Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Death of the Pony Express Redux

I first published this article more than a year ago but, in light of the announced termination of Saturday mail delivery (effective August 2013), several readers have asked me to reprint it in a more prominent spot on the blog.

Death of the Pony Express

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" reads the inscription on the James Farley New York City post office. Herodotus penned those words describing the expedition of the Greeks against the Persians around 500 B.C, but the saying has become synonymous with the U.S. postal service. Nothing can impede delivery of the U.S. mail… except a Republican Congress hell-bent on destroying it.

Everyone gripes about the post office, but I find it to be an amazingly efficient operation. Even as a child, I was awed by the notion that I could drop a letter into a metal box on my street corner and a few days later it would be delivered anywhere in the world.  The postal service will deliver a letter to the North Pole; by mule to an Indian reservation at the foot of the Grand Canyon; to an inmate at a maximum security prison; to the Alaskan tundra; by parachute; by hovercrafts; and through pneumatic tubes. And it does so for mere pocket change (six cents when I was a boy, 45 cents in 2012).

In the 1970s, the Postal Reorganization Act converted the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, making it a quasi-governmental organization. Since then, it has been self-supporting. Not a single dime of taxpayer money is spent on the postal system! All of its revenue comes from the sale of stamps and related products. For the most part, it has been profitable. It is also the country’s second largest employer (Wal*Mart is number one), has the largest fleet of vehicles on the planet, and processes 40% of the world’s mail.

Even with e-mail, online bill paying, and private competitors like FedEx, UPS, and DHL, the U.S. Postal Service performs a vital function. Its mandate demands it service everywhere in the nation… especially place its competitors refuse to service because they find it unprofitable to do so.

Yet today, the postal service is near bankruptcy and facing unnecessary Draconian cost-cutting measures: closure of half of its mail processing facilities; closing between 3,700 and 15,000 post offices; ending Saturday delivery; and firing tens of thousands of employees. That’s right: the Republican Congress thinks forcing the nation’s second largest employer to fire tens of thousands of employees in a depression is a good idea. Those jobless employees will not be spending their paychecks next year, further reducing the amount of money circulating in the economy. The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and others they would have paid will have less income to pay their employees and keep their businesses going.

So why is this necessary? The postal service was profitable -- during the worst recession in 80 years, from 2007 to 2010, the postal service turned a net operational profit of $611 million -- until the Republican 109th Congress decided it was so profitable that it should prefund its employee retirement accounts… for the next 75 years! Say what? Congress demanded the postal service build up a retirement reserve fund that would cover health benefits for the next 75 years, and gave the postal system only 10 years to fund it. A near impossible burden for any business in the best of times. Need I add, these past few years have been far from the best of times?

That unnecessary financial obligation forced on it by Congress accounts for 84% of the postal service’s shortfall. This is a manufactured crisis created by a Bush era 2006 law passed by the Republican Congress, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act which forces the postal service to put aside billions of dollars to pay for the health benefits of employees it hasn't even hired yet, something no other government or private corporation is required to do! Without this stupid law, the USPS would not be nearly bankrupt… it would have a $1.5 billion profit!

Annoyed? You should be.   Apathetic? Leave now.   Angry enough to tell your senators and representatives you want them to rescind this insane statute and allow the USPS to operate as it had prior to 2006? Then click here to contact your Congressman. The U.S. Postal Service has a long and proud history, dating back to Benjamin Franklin (the first Postmaster General) and the days of the Pony Express carrying mail by horseback in relays to stations across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. Then again, they shoot horses, don't they?

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