BY MARK JAMISON
I am a card-carrying member of the DAV — Disabled American Veterans. The organization has been a wonderful source of support over the years and does fine work on behalf of veterans.
So I was disappointed to discover DAV on the membership list of PostCom, the postal lobbying association that represents businesses and organizations that use the mail for business and commerce. PostCom has been a vocal advocate for cheap mail rates, which come at the expense of Postal Service employees, consumers, and communities.
PostCom recently released a white paper on postal reform. The paper offers nine principles that the Board of Directors of the lobbying group feel should be the basis of future postal reform. The paper reads like a Christmas wish list from an industry that already enjoys healthy profits.
Postal reform, the PostCom way
The first three principles, presumably the most important given their place at the top of the list, directly attack the wages and benefits of postal workers: pull postal workers from their federal health care program, allow the Postal Service to offer a defined contribution retirement plan instead of FERS, and require arbitrators in labor disputes to consider the Postal Service’s fiscal position. The remainder of the proposals — like giving the Postal Service authority to reduce the days of delivery — place the interests of PostCom and its members above those of the American public generally.
Over the last several years PostCom and its executive director Gene Del Polito have consistently taken positions that seek to solve postal issues at the expense of postal workers. They have advocated for the end of postal participation in FEHB — an idea that was debunked by, of all places, the conservative AEI, in this testimony before Congress in 2012. They would also like postal workers to be withdrawn from the current federal retirement system, and they would like to tilt the collective bargaining process — a process that already restrains labor and mandates arbitration — in ways that would ensure unfair disposition of labor issues.
Del Polito and PostCom have taken the position that their members — they call themselves the “stakeholders” — should have preferential treatment when it comes to postal issues. In their view cheap mailing rates are the only reason for the existence of the Postal Service. They acknowledge no role of public service, no greater mission of binding the nation together, and no activity other than the distribution of advertising mail for the Postal Service. In service of this laser-like focus on cheap preferential rates for their members, they have advocated beggaring the workforce, service reductions for first class mail, and the removal of essential services and infrastructure from America’s communities.
In some ways PostCom is no different than any of the industry lobbying groups that exist to lobby on their members’ behalf, such as the Affordable Mail Alliance, a group of 700 publishers, direct mailers and non-profits; the Alliance of Non-profit Mailers; and various trade associations like the National Newspaper Association. In fact, many of these groups have members in common with PostCom, although many of them do not publish a list of their participating members as PostCom does.
What all these groups have in common is the conviction that their financial interests not only supersede but essentially extinguish any other interests in the American postal system. Even when PostCom offers proposals that might coincide with others’ interests — for example, the return of overpayments into the various retirement systems — their arguments are wholly self-centered and self-interested. In their view, those overpayments are their money and should be returned in the form of even lower rates.
The Powell memo
In 1971 Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer and member of eleven corporate boards, wrote a memo to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Two months after he submitted the memo, Powell was nominated to the Supreme Court. The memo was essentially a diatribe against American Liberalism and a call for action from American corporate and business interests. It recommended a concerted effort to develop an intellectual infrastructure that would support the interests of American corporatism.
The Powell memo has often been credited as the birthing document of the web of think tanks, associations, and groups that advance conservative thought in this country. Another consequence of the memo was a renewed focus on capturing government and making it work directly for the interests of corporate elites.
Powell posited that it was stockholders who were “the real owners, the real entrepreneurs, the real capitalists under our system.” It was they, Powell wrote, who “provide the capital which fuels the economic system which has produced the highest standards of living in all history. Yet stockholders have been as ineffectual as business executives in promoting a genuine understanding of our system or in exercising political influence” (italics added).
The Powell memo was the beginning of the 47% meme. It did not recognize the contribution of labor or consumers to the success of our economy. It worshipped the false narrative of the “job creators” while ignoring the role of public goods and the public interest in furthering our “system.” It was dismissive of virtually every sector of American life other than straightforward business interests. And while American business and corporations had never been shy about exercising their first amendment rights to petition the government, the Powell memo was a call to arms that ushered in a generation of efforts to capture and manipulate government on behalf of narrow interests.
