Shock Doctrine at the Post Office: How the GOP Manufactured a Crisis and Too Many Dems Went Along
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Hold one thought in your mind every time you read about the "crisis" the U.S. Postal Service is in: There is a crisis, but it's a manufactured one. If Congress wasn't busy applying the Shock Doctrine, the postal service would face a challenge, but one it had time to meet. Instead, we're being told by Congress and by high-level management at the post office that the crisis is now and that massive cuts are the only answer—that degrading the services the postal service offers will save it.
But before we look at the cuts being proposed, what's so manufactured about this crisis?
In 2006, the postal service generated a profit. That was the last time it did so, because in late 2006, a lame duck Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which among other things forced the postal service to fund its retiree health benefit obligations 75 years into the future, and to do so within 10 years. Taking care of retirees is a good thing, and we've seen far too many workers expected to fill the gaps in pensions and health benefits underfunded through no fault of their own. I'm not arguing that the postal service should reverse course so far that it leaves its retirees without health care. But if you needed a single concrete example to demonstrate that this is a manufactured crisis, here it is: Congress put a burden on the postal service that no other government agency or private corporation faces, and when that causes or accelerates problems, it's taken as evidence of certain doom and the need to make deep cuts. According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, not someone who is going to argue for leaving retired workers in the lurch:
[T]he Postal Service should be released from the “onerous and unprecedented burden” of being forced to put $5.5 billion every year into its future retiree health benefits fund. Sanders’s office explains that “even if there are no further contributions from the post office, and if the fund simply collects 3.5 to 4 percent interest every year, that account will be fully funded in twenty-one years.” At the same time, the senator suggests, the postal service should be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to a federal retirement systems.
So the immediacy of the "crisis" the postal service faces is one created by Congress. But there are legitimate long-term challenges, including one in particular we hear a great deal about: the internet. We're all paying our bills online these days, leading to a precipitous decline in mail sent. Right? Well, there's another factor no one seems to talk about: the recession. It's funny when you think about it, because we know how deeply the recession struck the government at all levels, businesses, and individuals. But again and again we're told that the reason, the reason not a reason, for declining mail is the internet. Yet:
From peak first-class volumes in 2001 to 2007, before the recession began, first-class mail volumes declined from 103.6 billion to 96.3 billion — a total drop of 7%, or just over 1% a year. From 2007 to 2011, first-class volumes declined from 96.3 billion to 73.5 billion — a drop of 23%, or about 6% a year.
In other words, first-class mail has declined by 30% over the past ten years. About 7% of that 30% happened in the six years before the recession, and the other 23% happened in the four years after the recession began.
The internet should also create possibilities. After all, while people pay their bills there, they also rack up a lot of those bills through online shopping, and someone has to ship those packages. UPS and FedEx don't serve as many doors as the postal service, and in many cases they contract with the postal service to provide "last-mile" delivery.