isolated.

    By the 1830’s newspapers were receiving something like 4,500 exchange papers a year. That is more than a dozen papers a day on average ( Assuming 365 delivery days ) for each newspaper across the new nation. It was the first time in history so much information was so readily available and so inexpensive.

    === end the text copied from my page ==

    I got most of this from: “Spreading The News,” The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse, by Richard R. John, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-83338-4 (cloth) ISBN 0-674-83342-2 (paperback) Richard John is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois

    When I Googled to locate the book again I also found a few more. On published a year ago (Amazon) is: “How the Post Office Created America: A History” Paperback – July 4, 2017
    by Winifred Gallagher

    Here is a paragraph from Amazon’s blurb about Gallagher’s book: “The founders established the post office before they had even signed the Declaration of Independence, and for a very long time, it was the U.S. government’s largest and most important endeavor—indeed, it was the government for most citizens. This was no conventional mail network but the central nervous system of the new body politic, designed to bind thirteen quarrelsome colonies into the United States by delivering news about public affairs to every citizen—a radical idea that appalled Europe’s great powers. America’s uniquely democratic post powerfully shaped its lively, argumentative culture of uncensored ideas and opinions and made it the world’s information and communications superpower with astonishing speed.”

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  5. I should add that a few years back, I had a conversation with a solidly middle-class guy who was anti-teachers. The source of his animosity seemed to be that they got summers off and were overpaid. Seriously. Anyone who knows about teachers and what they make could educate him, but he wasn’t prepared to listen. And teachers don’t get the summer off; they’re usually taking courses and seminars and otherwise involved in educational activities.

    It’s strange indeed. People will get angry at a postal worker because she gets a pension or a teacher because she gets a few weeks off in the summer, but they’ll applaud rich owners for their smarts and entrepreneurial skills.

    It’s a variation of siccing the working poor on welfare recipients. Meanwhile, the richest are laughing all the way to the bank.

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  6. My argument doesn’t relate to efficiency – although improvements could be made in that department, it is a fact that mailmen in particular perform well. My beef has to do with ignorance and cheating, for which I have paid dearly enough to cease completely doing business with the postal system. Details on request.

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  7. Public schools are not unlike the USPS. although I don’t understand how someone can dismiss a profession en masse, even the work many people wouldn’t perform or use, usually vice of some kind.

    I don’t believe compulsory education is helping anyone; those who are curious will pursue information and those who aren’t…Add the influence Texas has on the publishers of textbooks, and the average student’s relationship to information [criticism and application, primarily], I don’t see public schools as much more than a child tending service that offers varying entertainment options.

    I live in a micropolitan city in Iowa, population around 30k. 30% of 16 year-olds read at an 6th grade level, with similar math & science scores. I don’t consider that the responsibility of the teachers, the parents, the district administration or school board; the student is responsible for that, and it’s a drain on the resources available to students who are interested. Additionally, 85% of high-school graduates in the district go on to college, primarily because that experience has become a rite-of-passage promoted by public school employees as necessary to ‘a good life’, and that debt trap is one of the best hustles in the country.

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    1. I taught for 15 years at the college level, and of course attended public schools for 12. Yes, students need to be curious. But a good teacher can stimulate that curiosity — and guide it as well. Few people can truly self-educate themselves.

      Learning is complex, and so too are the results obtained through compulsory education. Speaking coarsely, our society doesn’t place a high value on true learning anymore. Of course, there are many exceptions to this. But the idea of creating an informed citizenry as the basis for democracy is almost quaint. It seems today’s students are simply trained to get a job, or recruited to join the military, or told to go to college and get a degree as a “passport to success.” The idea of learning for personal development and enrichment (where “enrichment” isn’t measured by money) is almost laughed it — hence all the jokes about humanities majors being unemployable or employable only as baristas or bartenders.

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  8. Thinkers are harder to manage than button-pushers, trigger-pullers, and the debt-laden, all of whom become “middle management” if they stick around and don’t screw up. The issue I came to was one of evolution, rather than organization when pursuing a goal. The USPS will eventually be absorbed by UPS or end outright just as public school will outlive it’s value to society (if it hasn’t already, considering some responses to questions about US history, government, et cetera).

