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How prefunding retiree health benefits impacts the Postal Service’s bottom line – and how Brookings got it wrong . . .

invisible hand The author Steve Hutkins is a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. He has no affiliation with the U.S. Postal Service—he doesn’t work for it, nor does anyone in his family. Save The Post Office (his website) provides information about the post office closings and consolidations that are taking place, the historic post office buildings that are being sold off, the efforts people are taking to protect their post offices, and the things citizens can do to save their post office when it ends up on the closure list.

In October, the Washington Post ran a column by Lisa Rein entitled “Should the Postal Service be sold to save it?”

The article was about a recent paper by Elaine Kamarck published on the Brookings Institute’s website. Kamarck is the Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings, as well as being a Senior Fellow in Brooking’s Governance Studies. Her paper is entitled “Delaying the inevitable: Political stalemate and the U.S. Postal Service.”

Kamarck’s thesis is that the Postal Service is going through a “crisis of obsolescence,” its financial losses are unsustainable, and “the political system is stuck and unable to do anything about it.” The thing to do now, concludes Kamarck, is split the Postal Service in two. One organization would fulfill the universal service obligation by delivering market-dominant mail. The other part would be privatized and take over competitive products (Priority Mail and package shipping); it would also be given the freedom to expand into new areas of business now prohibited for the Postal Service.

The article prompted several critical responses, including pieces by Dave Johnson in Crooks & Liars and Zaid Jilani in AlterNet. Rein also did a follow-up article in the WaPo — “Why sell off the Postal Service if it’s making money?” — in which she goes more deeply into the conflicting explanations for the Postal Service’s financial problems.

One of the main issues in the debate has been the Retiree Health Benefit Fund (RHBF). The critics of Kamarck’s paper (and Rein’s column about it) argue that were it not for the RHBF prefunding established in 2006 by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), the Postal Service would not have been posting huge losses. The core of the financial problem facing the Postal Service is the requirement to fully fund decades of future retiree health costs with ten annual payments of about $5.6 billion, an obligation imposed on no other business or government agency.

Kamarck anticipates this claim about the RHBF, and her paper tries to set it aside. In so doing, however, she makes an error that’s worth looking at in some detail.

The fly in the ointment

Kamarck’s paper addresses the argument about the prefunding as follows:

Many believe that the prefunding requirement for retiree health benefits accounts for all of the Postal Service’s financial problems. Although the prefunding requirement does account for a large share of net losses, retiree health benefits caused $22,417 million in expenses out of a total net loss of $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2014.

Kamarck is trying to make the case that prefunding the RHBF does not explain the Postal Service’s huge losses, which she thinks can only be explained by the declining mail volumes caused by the Internet. To make this point, she says that prefunding accounted for $22,417 million (or $22.4 billion) of the $5.5 billion loss in FY 2014.

This doesn’t make sense. She’s trying to show that the RHBF expense doesn’t account for such a large portion of the net loss, but according to her numbers, the expense was four times greater than the loss.

That’s not just illogical, it’s wrong. The RHBF expense in FY 2014 was not $22.4 billion. It was $5.7 billion, as stated in the USPS 10-K report. And the expense did not account for just a portion of the $5.5 billion net loss. It accounted for all of it. If it weren’t for prefunding, the Postal Service would have posted a profit in 2014.

I notified the Brookings Institute about the error in Kamarck’s paper on September 22, the day after the paper was posted on the Brookings website, but so far I’ve received no response, and the error still appears in the paper on their website. (run75441: This is not unusual for a source not to acknowledge an error and I have done it also with reports and studies. They just do not respond and the error goes forward as the truth even though challenged.)

Anyway, it seems like a pretty minor mistake, hardly worth noting, but it goes to the heart of Kamarck’s argument. She’s trying to refute the claim that prefunding explains the Postal Service’s financial problems, but the number she presents is wrong, and that’s all she has to say about the claim. If prefunding really is the cause for the Postal Service’s financial problems, the solution is obviously to fix the prefunding — not sell off and privatize the competitive products business, the one area that’s actually growing.

The Source of the Error

The error in Kamarck paper is derived from a misreading of a table in a financial analysis by the Postal Regulatory Commission, which is cited in footnote #8. On page 21 of the PRC report, there’s a table showing “Structure of Assets and Liabilities” for the Postal Service. [(You can see the table here.)

The table shows that as of September 30, 2014, there was a liability of “$22,417 million” for “retiree health benefits.” But this figure is not the expense for the retiree health benefit expense in FY 2014, as Kamarck says in her paper. Rather, as the PRC explains in the text following the table, “The Postal Service has not yet paid RHBF statutory prefunding obligations for FY 2011 through FY 2014, which total $22.4 billion and comprise 52.7 percent of current liabilities.”

In other words, the Postal Service did not pay $22.4 billion into the RHBF as required for 2011-2014 (it defaulted on these payments), so the total for these unpaid obligations appears as a liability for retiree health benefits in the table. The $22,417 million cited by Kamarck is the cumulative expense for four years, as of the end of FY 2014, not the expense for FY 2014 itself.

Kamarck is wrong on the larger point as well. Prefunding is clearly the primary cause of the Postal Service’s net losses, and to a significant extent.

The Impact of Prefunding

Kamarck acknowledges that the “prefunding requirement does account for a large share of net losses,” but she doesn’t say how large that share is.

The following table shows what’s happened since prefunding began. It shows each year’s net loss, as reported in the PRC financial analysis (p. 26), along with the prefunding payment for the year and what the profit or loss would have been without the prefunding.

The prefunding for 2007 includes $5.4 billion for the first annual RHBF payment and another $3 billion transferred into the fund from an escrow account, (An earlier version of this article neglected to include the escrow transfer, but it is included in the $5.1 billion net loss, as explained in the 10-K report for 2007.) The unusually large net loss in 2012 was due to the fact that the Postal Service was permitted by Congress to skip the RHBF payment in 2011, but then owed a double payment in 2012. The figures for FY 2015 are estimates based on the first eleven months of the year, as reported in the USPS financial report for August.

As the table shows, over the past nine years, the Postal Service has posted losses totaling about $56 billion. Almost $49 billion of it — 87 percent — was due to prefunding.

Over the past nine years, there were four years when the Postal Service would have posted a loss if it weren’t for prefunding — the years of the Great Recession and its aftermath. In the two years before the economy tanked, the Postal Service would have shown a profit if it weren’t for prefunding. In 2013 and 2014, with the economy improving and postal revenues stabilizing, the Postal Service would again have shown profits if it weren’t for prefunding.

The same will be true for FY 2015. As of September 1, 2015, eleven months into the fiscal year, the Postal Service had a net loss of $4.1 billion, including a RHBF expense of $5.2 billion. Depending on the size of the workers comp adjustment for September, the Postal Service will end the year with a net loss of something like $4.6 billion. But without the RHBF expense, it would show a profit of about $1 billion, about the same as last year.

Kamarck writes that “many believe that the prefunding requirement for retiree health benefits accounts for all of the Postal Service’s financial problems.” No one believes that prefunding accounts for all of the financial problems, but clearly it accounts for a huge part. This is not a matter of belief. It’s a fact.

The Origins of Prefunding

Congress should have fixed the prefunding problem back in 2009 or 2010, as soon as it became clear that the size of the payments was unmanageable in a recession. Unfortunately, privatization advocates in Congress (like Darrel Issa) wanted to use the crisis as justification for legislation designed to dismantle the Postal Service. Fortunately, there were others in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, who saw the value of having a vital public postal system. That’s why there’s been a political stalemate.

But Congress should never have imposed the prefunding payments to begin with. It’s worth recalling how that happened.

In 2002 the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) determined that the Postal Service was overpaying billions of dollars into one of its pension plans, but reducing the pension payments to the Treasury would have had a negative impact on the unified budget of the federal government — something that the Bush administration would not permit.

So when PAEA was winding its way through Congress, a deal was hatched between the bill’s creators and the Bush administration, specifically the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Rather than paying for retiree health costs on a pay-as-you-go basis, as it had always done and probably could have continued to do, the Postal Service would begin setting aside funds for future retirees, decades in advance.

The idea for the fund may have come from Postmaster General John Potter, who in 2003 recommended to Congress that a different pension overpayment (involving postal workers who were vets) might be transferred to a new Retiree Health Benefit Fund. It was the next best thing to getting a refund on the overpayment, which Potter knew Congress would never approve. The Postal Service’s proposal to create such a fund is analyzed in more detail in this 2003 GAO report, which explains how the plan would be “scored,” i.e., how it would impact the federal budget.

Three years later, Congress created the RHBF to address a different pension overpayment problem. The overpayments were essentially shifted to the new fund, and they had to be as large as they were in order to offset the reduction in pension payments.

A 2009 committee report in the House of Representatives about PAEA explained it this way:

The payment schedule for the first 10 years was established primarily to make the PAEA budget neutral, responding to the concerns of the Office of Management and Budget at the time the PAEA was passed, rather than corresponding to actuarial requirements or financial conditions at the Postal Service.

