Postal service should be privatized

November 27, 2011


— The Jacksonian-era movement to keep the Sabbath pure deplored Sunday mail delivery. Said one evangelical: “We have always viewed it as a national evil of great magnitude, and one which calls for national repentance and reformation, that the mails are carried, and the post offices kept open, on that holy day in every part of our country.”

Others, however, including Saturday-Sabbath keepers, said ending Sunday mail deliveries would amount to the government deciding what day is holy and therefore would violate the separation of church and state. And Richard M. Johnson, the chairman of the congressional committee with jurisdiction, warned of calamity:

“The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country.”  

Eventually the devout won, with help from organized labor, which considered this an issue of workers’ rights. Sunday delivery ended in 1912, partly because some clergy considered it a desecration of the Sabbath, and partly because people who the clergy thought should be in the pews on Sundays were instead socializing at post offices. Two post offices still open for Sunday delivery are in Angwin, Calif., and Collegedale, Tenn., where many people observe the Sabbath on Saturday.

Today, the U.S. Postal Service, whose financial condition resembles that of the federal government of which the USPS is another ailing appendage, is urging cancellation of Saturday deliveries, perhaps en route to three-days-a-week delivery. The USPS lost $5.1 billion in the latest fiscal year — after serious cost-cutting. Total 2012 losses may exceed $14 billion, a sum larger than the budgets of 35 states.

The fact that delivering the mail is one of the very few things the federal government does that the Constitution specifically authorizes (Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to ... establish post offices and post roads”) does not mean it must do it. Surely the government could cede this function to the private sector, which probably could have a satisfactory substitute system functioning quicker than you can say “FedEx,” “UPS” and “Walmart.”

The first two are good at delivering things; the third, supplemented by other ubiquitous retailers, could house post offices. All three are for-profit enterprises, so they have an incentive to practice bourgeois civility — to be helpful, even polite. These attributes are not always found at post offices.

Unfortunately, privatization collides with a belief sometimes deemed reactionary but nowadays characteristic of progressives. The belief is: In government, whatever is should forever be. So, efforts to prop up and prod along the postal service, which is older than the nation (it was established by the Second Continental Congress in 1775), include the sweet suggestion of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Weary of “gibberish spelling” in text messages from her children, McCaskill’s cri de coeur is: “Gaps in history were filled in with letters ... everything from our Founding Fathers to soldiers in the field. ... I don’t think we should give up on the notion that we’re going to sit down and write a letter.”

But McCaskill’s proposal — an advertising campaign to revive the epistolary culture — is no match for the main culprit responsible for the USPS’ woes: progress. This includes email (even electronic Christmas and other greeting cards are gaining popularity), the digital delivery of movies (as by Netflix, one of the USPS’ biggest customers, but perhaps not for long) and those pesky private-sector delivery companies.

The USPS may shed as much as a third of its 653,000 employees — the nation’s second-largest civilian workforce (second to Wal-Mart). This would require Congress to overturn no-layoff provisions in labor contracts, which should make conservatives queasy. Labor costs are 80 percent of the USPS’ costs (53 percent of UPS’, 32 percent of FedEx’s), in part because it has negotiated very friendly union contracts. The postal service did that because it is free from the tiresome need to make a profit and its competition is limited by law, which forbids anyone else to deliver a letter that is not “urgent.”

Mail volume has declined 20 percent in five years, and the decline probably will accelerate, in spite of the odd USPS ads seeking customers by saying letters “don’t get lost in thin air,” and “a refrigerator has never been hacked. An online virus has never attacked a corkboard.” Surely privatization beats depending on the USPS for delivering the intellectual light that irradiates the republic.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is georgewill@washpost.com.


Liberty_One 6 years, 5 months ago

"the intellectual light that irradiates the republic"

At the time newspapers were delivered through the mail, so that might be what Johnson was actually referring to.

Regardless, I don't see how anyone could be against complete privatization of the Post Office. Clearly private firms are able to deliver packages in a satisfactory manner, why wouldn't they also be able to deliver first class mail as well?

Corey Williams 6 years, 5 months ago

Except for the fact that it's still under 50 cents for the post office to deliver an envelope; but to Fedex an envelope a distance of about 150 miles, it would be $18.58 and take four days. And what do we do after the post office closes down and we're waiting for that magic company to start up and take over?

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

Fedex/UPS do deliver documents aka letters. Fedex and UPS use USPS to complete delivery of their packages/envelopes. These private businesses rely on the semi-private post office to do their deliveries. If Fedex/UPS had to drive parcels to every place that the post office now delivers, prices would rise dramatically.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 5 months ago

"Fedex and UPS use USPS to complete delivery of their packages/envelopes." I'm calling wild blueberry muffins on that statement.

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

I'll be sure to tell the postal clerk at my local post office whom I see 5 days a week that the piles of packages she received 2-3 days a week from both are just her, and my imagination.

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

"Why FedEx SmartPost?