    I am a product of public school, and after 11 years I had the credits to graduate, but didn’t want to go to college or join the military, so I worked for a decade, then enlisted, used DANTES (and the subject GRE) to generate a BA in Psychology, got out and used 1/3 of my GI Bill thinking I wanted to go into I/O psych before I fully understood what my days would probably be like, dumped the program and went “economic mercenary” through the stringer websites like oDesk, now Upwork, primarily in marketing/sales but also tech/IT after making use of SkillSoft [veterans can get an annual membership], et alia.

    I once read (or was told) that the only thing necessary for a liberal arts education is a library card. Reading about Praxis, or the guy who landed a Google internship as a result of Coursera classes, or using OCW via MIT or following the web forum of a professor who is rereading Western Classics causes me to ask how long the present model(s) are sustainable and how painful an evolution might be for those who are invested and/or dependent.

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    1. You’re more rare than you know, I think. And I agree that a library card is liberating — it was for me. But I learned a lot from teachers and professors, and from students as well when I was a professor. Learning, at least for me, occurs in a community, and the personal touch does help.

      The virtual community is also helpful, and here I include this blog, since I learn as much from my readers as they learn from me, hopefully more if I apply myself.

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  9. I think about interlibrary loans as well as the Internet Archive, and ask what the economy will demand of those who were raised online, e.g., will most millennials have an every evolving set of side hustles that aren’t in any way conducive to a 9-5 existence and what will their children use for an education? Will that be the era in which homeschooling and autodidacticism kill K-12?

    As far as the USPS, home delivery is expensive, while a PO box is an easily maintained rental property.

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  10. I don’t know how the USPS survives. I can’t recall the last time I received a personal letter, though I admit when I want to get attention, I will send a first class letter rather than email, primarily because it will demand unusual handling (and therefor demand attention) when received instead of easily handled email.

    99% of what I receive is junk and business correspondence, the latter begging us to go online and stop the mailings. If the USPS came to an end tomorrow, it would only mean relief to have the junk mail gone.

    I do use the USPS to send packages when I sell things on Ebay, but UPS and FedEx could be used instead, both have storefronts as easily accessible as the post office.

    In short, the existence of the “regular mail” seems so tenuous that privatization is a secondary matter. Privatization might only delay what looks like the end of what was a magnificent achievement and reason for national pride back in the day.

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  11. I will have to admit I receive very few personal mail items from the post office these days. The Christmas Card industry must have taken a terrible hit.

    When I was still working in Commercial Property-Casualty industry we used the post office for all our business mail. We mailed out policies, endorsements and other notifications to agents and policy holders. We did have the capability and our agents also had the capability to receive electronic copies of all the paper we produced.

    Years ago our mayor was all aboard the privatization bandwagon. The local McMega-Media was all a glow about this. The wild ass claims of savings were essentially copied and pasted from the Mayor’s press releases and printed as fact without any or very little verification.

    A friend of mine and I did some research and discovered a whole industry of think tanks, publishers, and for hire speakers and writers extolling the virtues of privatization. This privatization industry used all the dog whistles: Bloated Government Bureaucracy, and one of my favorites “onerous regulations”.
    Onerous regulations are never defined, just as a side note.

    What privatization did was was exclude the public from over sight. The costs were socialized and the profits were privatized. There was also that ancillary benefit to the political establishment of privatization: campaign donations.

    The position of the privatization industry is the free market is far more efficient and cost conscious than the government – also no unions.

    So OK, what do all these companies have in common:
    Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., Washington Mutual, Worldcom, Inc., General Motors, CIT Group, Enron Corp., Conseco, Inc., MF Global, Chrysler, Thornburg Mortgage, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Texaco – they went bankrupt. These were not some mom and pop knick-knack shops that got stuck with an over supply of pet rocks or beanie babies when consumers moved on the next fad. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bankruptcy_in_the_United_States#Largest_bankruptcies

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    1. ML: this is really well put: “What privatization did was was exclude the public from over sight. The costs were socialized and the profits were privatized. There was also that ancillary benefit to the political establishment of privatization: campaign donations.”

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  12. Ah, a blast from the (relatively) recent past–as in from PCT Technology and Society. Great class and I learned a lot. Education can be enjoyable; at least, it seems so when you are my age. I did notice it was sometimes lost on traditional students.

    I remember when they moved mail processing from Reach Road in Williamsport to Harrisburg and created much chaos in delivery. I can only begin to imagine the potential for problems if USPS is privatized. Somehow, when money is involved (generally pushed to the top of the heap and not downhill), conditions do not often seem to improve and given the possibility of union issues, the downhill trickle is more unlikely.