There was no urgent need requiring ten years of huge RHBF payments. If Congress thought that it was a good idea to prefund retiree health costs, it could have spread out the liabilities on a 40-year amortization schedule, as Dan Blair, then the Acting Director of the OPM, had recommended in testimony to Congress in 2005. But Congress was using the new fund to solve the pension overpayment problem, and small RHBF payments wouldn’t have solved the problem.

USPS Inspector General David Williams tells the same story about the origin of the RHBF in a letter he wrote to the GAO about one of its reports expressing concern about postal liabilities.

“The Postal Service started prefunding its retiree health benefits as a result of the discovery that, due to external fund management misjudgments, it was on track to seriously overfund its pension obligations by $78 billion,” wrote Williams. “The aggressive payment schedule appears to have been set based on byzantine ‘budget scoring’ considerations rather than actuarial assumptions or an evaluation of the Postal service’s ability to make the payments.”

So that’s how the whole mess got started. Congress was trying to fix the pension problem, and it created a new problem in the process. but it was the Bush administration’s OMB that was ultimately responsible for the payment schedule. The Postal Service — and its workers and ratepayers — ended up with a huge burden, all so that PAEA would be “budget neutral.”

(There’s more about the origins of prefunding in this previous post.)

Fixing the problem

Congress and the Bush administration created the prefunding problem, and one day Congress will have to fix it. The latest bill proposed by Senator Tom Carper, one of those who helped craft PAEA, tries to do exactly that. It would eliminate the existing payment schedule, cancel any outstanding payments, reduce the prefunding goal to 80 percent of projected obligations, and amortize payments over 40 years.

Congress should have passed a bill five years ago saying just that and only that. Perhaps then we would not have had to endure the endless stream of news articles about billion dollar losses, bleeding red ink, defaults on payments, and the obsolescence of the postal system.

Perhaps then the Postal Service might not have found it necessary to increase rates, lower delivery standards, close post offices and plants, sell historic buildings, and make draconian cuts to its workforce. And perhaps we would not be hearing from the Brookings Institute about why it’s a good idea to privatize the Postal Service.

References:

(Photo credit: Brookings’ panel on “The Future of the United States Postal Service”)

How prefunding retiree health benefits impacts the Postal Service’s bottom line – and how Brookings got it wrong Steve Hutkins, Save The Post Office blog

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When Titans collide: UPS petitions the PRC to change USPS costing methodologies

USPS_UPS_crash1-540x528

BY

MARK JAMISON

(A North Carolina Retired Postmaster). First posted at Save The Post Office

The United Parcel Service is very concerned that you might be paying too much for a postage stamp.

If you’re wondering why UPS would be worried about something like that, it has to do with the way postal rates are set. According to the law, each USPS product is supposed to cover its share of the Postal Service’s operating costs, which includes costs attributable to that product as well as a share of total institutional costs.

UPS believes that market-dominant products — First Class mail, Standard mail, and periodicals — are covering more than their fair share of the Postal Service’s operating costs, while competitive products — Priority and most shipping services — are not paying enough. As a result, argues UPS, the average customer who buys a First-Class stamp is paying too much because part of the stamp’s price is being used to subsidize competitive products. UPS wants the cost allocation methodology changed so that competitive products pay a larger share of the Postal Service’s operating costs.

Then the Postal Service will to have to raise the prices of the products with which UPS competes, which will put UPS in a better competitive position and increase its profits. UPS doesn’t really care that some USPS customers are paying too much for postage. UPS cares about UPS.

The UPS petition

UPS has been complaining about the costing methodology for many years; but in recent weeks, it has intensified its efforts to get the Postal Regulatory Commission to do something about the problem. In a petition recently filed with the PRC, UPS argues that the costing methodology used by the Postal Service and PRC is seriously flawed. It recommends several changes that are intended to make the system fairer and bring it into compliance with the law. (The UPS filing is in PRC Docket Number RM2016-2.).

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Who Owns the US Post Office?

Guest Post by

MARK JAMISON

at Save The Post Office

invisible hand

Who owns the post office?  Who is the post office designed to serve?  What is the system’s ultimate function?

These questions are fundamental to the future and the fate of the post office, the postal network, and postal services in this country. How we answer them will have a significant impact on businesses, workers, and communities.

We know the Constitution instructs — or more accurately, permits — Congress to make arrangements for post offices and post roads.  That is a good indication that the Founders sawpostal services and the infrastructure that supported them as broadly essential to the nation — nation in their reckoning being the sum of the people.

But Congress has abdicated its responsibilities.  It no longer functions as a deliberative body and has become increasingly ineffective as a legislative body.  The Postal Service’s Board of Governors has proven to be equally ineffective and has left postal managers to run operations as they see fit.  The regulatory system is relatively limited and not really able to represent the interests of the public as a whole.

All in all, the Postal Service is simply not accountable to the American people in the way it should be — or the way it must be if it is to survive as a vibrant public postal system, as envisioned by the Founders

In the debates about the Postal Service, the public interest is too often forgotten.  It’s worth quoting yet again the stirring words of Title 39:

“The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.”

If these words are to mean anything, the leaders of the Postal Service, Congress, and the Executive branch must be reminded that the Postal Service is there to serve not some narrow economic interests but the people of the United States.

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Prez throws PRC Chair under the bus, WaPo misses the bus completely

invisible hand

Guest Post by Steve Hutkins of Save The Post Office

Josh Hicks has a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post about the announcement that Ruth Goldway (pictured in China) had stepped down as Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, to be replaced by Commissioner Robert Taub as Acting Chairman. It’s entitled “Jet-setting postal regulator replaced amid scrutiny of travel habits.” Hicks begin his piece like this:

“President Obama replaced the globetrotting chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission this week after years of criticism over frequent trips she charged to U.S. taxpayers.”

Hicks provides no evidence that Goldway was replaced because of the controversy over her “travel habits.” Instead, the WaPo just attacks her as “jet-setting” and a “globetrotter,” as if that explains everything. As for actual facts, Hicks mostly recycles some quotes and statistics from a hatch job the WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe did on Goldway back in 2012.

Hicks also provides some details drawn from a November 4 article in the Washington Free Beacon. The Beacon is a project of the Center for American Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, and it’s not shy about promoting a right-wing ideology. On postal matters, it’s probably not too far from the Washington Post, which has a track record of ill informed op-eds endorsing the dismantling of the Postal Service.

The bogus travel issue was examined in a previous post back in February 2012. It was clear then, as it is now, that attacking Goldway for her travel expenses had nothing to do with the cost of her travels or whether or not her trips are appropriate or necessary. The attacks are about getting Goldway out of the way. Now they’ve finally succeeded.

Since Hicks’ article is short on facts, here are some numbers to consider. According to O’Keefe’s 2012 article, Goldway spent $70,000 on travel between August 2009 (when she became the PRC chair) and January 2012. That comes to about $28,000 a year. According to Hicks’ article yesterday, Goldway spent $71,000 in official travel expenses during her first three years as chairman. That comes to about $23,700 a year.
Hicks notes that the Beacon reported that between 2012 and 2013, Goldway spent over $36,000. It’s not clear if this is the amount for one or two years. If it’s for two, her travel budget was $18,000 a year.

Hicks writes that Goldway’s travel budget during 2009-2012 was “outpacing her predecessor,” but he bases that on O’Keefe’s piece and doesn’t provide any numbers.

The previous chair of the PRC was Dan Blair. According to the WaPo’s 2012 article, Blair spent $58,788 on travel during his two-and-a-half-year tenure (December 2006 through August 2009) — about $23,500 a year.

A report prepared by the PRC in response to the travel controversy provides similar numbers. Between March 2007 and June 2010, Blair spent a total of $70,262: $20,794 in FY 2007; $23,869 in FY 2008; $16,725 in FY 2009; and $8,874 in FY 2010. That averages out to about $1,800 a month or $21,600 annually, and it includes twelve months Blair wasn’t even serving as chairman.

Goldway’s expenses were thus very comparable to her predecessor’s, especially if you consider the rising costs of travel. They were also in the same ballpark as other high-ranking postal officials.

An OIG audit on “Officers’ Travel and Representation Expenses for Fiscal Year 2011” shows that the travel and representation expenses for USPS officers totaled about $700,000. The audit for 2012 shows a total of $806,000, and the audit for 2013 shows a total of $771,000. These budget numbers cover about 40 USPS officers, so the average annual expense per officer would thus come to about $19,000.

The OIG also does an annual audit for the members of the USPS Board of Governors. It appears that they too like to get around. In 2011, they spent $163,000 in travel and miscellaneous expenses; in 2012, they spent $216,000; and in 2013, $153,000. There are supposed to be nine members on the BOG (not including the PMG and Deputy PMG), but there were several vacancies throughout this period. For example, as of Sept. 30, 2013, there were just five members (and at the moment there are only four). The audit reports don’t break the numbers down per person or separate travel from miscellaneous expenses, but there’s enough data to estimate the average annual budget per member: somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000.