A postal service in the public interest
The idea of the postal system and the Postal Service as serving a civic mandate, a role primarily directed toward enhancing the public interest, is a long-held notion. The historian Richard John provides a very thorough discussion of this mandate in his History of Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly, which was part of a 2008 study prepared for the Postal Regulatory Commission at the direction of Congress.
Professor John cites a book written by Congressman Clyde Kelly in 1932 entitled United States Postal Policy. “In this book,” John notes, “Kelly provided a cogent overview of American postal policy as it had come to be understood by lawmakers and influential contemporaries in the preceding decades, and as it would continue to be understood by lawmakers and influential contemporaries for several decades to come.”
“Kelly’s theme,” John continues, “was the longstanding preference of the American people for a postal policy that favored ‘service-first’ over ‘profits.’ The ‘lawmaking power,’ Kelly contended, had enacted more than one hundred laws based on the ‘steadfast belief that public service is the primary objective and that all other objectives are secondary.’”
This view endorsed the concept that the postal system’s primary function was to be a public service. Physical delivery of mail was only a part of the equation. The system served to deliver a broad array of public goods in its role as infrastructure. It offered a government presence and connection in virtually every small town and neighborhood across the country. It offered useful and productive employment, particularly to disadvantaged socio-economic groups and veterans. It served as the conduit envisioned by the Founders for the distribution of information through a broad network. The idea of preferential rates for information and media was arose from this recognition of the roles of public interest and public service for the postal system.
It’s interesting to note that George Washington believed that newspapers ought to receive free delivery, while James Madison, due to revenue concerns, wouldn’t go quite that far. But Madison was quite clear about the view of the postal system as an essential means of distribution of information and opinion: “The operation of the law establishing the post offices, as it relates to the transmission of newspapers, will merit our particular inquiry and attention, the circulation of political intelligence through these vehicles being justly reckoned among the surest means of preventing the degeneracy of a free people, as well as recommending every salutary public measure to the confidence and cooperation of all citizens.”
So when newspaper and media companies claim preferential rates based solely on business considerations, they actually abandon the stronger justification for those rates, and they do so while damaging others. The argument for low rates as an economic entitlement is much less persuasive than one based on the fundamental importance on the flow of information in a democratic society. The former competes with and undercuts the arguments for preference.
The priorities of postal leadership
The idea that the postal system was a public service started to wane with the implementation of the Postal Reorganization Act (PRA) in 1971, the same year Powell exhorted business to assert it primacy in the social order. The ensuing decades have not been kind to the ideas of public goods or public service. We’ve seen the virtual capture and purchase of our political system by elite wealthy interests who value the role of the stockholder, or in the case of the postal system, the stakeholder, not only above all else but to the exclusion of all other interests.
The Postal Service created by PRA and shaped further by subsequent legislative reforms was particularly susceptible to the encroaching control of corporate interests. The leaders of the Postal Service have been true believers in the idea of the postal system being little more than a puppet of corporate interests. They have directed their efforts almost entirely towards satisfying the narrow interests of the business community and ignored the Postal Service’s mission of binding the nation together.
Nothing illustrates the priorities of postal leadership better than the role played by the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC), a group of postal stakeholders and postal executives that meets regularly to chart the course of the Postal Service. MTAC meetings are open only to members and other selected participants. While one can find mention of the results of those meetings on the Internet, the deliberations and consultations are not part of the public record. But the information that is available to the public makes it clear just how cozy the industry and postal leadership are.
In 2007 the APWU filed suit in Federal District Court seeking to make the minutes and meetings of MTAC public. The suit, unfortunately, was dismissed by Federal Judge James Robertson, as was a subsequent suit to impel the Bush Administration and postal leadership to impanel a Postal Advisory Council as specified in postal law, a council that would have given labor a seat at the table in making broader postal policy.
So while postal vendors like FedEx and Grumman and large postal mailers like Val Pak and the Alliance of Non-Profit Mailers have special access to postal leaders and the offices that create postal policy, the rest of us — postal workers, communities, consumers, and the American public — have to stand hat in hand, begging an audience with the Postal Service, to express their concerns.
