Free the Post Office
June 7, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
The United States Postal Service has abandoned the American people. At the direction of its Board of Governors and through the efforts of its primary officer, the Postmaster General, it has abandoned its mission of service and its basic responsibilities to the citizens of this country.
In place of an uplifting vision of binding the nation together, the leaders of the Postal Service have embraced a cynical view that denies the traditional American commitment to community and to building a solid national foundation in favor of a purely individualistic pursuit of selfish greed.
The leaders of the Postal Service have been aided and abetted in their actions by a Congress that is no longer able to act in a bipartisan way to serve the interests of the people of the United States. Hell, the vast majority of the members of Congress are no longer able to define the interests of the people of the United States. Instead, Congress splits, parses, and divides the common interest and ends up serving the deepest pockets and the most influential and wealthiest among us.
Also helping in the demise of a treasured national institution has been the Administration in Washington, a group that was elected on the promise of hope and change but instead has governed on the basis of business as usual. Its appointments relating to postal matters are either based on cynical political calculation or simply reflect complete surrender to a vision of America that severs us from generations of progress on equality and community.
Blame can also be laid at the feet of the various employee organizations. With few exceptions, the unions and management associations have increasingly accepted a corporatized postal system that redefined service into little more than a huckster’s sales pitch. They have countenanced an ever more incestuous relationship with a small segment of the marketing industry. Instead of finding a common purpose and a community of interest, these organizations have fought with each other for meaningless shreds of advantage and thereby enabled senior management to divide and conquer, leaving employees and the public worse off.
The media get it wrong, as usual
The mavens of the media deserve a lot of the blame too. Especially opinion makers like Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who recently wrote a column that suggested that there is nothing ideological in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs or the abandonment of critical national infrastructure that helpfully serves millions of Americans.
No, Mr. Nocera opines, there is nothing ideological or partisan in what’s happening to the United States Postal Service. It is simply the natural of order of things and all will be well if we only follow the prescriptions of the Postmaster General. All will be well, he tells us, if only Congress will stop meddling in the business of the Postal Service and let cooler and more thoughtful heads prevail.
The media coverage of the travails of the Postal Service has been terrible, to say the least. Our chattering and scribbling classes have become masters of repeating the conventional wisdom and the preferred narrative. They have failed to acknowledge even the most basic of facts, and while they are adept at telling us how dysfunctional Congress is, they thrive on reporting shallow controversy and ignore their basic responsibility to dig deep enough and give stories proper context.
Of the hundreds of stories written on the trials of the Postal Service, Mr. Nocera’s may be the most aggressively ignorant. For a reporter who has written extensively on the financial crisis, it is unconscionable that Mr. Nocera should suggest that Congress should simply get out of the way and let business do its business, rather than doing its job and tending to the Nation’s business. Mr. Nocera would let the inmates run the asylum. He would have us accept the plans of those who have brought a two hundred and fifty year old institution to its knees while destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The fault lies here too
Finally, the American public must also bear responsibility for the current plight of an institution they both want and need. America and Americans have profited most and done best when we acknowledged the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Our greatest successes have come when we recognized that the individualism embodied in the American character served us best when balanced by our strong sense of community and sense of common purpose.
In the last few decades we have succumbed to the distorted idea that we are not a collection of communities but a cacophony of individuals and special interests. Instead of offering a hand up, we greedily shoulder our way to the front of the line. It’s an ethic of every man for himself and he who has the biggest pile wins. It ignores the fact that the greatness of this nation came not from those who cut the best deal but from the sense of shared responsibility in building a solid foundation, following a course of internal improvements, and recognizing that ultimately the government is us and the responsibility for success is ours.
The great fault lies with all those who accept the premise that cutting service and cutting jobs is a reasonable course of action. It lies with those who accept the phony accounting tricks that heaped untenable and unnecessary burdens on the institution. It lies with those who use the promise of technological advance as a means of abdicating current responsibilities. It lies with the premise that for some to succeed many must fail.