When you need to ship low-weight packages to residential customers, consider efficient, economical FedEx SmartPost shipping service. By utilizing the U.S. Postal Service® (USPS) for final delivery, FedEx SmartPost reaches every U.S. address, including P.O. boxes and military APO, FPO and DPO destinations. You can even use FedEx SmartPost to ship to Alaska, Hawaii and all U.S. territories." http://www.fedex.com/us/smart-post/outbound.html

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 5 months ago

Have you gotten those wild blueberry muffins from Snap yet?

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

Nope he/she's gone strangely silent on this thread. Must be in the kitchen baking those muffins. :)

tbaker 6 years, 5 months ago

It may not discriminate but it does lower profits. Ask DHL.

JayhawkFan1985 6 years, 5 months ago

Clearly, the private sector does everything so much better than government...NOT!!!

Maybe we should privatize municipal water utilities too. currently, they produce safe drinking water that is more pure, cheaper and even deliver it to your home for free. The private sector screws the public over with all the plastic bottles that end up in landfills, the charge orders of magnitude more for their product and you have to go to a store to pick it up...oh yeah and most major brands of bottled water rely on municipal water treatment.

When will you right wing nuts learn that we need BOTH government and private industry? There are some things that the private sector cannot or will not do.

The value of the public sector is that it is accountable to all of us. The private sector claims to be accountable to shareholders but that is a lie. If it was true, BP wouldn't have had the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the financial sector wouldn't have gambled as heavily in mortgage backed securities, etc.

JayhawkFan1985 6 years, 5 months ago

I'll admit that people believe USPS employees aren't friendly or helpful. I'm not sure that is true. I am 100% sure that Walmart employees are NOT friendly or helpful...when you can find one that is...

JayhawkFan1985 6 years, 5 months ago

I'll admit that people believe USPS employees aren't friendly or helpful. I'm not sure that is true. I am 100% sure that Walmart employees are NOT friendly or helpful...when you can find one that is...

Richard Heckler 6 years, 5 months ago

GEORGE Will supports fraud,incompetence,golden parachutes,shareholders,obscene CEO pay packages and corp jets all of which is reckless use of tax dollars.

ignatius_j_reilly 6 years, 5 months ago

Doesn't mean he's wrong on this issue. He's just like a politician, pushing for the main, central issues he believes in. Sometimes he'll be wrong; but many times he'll be right.

50YearResident 6 years, 5 months ago

If you want the price of a stamp to go from 44 cents to $5.44 go ahead and privatize the Post Office. Prices will go the same way as Drugs, Trash Services and Gasoline.

ignatius_j_reilly 6 years, 5 months ago

The thing is, that's going to happen anyway, regardless of who carries the mail. In his column, he cited a statistic that the USPS' losses next year might be greater than the budgets of many states.

Hand-written letters are going the way of the dodo. The USPS will have to charge more per item because there will be many less packages to carry using nearly the same number of workers to guarantee nationwide coverage.

So... privatize it. Those companies will have more incentive to come up with cheaper options.

50YearResident 6 years, 5 months ago

There is no way to privatize the USPS when it would require a giant capital outlay in nearly every city in the Continental US. The only other option if the Government can't maintain it, is to close it down and that is not going to happen either.

mloburgio 6 years, 5 months ago

What If the Tea Party Wins? They Have a Plan for the Constitution, and It Isn’t Pretty It is difficult to count how many essential laws would simply cease to exist if the Tea Party won its battle to reshape our founding document, but a short list includes:

Social Security and Medicare Medicaid, children's health insurance, and other health care programs All federal education programs All federal antipoverty programs Federal disaster relief Federal food safety inspections and other food safety programs Child labor laws, the minimum wage, overtime, and other labor protections Federal civil rights laws Indeed, as this paper explains, many state lawmakers even embrace a discredited constitutional doctrine that threatens the union itself. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/09/tea_party_constitution.html

tomatogrower 6 years, 5 months ago

So you want to suppress workers right to organize? Isn't that very unlibertarian of you? Or is it all about the individual? One guy against a corporation? Maybe they will throw him/her a bone now and then.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 5 months ago

Whatever will junk mailers do if the USPS goes the way of the mammoth?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

Hey, privatization always works. Always.

Look how well it worked out in Russia-- a handful of billionaires, and a country every bit as dysfunctional, and even more corrupt, than it was before the kleptocrats took over.

This is what I want for this country, because, well, because privatization always works. Always.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

So, apparently, it's OK if LO addresses me in his posts, but not vice-versa.

jafs 6 years, 5 months ago

If he's asked you to stop, then you should stop.

If you've asked him to stop, then he should also.

Have you asked him to stop?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

I did stop. But if he insists on addressing me, and responding directly to my posts, then his request is somewhere between hypocritical and disingenuous, doncha think?

jafs 6 years, 5 months ago

If you haven't asked him to stop responding to yours, then he's within his rights to continue.

And, you've continued to address him, even after being asked to stop, which is a violation of the tos on here.

It's up to you - if you want him to stop talking to you, ask him to stop. If you don't do that, then he can continue without any problems as far as the tos.

jafs 6 years, 5 months ago

That's the way this forum works.

You seem to have some problems understanding, or accepting that.

If you want him to stop, ask him to stop.

