What are people — and the Post Office — for?
May 15, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
It’s likely that I will be the last postmaster to serve the town of Webster, North Carolina. The first postmaster, Allen Fisher, began his term in 1857, shortly after Jackson County was founded and Webster became the county seat. The names of the postmasters that follow read like a county census. In a rural mountain county that was fairly isolated well into the 20TH Century, the same family names filled many a civic obligation.
Miss Eugenia Allison was the longest serving postmaster, from 1914 until 1948. Mildred Cowan served from 1950 through 1976. When I became postmaster, I found letters Ms. Cowan had written to the old Post Office Department begging for a new building or at least better heat in the shack that served as a post office.
I will have been the third longest serving postmaster at Webster, although I don’t count that as much of a distinction. I took a downgrade in coming here fourteen years ago. Webster was on the same side of the mountain as my farm and that meant less of a drive. More important, Webster was a one-person office, and I had soured on the idea of supervising others in a postal system where autocracy and duplicity trumped common sense and basic decency. It’s been easy being here.
I live next door to the post office now, in a house that has stood since the town was founded. I rebuilt the house and my life after a divorce. Living next door to my office and being so accessible to my community has made the job of postmaster even more meaningful.
I had long planned to retire in July of this year. I had the age and years, and health issues and personal concerns made it seem like the right time. The changes wrought by the POSt Plan will take Webster to six hours a day whenever I leave, and while I have toyed with the idea of staying a couple of years to forestall that, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense. I suppose the incentive payment is entering into my thinking, but not much. It isn’t enough to make a difference.
No, if I am to be the last of the Webster postmasters, then I might as well get on with it.
THE POSTPLAN is little more than a cruel joke. It offers hope to those who thought they might lose their local post office. In reality it is little more than an interim step towards closing 13,000 post offices, maybe more. The fact is that the dramatic prescriptions originally offered by Mr. Donahoe could never have occurred at the rate initially announced. It would have been operationally infeasible to close offices at the rate Mr. Donahoe wanted — 15,000 in five years. But just by threatening those closures
, POStPlan looks like a reasonable alternative.
The POSt Plan — combined with DUO (Delivery Unit Optimization to move carriers from one office to another) and other retail initiatives like the VPO (Village Post Office) — will simply provide a methodical way of degrading offices, reducing their revenue-generating potential, and starving them into oblivion. The plans will replace trained and committed career employees with low-paid, casual labor — the mantra of today’s economy.
The plan will proclaim an efficiency that is both false and destructive. It will simply allow for closures to take place at a steady, predictable rate, while allowing time to transfer the retail network into the hands of private operators. It will inure the public to lower levels of competency and service, thereby justifying arguments of irrelevance.
WE ARE TOLD that the current postal network is inefficient and increasingly expensive. The first betrays a lack of imagination, and the second is based on a lie that has become well known and yet accepted as fact. The simple truth is that PAEA set terms that undermined the financial sustainability of the postal network. It wasn’t the unions or overpaid workers, it wasn’t managerial salaries or bonuses, and it wasn’t the dysfunctional and myopic institutional culture that created this crisis.
Although all of those things are contributing to weakening the premises that create value in a robust postal network, it was PAEA— with the burdens it imposed and the underlying philosophy it espoused — that has brought us to this juncture.
PAEA imposed the $5.5 billion payments to the Retiree Healthcare Benefits Fund (RHBF), payments that by any measure would have clearly placed the Postal Service under tremendous financial stress. The implication of the payments was that a successful entity would have had to generate at least that $5.5 billion in profits each year to survive. Based on the revenues in 2006, when PAEA was enacted, that would have meant at least an 8% margin, and that’s without putting aside money for future capital investment.
I don’t think the authors of PAEA ever intended for the payments to be doable. They probably authorized the Postal Service to borrow $15 billion from the Treasury because they anticipated huge loans would be needed to make those payments. Unfortunately, they never considered the impending financial meltdown or for that matter even a less severe recession. One might cynically conclude that PAEA was designed to create failure, and while it may not have been the actual folks in Congress who understood that, it is likely that those who crafted the bill did.
The more insidious damage of PAEA was to create a business model that completely moved the Postal Service away from defining mission as infrastructure into something more akin to a Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE), a bastardized construction that confuses corporate imperatives with governmental functions. The GSE is a reflection of our acceptance that all things are creations of the marketplace, which fits an ideological presumption that markets are natural phenomena rather than manmade creations designed to solve a problem.
This presumption turns our economics on its head, and it is the cause of a great number of our problems today. It monetizes every transaction and interaction and reduces society and culture to nothing more than a series of economic events. It turns a method of explanation and understanding into a comprehensive worldview that discards much of what makes us human and motivates us.
PAEA and its regulatory imperatives transformed the postal network from a neutral infrastructure, a basic asset, into little more than a service provider, just another entity striving for a place in the market. It’s the same dangerous view that has turned finance from a facilitating element of the system into an end in itself, an end that has the potential for great mischief and abuse.