One could probably look into the travel expenses incurred by other high-ranking government officials with international responsibilities. The numbers are unlikely to show that Goldway has spent much more on travel than is normal for someone in her position.

It’s also important to remember that the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) specifically requires the PRC to play a role in international postal affairs. The PRC website has a whole section on PRC Website, Goldway is “the longest serving, full-time, Senate-confirmed Presidential appointee within the Executive Branch of the United States Government.”
Obama’s decision to replace Goldway raises a couple of important questions. Why did Obama replace a Democratic chairman with a Republican? And why has the president not taken care to give the PRC a Democratic majority?

The PRC normally has five commissioners, so Obama could have easily made sure three of them were Democrats. Instead, he has made appointments giving the Republicans the majority. Currently there are three commissioners — two Republicans and one Democrat. Two appointees are waiting for confirmation — one Republican and one Democrat. Once they’re confirmed, the Commission will thus have a three-to-two Republican majority as well as being chaired by a Republican.

It’s not hard to see where all this going. With the Republicans in control of Congress, with Republicans holding a majority of the PRC and its chairmanship, and with a president that doesn’t seem to care much about preserving the Postal Service, it’s clear that over the next couple of years we’re in for more of the same — more cuts in service, more slowing down of delivery, more cluster boxes, more rate increases, more part-time contract labor, more outsourcing to the private sector, more secret NSA deals with corporate partners like Amazon, more Village Post Offices and postal counters in big box stores, more post office and plant closures, more dismantling of the infrastructure, more piecemeal privatization.

The PRC doesn’t have all that much power to stop any of these things, but with Goldway gone and Taub in place, it will be a bit easier for the next Postmaster General to continue the Potter-Donahoe agenda and for Congress and the President to help her do just that. And that’s what this whole story is about — not a few thousand dollars in travel expenses.

Steve Hutkins of the Save The Post Office Blog and the author, is a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. Steve has no affiliation with the U.S. Postal Service — he doesn’t work for it, nor does anyone in his family. Like millions of Americans, he just likes his local post office, and he doesn’t want to see post offices being closed.

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Why Congress Should Not Get Out of the Way of the Postal Service

invisible hand Guest Post by Mark Jamison, retired Postmaster. News of Ron Johnson the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin taking over as chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs has caused an overwhelming sense of panic among progressives and postal workers. Johnson will control oversight of the Postal Service in the Senate.

There may be good reason to think this has the makings of disaster. Johnson is on the record stating that it would be a good idea if the Postal Service went into bankruptcy and got privatized. His training is in accounting, but he has refused, with an aggressive ignorance, to acknowledge the basic tenets of accounting. When witnesses come before his committee, he bullies them and waves his arm abrasively. His dislike of unions is so intense he is willing to set aside his worship of the business principles of a contract to concoct a bankruptcy scheme to abrogate postal labor agreements.

Is the coming of Ron Johnson any reason to panic?

Tom Coburn, the current ranking member on the committee, has said virtually all of the same things as Johnson (in his quiet, deadly way). Several of the other Republicans on the committee — Rand Paul, Mike Enzi, and Kelly Ayotte — have also said many of the same things Johnson has. All of them have shown a disdain for the Postal Service as an institution. All of them have questioned the Postal Service role as a national infrastructure.

Never mind too that Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware and current chair of the committee, has endorsed virtually every cut, every closure, every act of outsourcing that PMG Donahoe has engaged in or even imagined. On postal matters, his views are not that far from Johnson’s.

It could be the end

While Ron Johnson will probably just carry on like Carper, Coburn, and the other Republicans on the committee overseeing the Postal Service, the specter of Senator Johnson as chair is haunting progressives.

The sky is falling atThink Progress, where Kira Lerner tells us that with Johnson “it could be the end of the Postal Service as we know it.” Lerner therefore hopes that Congress passes legislation — any legislation at all, bad as it might be — before Johnson can pass something worse.

How likely is any legislation coming out of a lame duck session will be good? Anything likely to come out of the Senate would carve in stone the current agenda of cuts to the workforce, reductions in service, and secret NSA agreements. Plus, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go to conference with whatever Darrell Issa comes up with in the House. The result will be further degradation of the postal network. There is little chance it will make those who care about postal services in this country very happy.

Over at Daily Kos, Laura Clawson seems just as frightened of Johnson as is Lerner. Faced with Johnson’s statement that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process, Clawson says, “Another solution is for Congress to get out of the way of the Postal Service making money providing needed services like banking for tens of millions of people who don’t have access to financial institutions.”

Postal banking might be useful for the millions of unbanked citizens, but it is worth giving this notion of “getting Congress out of the way” a bit more thought. The idea seems to be almost everyone’s answer for what ails the Postal Service. Blaming Congress is apparently something folks everywhere on the political spectrum can agree on.

That should come as no surprise, considering that Congress has become less popular than a shady used car salesman. But would all be right with the Postal Service if Congress just got out of the way?

The answer to that depends a lot on what you want the Postal Service to do with its newfound freedom.

Getting Congress out of the way

For many people, “getting Congress out of the way” means that the Postal Service should be free to compete. It should be allowed to deliver wine and beer, it should be allowed to get into the banking business, and it should be allowed to expand its products and services in many other ways now prevented by law. Even Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the most enlightened members of Congress, likes to say that the Postal Services needs to be free to compete so that it can increase revenues and sustain itself.

That all sounds fine — unless you’re one of the companies that has to compete with the Postal Service. In fact, one of the reasons that legislation has been stalled for the past four years is there are many interests who don’t want to free the Postal Service to compete. The mailers want cheap rates, the package industry wants a cheap way to fill the last-mile, ideologues on the Right want to kill labor, legislators with rural constituencies want to protect the infrastructure and services that benefit their communities. Everybody wants something, but no one really wants competition.

Other advocates of “getting Congress out of the way” have something else in mind. They’re thinking about how Congress had made it difficult to close post offices, interfered with ending Saturday delivery, and tried to stop the closure of most mail processing plants and ending overnight delivery.

For these folks — like the large mailers who think downsizing will keep their rates down — getting Congress out of the way means giving the leaders of the Postal Service more freedom to do exactly what they have been doing for the past several years — closing plants, reducing service, and all the dismantling we’ve witnessed.

Still another view of “getting Congress out of the way” involves ending the prefunding mandate, i.e., the law passed by Congress in 2006 (the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act) that unnecessarily requires the Postal Service to prefund its retiree health benefit fund (RHBF) to the tune of $5.5 billion a year. According to this view, the main problem facing the Postal Service is that it is running so deep in the red — a problem caused almost entirely by the RHBF payments.

But prefunding is not really the problem. It is just an excuse. The Board of Governors and the senior leadership in L’Enfant Plaza have been using the crisis created by the RHBF payments — along with the drop in volume associated with the Great Recession — as an excuse to advance an agenda they have long held dear. It is an agenda that goes back way, long before prefunding became an issue.

Transforming the Postal Service

The corporate elite has sought a more corporatized Postal Service, free of regulation and oversight, at least since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, if not before. Postal management has consistently helped achieve that goal. Since 2003 when former PMG Jack Potter offered his Transformation Plan, the goal of the Postal Service has been to do exactly what Mr. Donahoe has done over the last five years.

The management of the Postal Service does not want the agency under its stewardship to function as an institution that serves the needs of millions of average Americans. It wants to be a corporate player. So when the leaders of the Postal Service talk about getting Congress out of the way, they’re saying they don’t want government oversight and regulation to interfere with allowing them to turn the Postal Service into a corporation — more specifically, a delivery company.

To that end, then, postal leadership has been very clear about wanting to jettison the retail network, especially thousands of small post offices that do not make significant profits but that have been essential to rural communities across this country. Donahoe, his predecessors, his enablers on the BOG, and politicians of both parties have sought to reduce employment, undermine labor agreements, degrade the mail-processing network, as part of this move toward a corporate model. They continue to sign secret agreements with companies like Amazon, Staples, UPS, and FedEx while reducing service standards for the American public. They have abandoned any pretense of “binding the nation together.”

Yes, the 2006 PAEA put what seemed to be a big impediment in the way of postal progress in the form of the RHBF prefunding payments. But a closer look at the law reveals all sorts of ways in which Congress “got out of the way” — with some very problematic results.

PAEA divided products into two categories, which has led to the Postal Service’s practice of moving products from the more regulated market-dominant category into the competitive category, which is less regulated and often shrouded in secrecy. PAEA has fostered more Negotiated Service Agreements, which has resulted in the likelihood of more, not less, monopoly in the package delivery market. The rate cap regime set up by PAEA may have looked like a grand advance supposedly creating a predictable rate system; but, it further endorsed the idea the Postal Service exists for the benefit of stakeholders, primarily a narrow sector of the mailing industry, and not as an infrastructure designed to benefit the American economy and the American people as a whole.

