by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Article 1, Sec.8, Clause 7: [The federal government] is to provide for naturalization, standards of weights and measures, post offices and roads, and patents.
Citizen access to personal or business communications, and an adequate means to distribute goods and communications from anyone to everyone were central concerns of the founding fathers. They understood that healthy commerce and a free and healthy democracy require every citizen to have access to these vital services. It was an article of faith that the states would mostly provide these services for their own citizens, but it may have been less clear whether competition between states would restrict communications or transportation between states. This outcome would weaken us as a nation, and threaten democracy in our Republic. So the founders made it explicit in our Constitution that the federal government would provide for post offices and roads.
If you need a reminder of just how the US Postal Service makes America great, read the great Op Ed piece in today’s New York Times written by a Turkish immigrant. Zeynep Tufekci wrote:
“I WAS transported recently to a place that is as enchanting to me as any winter wonderland: my local post office.
In line, I thought fondly of the year I came to this country from Turkey as an adult and discovered the magic of reliable mail service. Dependable infrastructure is magical not simply because it works, but also because it allows innovation to thrive, including much of the Internet-based economy that has grown in the past decade. “
Today, the great national infrastructure we call the US Postal Service, which delivers mail to every citizen, without regard to what it cost to deliver mail to citizens living in remote regions, is under attack by commercial interest lobbyists. Capitalists don’t want the US Postal Service competing with UPS or FedEx or Amazon’s delivery services. Government competition, they argue, reduces potential corporate profits.
Wealthy corporate owners are intent on killing off the US Postal Service. Their methods are to funnel campaign cash to federal elected officials and encourage them to pass laws and regulations designed to impede the Postal Service operations. The US Postal service costs taxpayers zero dollars in taxes, yet the once financially viable Postal Service is made to pre-fund their retirement system. This is unprecedented in business. It causes the post office to operate in the red so politicians can point to it as a model of government inefficiency.
Politicians also appoint cronies into upper management positions to advocate draconian cuts and adopt policies that undermine employee morale and weaken customer services. In many parts of the country you can no longer call your local post office and speak directly with the post master if you have a question. When I call my local post office phone number the call is redirected to a national call center that tends to screw up the processing of even simple complaints. Still the postal system survives and most of us don’t want to see it go away.
What would mail delivery look like if the Postal Service closed? We don’t have to guess because we have many examples to learn from. The principle obligation of private corporations is to their shareholders. More specifically, it is to maximize profits. Whatever business model or corporate mission statement, shareholder profits come first in law and practice.
The impact of competition between corporations to maximize profits naturally causes them to focus more on profitable segments of their business and spend less time and resources on unprofitable segments of their business. In the package delivery business, as is true with Amtrak in the transportation business, there is a competitive advantage to reconfigure routes in ways the optimize profits. Some routes in less profitable areas become under-served while others are more than amply served. Eventually corporate executives come to see beyond competing interests to areas where mutual interests would be better served if service to certain segments could be dropped altogether, The government would then steps in to insist that service must be maintained for people living in unprofitable segments of the “market.” Private corporations then complain that government is on their backs and insist that if the government wants those citizens to have the service, government must subsidize their corporation to make up for the unprofitable routes they are forced to maintain.
So in effect, if applied to the US Postal Service, we would go from a nationwide, person to person delivery system that costs the US taxpayers nothing, to a private corporation system that would require taxpayer assistance in order to maintain the most unprofitable routes. And once the corporations start engaging in high level collusion, the cost of postal services would creep up and up.
Capitalism does best when distributing benefits based on merit, provided the rules of the market are structured to encourage honest competition. This capitalist model does not work well when distribution of benefits is based vital human needs or open, universal access. This seems to be a natural law. We need to resist the capitalists call for privatization of essential government services and recognize the US Postal Service in particular as the national treasure it really is.