Otherwise, it's your problem, not his.

If you continue to respond to his posts, and he reports it, you'll suffer whatever consequences there are for doing that, and he'll be just fine, and able to continue responding to yours without consequence.

Your choice.

vuduchyld 6 years, 5 months ago

What about universal delivery?

In a state like Kansas, that should be a big concern. USPS goes everywhere. The private companies do NOT. With so much rural space in Kansas, it's just not profitable for them to do so. I really worry about what happens to rural America if we privatize.

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

They use the post office to deliver to rural areas.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

Ah, yes, the world would be miraculously transformed for the better if only we could substitute corporate bureaucracy for government bureaucracy, fire most of the employees, eliminate most of the services offered, pay the few remaining employees a small fraction of what they currently make and eliminate all their benefits. Good call, George.

ivalueamerica 6 years, 5 months ago

It depends on if you consider the ability to exchange information a national interest or not.

A private company might not be compelled to deliver our mail under any number of circumstances and halt access to communication. The Government of course could do the same thing, but has more checks and balances.

Unless the Government is ready to grant access to the internet to every home and a computer, a letter remains the only reasonable form of information sharing with access to virtually the entire nation.

I think the public underestimates the importance of that concept.

average 6 years, 5 months ago

We pay less for a domestic letter than do people in Mexico, Ecuador, or Turkey. Honest-to-God truth. We pay half or less the going rate for most European countries.

If the USPS were operated with any kind of independence, they'd have rates in the 65-70 cent range that many other first-world (Canada, Australia, etc) charge for a letter, and they wouldn't be in the red. But, the rates are set by a politically-appointed rate commission who fought against the USPS raising rates from 44 cents (cheapest in the developed world, excepting places of less than 200 sq. miles) to 45 cents (still the cheapest in the world).

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 5 months ago

George Will neglected to mention that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) forces the USPS to fund future health care benefit payments to retirees for the next 75 years in a ten year span.

Mandating funding future health care benefit payments for people who aren't even born yet??? How absurd can you get?? And talk about crippling.

I have found that the USPS is actually faster...as well as more reasonably priced...than either FedEx or UPS even for delivering packages. Competition from private companies has made them a lot better than they used to be...but it certainly hasn't improved the speed or pricing of those private companies. As a result, I stopped using FedEx and UPS several years ago and went back to the good old USPS.

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 5 months ago

While I knew that the USPS doesn't use taxpayer dollars...did you???...I found out some other interesting tidbits here: http://savethepostoffice.com/how-save-postal-service-it%E2%80%99s-too-late

(Yes, I acknowledge that article is from a group wanting to save the USPS. But that doesn't make their points invalid. At the very least, it gives the rest of us things to fact-check.)

pace 6 years, 5 months ago

No, don't privatize it. But congress should repeal the odious 5o year prepayment of pensions. No other agency or department has this burden. Congress is using the money as a slush fund while putting the cost under the labor's. . I also think, raise the bulk mail rates, also make material used in bulk mail to fit within 32 categories of recyclable material. RAISE the bulk mail rates. Don't build super factories to service bulk mail. Smaller more efficient would serve the public use of mail The postal service has been worshiping the bulk mail god for too long. Raise the bulk mail rates. I could live with less junk mail and the junk mail paying it's way. They claim junk mail keeps first class cheap. No, low junk mail makes it cheap to mail junk mail

50YearResident 6 years, 5 months ago

It can't be privitized because of the cost, to do it would require billions, if not trillions of dollars. That kind of money can't be raised by any private group.

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

Prices will rise exponentially if the post office is no longer able to us the Post Office to do much of their delivery.

deec 6 years, 5 months ago

So when the private company has to deliver everywhere like the post office does now, instead of having the post office do their rural deliveries, somehow magically they'll do it cheaper? If Will this magical company also have to get rate approval like the post office does now? It costs about 70 cents (I think I don't have the article pulled up) to deliver a letter now. Congress let usps raise the rates come January...to 45 cents.

50YearResident 6 years, 5 months ago

Why don't you get some of your friends togather and buy out the Post Office then. Think of the inventory you could aquire, 50 thousnad buildings, 500 thousand mail trucks, millions of other equipment and a couple hundred thousand employees waiting for their check. Note: frigures are only estimates.

jafs 6 years, 5 months ago

As far as I know, the Post Office doesn't get any taxpayer dollars any more, and is required to operate from fees only.

In addition, it's been required to fund future pensions for quite some time.

The combination of those two things results in a problematic financial situation for them.

But, it's not a good example of poor governmental organizations.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 5 months ago

Well, I'll be a dirty bird. The existence of the FedEx SmartPost program had escaped my notice until now. I stand corrected with a wild blueberry muffin in my hand.

classclown 6 years, 5 months ago

From the "For what it's worth" department.

A few years ago I got hurt and went through physical therapy. While there, I met an 80 something year old man. He told me how he was retired from USPS and the kicker is that he had actually been retired twice as long as he had worked there.

Maybe they have a new policy now, but I sometimes wonder how many people who work there only need to work for 20 some odd years and get a full retirement - whatever that entails.

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