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Time to Save the Post Office

The battered national consensus behind a national universal postal service–conceived by Benjamin Franklin–is heading for a free fall due to bad management, corporate barracudas and a bevy of editors and reporters enamored with the supremacy of the Internet which makes up their world.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is pursuing a strategy of cutting or delaying services while increasing prices. Usually that is a sure prescription for continuing decline. For Mr. Donahoe, the drop in first class mail has left the Post Office with over-capacity. So he is closing over 200 processing centers, and shuttering hundreds of post offices, including Philadelphia’s original Ben Franklin post offices. He mistakenly thinks closing additional USPS facilities’ will not result in revenue reductions and service abandonment.

Never mind the intangibles of convenience, safety (eg. receiving medicines) and collegiality that characterizes many rural, small town and suburban post offices.

Mr. Donahoe tells reporters that he is acting the way any beleaguered business executive would, even though he knows that the Postal Service is not just another big business feeding off corporate welfare. The USPS has not taken any taxpayer money since 1971.

By contrast the federal government has taken money from the USPS and owes our Postal Service between $50 and $70 billion dollars in excess retirement benefits payments. The other overpayments to the federal government are for the unprecedented advanced payment of health benefits of future retirees of the next 75 years by 2016, amounting to $5 billion a year (Congress is considering a bill to rectify this problem). Without corrective legislation, the Postal Service says it would have lost $8.5 billion this year. (By comparison, in addition to lost lives and destruction, the Afghan War quagmire costs the U.S. taxpayer over $2 billion a week.)

If all this sounds bizarre to you, it is. No other public department is a defacto creditor of the federal government. The USPS is a hybrid public corporation, created in 1970, from the old Post Office Department. It has been run into the ground on the installment plan by commercial competitors aggressively taking advantage of a weak-willed, unimaginative succession of postmaster generals ruled by a corporate Board of Governors ideologically rooting for corporate privatizers.

In his media interviews of woe, Mr. Donahoe talks precious little either about revenue increases or about long-overdue expansions of service. Abolished because of banking industry pressure in 1966, the Postal Savings System for simple savings accounts needed by tens of millions of “unbanked” Americans could be reactivated. Mr. Donahoe has been telling people that he’s thinking about it, but this self-styled salesman has proposed nothing to date. (See the letter urging this expansion by the Appleseed Foundation, dated October 14, 2011.)

Each time I ask Mr. Donahoe to tell us how he is increasing revenue through this remarkable local network of 32,000 post offices, there is no response. Postal Regulatory Commission Chairperson Ruth Goldway has proposed about two dozen ways to increase revenue. Why not explore new ways to use the Internet to produce new revenue?

My conversations with postal workers and letter carriers are filled with revenue increasing ideas from them. These workers are frustrated because the suggestion forms they are asked to regularly fill out are sent to headquarters with nary a feedback. One simple idea, establish a more vigorous staff culture of selling existing and new services. Poor morale loses sales. Are there too many “supervisors” lording it over their underlings? Why can’t Express Mail or parcel post shipments rise from their abysmal level of under 10% of the current marketplace.

The USPS is aggressive in selling new stamps, but it falls down when confronted by FedEx, UPS and others in the lucrative overnight express delivery and package business. The truck bays in Congress itself are full of these company vehicles. Let’s recognize that Congress often has tied the Post Office’s hands on what it can sell. But that cannot excuse post office problems such as long lines, long phone delays, other mismatches between staff and levels of fluctuating business, including a USPS proposal to reduce their time of delivery standards.

Recessions take their toll, more from many large companies (take the auto companies) than from the Postal Service on a percentage of sales basis. So there is no need to panic and stripmine the Postal Service. This could create a decline in usage and a fatal downward revenue spiral.

Sometimes the problem is illustrated by simple experiences. A month ago I wanted to send an Express Mail package from Washington, DC to Darien, Connecticut. The branch manager told my associate that the USPS could not guarantee next day delivery for Express Mail! The postal worker said the computer told her to tell patrons about this risk. So my colleague went to FedEx to ensure overnight delivery. On her way back home she stopped at another postal branch and was told “why of course your Express Mail will get there tomorrow. That’s what Express Mail is about.” Multiply that first response thousands of times and you get thousands of lost sales.

Postal staff know about “lost sales” to individuals and businesses. They use the phrase “lost sales” all the time when they bewail management. This is a management that spends too much of its time cutting, abandoning, closing, delaying and outsourcing postal services to K-Mart and Walmart locations.

Want to do something about a great American institution that is perfectly capable of adapting and benefiting from new times? Visit savethepostoffice.com. If you want to help us build a strong residential postal user group, send an email to info@csrl.org.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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