The public good

The problem is that government — and the Postal Service is a legitimate function of government — does not exist to compete. Government exists to facilitate commerce, communication, transportation, and all the rest. One of its main functions is to build infrastructures that promote the general well being of both the economy and the civic space. The postal network is one of the government’s great infrastructures. It is not supposed to be a competitive player in the marketplace.

We do not expect highway systems to compete. We do not expect water and sewer systems to compete. We expect these infrastructures to function well and to extend access and service broadly.

The postal network, even as technologies change, serves as a fundamental infrastructure for both information and goods. The Founding Fathers saw the value in that sort of infrastructure, and that view is no less valid today. The network that we have created can and should adapt, but it remains essential.

We have lost our appreciation for public goods and the public square. All around us we see the basic fundamental structures of our society being captured by private, rent-seeking interests. We are told that our schools and universities would be better if they competed — in other words, if we introduced the profit motive. The same thing goes for our prisons and law enforcement. Everything will supposedly work better if private enterprise takes over.

This kind of thinking reduces everything in life to a single paradigm of profit and loss. It co-opts and perverts words like “effective” and “efficient,” reducing their meanings to a very narrow slice of human experience.

But different elements of society have different goals, different ways of measuring success, efficiency, and effectiveness. Trying to stuff everything into a model of competition simply doesn’t work. Businesses should pursue profits, schools should educate, infrastructures should facilitate.

The postal network has been built over generations to serve the American people. It has done that job well by connecting every corner of America, by maintaining the most affordable rates in the world, and by adapting to changing technologies. It has done this while providing a sense of identity to thousands of communities and meaningful employment to hundreds of thousands workers.

Yet in spite of all the Postal Service has accomplished, its leaders remain committed to turning the Postal Service from useful infrastructure into nothing more than a delivery company.

Doing the work of the people

The Postal Service does not need to be set loose, and it does not need to be freed from Congressional control. Giving the leaders of the Postal Service a free hand is not going to help matters. They will continue doing exactly what they have been doing.

Instead, the Postal Service needs to be properly managed, properly maintained, and properly directed towards fulfilling its role as a basic national infrastructure, owned by all Americans.

The problem is not that Congress needs to get out of the way but that Congress needs to do its job.

Congress needs to ensure that the Postal Service operates under a robust universal service mandate that is clearly defined. It needs to ensure that the management structure of the Postal Service works for the American people, not its own agenda. It needs to find appropriate means to maintain our existing postal infrastructure while adapting it to 21st century needs and technologies. Congress needs to do its job and properly tend to and care for public goods and national assets.

The new Congress probably isn’t going to do any of those things, but passing bad legislation in a lame-duck session or giving the management of the Postal Service more freedom to degrade the institution is not going to solve anything.

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It’s not as bad as they say, then again, maybe it’s worse. Monitoring the Mail.

Guest Post by Mark Jamison, retired Postmaster Webster, N.C.

It’s been said that “life imitates art” but the idea of government spying on its citizens didn’t originate with George Orwell and his version of “Big Brother”. The United States has a long history of spying on its citizens. The revelations of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, offered chilling details of the activities of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies, including revelations that agencies had opened and photographed more than 215,000 pieces of mail.

The legacy of the 1975 Church Committee was the introduction of FISA Courts and other safeguards that were supposed to protect the privacy of American citizens. Unfortunately the national security state arising after 9/11 and the unconnected anthrax attacks have tested the effectiveness of those protections calling into question the reach of intelligence agencies like the NSA.

Recent news reports claim the Postal Service has also been involved in spying on U.S. citizens. A July 2013 report in the NYT that was ostensibly about the mail cover program also reported that “Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States – about 160 billion pieces last year”. That report was picked up and repeated by several news organizations and sites on the internet.

In May of this year the OIG of the Postal Service released an audit on mail covers, a manual program collecting address information from mail going to particular addresses. Several media outlets reported on the audit. Many of those reports recycled the claim that all mail is photographed.

The Mail Cover program has been around for years. Run by the Postal Inspection Service, the program manually tracks mail to an address. The audit shows that 50,000 covers were instituted last year. The vast majority, about 85%, are initiated by the Postal Inspection Service which runs investigations on mail fraud, the distribution of child pornography, and the use of the mails to deliver illicit drugs. About 6,000 mail covers were initiated by State and Federal agencies. The report was redacted so we don’t know how many of those covers were initiated by intelligence agencies like the NSA.

The claim the Postal Service photographs the exterior of every paper mailpiece really needs some clarification. As automation of mail processing increased one of the techniques used to increase the amount of mail subject to automation involved photographing mailpieces that were not OCR readable and sending the images to stations where humans tried to read the address, thereby allowing a barcode to be applied to the mailpiece. After the 2001 anthrax attacks, a program known as Mail Isolation Control and Tracking was put in place. This program allowed for additional photo capture of exterior address information.

So is it accurate to say that all mail is being photographed? More important, is the information stored in a way that can be searched, manipulated, and retrieved?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” The Postmaster General offered some explanations of the systems; but rather than take the company line, I contacted several ETs. These are the technicians maintaining the automation machinery. They all gave me pretty much the same answer and it fits in with my personal experience in the Postal Service. This is the answer I got from a former ET that pretty much covers it:

As an ex ET who worked on and was trained on every piece of mail processing equipment we have, I can tell you the stories were . . . partially correct. But the spirit of the stories was wrong. The articles I read regarding the picture taking of mail seemed to try to lead the public on some conspiracy theorizing about big brother spying. It isn’t like that. We do take a picture of both sides of every piece of letter mail and flat mail that runs on a AFCS (Advanced Facer Canceller System) for letters or the AFSM-100 (Automated Flat Sorting Machine) for flat mail. These are advanced processing platforms. The photos we take are for processing and sortation purposes. The images are only used for processing. There is no way to process the images for any unsavory purpose. The images are discarded after use. Once an image is used to identify an 11 digit barcode data from the national directory subsystem (NDSS) the image is trashed. We do store the address barcode and ID tag data for 30 days for possible troubleshooting purposes in tracking and service; but after doing so, the barcode and ID data are trashed. The sheer size of a system required if we kept images permanently would be mammoth. And why would we want to do so? It makes no sense. Anyway I’m wondering why they did not get an experts advice before they promulgated a misleading story. 

A couple of additional points are in order here. First, not all mail goes through the AFCS systems, some mail goes directly to the machines doing the final sorts. It is likely that mail that might be of interest to someone spying on you, hand addressed items and items of a personal nature – not advertising mail or bills, would go through the systems that do the photo-imaging. It also needs to be pointed out that while the Postal Service does not seem to have the capability to manipulate this data, the NSA certainly could have the ability to manipulate the raw data.

So should we be concerned that the Postal Service is being used to spy on us? My answer to that is a qualified maybe with an additional, more serious concern that we will get to in a minute. First, based on the existing reports the concern should really be about the mail covers program and how that is being used. The OIG audit is critical of the way the Postal Service responds to mail covers, a problem that actually affects law enforcement’s ability to use the program effectively.

The NYT story linked to above is about a man who found a marker that showed he was the target of a mail cover. I imagine that can be kind of scary, finding out some agency wants to know who is mailing you stuff. Mail covers are handled through the Postal Inspection Service and do not necessarily require warrants; although, a warrant is required for law enforcement to open first class mail. At the very least Congress should review the mail cover program and ensure that it is properly monitored and that it is appropriately transparent.

As for the problems raised by electronic monitoring of the mail, the photographic system alluded to in the articles, seems very much ado about very little, particularly in light of a much more problematic program the Postal Service is rolling out, Intelligent Mail, or IMb.

IMb is an expanded and enriched barcode system that is becoming the compulsory standard for business mailers and will eventually become ubiquitous. The system is designed to provide end to end visibility, allowing a letter to be tracked from when it enters the system to when it goes out for delivery. I have a friend in San Francisco with an IMb account. When he mails me a letter he can track when it is picked up and every plant it is processed through right up to the point to where it is sorted to my mail carrier.

All that sounds wonderful but if you are scared about Big Brother scenarios, consider the fact that IMb mail contains the address information, we worry about being photographed, in a format that can be stored for extended periods of 45 days or longer, and manipulated. When fully operational, IMb will offer the potential to identify every piece of mail coming from and going to an address in a format useful to many entities.

I don’t like the idea of the government being able to identify every piece of mail coming from my return address or every letter coming to me. I am also not sure I want Amazon, Google, Facebook, or anyone else commercial or otherwise having the information either. There have been several articles regarding Postal Service initiatives on data mining (e.g., here , here, here) and its changing relationships with advertisers; none of which give comfort to anyone concerned about the way corporations collect and use personal information. Mailers ought to have concerns about the potential for abuse embodied in IMb, conceivably IMb information could be used to reconstruct mailing lists, possibly handing proprietary information to competitors.

We live in an era of Big Data. There is tremendous potential in Big Data but with it comes the loss of privacy, anonymity, and perhaps even individual identity. Big Brother, whether in the form of government or large corporations, has serious implications for society; the role of the Postal Service is an important piece of the puzzle.

