It seems to me that the current debate over the US Postal Service exemplifies the furious political divide in our country over the role of government.
On one side we have the limited-government, privatization crowd who feel the free market can provide any service or product better than government. On the other stand those who feel government should be responsible for critical public services where delivery, and not profits, should be the primary driver.
It’s a worthy debate where both sides have legitimate points and concerns, and those not ideologically driven generally agree there is no single right answer, no black and white solution for all our problems. Sometimes government is the answer, sometimes the private sector works best, and in other cases the two working together actually provides the most effective results.
However, over the last few decades, the powerful corporate interests that control both our politicians and our national media have been extraordinarily successful at convincing a large portion of our society that government itself is inherently dysfunctional, corrupt and not to be trusted, and that “free market solutions” can best address all of the problems, obstacles and challenges facing our nation.
While their agenda to privatize nonprofit government services purely for personal financial gain couldn’t be any more transparent, the billions they spend dominating our politics and national media with their message has nonetheless been incredibly effective at creating a furiously divided nation.
So when news broke a few weeks ago that the United States Postal Service (USPS) was facing a potential default over a financial shortfall of $5.5 billion dollars, the powers that be pounced, flooding the major media outlets with this latest “proof that government doesn’t work”.
Predictably, our national media found it much “easier” to simply act as a sounding board for the talking points of our corporate rulers as opposed to actually challenging their rhetoric or reporting any empirical evidence to the contrary.
As a result, a 200 year old institution like the USPS suddenly became just another “bankrupted, wasteful government bureaucracy” in the minds of millions nearly overnight. Hard working civil servants who deliver mail door to door in the rain and snow 6 days a week for very modest wages suddenly became the latest target of misguided rage by their own neighbors brainwashed into believing the job security and pensions provided to postal workers were undeserved luxuries.
This is the power of corporate influence over our lives, and it’s crushing the American dream. When half the population is vilifying postal workers as “fat cats”, we’ve undoubtedly fallen victim to the politics of distraction, and the age-old “divide and conquer” strategy put forth by the wealthy ruling elite throughout history.
As for the issue of USPS’s alleged fiscal woes, let me set the record straight.
First, the USPS is a self funded agency that has not taken a dime of tax payer money in over 30 years. Again, it is fully funded through the cost of its own services, just like any private business.
Second, the USPS is not broke, far from it. In fact, the USPS runs a net operating profit delivering the mail. Over the past four years, despite the largest recession in 80 years and rising internet usage, revenues exceeded costs by $837 million. Net operating profits in the 2nd quarter alone were $226 million.
As for the potential of a $5.5 billion dollar default, the truth is it has nothing to do with the USPS’s operations, but stems from a 2006 congressional mandate that the USPS must pre-fund future retiree health benefits for the next 75 years, and do so at a rate of $5.5 billion per year for the next 10 years.
If that sounds like an impossible task, it should – no other government agency or private corporation could or would ever implement such insane fiscal policy. It is this mandate which has taken an operating profit and turned it into a negative bottom line. More frustrating to USPS senior executives is that they have upwards of $60 billion in overfunded pension plans that Congress will not allow them to access.
All that being said, the USPS is very aware that the world has changed and that they must change with it. Technologies such as the internet and cell phones have obviously taken a bite out of their business. To address this, the USPS has proposed plans to downsize considerably, consolidate and close thousands of offices, and possibly eliminate Saturday delivery altogether.
Still, none of this really matters to those invested in bringing down the agency. Their concerns have nothing to do with the USPS’s balance sheet. No, the USPS is being attacked for the same reasons Social Security, Education, and most other vital government institutions created for the public welfare are being attacked, greed and power.
Consider that the USPS had $67 billion dollars in revenue last year alone – that’s more than the GDP of many small countries. However, it’s also $67 billion that Wall Street isn’t earning a dime off of, $67 billion that isn’t paying a single multi-million dollar salary to any CEO’s or their executive leadership teams.
As a result, for generations the USPS has been able to focus solely on providing world class service of a vital public necessity at the lowest possible prices while giving a secure, modest middle class life to over 550,000 Americans…all while running an operating profit.
The other powerful motivator to dismantle the USPS is that it is 90% unionized. Today unions represent the only large organized pro-labor political force able to challenge the large corporate interests that dump billions into our elections and buy our politicians. Knocking off 550,000 union members at once would be a crushing blow in the ongoing war against organized labor.
Privatizing the USPS would also be yet another crushing blow to both the middle class and our crumbling infrastructure. Thrown to the private sector, those 550,000 USPS modest middle class jobs with great benefits and pensions would in all likelihood be replaced with low paying jobs and substantially inferior benefits, and the days of being able to send a letter to any address in the entire country for a mere $0.44 will be gone forever as the business focus shifts from service delivery to profits.
Americans are rightfully furious watching the middle class shrink and poverty rates rise while the income inequality gap in the richest nation on earth now resembles that of a 3rd world country. Yet if so many Americans continue to allow ideology and the politics of division to blind them to even the most obvious causes, things are only going to get much, much worse.