It doesn't seem to make sense. Closing a facility in Manatee County so that mail can travel north to Tampa only to backtrack south to Ft Myers, while delivery time for first class service is tripled and 126 local taxpayers are put out of work. But to understand why such measures are being taken, one must go back to 2006 when Congress engineered a “fiscal crisis” that would later be used to justify the gutting of an American institution.
The United States Postal Service says that it can save $11 million a year by shuttering the processing and distribution center on Tallevast Road where mail is sorted and routed for delivery, and these days the USPS is in the business of saving money. Last August, the agency proposed cutting as many as 120,000 workers and even pulling out of federal health care and retirement systems to meet budget-cutting requirements.
The narrative we've been given suggests that a combination of the rising popularity of electronic messaging, typical bureaucratic inefficiency and competition from the leaner and meaner private sector are forcing this antiquated dinosaur into the dustbin. Only like most manufactured narratives, it's not true. The biggest problem ailing the United States Postal Service is the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA), which passed on an unrecorded voice vote in the House, then unanimously in the Senate.
The bill forced the agency to pre-fund its future health care benefit obligations to retirees for the next 75 years in just a 10-year period, essentially putting aside billions of dollars to pay for the health care benefits of employees it had’t even hired yet! What was most astonishing is that it was the only federal agency targeted by such onerous rules. A report from the USPS's Inspector General points out that the method used for determining the already ridiculous requirements are flawed to make them even more burdensome, using a 7 percent health care inflation number, rather than the 5 percent standard used by both government agencies and the privates sector.
The losses reported by the USPS in 2011 were actually less than the total overpayments made toward funding these future liabilities, suggesting that the agency would actually be in the black had PAEA not been enacted. Declining mail volume actually peaked in 2008-09, during the midst of the financial crisis – a completely normal historic trend in which a decrease in overall financial activity correlates with a decline in volume. As the economy began to recover, so did volume, suggesting that the hundreds of post offices already closed may have been prematurely shuttered.
So, what is at the root of this manufactured crisis? What is the upside to closing hundreds of facilities, reducing services and putting middle class Americans out of work? For most Americans, there isn't one. The United States Postal Service is not a private entity. It isn't free to simply not offer service in remote or sparsely-populated areas of the country, the way private carriers are. If it can be regulated out of existence when such ridiculous requirements create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which it cannot fulfill its mandate to (by law) provide a maximum level of service to all Americans, while remaining self-sufficient and fiscally sound, what good comes of it?
For one, private carriers will have less competition, which will be good for their bottom line, while the federal government will surely write them a big check to service the remote areas where only the USPS went previously. Living-wage jobs will be lost, many of which will surely be exchanged for lower-paying temporary and non-union ones in the private sector, which will then be subsidized by Medicaid and other social services that always hide the true cost of such operations, which supposedly save us money. Delivery costs will increase, amounting to a hidden tax felt disproportionately by the poorest Americans, while the cost-shift will be used to justify further tax cuts at the top, like the 25 percent top-bracket recently proposed by the House.
One more service that is infinitely more essential to the vast majority of Americans who are not independently wealthy will be lost, while the engineered “profits” from such schemes continue to accumulate disproportionately at the top. And, no small matter, one of the last unionized federal agencies will be no more. The postal service isn't a big-government failure, weighing us down with fat-cat pensions and unsustainable wages driven by self-interested unions. But policies like this one can certainly make it appear so when we don't take a closer look.
The postal service is only one example of a continuous trend in which essential public services are supposedly sacrificed at the alter of austerity, for the sake of the small minority who benefit from skewed tax policy and the graft that results from privatization. If we only raise our objections when it's our 126 jobs that are lost, or our essential services that are cut, such resistance will be futile. The people driving these policies have made their future vision for this country clear. If you've bought into it, expect more of the same. If not, hold your officials accountable for voting in favor of such policies. Such positions are the clearest example you will find, that they are not on your side.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His column appears every Thursday and Sunday on our site and in our free Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition (click here to subscribe). An archive of Dennis' columns is available here. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook by clicking the badge below.