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By Default or Design: The Demise of the Postal Service

Guest Post by Mark Jamison, retired Postmaster Webster, N.C.

This post originally appeared on Save The Post Office Blog. This is Part 2 of three posts and following Invisible Hands: The Businessman’s Campaign to Dismantle the Post Office.

Default.  It’s an ugly and dangerous word.  It gives the impression that the individual or enterprise attached to it has utterly failed.  It implies defeat and irresponsibility.  

The news media use the word with relish.  Like a car crash, a hurricane, or a murder, it sells newspapers.  Combined with the word “bailout,” it’s also a surefire way to advance a particular political agenda.

On August 1, 2012, the United States Postal Service did not make a payment of $5.5 billion to the United States Treasury.  On September 1st the United States Postal Service will fail to make a second payment to the Treasury of $5.6 billion.  The Postal Service, blare the headlines, is thus guilty of an “historic default.”  But it’s all hot air.  The Postal Service is simply not making payments it should never have been required to make in the first place.

Whose fault is the default?

The two payments behind all the headlines were prescribed by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA).  The payments were ostensibly designed to pre-fund the health benefits of future retirees from the Postal Service; but, they were actually nothing more than an accounting place holder used by Congress to mask federal budget deficits and to satisfy an arcane accounting system that exists primarily to deceive and dissemble. 

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In 2002, an examination of the postal pension liabilities revealed that the Postal Service was actually overpaying into one of its pension fund by tens of billions of dollars.  But lowering the payments would have added to the federal deficit, so Congress had the Postal Service put the money it was saving from reduced pension payments into an escrow account.

A few years later, when PAEA was being crafted, Congress created a retiree health care fund, and shifted the money from the escrow account to the new fund.  It also mandated that the Postal Service pay off the balance of its retiree health care liability in ten years.  A forty-year payment schedule would have been totally adequate, since the fund was intended to cover retirees for the next seventy-five years, but the payments would have been too small to balance out what the federal government was losing with the reduced pension payments.

The retiree health care fund now has in excess of $44 billion.  As it grows with interest, the fund will have more than enough to cover the costs of retiree health care for decades to come.  The fund, it’s important to note, is not being used for current retirees.  As with most businesses, that expense is paid for out of current revenues, on a pay-as-you-go basis.   The $5 billion payments to the fund were excessive to begin with.  They are now totally unnecessary.

Yet in spite of all this, the word DEFAULT issues from the lips of Congressmen as a foul epithet.  It reverberates through the media as an example of the failure and profligacy of government.  It is worn as a talisman of triumph by those who insist that government cannot, will not, and must not succeed in a utopian world of free unfettered markets.

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The Postal Service has over $320 billion dollars in its pension and health care plans.  These plans are widely recognized to be significantly overfunded.  Claiming that the Postal Service has failed to meet an obligation and has therefore defaulted is a little like saying that a man who fails to add a monthly payment to his multi-million dollar 401K ought to file for bankruptcy. 

Claiming that the Postal Service has defaulted is merely an excuse to further the notion that the Postal Service is an anachronistic dinosaur that ought to be broken up or privatized.  It’s also a means for Congress to avoid and evade its responsibilities to govern effectively.

The reality of the situation is that several groups and forces have combined, through ignorance and cupidity, to dismantle a significant piece of our national infrastructure and to eliminate 500,000 good, solid middle-class jobs. The truth, at this point, is that the fate of the Postal Service is the result of a bad dream, a dream that has us on a runaway train heading for a cliff.  Solving the problem is less a matter of saving the train than simply waking up.

It was a very bad year

I’ve written many times over the past year, on “Save the Post Office”, other websites, and filings with the Postal Regulatory Commission, about the value of the postal infrastructure, the mismanagement of the Postal Service, and steps that could be taken to put things on the right track.

Last August, in post entitled “The Perfect Storm: How everything is coming together to take the Postal Service apart,” I suggested that Patrick Donahoe may go down in history as the last Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service and that he would almost certainly be considered the worst PMG of all time because of his substantial efforts to dismantle and decapitate a cherished national institution.

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In “How to Save the Postal Service Before It’s Too Late,” I offered a series of modest, reasonable, and realistic proposals designed to both calm the growing mentality of crisis surrounding the Postal Service and to begin updating the business model of the Postal Service so it could build on its significant assets and retain its relevance into the 21st Century.

Over the past twelve months, the situation has only gotten worse.  It’s been an endless stream of overwrought claims of impending disaster.  The fire has been stoked by the media, which look for conflict and controversy rather than reason and fact.  The crisis mentality has been furthered by a Congress that seems of incapable of discerning the public interest, let along legislating and governing in a responsible manner.  The situation has been exploited by ideologues, who have used it to advance their agenda of privatization, and by many stakeholders in the mailing industry, who have licked their lips over the prospect of a postal system operated for their benefit alone.

There is a great deal of blame to go around — virtually everyone involved in this theater of the absurd has failed in some manner — yet the simple fact of the matter is that we stand today in a situation that can be easily and reasonably resolved to the benefit of the American people.  A great and useful institution has been damaged and demeaned.  Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, while ill-considered and even idiotic plans have been advanced.  But the damage is all self-inflicted.  Despite the weighted words of “default” and “bailout,” the postal crisis — at least the one grabbing all the headlines — is essentially fictitious and fraudulent.

An infrastructure that builds infrastructure

The Postal Service has been and continues to be an essential infrastructure.  It furthers our democratic ideals and our commercial opportunities.  The postal network — the thousands of facilities and plants, the millions of miles of routes, the machinery and data processing capacity that supports everything, and the human capital that drive the network — the mailhandlers, clerks, carriers, and postmasters — is a useful and important piece of our national infrastructure.

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Yes, electronic communication, the Internet, cell phones, and all the other modern means of moving information have challenged the postal system.  But the postal network has adapted to technological change before and remained not only relevant but an important driver in the utility and productivity of new technologies.

Those who think that the postal network is no longer valuable should read the recent report from the USPS OIG, Postal Service Contributions to National Infrastructure.  As the report makes clear, the postal infrastructure has enabled the country to grow, businesses to prosper, and new technologies to evolve.  Even in today’s advanced electronic environment, there is still considerable value and benefit in being able to deliver to every house and business, six days a week. There is still considerable value in having a positive and useful government presence in small towns and communities in every corner of the nation.  There is still considerable value in having a means to distribute the printed word across a neutral and trusted network, as well as a system for handling voting by mail.

In addition to the value of the infrastructure and the ongoing opportunity it offers for business and commercial development, one cannot easily discount the social value of the network.  The Postal Service has offered meaningful and worthwhile employment to millions of Americans, and it has lifted many families into the middle class.  We hear all about how postal workers are paid too much and receive benefits that are too generous, and how this is an unfair burden to taxpayers.  But postal workers do not receive a dime of taxpayer money.  Their salaries and benefits have been fully paid for by reasonable and sustainable postal rates that are among the cheapest in the world.

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The postal network has bound the nation together by making the commerce and goods produced in one part of the country available throughout the country.  Thanks to the postal system, a person in a remote region of rural America can shop for the same products as a person in a busy metropolitan area.  Certainly television and the Internet now offer windows into other worlds, bringing the world to our living rooms and now even our phones, but as broadening as those connections are, they lack the unique capacities offered by the physical connections embodied in the postal network.

We have built a tremendous asset in the postal network, yet most of our leaders — our elected representatives in Congress and the executive officers of the Postal Service — seem willing to simply disassemble that asset and consign it to irrelevance or worse.  This cavalier treatment of an asset owned by the American people borders on the criminal.  What is worse, the reasons they offer for what they’re doing are as thin as the paper we claim to no longer need.

The postal network offers unlimited potential.  It could be used to assist local and state governments in their missions.  It could be used to assist federal agencies, the way it helps with the census and elections. The use of the postal network could save millions if not billions of dollars in taxpayer money if we allowed it to be used effectively and efficiently by other governmental bodies.  The network also offers huge potential in data and resource collections through mobile sensors on postal vehicles.  Its vehicle fleet could be used as a proving ground for new technologies.  Its facilities could be early locations for charging stations.

The only thing that stands in the way of a more productive use of this national asset is our lack of imagination, our parochialism, and our ideological inflexibility.  The promise of binding the nation together is an open and ongoing one, providing we are prepared to acknowledge the potential of the postal network.

Instead, that potential is being lost.  Instead of dedicating ourselves to finding value in our national infrastructure, we have donned blinders of self-absorption that limit our vision to only those things that offer immediate return.  The financial crisis was driven by this narrowed vision of immediate gain, and our failure to find a robust recovery is rooted in the same blindness.