The value of infrastructure
In all the pieces I’ve written that appeared on Save the Post Office, I have argued that the postal network is not overbuilt industrial capacity that needs to be right-sized. The postal network is something much more than that. It is an essential national infrastructure designed to ensure a basic foundational necessity of a healthy democracy — the free flow and transfer of information and opinion.
The postal network is neutral. It allows access to virtually everyone, and it does so in a secure manner that preserves privacy. It doesn’t matter what one’s political affiliations or economic interests are — the postal network provides transfer of information to every house and business in the United States. While there are other networks that offer some of the same potential, including the Internet, the fact remains that they are all either the property of commercial interests or commercial interests provide the means of transfer.
While I’ve been told that I put on my tin foil hat when making such claims, the fact is that difference is not insignificant. The Founders saw fit to provide for the security of personal papers and communication, and the Fourth Amendment sees to that. The postal network is the physical embodiment of that ideal.
More and more of our lives have come to be controlled by and directed by commercial interests. In the last thirty years or so, the checks and balances that protect us have eroded as we have embraced the idea of business for business’s sake without regard to social responsibility. The postal network and the grand mission of binding the nation together should not be discarded casually, especially with regard to that ideal.
The postal network has also provided a physical infrastructure that facilitates commerce and enhances commercial opportunity. It has done so in a manner that allows equal access at affordable rates. Many of the current changes to the network and the accompanying changes to service standards threaten those opportunities. Special favors are now regularly granted to only segments of the market place. This change undermines both the viability and utility of the network and makes it something other than infrastructure.
The Postal Service has provided meaningful and useful employment to millions of workers over several generations. It has done this in a responsible and cost effective manner. The fashion today is to beat up on unions and labor in general, but it should be remembered that the supposed financial difficulties we find ourselves in today are not the result of the egregious demands of labor. The problems stem from the imposition of unnecessary financial burdens in the form of direct transfers to the Treasury as well as a rate system that increasingly undermines the foundation of the institution by granting discounts and favors to a select few. Those factors, combined with a management system that fails to manage and a leadership that is blind to any innovation that doesn’t hand the institution to the direct mailers, have left us in the mess we are in today.
We have embraced an ethic in this country that denigrates labor and treats employment as secondary to profits. We design our markets to favor the combination and consolidation of capital, and yet we look askance when labor would seek to combine for its protection. Corporations form to advance the mutual interests of those providing capital. How are unions any different?
There’s always work at the post office
It cannot bear repeating enough: the postal network and the Postal Service have been an engine of economic advancement for many, particularly groups that were often the most vulnerable. I am a disabled veteran. The opportunities that the Postal Service afforded me made every difference in my ability to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. The program that allowed for my hire was not a giveaway; it wasn’t welfare. I went to work every day for thirty years and did something useful and productive.
The first office I worked at was in a Northern city that was home to many people of color who had left the South in the great migration that began during World War II. I worked with several black women whose mothers had been relegated to jobs as domestic help. Some of these women had grown up in families that were sharecroppers and had been victimized by the Jim Crow laws prevalent at the time.
These women were proud of their employment in the Postal Service. They were proud to be a part of the economy in a meaningful way. They worked hard and they earned their salaries and they were proud of that as well. But the greatest beneficiaries of their employment with the Postal Service were future generations. Each of these women had one or more children who, as a result of their mother’s employment, was able to attend college.
There is something wrong with the ethic of a nation that treats employment, jobs, and people as little more than disposable assets. The recently announced POStPlan will jettison several thousand postmasters. The Network Rationalization plan to consolidate processing facilities will jettison tens of thousands of clerks and mail handlers. Lives are disrupted and families are dislocated and the gains and advantages are pretty much non-existent.
Marilyn (not her real name) is a postmaster in the Northeast who wrote me after STPO published “What Are People For?” She’s 63 years old and cares for an adult child who is disabled. She had planned to work five more years as a way of ensuring a financial future for herself and her daughter. She has worked in a smaller office, so she feel daunted by the prospect of bidding on a large office where the resources and responsibilities may be beyond her experience. There will be no soft landings for Marilyn.