WE SHOULDN’T BE at this juncture today. Absent the demands of PAEA, the finances of the Postal Service would be manageable. Yes, there would be some systemic problems like those embodied in the way we handle workman’s compensation that would need to be addressed. We would likely have had to address a compensation system that was, at least mildly, out of balance. Certainly we would have had to look at health care premiums and the sharing arrangement that allowed postal employees to shoulder less of the burden than others in the pool. But absent PAEA, those would have been relatively minor adjustments that could have been resolved without resorting to a crisis mentality.
Were it not for PAEA, we would have had a more appropriate business model that reflected the utility of the postal network and its fundamental value as infrastructure. Instead, PAEA gave us a prescription for dismantling that network, while limiting our ability to build on the asset value of the network, including its physical nodes, its underlying technical support, and its very important and useful human capital.
We were left with a model that has allowed a narrow group of stakeholders to claim special prerogatives to the assets of the network. By now virtually every mailing group has claimed the right to determine the future of the Postal Service based on the fallacious idea that big mailers alone have built the network through their fees. Certainly the rate system and the application of discounts would look very different and be infinitely healthier if we viewed the network for what it was, an essential asset, a conduit, a useful employer.
In failing to understand the value of public goods and the social value of employment and the productive imperatives of including people in our calculations of efficiency, we are succumbing to a system and society based on and motivated by little more than narrow greed for profit.
Over the last two years the Board of Governors of the Postal Service, along with the senior management, has done a masterful job of manipulating Congress, the business community, the various labor organizations, and the American people. By alternately screaming “crisis” and then responding with one “well researched” and strategic “optimization plan” after another, the management of the Postal Service has thrown everyone off balance.
The labor organizations tear at each other for a piece of the shrinking pie and congratulate themselves for their ability to negotiate with wolves. Congress congratulates itself on staving off disaster, satisfied that it has saved this or that facility without any recognition that it isn’t individual facilities or appeasing angry constituents that is the issue — it is the health of a fundamental aspect of our national infrastructure and an important contributor to our overall economic health.
Few of those involved have challenged the very premise that lies at the bottom of each one of the PMG’s shiny new plans. That premise is that the Postal Service should become nothing more than another competitor in a mailing marketplace, following the same paths and prescriptions that leave us with high unemployment, stagnating wages, and an economy that underperforms for all but the elite.
IT’S A SMALL THING REALLY, a brass bell on a walnut stand. For years it sat on the counter in my post office. Now it holds a place of honor with a dear friend. The bell was given to me by a little girl named Kelsey. Her family received mail in my post office, and each day when they came to retrieve it, she would tell me about her day in school with all the excitement of a child who has discovered the love of learning.
Her joy was contagious. It made me better, whole, and it was a benefit to anyone who fell under its spell. When Kelsey’s family moved away, she insisted on giving me the bell so that each time it rang I would remember her. It may have been the best present I ever got.
I could tell you a hundred stories, maybe a thousand, about all the special things that have happened at the Webster post office over the last fourteen years. There is a value in community, something that was in the basic DNA of this country, something that made our postal network valuable.
And my stories are simply a drop in the bucket compared to those of other post offices and postmasters, as well as rural carriers, city carriers, and clerks. The postal network is a basic public and social good that has helped communities, both urban and rural, thrive. It is a fundamental utility that has provided useful employment, in a responsible and cost-effective manner, and that too is a basic good.
The POSt Plan and all the plans that come after it are not going to work. They aren’t going to be more efficient, and whatever costs they are designed to save will be miniscule compared to the opportunities they will miss. Our thinking has become so jaded and so perversely limited to the idea that profit is simply a monetary figure that regardless of the damage this plan will do, we will accept it as being the natural order of a more efficient society.
The Kentucky poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry asks, “What are people for?” I wonder, once we’ve modeled, optimized, rationalized, and perfectly justified everything, once we’ve become maximally efficient thanks to our sophisticated software and algorithms that dictate the parameters of our existence, once we’ve given the marketplace complete authority to determine the worth of our existence, will we then have an answer to that question?
People don’t seem to figure much in the current calculations surrounding the Postal Service. There doesn’t seem to be much space for them, whether they are members of a community served by a post office or employees or simply “We the People” who sought to make a compact to provide for the “general welfare”.
There are sound economic arguments for preserving the Postal Service and postal network, and they are much better than those being offered to dismantle this essential institution. For all the metrics, charts, PowerPoint presentations, and complicated predictive algorithms, there is actually a rather simple way to tell which view is the best.
It’s the one that yields a satisfactory answer to a very simple question: What are people for?
[Mr. Jamison can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com.]
(Image credits: "Politics, Farming, and Law in Missouri," by Thomas Hart Benton; Webster NC post office; Postmaster's door, Dillsburg PA postoffice and Rural mailboxes, both from National Postal Museum; Webster Along the River View, by Mailyn-Jody; Wendell Berry's book.)