The pandemic has hit the U.S. Postal Service hard. It is expected to run out of money in September. Republicans rejoice; they’ve been wanting to privatize the USPS for a long time, and if it fails they’ll be in position to do exactly that.
Donald Trump loves to talk about what a “great American company” FedEx is, and conservatives would love to eliminate the postal service and give all of its operations to private shipping companies and private equity. Of course, long gone would be the days of sending a letter from coast to coast in a few days for a fraction of a dollar, but since when was that sort of thing a concern for Republicans? It’s just like with libraries. If the Postal Service didn’t already exist and you proposed it, it would be considered a ridiculous and wasteful socialist fantasy. In the modern era, Republicans would make sure it never came into being. Mainstream Democrats would means-test it so that everyone would have to fill out tax statements in triplicate to make sure that no one making over a certain amount got a free mailbox.
Ain’t it the truth? And thank you, Benjamin Franklin, founder of the USPS and first postmaster general.
Since the 1970s the USPS has functioned as a “self-funded, independently operating public sector entity,” it says here. So it’s providing a vital service without taking money out of the budget, except under extraordinary circumstances. But Republicans can’t stand it if money is changing hands somewhere and one of their own isn’t getting a slice of it. They want a completely privatized, for-profit system. They want to turn the mail into something like our overpriced and inefficient health care system. Be afraid.
Matt Yglesias provides more complete background on the issue of the postal service versus Republicans in The debate over a post office bailout, explained at Vox. In recent years Republicans in Congress have enacted several provisions to hamstring the USPS and drive it into the red, so they can kill it. But I want to skip ahead to the other reasons powerful forces are moving toward destroying the postal service.
Donald Trump wants to destroy the postal service because Amazon has been using it to deliver packages. And he hates Amazon because he hates Jeff Bezos because Bezos owns the Washington Post. Seriously. Back to Matt Yglesias:
Trump has made no secret of his desire to use the power of the government to punish Amazon financially unless the Post changes its coverage of him. Facebook seems to have paid attention to this message and deliberately altered its editorial practices in order to try to ensure more favorable regulatory treatment from the Trump administration. The Post, which is run by professional journalists with ethics, has refused to do the same. Adding to the tension between the parties is the fact there’s currently litigation underway exploring allegations that Trump’s highly irregular cancellation of a major military contract with Amazon was motivated by partisan payback.
In the context of that feud, Trump has pushed the Postal Service to start raising the prices it charges Amazon.
New York Magazine’s Josh Barro has dug into the substance of the parcel pricing controversy and finds that Trump’s contention that the Postal Service could improve its financial situation by doubling what it charges Amazon is false. The key issue is that because of USPS’ universal service obligations, it can’t drastically reduce its real estate footprint or the number of trucks it sends driving around the country. The reason it gives Amazon good rates is that the facilities it’s using would otherwise be half-empty. Raising prices without making any other operational changes could lead to Amazon looking elsewhere for delivery services, which would leave the post office in even more desperate financial circumstances.
So it is that Trump’s desire to stick it to Jeff Bezos aligns with the Republican goal of privatizing the postal service so that some collection of old white people somewhere can make a fortune off it, after raising prices, busting the postal workers union, and closing a lot of post offices in rural areas that can’t be run profitably.
And then comes the push to establish universal vote-by-mail, which Republicans also oppose on the theory that making voting easier helps Democrats. Although in the case of vote by mail, that’s not necessarily true. I’ll come back to that. David Atkins writes that destroying the post office to end vote by mail in the midst of a pandemic is an act of pure evil worthy of a James Bond villain.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not real, especially given the current administration. Even if it’s not intentional, the combined effect of both acts of bad faith would certainly be convenient for deeply unpopular conservatives whose only chance of holding onto ill-gotten power is to thwart democracy itself.
I don’t know why Atkins might assume it’s not intentional. But let’s go on.
One part of this controversy that doesn’t seem to occur to Trump or congressional Republicans is that rural America is dependent on the postal service far more than urban America. Only the USPS maintains delivery service of mail and packages to every part of the U.S. Michael Hiltzik writes in the Los Angeles Times,
Critics of the USPS say that there’s enough capacity from UPS, FedEx and other parcel firms to make USPS delivery unnecessary. But that’s plainly untrue. Because of the Postal Service’s mandate to provide universal delivery across the United States, no matter where, the commercial firms often rely on the Postal Service to deliver their packages to the last mile, especially when the last mile is in some remote, trackless waste.
Yet there’s a more fundamental flaw in the argument, voiced by the task force, that the USPS is on an “unsustainable financial path.” That might be so if it were a private company, but it’s not. It’s a government service, and among the virtues of a government service is that it shouldn’t have to turn a profit — the service it provides to all citizens no matter where they live can’t be done profitably. But why should it?
In other words, one of the first acts of a privatized, for-profit postal service would be to close low-volume rural post offices that can’t be run profitably. This would end not just mail delivery to a lot of Americans but also jeopardize a lot of rural package delivery, or else run up the prices for FedEx and UPS. Most likely rural folks would have to drive an hour or two to a private delivery hub to pick up mail and packages. Or maybe some mom-and-pop local enterprises would offer package pick-up and delivery services for a fee.
And it seems to me this change would have some nasty implications for the U.S. economy, especially in the low population density states that already tend to be poor. Oh, and vote Republican.
Returning to the vote-by-mail issue — by elminating all mail delivery everywhere I suppose Republicans could kill vote by mail. Could they do that? Would states be able to resort to UPS or FedEx for ballot delivery? I’m not sure. Republicans probably are practically salivating over the thought of urban Democrats jammed into long lines for a diminished number of polling places. But if mail delivery is privatized, it’s mostly rural, mostly Republican-voting areas that would be most hurt.
It’s also the case that the pandemic is moving into rural areas in Republican states pretty fast right now. By November the blue states probably will be well past bending the curve and will have returned to a loose approximation of normal, although of course we can’t let our guard up until most of us are vaccinated, and that won’t be this year. And it’s possible red states, especially those that were slow about stay-at-home orders, are going to be slammed by the pandemic a lot harder and a lot longer. It’s possible that by November red state voters will be more nervous about mingling at a polling place than blue state voters. It’s possible Republicans are setting up conditions that would discourage their own voters from voting. I don’t know that any of that will happen, but it’s possible.
David Atkins writes that Democrats need to go on offensive to save the USPS.
Any future assistance on legislation to Trump and McConnell over the coming year should be predicated on both saving the Postal Service and ensuring access to mail-in voting across the country. An election in which one side is lulled into complacency about a pandemic and has lots of polling places available, while the other is rightfully concerned for the public good and being crushed by long lines and crowded locations, is no true election at all. It’s a mockery of democracy and cannot be allowed to stand.
However, as I’ve said, it’s possible that by November the situation will have changed, and Republican voters will no longer feel complacent about crowding into polling places, while Democratic-leaning urban and suburban voters will be more willing to show up to vote. Wouldn’t that be interesting?