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Why We Must Rescue the U.S. Postal Service From the Brink of Death

The post office can still be saved, but its grave has been dug.

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The National Academy of Public Administration will issue a report this spring on what it calls a "Thought Leader proposal" submitted in January. The eight-page paper urges the post office to be engaged only in last mile delivery and pickup. All other parts of the post office would be sold to private companies. Among the four signatories to the paper, astonishingly, is the director of advocacy of the Atlas Institute, dedicated to promoting the writings of Ayn Rand.

The post office can and should be saved, but doing so will require a massive grassroots and lobbying effort. It is an effort that could cut across class and race and geography, cutting across rural Republican and big city Democratic districts. Such an effort could educate the American public about five key issues. 

First, savings from cutting back postal services are largely illusory, even if we use the narrow cost-benefit analysis used by USPS. In 2008, GAO found that USPS had no way to measure savings from contracting out. Ending Saturday delivery will not save nearly the amount of money USPS predicts. There are alternatives to closing processing centers that achieve comparable savings. 

But we should argue for a wider cost-benefit lens. Remarkably, the post office does not need to take into account the actual cost to the local community of closing a local post office! It does not have to take into account the increased out-of-pocket costs for people who have to travel longer distances, often on dangerous roads in the winter. The only cost benefit analysis that did bring these community costs into the equation concluded that the out-of-pocket costs to the community exceed the internal savings to the post office even in the worst-case scenario.  

Second, the deficit is illusory. Over 80 percent of the deficit is a result of a phantom accounting system that imposes on the USPS an unprecedented, unparalleled and unfair financial burden.

Third, the post office remains a world-class institution and a remarkable bargain. A first-class letter in the United States costs 20-75 percent less than in countries a fraction of our size, like Austria, Germany, Norway, Great Britain, and Italy. 

Fourth, the universal infrastructure of the post office is of enormous value and could be the foundation not only for it to provide increased services, but also to compete with the private sector if it were allowed to do so using the same marketing and pricing tools the private sector uses.

Fifth, the post office plays an important unquantifiable part in American life. In rural areas, the local post office may be the only community gathering place remaining, a place to meet one’s neighbors and share truly local needs and news. In a nation where more than one in five votes are cast by mail and in some states mail ballots have to be received by the close of polls, closing post offices can significantly burden some groups. In Nevada, for example, about half of the 27 Indian tribes rely heavily on the post office to register and to vote, and the closure of a post office will effectively strip them of that right. 

Closing post offices and delaying the delivery of mail places a significant burden on the most vulnerable of our citizens.

William C. Snodgrass, owner of a USave Pharmacy in North Platte, Nebraska, talked about the end-of-next-day, first-class delivery to local areas. His store mails hundreds of prescriptions a week to residents in mostly rural areas of the state that lack local pharmacies. If first-class delivery were lengthened to three days and Saturday mail service also were suspended, a resident might not get a shipment mailed on Wednesday until the following week.

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