Taking the service out of the Postal Service

Once the Kappel Commission of 1968 laid the foundation for the new Postal Service, the agency’s leadership has been fixated on the idea that it must become something other than what the Founding Fathers created it to be.  Rather than performing the essential and necessary work of binding the nation together, the leadership of the Postal Service has been seduced by the idea of privatization. They may not always call it that, but the fact is that when your goal is to jettison every characteristic that makes the postal system a service infrastructure in favor being “more businesslike,” then ultimately the goal is privatization.

invisible hand

Patrick Donahoe and the current Board of Governors represent the culmination of forty years of dishonest thinking.  Their plans spell the destruction of a public postal network.  They would turn the country’s postal system into a private logistics company. The healthcare prepayments mandated under PAEA and much else that Congress has done are part of what’s behind the current crisis, but Mr. Donahoe and the BOG are also part of the problem.  Their actions have served to undermine the stability of a national institution, and thanks to them, there are 400,000 fewer good paying jobs than there were five years ago.  They say the cuts have been made necessary by declining mail volumes, but Mr. Donahoe and the BOG seem congenitally unable to tell the truth about the state of postal affairs.

One need only look at the Postal Service’s offerings in the Nature of Service Cases before the Postal Regulatory Commission.  In the five-day case, the Postal Service sought to cut 17% of service for about a 3% savings.  In the network rationalization case, they withheld research that showed huge revenue losses as a result of the proposed changes in service standards.  In PostPlan, they propose to reduce service to 13,000 communities for virtually no cost savings. Worse, the plan is little more than a political sop to disguise office closings.

The sum total of their plans has been nothing short of massive reductions in service with the goal of abdicating their responsibilities to provide universal service.  The plans are poorly conceived and poorly presented.  More often than not, they have been revised on the fly, as expedience and publicity requires.  That’s because the plans lack any fundamental basis in preserving our postal system.

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The BOG and Mr. Donahoe have not acted as managers entrusted with a national asset. They have acted more like vulture capitalists stripping the organization of its assets so that what’s left can be sold to the highest bidder.

If the Postal Service stands in dire straits today, it’s because those charged with running the service have done everything in their power to gin up a crisis.  Each month, Mr. Donahoe and his senior managers offer up another prediction of doom.  We’re told there’s a cash flow crisis, but somehow there are billions of dollars available to spend on unproven and still unproductive systems like the FSS machines.  We’re told that volumes are falling precipitously due to the Internet, but instead of showing all the ways it’s adapting to the new environment, the leaders of the Postal Service make ever more hyperbolic predictions of doom.  What prudent business that uses the Postal Service wouldn’t be making alternative plans right now?

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The management culture of the Postal Service is rotten and bankrupt.  For years we have heard reports of managerial bullying.  Just the other day, an arbitrator took the unprecedented step of requiring a District Manager to apologize for the ongoing atmosphere of bullying in offices in the Los Angeles area.  Many have heard the story of Jerry Lane, the former Cap-Metro Area Vice-President who left the Postal Service after assaulting an employee.  How does someone like that reach such a senior position anyway? The behavior that resulted in his “separation” was neither unique to him or others in the organization.

Whether it’s fudging numbers to make a plan more palatable or looking the other way at abusive managers, the senior management of the Postal Service has lost the capacity to be self-critical.  The problems of the Postal Service can be attributed, at least in part, to a management culture and a senior management that have become hopelessly dysfunctional.  No solution to the postal crisis that does not include a restructuring of the senior management and a thorough housecleaning at L’Enfant Plaza will be effective.

Where’s a Congress when you need one?

While senior postal management bears the lion’s share of the blame for our current circumstances, Congress owns the problem.  As the day of the faux default approached, we saw senators screaming that their colleagues in the House were letting the American public down by not acting on a bill to resolve the situation.  But in doing so, they unnecessarily amped up the already overheated rhetoric with misleading talk of “$25 million a day” losses and the impending default.

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The leadership in the House has run from its responsibilities.  Darryl Issa, chairman of the committee with oversight responsibility for the Postal Service, has offered prescriptions that would immediately destroy the Postal Service.  At least Mr. Issa is ideologically consistent.  He stands for a view of America and the American economy that leaves most of our citizens behind and actively denigrates government.  His offerings on postal matters reflect that.  It’s no wonder that his colleagues do not support his bill. It’s easy to argue that Mr. Issa may be the biggest beneficiary of the current situation. When words like “default” and “bailout” start getting thrown around, his radical solutions don’t seem so radical.

The problem is that if the House were to act tomorrow on the bill already passed by the Senate, we would simply be taking bad legislation and making it worse.  Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware, plays the point man in postal legislation.  His prescriptions are, for the most part, endorsements of the course Mr. Donahoe and the BOG have set.  They dismantle the institution and the postal network and harm hundreds of thousands of postal employees and thousands of American communities.  Mr. Carper’s proposals seem designed to satisfy the direct mailers, which is no surprise since they are major contributors to Mr. Carper’s campaigns.

Whatever his motivations or reasons, Mr. Carper has increasingly portrayed himself as the savior of the Postal Service.  It is a role similar to the one Mrs. Collins of Maine played during the debate on PAEA, and the results are likely to be the same.

invisible hand

Many news outlets have opined that Congress ought to get out of the way and let postal management and the BOG run the Postal Service, the more businesslike the better.  Others have simply said the Postal Service is irrelevant and should be privatized.  My response to both of those views is that no government is not good government and it certainly isn’t better government.

While Congress has clearly failed to function as a thoughtful body in governing the Postal Service, that’s not reason for removing the postal system from Congressional control.  We, as citizens, ought to demand that Congress fulfill its role in overseeing the Postal Service in a professional and effective manner.  Those who think no government is a good idea or that the Founders had no faith in government are delusional.  Without a strong government based on democratic principles, the end result will be either anarchy or plutocracy.

The default of leadership

The issue is not large or small government.  The fact is that many of those who argue for small government actually support the expansion of government, so long as that government favors their interests.  The largest expansion of government in our history has occurred under two Republican presidents.  

The issue ought to be effective government.  Clearly those who designed our political system understood the need for infrastructure.  They understood the need for and value of postal services.

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One of the greatest challenges our country faces today is rebuilding our infrastructure. We have done best economically when we focused on investing in foundational infrastructure.  Good infrastructure expands economic opportunity and allows more people to participate more fully in the economy.  Growth built on broad economic participation is growth that is both sustainable and growth that is broadly beneficial.  The postal network has played a major role in providing that kind of growth, and it can continue to do that.

The Postal Service does not have a fiscal crisis.  There are billions of excess contributions in retirement accounts.  Those accounts, including the ones designed to fund retiree benefits, are well funded. The crisis facing the Postal Service is one of management and governance.

The management of the Postal Service has no credibility. It has offered plans that do not protect or utilize a great American asset.  Instead, their plans transfer the assets and revenues of the Postal Service into the hands of a small segment of the mailing industry and serve to dismantle the postal network, a useful and essential infrastructure.

The Congress of the United States has abdicated its responsibility with respect to postal matters. It is not simply about the failure of the House of Representatives to act on a bill.  It goes much deeper than that.  When the legislature of the United States is no longer able to see the value in an infrastructure that sustains not only our commerce but our democratic values, when they are willing to sacrifice services that thousands of American communities rely on, when they are willing to undermine the useful, effective, and economically efficient employment of nearly half a million Americans, when our legislators are willing to do these things casually and cavalierly, then they have failed the country, miserably.

There is no Postal Service default. The Postmaster General and the Congress of the United States have defaulted on their responsibilities to the American public.  Shame.

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Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Campaign to Dismantle the Post Office

Guest Post by Steve Hutkins a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University.

This is Part 1 in a series of 3 articles as written by Steve Hutkins in 2012. These articles originally appeared on the “Save The Post Office Blog”. Steve lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley. He has no affiliation with the U.S. Postal Service—he doesn’t work for it, nor does anyone in his family. Like millions of Americans, he just likes his local post office, and he doesn’t want to see post offices being closed.

invisible hand The leaders of the Postal Service have made no secret of their plans for reforming the postal system. They have issued white papers, given speeches, presented “optimization” programs, and appeared before Congressional committees. The plans are clear: eliminate the layoff protections in union contracts; cut the career workforce by nearly half while tripling the number of non-career workers; reduce service standards for first-class mail; do away with Saturday delivery; give management control of workers’ benefit plans; consolidate over 250 processing plants; and close 15,000 post offices.

What we don’t see very often are the players making this all happen. We assume the Postmaster General is making the decisions, but he is merely the front man. Behind him are the USPS Board of Governors, the mail industry stakeholders, and the corporate class as a whole. These businessmen (and women) prefer to keep a low profile, so we rarely hear from them in public. They leave it their surrogates — journalists and academics, politicians and pundits — to speak for them. But it’s the businessmen who fund the think tanks, endow universities, make campaign contributions, pay lobbyists, and run the news media. Yet for the most part, they are not to be seen.