    On an up note, the stones I ordered from India got here very quickly–and possibly got me on a list somewhere!

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  13. Great responses on our humble Post Offices, but I thought of another one today: LEGALITY! This doesn’t date from Ben Franklin, but years ago in suburban Connecticut, (before internet), we had a neighbor who used our postboxes for party invitations, lost & found notes, etc. Our surly postman ripped them up. She complained to our Postmaster, and he apologized for his manners, but explained in detail the postman was legally correct: “You buy your postbox, but in fact it’s interiors are USPS space. No one is legally allowed in there except you & your postman. It’s a Federal space, punishable by Federal Law if used for other purposes.”
    Fast forward today: We’ve all been ‘hacked’ at one time or another via internet (PRIVATE!), but stealing/surveying USPS mail is a serious offense.
    Now you know why Home Depot to designer mailboxes all state ‘U.S. Mail’ on them. Microsoft & Google need to catch up!

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    1. BMCKS, you said, “No one is legally allowed in there (the mailboxes) except you & your postman. It’s a Federal space, punishable by Federal Law if used for other purposes. Fast forward today: We’ve all been ‘hacked’ at one time or another via internet (PRIVATE!), but stealing/surveying USPS mail is a serious offense.”

      Did you know that every single piece of mail is photographed (the outside, not the contents) and has been for many years? I didn’t have any idea this was going on until I came across an article about it. The mail is secure unless Uncle Sam decides differently, though he has moved on to more high tech methods with the NSA.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember seeing that too — that every piece of mail is photographed.

        What a staggering database that must be. America has too much data and not enough brains.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Totally off this subject but relevant to: Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars.

    All you Vets get ready to saddle up to defend America. Those hostile Canadians are up to no good!!! Some Canadians even speak French and probably eat French Fries and French Toast, instead of Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast!!
    ****
    Tensions rise as US border agents stop Canadian fishermen in disputed waters off Maine!!! Canada’s government is investigating reports that US border patrol officers have intercepted and questioned crew members on more than 20 Canadian vessels in disputed waters off the coast of Maine.

    The question of jurisdiction flared up recently after the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association said a Canadian vessel had been stopped by US border patrol while fishing in the waters near Machias Seal Island in late June.

    “He informed them he was a Canadian vessel legally fishing in Canadian waters,” wrote Laurence Cook of the association on Facebook. He said he was “not surprised to see the Americans trying to push people around”, describing them as “typical American bullies”. The agents claimed to be looking for undocumented immigrants, he said. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/06/canada-investigates-reports-of-us-border-patrol-in-disputed-waters
    ============================================================

    No officer friendly for us along the border- “typical American bullies”, we are exceptional and just remember that. Disputed waters off the coast of Maine – Hell No – If we say these waters are ours, they are ours – Case closed.

    I suppose Agent Orange will want to send a few carriers up to Maine. The Pentagon should schedule some war games in Maine, since the war game in South Korea was called off. We can get the Whole Team Pentagon up there, a Marine contingent, waiting off shore, some Green Berets patrolling the border, and few Air Force Stealth Aircraft. We can probably find a few Senators or Representatives to bluster.

    Then we need CNN, MSDNC and FOX to bring some expert pundits to conclude it is all the Canadian’s fault.

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  15. Judging by the number of comments about the Post Office and yes the Public Libraries of the United States, perhaps the progressive movement should focus on the mail and the free loan of books rather than health care, voting, and other issues. Based on your respondents, W. J. Astore, the USPS and our Public Libraries touch more of chord with your readers than many other things.

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  16. If one is looking for a guide to how a privatized USPS would work one need look no further than the examples of Fedex and UPS, and the internet.

    With shippers you pay more for faster service. With the abdication of the federal government to preserve and protect net neutrality, we now have “you can pay extra for a fast lane”- which in reality means that most of us get relegated to congested pipes with highly variable latency and jitter, not to mention outsources tech support with byzantine phone trees.

    Imagine needing to mail the mortgage check every month- you can send it “first class” and the USPS will send it “best effort”. Or you can pay $20 and the USPS will guarantee that either it will get there in 2 days, or they’ll pay your late fee. (“Please submit a claim via 1-900-well-try. Claims may take up to 120 days for payment.”)

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