U.S. Postal Service's Slow Demise Looks Suspiciously Like Deliberate Homicide
Not that we could know anything here at my house about a matter so remote and complex as the looming budget crisis at the U.S. Postal Service, subject of an editorial in today's New York Times. We did notice and observe here last March that it was way more difficult for us to get the postal service to deliver a package to our house than to get the same package from a commercial carrier.
And I think I did mention when I wrote about it that getting the package delivered was pretty much the only thing we gave a damn about at my house. We don't mean to be callous. But we have stuff like watering the potted plants to worry about. We just need our packages delivered, and thank you.
Since then there has been all sorts of reporting and writing done about the postal service defaulting on statutorily mandated pension fund contributions, the failure of Congress to figure out a work-around and the possibility that the national postal service could just go away.
What I have not seen in any of that reporting is a discussion of the two big facts and a suspicion that leaped out at me when I was writing about it last March. I'm sure it must be because I have it all wrong and things are not as they seem to me. But I feel compelled to mention them again because I'm genuinely curious what you think.
The first fact is that the postal service is run by its labor unions. Many of the top executives are former letter carriers who have signed contracts agreeing not to lay anybody off except by the politically unpopular expedient of shutting down branches. In practical terms, that means not laying people off. And why would any entity, public or private, ever agree to such contract terms?
The second fact is that the top managers of the postal service have expressly and repeatedly eschewed technological advances that have been hugely successful in European national postal services -- approaches that meld physical delivery with various forms of electronic delivery and involve partnering with private entities. Deutsche Post, the German national service, for example, has sold off most of its physical plants and is now housed mainly in private quarters including banks, convenience stores and even private homes.
What would the European solution look like here? It would definitely involve partnerships between the American postal service and commercial companies, maybe including the big commercial carriers like UPS, maybe not, maybe somebody else hungrier and leaner than Big Brown.
But right-wing ideologues here continue to ignore those possibilities and insist instead at the top of their lungs that no such solution even exists. Instead they insist on their own scenario by which the postal service has become irrelevant and obsolete and the only solution is for it to go away entirely.
So, my suspicion. Given everything else that has gone on in Washington in the last decade, is it entirely out of order and unfair for me to wonder if this hasn't been a deliberate fatting of the calf? Why else would Congress have sat idly by while the postal service inked contracts guaranteeing its own inevitable demise? Why wouldn't we be looking at Europe and at least talking about taking the postal service apart and putting it back together on a new public/private model? Why shouldn't I suspect that somebody wants to avoid even the public discussion of that obvious possibility?
Meanwhile, the other obvious reality is that nothing -- no budget trick, no tweak or compromise -- nothing short of pulling down the walls around the postal service and reforming it from the ground up is going to save it. The U.S. Postal Service has become a bizarre ingrown deformation of what it used to be. It clearly cannot survive as it is now.
Last March after my piece about local delivery problems was published, I got a call from a pleasant-voiced man in the public affairs office of the regional postal headquarters, asking me what the procedure would be for having my article retracted. I gave him my editor's name and contact information because, among other things, this is the sort of thing editors get paid the big bucks to deal with.
But I did ask on what basis the man felt the article should be retracted. He said he just didn't like it. He said -- and he was very genial about it -- that he would prefer an article that reflected positively on the agency.
Oh, one of those! Well, let me look in the drawer. I'm sure we have a totally glowing positive story about the postal service we could pop in the paper for you.
And let me be clear. The man did not sound stupid at all. He just sounded like he didn't get out much, as if, perhaps, it might have been some years since he had last spoken with anyone outside the postal service.
I remember thinking, "Whatever else, that particular arrangement cannot last."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.