In her excellent book Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, historian Kim Phillips-Fein paints a very revealing picture of how the corporate class operates. Her theme is the way conservative businessmen worked behind the scenes to undo the New Deal. Believing all would be right if government stayed out of the economy and left everything, in Adam’s Smith famous expression, to the “invisible hand” of the market, these businessmen have spent decades working to weaken unions, eliminate social welfare programs, minimize government regulation of their companies, and diminish public services.

attack While the U.S. Postal Service is obviously not a product of the New Deal, that same conservative agenda is behind the attack on the Postal Service we’re witnessing today. Cutting the workforce, closing post offices and plants, and moving toward privatization through outsourcing and divestiture of assets — these are all part of an effort to shape the postal system in ways that serve the interests of an elite business class rather than the good of the country as a whole. The free-market ideology and greed for profits that drove efforts to undo the New Deal are basically what’s driving the “postal reform” movement today.

Power in numbers: The stakeholder associations

As Phillips-Fein explains, one of the most common methods for the businessmen to advocate for their agenda was to bond together. Recognizing the power in numbers, they formed associations like the American Liberty League (organized by the du Ponts) and the Foundation for Economic Education (founded with help from B. F. Goodrich), as well as giving new energy to existing organizations, like the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry trade groups.

In the same way, the mail industry stakeholders — the big direct marketing firms, the pre-sort companies, the periodical publishers, and so on — have formed their own organizations to advocate for their interests.

One of the most important of these groups is one operated by the Postal Service itself. The Postmaster General’s Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) consists of mailer associations and other organizations related to the mailing industry. Its goal is “to assist the USPS in determining the best course of action to improve service and postal operating efficiency.” The MTAC has a page on the USPS website (it’s part of the National Customer Support Center), and its meeting minutes are published there, albeit in a rather cursory form. But much about the MTAC is cloaked in secrecy.

The MTAC charter says, “A current list of member associations/organizations and corresponding representatives will be published at least quarterly.” Apparently there are 58 member organizations, but good luck trying to find a list of the MTAC members on the Internet. A few years ago, when the APWU asked to join the MTAC, it was denied membership and it took a lawsuit and a year and a half before the MTAC finally relented. A few months ago, word came out that attendance at its meetings would be restricted.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is, according to its website, “the leading global trade association of businesses and nonprofit organizations using and supporting multichannel direct marketing tools and techniques.” It’s an international organization representing dozens of industries in almost 50 countries, including nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies. If you want to know who’s in the DMA you will find that the membership directory is off limits — you have to be a member to see the member list.

Floor The National Association of Presort Mailers (NAPM) is, according to its website, “a trade association composed of firms concerned with the present and future of postal work sharing.” Its primary purpose is to represent the interest of presort mailers and to develop work share programs with USPS “to produce cost saving and service benefits to presort mailers and the USPS.” As with the DMA, if you’d like to see the membership list, you’ll need to become a member.

There are many other industry associations that are influencing the policies of the Postal Service, such as the National Alliance of Standard Mailers (NASM); DFW Mailers Association; Alliance of Non-profit mailers; Association of Priority Mail Users (APMU); Mail Systems Management Association (MSMA); Mail Order Association of America (MOAA); Parcel Shippers Association (PSA); National Newspaper Association (NNA); and Magazine Publishers of America (MPA).

The corporate stakeholders represented by these organizations are not monolithic in their views, and there’s a considerable degree of diversity and even conflict. The periodicals industry, for example, is usually more concerned about the timely delivery of their publications than the direct marketers are. And one wouldn’t want to lump the junk mail business together with newspapers and news magazines — delivering the news is one of the most important functions of the mail system.

But most big mailers are primarily interested in keeping postal rates as low as possible. They have generally supported the cost-cutting measures proposed by the Postal Service because they believe the cuts will keep rates down and their profits up. Back in August, for example, the DMA “applauded” the proposed cuts, and in the RAOI Advisory Opinion process, the direct marketing giant Val-Pak made a forceful argument for closing post offices because they lose money and consequently drive up postage rates.

Most of these stakeholders don’t care about post offices because big mailers present their mail at Bulk Mail Entry Units, and Saturday delivery is not a major concern either because ad mail would do fine with even three-day delivery (which the Postmaster General says is coming within fifteen years). The industry doesn’t care about having a blue collection box on every corner — over the past twenty years, half of them have disappeared, even as the FedEx boxes have become ubiquitous — and they don’t care how often the mail is picked up at those boxes. Their interests, in other words, are not those of the average citizen and small business. But they are one of the strongest forces shaping the future of the Postal Service.

Think tanks do the talking

One of the main themes of Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands is that the anti-New-Deal businessmen wanted to keep their activities hidden from the general public. Otherwise, it might look like their attack on unions and public services had selfish motives. They also wanted to give their views intellectual respectability. So they founded and funded think tanks and enlisted journalists and academics to write articles and produce studies extolling the virtues of the free market.

In 1943, Lewis H. Brown, president of the Johns-Manville manufacturing company, got several of his allies in the business community together and formed the American Enterprise Association to provide congressmen with legislative analyses that would promote private enterprise. Most of the money came from major corporations like GM, Ford, Con Edison, and du Pont, and the AEA ended up being investigated by Congress, which questioned how it could provide disinterested research with such sponsors.

The AEA eventually morphed into the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the country’s leading right-wing think tanks. The AEI now publishes works like Saving the Mail: How to Solve the Problems of the U.S. Postal Service by R. Richard Geddes. Geddes advocates privatizing the Postal Service, and he shows up frequently in news articles about the plight of the Postal Service. The AEI is responsible for many other publications about the desirability of moving the Postal Service toward a more corporate model, such as this one by AEI senior fellow Kevin Hassett, encouraging the Tea Party to push for postal privatization as a means of fighting big government.

Another of the country’s well-known right-wing think tanks is the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by conservative businessman Joseph Coors of brewery fame, with the help of contributions from Dow Chemical, GM, Mobile, Pfizer, Sears Roebuck, and Chase Manhattan bank. More recently, the Heritage Foundation has received generous support from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the billionaires Koch brothers. (Harry Bradley and the Koch brothers’ father were charter members of the John Birch Society.) The Foundation has a long history of advocating privatization of government agencies, including the Postal Service. Check out its 1986 primer on privatizing federal services, and this long list of articles on its website.

Koch The Cato Institute, the nation’s first libertarian think tank, was launched by the Koch brothers, who continue to fund it generously. According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1986 and 1993 the Koch family gave $11 million to the institute. The Cato Institute holds conferences and publishes books and papers advocating the privatization of the Postal Service, such as Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service, The Last Monopoly: Privatizing the Postal Service for the Information Age, Free the Mail: Ending the Postal Monopoly, and Mail at the Millennium: Will the Postal Service Go Private?

The Koch brothers also founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, and one of its senior fellows was James C. Miller III, a well-known advocate of privatizing the Postal Service. Miller is a member of the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service.

Citizens for a Sound Economy eventually split into FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. According to the New York Times, FreedomWorks is “the Washington advocacy group that has done more than any other organization to build the Tea Party movement.” It received $12 million from Koch family foundations. Like the other Koch-funded organizations, it advocates privatization of the Postal Service.

How to break a union

In one of Invisible Hands’ most disturbing chapters, “How to Break a Union,” Phillips-Fein examines the war against unions in the 1950s, particularly the efforts of General Electric to destroy the electrical workers union. (In 1954, GM enlisted the help of a failed movie actor named Ronald Reagan to promote its agenda.) From the point of view of the conservative businessmen, organized labor posed a serious threat, not just in terms of how higher wages might impact their bottom line, but also in terms of power and prestige. They also worried that at election time union workers would be mobilized to press for better Social Security benefits, more government spending, and expanded public services. Unions embodied everything the conservative businessmen were against.

The animosity toward unions fuels much of what’s going on with the Postal Service today. The leadership of the Postal Service wants to get rid of the no-layoff clause in union contracts so that it can cut hundreds of thousands of jobs. In a USPS white paper released last summer, the Postal Service stated explicitly that it wanted to reduce the career workforce from 580,000 to 300,000, and since there was no way that could happen through “attrition,” postal management wants Congress to change the law preventing layoffs. The Postal Service also wants to increase the number of non-career employees from 38,000 to 125,000 — yet another way to undermine the unions.

The leaders of the Postal Service aren’t trying to reduce their labor costs just to deal with the postal deficit or to keep the big mailers happy. The corporate class as a whole does not like the good wages that unions make happen. Postal clerks average $25 an hour, while the sales associates and cashiers at Walmart average $8.50 an hour. Good wages at the post office help bring wages up across the economy, while poor wages at Walmart drive them down.

Since union contracts have made it difficult for the leaders of the Postal Service to reduce the size of the workforce as drastically and rapidly as it would like, they have used other tactics. Outsourcing, for example, is a great way to shift work from postal employees to non-union workers in private industry. The Postal Service now contracts out $12 billion annually.

Koch At the top of the list of corporations enjoying a profitable relationship with the Postal Service — with $1.37 billion of business in 2010 — is FedEx, whose founder and CEO, Fred Smith, testified before Congress “closing down the USPS . . . is an option that ought to be considered seriously.” FedEx has also campaigned against legislation making it easier for its workers to unionize.