Troy left his bid job to serve as an OIC in a very busy rural post office. He stepped up to the task and took on the responsibility in order to prove himself. There will be no soft landing for Troy and the many others who have dutifully filled OIC positions and all the workers whose plants are closing. They are now left in the cold. If they are lucky, these folks will keep some semblance of their job, although their lives will be disrupted. There will be no soft landings for these people. There should be.
The arrogance of power
We are told that there is no room for sentimentality. First Class mail is dying, the Postal Service’s core product is failing, and therefore these changes are not only necessary but past due. Simply put, that’s a lie, and hiring highly respected Wall Street firms like Evercore or Lazard to design plans that affirm the prejudice towards consolidation and dismantling the network will not make it so.
Yes, First Class mail is declining and it will continue to decline. It’s likely, though, that large segments of the population will continue to rely on the mails for at least another generation or more. The postal network, even limited to its traditional mission, would have been necessary for years to come. The simple fact of the matter is that the senior management of the Postal Service has made a concerted effort to kill First Class mail as we know it.
Their proclamations of doom and disaster, combined with their ever-shifting plans, have worked to undermine the relevancy of the mails. Their current plans will essentially abandon large segments of the public while they still rely on the services of a robust postal network.
In “Because We Said So,” I wrote about a management system that is incestuous, unimaginative, and generally ineffective. Add to that dissembling and duplicitous and you’ll have a complete picture.
Management has blithely changed the rules of operation of the Postal Service without reasonable consideration or accountability. What sense does it make to ask for an Advisory Opinion from the PRC after the fact? Does changing national delivery standards through a change in the Code of Federal Regulations really constitute a reasonable action under the terms of the law?
In filings before the PRC, management belittled as hyperbolic and hypothetical scenarios that turned out to be very real. The operations and decisions emanating from L’Enfant Plaza lack transparency and accountability. Many of the contracts the Postal Service, a public institution, engages in are redacted in ways that make them indecipherable. Many are not even available for public inspection.
In recent weeks the initiatives that have gotten all the press have been the Network Rationalization plan on plant closure and the POStPlan, which reduces service and hours at thousands of post offices and which appears to be little more than a prelude to mass closures.
These are the sexy, high profile cases that draw attention, but in many ways they are relatively unimportant. I say that not because they don’t have tremendous impact — they do. But these cases represent the final steps in a dance that everyone seems to consider inevitable. These plans don’t address why we should dismantle the postal network and destroy service and hundreds of thousands of jobs, they simply tell us how they are going to do it.
The case of the mobile barcode
To understand the real direction of the Postal Service, one must look farther down the docket at some of the more obscure rate and mail classification actions. There are two that I think tell us with perfect clarity what the Postal Service is becoming.
The first case is known as PRC docket R2012-6. Simply put, this case grants a discount to marketing mailers who use a mobile barcode on their mailings. The mobile barcode is a three-dimensional barcode that has begun appearing in many places. It allows the user of a smart phone to take a picture of the barcode, which then directs the device to a website that sells the company’s wares.
It’s an interesting and innovative marketing device, but that doesn’t mean it ought to get a postal discount. In this case the discount doesn’t apply to barcodes that direct the consumer to a site that promotes electronic bill pay. It only applies to those sites that market a company’s products.
The result of this discount, which doesn’t do anything to advance the mail or reduce the cost of processing or delivery, is that the Postal Service has boldly gone where everyone else has also chosen to travel. Rather than simply providing the conduit, the road for mail and merchandise to travel, the Postal Service is now in the business of promoting specific kinds of mailers and marketing techniques.
That is something very different than the stated mission of the Postal Service and it is something that diverts the attention of the institution away from its role as infrastructure.
