You should have mail!

By | Monday, August 24, 2020 Leave a Comment

The attack on the United States Postal Service:

This has been bugging me for a couple weeks now, and since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently brought it up, allow me to vent about this a bit.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a service provided by the U.S. government to the people of the United States. Long distance communication is so important that it was authorized in the Constitution itself. If telegraph, phone, or the internet had existed at the founding of America, no doubt the framers would have enshrined them in the Constitution as well.

[Aside: In his book The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection, Tamim Ansary repeatedly emphasizes communication as the fundamental limiter on the size of states, countries, and empires. You can only control as far as you can efficiently communicate.]

Who decided that the USPS should be self-funding?

Even though it is a U.S. government agency, currently the USPS receives no funding from taxpayers. The USPS is required to fund itself entirely through the sale of postage stamps and other service charges and fees. I have heard that there are other agencies that are self-funded, but, I honestly have no idea which. I have not managed to find information about any of them. This may not actually be correct (if you know, please put it in the comments.)

Why is this? The post office is so important that every nation on earth has one. It is so important that it is authorized in our Constitution. It is so important that historians reference it in their analyses of world events.

We don’t require the armed forces to be self-supporting. The CIA and FBI don’t have to charge for their services to do their jobs. Some stretches of highway are toll roads, but most federal, state, and local roads are built and maintained by government agencies, with no usage fees imposed, and their operation is neither required nor expected to be revenue-neutral. The same is true for the FDA, EPA, USDA, DHS, Department of the Treasury, HUD, and on and on. All these other agencies provide services to the people of the United States, while the cost of running them is covered primarily or entirely by taxes. The USPS is no less important a service and should not be hobbled by an unfair set of funding rules.

Reliable delivery everywhere:

The USPS is a rather extraordinary service in many ways. Notably, letters sent within the United States have the same cost regardless of where it originates or where it is going. If I send a letter from my house to my next-door neighbor’s house, it (currently) costs 55 cents. If someone in the remotest part of Hawaii sends a letter to a destination in the remotest part of Alaska, it costs 55 cents. The USPS is committed to this and has been since the implementation of the Rural Free Delivery act. [In case you ever wondered about the title of the old TV series, “Mayberry R.F.D”, the “R.F.D” part refers to Rural Free Delivery, presumably suggesting the remoteness of the town of Mayberry.] Needless to say, the letter going from me to my neighbor costs far less to carry than the fee I pay, while the letter from remote HI to remote AK could cost vastly more to deliver than the price of the stamp that gets it there.

In fact, because the USPS goes anywhere and everywhere, FedEx and UPS often use the post office for the “final mile” on their package delivery. This service is of immense value to our citizens.

What services should government agencies provide?

Here’s another thing. The basis for Postmaster General DeJoy’s claim about decommissioning mail sorting machines is to increase capacity for packages. But there are private companies that carry packages quite well. UPS and FedEx deliver innumerable packages across the country and around the world, Amazon has created a wing of its business to handle dispatching their vast number of shipments, and there are common carriers for large heavy shipments as well as other kinds of specialty couriers.

Other than filling the gaps of shipping where these companies refuse to go (or charge onerous fees to do so), why should the USPS deliver packages at all? DeJoy says that the changes being made to USPS are needed to stay competitive. What? Why should it be competitive? The government is not supposed to compete with private enterprise! The government supplies services that private enterprise is unable to provide, or in what economists call “natural monopolies” - where it makes sense for the operation to be centrally managed.

The United States government could compete in manufacturing computers, providing haircuts, building cars, or creating new snack foods. But it doesn’t and it shouldn’t. The Government should provide the unprofitable but vital service of carrying mail, but the marketplace has shown that privately run companies can handle mainstream package delivery just fine, thank you very much.

Yes, there are areas where government and private enterprise supply the same product or service. Though most roads are built by the public sector, some are private. Government provides schools, from kindergarten through graduate school, and so do private for-profit and non-profit corporations. Governments provide tap water, but people can buy bottled water if they wish. No doubt there are many other such examples. But in none of these cases is the government providing a service in order to compete with private enterprise. Why should we even talk about the USPS being competitive in shipping packages. Maybe we want to assure that package delivery services are available at a reasonable cost to all citizens. To do so, being cost efficient makes sense. But, we can also provide this service to the populace by subsidizing it with tax revenue, or USPS can get out of the package business, and the government can regulate package delivery companies to assure fair pricing.

Final thoughts: 

We should all recognize that the United States Postal Service is a service. The government of the USA provides other services such as consulates in foreign countries, the Coast Guard, investigating and incarcerating federal criminals, and assuring the safety and quality of our food and drugs. Carrying mail is no less important. The USPS provides a valuable service to our people that need not be profitable. Imagining that the USPS should be competitive with private enterprise is ridiculous. The suggestion that the post office's vital task of carrying letters should be torn apart to allow it to compete in delivery of packages is even more so.
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