What does 50 cents buy these days? Not a cuppa joe, a pack of gum or a newspaper. But you can get a steal of deal for a 50-cent piece: a first-class stamp. Plus a nickel in change.
Each day, six days a week, letter carriers traverse 4 million miles toting an average of 563 million pieces of mail, reaching the very doorsteps of our individual homes and workplaces in every single community in America. From the gated enclaves and penthouses of the uber-wealthy to the inner-city ghettos and rural colonias of America's poorest families, the U.S. Postal Service literally delivers. All for 45 cents. The USPS is an unmatched bargain, a civic treasure, a genuine public good that links all people and communities into one nation.
So, naturally, it must be destroyed.
For the past several months, the laissez-fairyland blogosphere, assorted corporate front groups, a howling pack of congressional right-wingers and a bunch of lazy mass media sources have been pounding out a steadily rising drumbeat to warn that our postal service faces impending doom. It's "broke," they exclaim; USPS "nears collapse"; it's "a full-blown financial crisis!"
These gloomsayers claim the national mail agency is bogged down with too many overpaid workers and costly brick-and-mortar facilities, so it can't keep up with the instant messaging of Internet services and such nimble corporate competitors as FedEx. Thus, say these contrivers of their own conventional wisdom, the Postal Service is unprofitable and is costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year in losses. Wrong.
Since 1971, the postal service has not taken a dime from taxpayers. All of its operations — including the remarkable convenience of 32,000 local post offices — are paid for by peddling stamps and other products.
The privatizers squawk that USPS has gone some $13 billion in the hole during the past four years — a private corporation would go broke with that record! (Actually, private corporations tend to go to Washington rather than go broke, getting taxpayer bailouts to cover their losses.) The Postal Service is NOT broke. Indeed, in those four years of loudly deplored "losses," the service actually produced a $700 million operational profit (despite the worst economy since the Great Depression).
What's going on here? Right-wing sabotage of USPS financing, that's what.
In 2006, the Bush White House and Congress whacked the post office with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act — an incredible piece of ugliness requiring the agency to PRE-PAY the health care benefits not only of current employees, but also of all employees who'll retire during the next 75 years. Yes, that includes employees who're not yet born!
No other agency and no corporation has to do this. Worse, this ridiculous law demands that USPS fully fund this seven-decade burden by 2016. Imagine the shrieks of outrage if Congress tried to slap FedEx or other private firms with such an onerous requirement.
This politically motivated mandate is costing the Postal Service $5.5 billion a year — money taken right out of postage revenue that could be going to services. That's the real source of the "financial crisis" squeezing America's post offices.
In addition, due to a 40-year-old accounting error, the federal Office of Personnel Management has overcharged the post office by as much as $80 billion for payments into the Civil Service Retirement System. This means that USPS has had billions of its sales dollars erroneously diverted into the treasury. Restore the agency's access to its own postage money, and the impending "collapse" goes away.
The post office is more than a bunch of buildings — it's a community center and, for many towns, an essential part of the local identity, as well as a tangible link to the rest of the nation. As former Sen. Jennings Randolph poignantly observed, "When the local post office is closed, the flag comes down." The corporatizer crowd doesn't grasp that going after this particular government program is messing with the human connection and genuine affection that it engenders.
America's postal service is a true public service, a grassroots people's asset that has even more potential than we're presently tapping to serve the democratic ideal of the common good. Why the hell would we let an elite of small-minded profiteers, ranting ideologues and their political hirelings drop-kick this jewel through the goal posts of corporate greed? This is not a fight merely to save 32,000 post offices and the middle-class jobs they provide — but to advance the BIG IDEA of America itself, the bold, historic notion that "yes, we can" create a society in which we're all in it together.