Thursday, November 14, 2013

Post Office Blues

If nobody reads what you write, you can say anything you want. So it is with a recent article by Marty Goodman in Socialist Action entitled Corporate Raiders Target Post Offices. The article is so sloppy and so poorly argued that it is obviously not intended to be read seriously. Mr. Goodman is writing a feel-good piece for his own psychological amusement.

It is certainly possible to write an intelligent article about the post office from a Socialist/Leftist point of view. The Militant, for example, has done an excellent job covering coal miners' struggles at Patriot Coal. Accordingly, I've favorably commented on their coverage here, here, and here. That doesn't mean I agree with The Militant any more than I agree with Socialist Action. It just means they're careful with the facts, are honest reporters, and therefore earn respect.

Not so with Socialist Action. This article is so full of whoppers and leaps of logic that it isn't worth your attention. So I do them a favor by reading and commenting critically--with luck they'll be more careful next time.

The first problem is a value judgement--anything corporate is bad, while anything run by the government is good. Of course that comes with the Socialist territory, but it really requires a little bit of caution. For they assume that any asset transferred to private hands will automatically show up as bottom line profit in some greedy, capitalist's pocket. For example,
A sinister part of the privatization drive is the over 50 post offices nationally that are up for sale or already sold as of February of this year. Corporate hustlers are hoping to convert post offices into restaurants, malls, and condos. Many post offices up for sale have been designed National Landmarks for their architectural beauty and/or the works of art they contain.
Mr. Goodman refers specifically to a post office building in The Bronx, most of which is unused since the mail processing facility has been moved out. The building, which contains some New Deal era murals, and has been declared a historical landmark. For Mr. Goodman it's not enough to deliver mail. The USPS should also get into the museum business and maintain historical landmarks.

While a few people still enjoy a visit to the post office, wouldn't it be better if the main lobby (with murals) were a successful restaurant serving hundreds of patrons daily? And couldn't the upper floors--ill-suited for modern mail processing--be turned into shops or condos? No, according to Mr. Goodman. In his view, maintaining the building as a post office in perpetuity is the only option. Evil entrepreneurs, upon buying the building, will have nothing better to do than tear it down and build a parking lot.

In the long run, the preservation of history depends on finding a suitable use for the old building.

Here's another whopper:
Behind the corporate privatization drive are forces like “The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” created in 2004 as the stealthy name for the large mailer association whose industry is estimated at $1 trillion. Members include Time Warner (People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, CNN, etc.), Bank of America, American Express, Pitney Bowes, and AT&T.
This makes no sense. Where does the $1 trillion figure come from when the total 2012 revenue for the USPS was only $65 billion? Even Walmart (with four times as many employees) only generates $500 billion. Pitney-Bowes--one of the evil capitalists on the list--claims a mere $6 billion and 28,000 employees. I don't know how Mr. Goodman comes up with a figure equal to 7% of GDP just from second and third class mail. I think he assumes that nobody will read his article.

Mr. Goodman mentions the Internet.
The public hears only that the USPS is going broke because it is being replaced by the internet. While the internet has decreased first-class mail, internet-driven USPS parcel deliveries are way up because the postal service is less expensive than private carriers like UPS and Fed-X.
These statements are true. First-class mail has declined by 28% from 2002 to 2012. For a few years many thought that meant the death of the post office. But then, as Mr. Goodman indicates, parcel deliveries are way up. I'm surprised that Mr. Goodman thinks this is a good trend. recently made a deal to use USPS facilities to deliver packages seven days per week. This is a lifeline for the post office and its employees, and represents a turn-around from canceling Saturday service. But since Mr. Goodman hates all of the post office's customers (bulk mailers, retailers, large corporations), surely he has to see this as bad news. In his world, if the mailman delivers anything more commercial than a Christmas card, he's engaging in great evil.

Indeed, some have suggested that Amazon should buy the post office outright. The company wants to institute same-day delivery in major metropolitan areas, and the USPS has all the requisite infrastructure at hand. This would provide jobs for at least some of today's postal employees, and is far better than the thing going bankrupt.

Mr. Goodman states (correctly, I believe) that the post office is making an operating profit, but suffers because of the very high payments it has to make into its benefit programs. These secure the employee pensions and benefits for 75 years, and also help fund benefits for other federal employees. Perhaps these payments are over the top, but as a taxpayer I'm quite grateful. Would that other government agencies, e.g., the City of Detroit, had been as solicitous of their employees' futures. Unless future politicians simply confiscate the accounts (sadly, entirely possible), both taxpayers and USPS employees are well protected. This is as it should be.

I used to think the post office was a poorly run, government agency on the verge of extinction. Three things have changed my mind.

  1. The growth in on-line shopping provides a substantial new business where the post office is very competitive. Instead of cutting back on deliveries, they are now augmenting them.
  2. Living in a rural area, I decided that a PO box is more convenient for me. Hence I go to the local post office every day. The box service is very good--it saves me hassle and it saves the post office money. So I live in post office heaven--there are four little post offices within five miles of my home. I thought three of them should be shut down. But now that I use a box, I'm less convinced that's a good idea--nobody is going to drive much out of their way to use a PO box.
  3. Mr. Goodman's point--that the post office runs an operating profit--is convincing. But it needs to be privatized so that it is no longer supervised by Congress, and can allocate its resources for economic gain rather than for political points.
My Trotskyist friends will disagree with that last point. That's fine--disagreement is the spice of life. But Mr. Goodman still needs to be careful with his facts if he wants to preach to anybody outside of the choir.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. Yet the choir repeats those loose inaccuracies and obvious falsehoods almost verbatim, as if I would expect anything different. $1 Trillion dollars. Yikes.....