Valasiss vs. the Newspaper Association
The second case is both a rate case and a change in mail classification. It involves a Negotiated Service Agreement (NSA) between the Postal Service and a large circular mailer, Valasiss. In this case Valasiss is being given special discounts of up 20% for additional pieces mailed beyond a certain threshold. The objective behind the docket is discussed in the initial filing:
“The objective of this Standard Mail market dominant agreement is to maintain the total contribution the Postal Service receives from Valassis Saturation Mail postage, and to provide an incentive for Valassis to find innovative ways to expand its use of Standard Mail. Accordingly, this agreement is intended to generate new incremental Standard Mail Saturation volumes and revenues from new shared mail programs that will provide contributions to covering postal institutional costs through agreed-upon rates and eligibility conditions.”
The PRC docket on Valasiss — it’s R2012-8 and MC2012-14 — is not unique, but it has generated a certain amount of controversy. The National Newspaper Association and other mailers have protested that Valasiss has been given special consideration that undercuts their businesses. In many ways the NNA and others are right, although I suspect their greater argument is that they didn’t get a sweetheart deal first.
The thing is, these NSAs, which were sanctioned under PAEA, have contributed to a radical transformation of the Postal Service. Instead of seeing itself as a network that provides universal service, it is becoming simply a large commercial mailer. In this case, the NNA argues that newspapers rely on inserts as a primary source of revenue, so by giving saturation mailers like Valasiss a leg up, the Postal Service is undermining the newspaper business.
The logic that Congress used to create the NSAs, as well as the distinction between market dominant and competitive products, created a structure that ultimately undermined the rationale behind building and maintaining a national postal network. The rationale really stemmed from Congress being squeamish over the idea that a robust Postal Service might actually compete against some private enterprise — not surprising since those folks make the political contributions.
Re-envisioning the Postal Service
The postal landscape is now littered with special deals for various mailers. Which products get classed under which category can be very political. Supporting that system is an arcane costing system that shifts the underlying rationale of why we have a national postal network.
The Founders recognized the importance of the nation’s post as a means of solidifying democracy and developing our national resources. Over the years we have contributed to that idea by recognizing the importance of universal service and by acknowledging that extending special rates to some classes of users, such as newspapers and non-profits, furthered the basic mission of the institution.
That mission and the role of the postal network have been perverted by both our politicians and those charged with managing this valuable asset. This isn’t about Capitalism versus Socialism. The fact is that the regulation of markets in recent years has tended to protect those at the top while hurting the average wage earner. We have become prisoners of narrow interests, to the detriment of the general welfare.
There is no question that we must re-envision the Postal Service for the 21st Century. We should not do this by perpetrating the same false austerity that transfers advantage and wealth to those who already have the most. We should not do this at the expense of our fundamental ideals of basic fairness.
The postal network, as a neutral form of infrastructure, is an unmitigated public good. The utility it provides, the communication it fosters, the service it renders and yes, the employment it generates, are all valuable results of performing the mission of binding the nation together.
In the name of “progress”
There’s an old woman and her brother who live at the head of Sitton Cove here in Webster. He fought in WWII and spent his life building houses for local folks, She worked in sewing plants and raised a family. They depend on the local post office to write their money orders, deliver their medicines, and yes, help them out when they don’t understand a document or need some help navigating today’s systems.
There’s a loyal postmaster in Connecticut who has worked hard to keep her family afloat. She’s served her customers and community well and is now being cast aside as nothing more than anachronism.
There are clerks working in plants who are being told they must move from family and community to remain employed or drive fifty miles or more to their new job.
There are carriers working into darkness because the system is so poorly managed.
There are folks all over this country who use the post office for basic communication and commerce, folks who need and value the service.
They are all being cast aside in the name of false progress. They are being cast aside for another discount, so another Vice-President of Digital Solutions can offer another prediction on the death of mail. An American vision and an American institution are being cast aside based on false premises and false promises.
Joe Nocera got one thing right in his article. He said we should free the Postal Service. Yes, we should free the Postal Service from special interests, incompetent management and plans that exclude and damage. We should free the Postal Service from dishonest attacks and projections, from the grasp of those who would kill its value and traditions.
We should free the Postal Service to accomplish its mission of binding the nation together.
[Mr. Jamison can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com.]
(Photo credit: Ocean post office, Asbury Park, NJ, by Evan Kalish)