By the few for the few
One can often find evidence of disputes between the Postal Service and various mailers in the trade press, but more often than not these disputes aren’t about general policy but about how well the Postal Service implements programs that benefit mailers. Much if not most of the investment of postal resources over the last ten years or so has not been directed in any way at meeting obligations of public service. Rather, it’s all about devising products, rates, and automated systems that provide value solely to the mailing community. Much of today’s current automation is focused on adding value to mailing products that benefit mailers, something that should be the province of businesses investing in themselves.
We are often told that the Postal Service ought to run like a business, but no business in today’s marketplace would share, or more appropriately give away, intellectual property the way the Postal Service does. Systems like IMB, the intelligent mail barcode, seemed to have been designed solely for the benefit of the mailing industry. The big mailers seem to think that the Postal Service should only be investing in new technologies that have the potential to increase their profits.
When one looks at the structure of the laws governing the Postal Service, the rate system, the PRC docket, and the investments and innovations offered by postal leadership, it seems clear that the mission of the Postal Service to provide a public service has been perverted. Any consideration of public good has been eliminated. The fact that the postal infrastructure is owned by the American people has been forgotten.
Laying aside the spectacle of the wolf in the henhouse that is MTAC and some of the other insider programs run by the Postal Service, the system has completely and utterly abandoned any semblance of a public purpose or mission. It is literally government by the few for the benefit of the few.
Membership has its rewards
The membership of PostCom is an interesting mix. The roster includes several companies that appear at the top of the list of the Postal Service’s biggest suppliers. These are the companies who receive the most money from the Postal Service, with FedEx at the top of the list.
Another one of those companies is Accenture, an information technology firm that helped write the Postal Service’s five-year business plan. In 2012, it was number eight on the list of the USPS largest suppliers, and it’s also on the Board of PostCom. Last week the Inspector General issued a report warning the Postal Service to stay away from Accenture because its improper contracting practices create an “immediate risk of future fraud and abuse” in Postal Service contracts. The Postal Service dismissed the concerns as unwarranted.
As one might expect, PostCom’s membership also includes many businesses that move and sell mail, from 4imprint, a British company that sells the little trinkets, magnets and pens that get stuck in the mail, to Pitney Bowes, a company that makes significant profits from workshare discounts that simply transfer wealth from postal workers to shareholders (or corporate managers). The biggest banks are also well represented, as are catalog mailers and others that use the postal network to either market or move products, like Amazon and the biggest publishing houses.
PostCom also includes a few non-profit mailers and newspapers. It’s not hard to understand why they would band together to advocate for better treatment. We may pride ourselves on our individualism, but in politics and business, it pays to stick together, as we can see in the explosion of political groups and advocacy organizations. (Yet for some reason, when workers band together to form a union, we hear about how unfair and un-American it is.)
Greed is good
There’s a solid intellectual basis for giving non-profits, newspapers, and publishers preferential rates. But joining up with PostCom undermines that rationale. In pursuit of the lowest rates possible for its members, PostCom discounts the value of labor, communities, and the American public. Its agenda would turn the Postal Service into a business that does not recognize the special place we have accorded non-profits and newspapers in the fabric of American life.
In a world where profits are not just important but everything, in a world where every productive input, including people, is devalued in pursuit of a little more profit, in a world where consumers are nothing more than revenues and where there’s no sense of equal exchange of value for value, in a world like that, how does the non-profit or the newspaper justify its existence? Are they really nothing other than enterprises engaged in solicitation by mail?
As for the Disabled American Veterans, I have to say that I am ashamed that it belongs to PostCom. How does an organization that purports to represent and assist veterans justify membership in an association that is committed to lowering the wages of postal workers as much as possible? The Postal Service is the largest civilian employer of veterans (130,000 in 2012), many of them disabled. Do the leaders of the DAV think that cheap mail rates for the solicitation of donations are more important than jobs for veterans?
I can see Amazon or L.L. Bean belonging to PostCom. They want me to buy their stuff and they want to cut my income by reducing postal wages and benefits, but that’s a purely economic calculation, a stupid one perhaps, but an economic calculation nonetheless.
But the DAV? That seems like the heart of a moral choice and what is disturbing is that they — and whole lot of other folks in this discussion — are on the wrong side of that choice. Either that or we ought to change our motto from E Pluribus Unum to Greed is Good.
[Mr. Jamison is a retired postmaster and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office; his articles are archived here. He can be reached at [email protected]]