Work-share arrangements with pre-sort companies are another way to give work to private companies that could be done by postal workers. The huge discounts that these companies are given are often far in excess of what the Postal Service saves by receiving mail pre-sorted, and they end up costing the Postal Service huge amounts of money. The postal unions have been fighting these discounts for a long time, but to little avail. They are a valuable tool for downsizing the Postal Service, and they help move things further down the path to privatization. (For more on presort companies, see the excellent thesis Understanding Postal Privatization by labor historian Sarah Ryan.)

Follow the money

One of the main tactics the anti-New Deal businessmen used to help keep themselves invisible was to support pro-business politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. These days, with PACs and other modes of funding and lobbying politicians totally out of control, there are very few politicians who are not being overly influenced by the corporate elite. In postal matters, the two most prominent of these politicians are Darrell Issa and Dennis Ross.

Issa is the Congressman for California’s 49th congressional district and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In 2011, his committee held hearings (videos here) and called as witnesses various individuals to testify that the Postal Service was heading toward catastrophe if radical reforms weren’t made. Issa’s Postal Reform Act would create an Authority empowered to restructure the postal system and a Commission that would recommend post office closures and consolidations to Congress. These measures would do essentially what the leaders of the Postal Service have been advocating, but the Act would put Issa and his allies in charge, effectively sidelining postal headquarters.

Koch Dennis A. Ross is the Congressman for Florida’s 12th congressional district and a member of the Tea Party Caucus. As chair of the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, he held several hearings last year on the Postal Service, during which his witnesses attacked the postal unions, argued that the Postal Service needs to reduce “excess capacity” (i.e., post offices and plants), and called for changes in the law that will make it easier to close post offices.

Eleven of the 23 Republican representatives on Issa’s committee received financial help from Koch Industries in the last election. Issa himself was the largest recipient, with $12,500 since 2008. Not that Issa really needs the money. His net worth is about $450 million, making him the richest man in Congress. Ross received $12,000 from the Koch brothers.

It’s not just the Koch brothers who are contributing to the postal legislators. Pitney Bowes is $5.6 billion-a-year business employing 33,000 workers around the world, selling mail equipment and providing marketing through mail. It’s based in Stamford, Connecticut, so no surprise that it has contributed generously to the campaign of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, which deals with postal legislation. In 2011, Pitney Bowes also contributed $10,000 to Darrell Issa and $10,000 to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, another key player in postal legislation. (If you’re interested in doing some detective work, Influence Explorer and Open Secrets are useful sites.)

Privatization, the Holy Grail

Phillips-Fein’s book culminates with the election of Ronald Reagan, who represented everything the conservative businessmen had worked for since the New Deal. Reagan made a stand against unions when he fired the striking air-traffic controllers, he made the tax code less progressive (remember Reaganomics?), he cut social programs like Medicaid and food stamps, and he slashed the budget of regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.

Reagan also created a presidential Commission on Privatization. Its 1988 report Privatization: Toward More Effective Government recommended that the private express statutes, which mandate the postal monopoly, be repealed to allow competition in the provision postal services. That recommendation has not yet come to fruition, but the Commission also recommended that the Postal Service more actively pursue contracting out. Fulfilling that recommendation was facilitated by changes to the USPS Procurement Manual (also in 1988), which made it easier for management to outsource without worrying about “full and open competition.” Outsourcing has become one of the most useful tools for privatizing the postal system without an act of Congress.

Koch Reagan, however, can’t get the credit for initiating the push toward postal privatization. That goes way back, at least until the 1960s, when a Democratic president, LBJ, charged the Kappel Commission to come up with ideas for reforming the Department of the Post Office. The Commission consisted almost exclusively of corporate executives, with retired AT&T Chairman Frederick R. Kappel as its chair. Its recommendations led to the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, which “corporatized” the Post Office into the U.S. Postal Service.

It was no secret that turning a cabinet-level department into a government corporation would be a big first step toward the ultimate goal, privatization. In testimony before Congress, Kappel testified, “If I could, I’d make [the Post Office] a private enterprise and I would create a private corporation to run the postal service and the country would be better off financially. But I can’t get from here to there.”

For the past four decades, getting from “here” to “there” has remained the Holy Grail for the conservative business elite. All the books and articles put out by the think tanks and their scholars, all the lobbying and campaign contributions, all the organizing and behind-the-scenes networking— the goal has remained constant. The free market ideologues will be satisfied with nothing less than the privatization of the postal system.

In the meantime, the mantra is the same: The Postal Service needs to act more “like a business.” If it can’t be turned into a private corporation, it should at least act like one. If a post office isn’t bringing in a profit (80 to 90 percent of them don’t, at least the way the Postal Service runs the numbers), then close it. If career employees can be replaced by part-time casuals or contract workers, replace them. If there’s “excess capacity” in the system, get rid of it. If there’s a way to undermine the unions, drive down wages, degrade benefits, do it.

As for average citizens, they just don’t seem to be very important to postal management. They are not big customers. The services they might like to see offered at the post office — like an Internet connection or low-cost banking services — aren’t very profitable. Sometimes one even gets the impression that the Postal Service is intentionally alienating its regular customers — causing long lines by reducing the staffing at the windows, not being responsive to complaints, demoralizing postal workers so it’s difficult for them to be courteous. Perhaps management thinks it’s not so bad if people are dissatisfied with the Postal Service. Maybe it will make them happy to hear about plans to privatize.

Dismantling the legacy

In 1970, when the U.S. population was about 200 million and first-class mail volumes were not quite 50 billions pieces, there were around 43,000 post offices (including contract postal units). Today the U.S. has over 300 million people, first-class mail volumes are about 78 billion pieces, and there are around 35,000 post offices. While population and mail volumes have increased by more than 50%, the number of post offices has declined by almost 20%. Yet somehow we are expected to believe that there are too many post offices.

Almost every one of the country’s post offices is a valued part of the community it serves. If you have any doubt about that, just read a few hundred of the thousands of news articles that have come out over the past few months, describing the frustration, anger, and sadness people express when they hear their post office may close.

While the focus has been on the 3,600 post offices on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) list, the Postal Service wants to close half the country’s post offices. The retail end of the business will continue to be moved to the “alternate retail outlets” the Postal Service claims that customers prefer — Wal-Mart, CVS, Office Depot, Costco, your local supermarket. There are already 50,000 alternative places to buy stamps — more locations than there are post offices. Though the Postal Service never labels it as such, this is yet another form of outsourcing and privatization.

The leaders of the Postal Service are committed to dismantling what they call — with considerable disdain — the “legacy” of “brick-and-mortar” post offices. The legacy hangs around their neck like an albatross, weighing them down and holding them back from progressing into a light and fluid post-office-less future. They say “brick and mortar” to make the post office seem old fashioned, passé, a nostalgic icon of a bygone era.

These leaders want the Postal Service be fashionably chic — like those European countries that are closing their village post offices as part of their privatization programs. Headquarters doesn’t like the way people get attached to their post office, or the way the workers in the post office give a face to the postal system and the government. The bonding to a place and the human connection make people care too much about what happens with the postal system as a whole, and that just gets in the way of what postal leaders are trying to do.

During the Great Depression, the federal government built over a thousand post offices, as well as many schools, libraries, and federal buildings. These buildings are usually an important place in a town, and many are on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructing these buildings put hundreds of thousands of people to work; but, they had another purpose.

Koch The New Deal wanted people to feel connected to their federal government, to have faith in its permanence, to see that it was a part of their community. Considerable attention was also given to the architectural design of the New Deal post offices, and most are adorned with beautiful murals depicting scenes from local history. They bring an element of culture to the community, and they remind people of their past.

Now the country is being told that we cannot afford to keep these post offices. Historic New Deal post offices are being closed and sold off, right and left. Recently the Postal Service has closed and/or sold the historic post offices in Westport, Connecticut; Palm Beach, Florida; Ukiah, California; and Pinehurst, North Carolina. Over the coming months, the same will happen to the post offices in Venice and La Jolla, California. The historic post offices in Northfield, Minnesota; Athens, Pennsylvania; and Camas, Washington are also threatened. Many are closed without even a public meeting because the Postal Service is relocating postal services to another location and not actually “closing” the post office.

The Postal Service says these historic post offices are too big — the mail handlers and carriers were probably moved to an annex years ago, thus creating “excess capacity” — so now it does not make any sense to hold on to them, and selling them would bring in much needed revenue. Maybe so, but, there is something else going on.

These post offices are a proud reminder of the great things our government and our postal system can do. These are indeed icons, symbolic of everything the conservative anti-government businessmen have been crusading against since the New Deal. Closing these post offices and selling them to private businesses, to be turned into real estate offices and restaurants and clothing stores, is yet another mode of privatization and sad proof the attack on the New Deal continues to this day.

The whole thing is sad, really. Depriving workers of a decent salary, job security, and the promise of a secure retirement; treating communities as insignificant and undeserving of a post office, transferring historic public buildings to private hands for private profits, putting the interests of the wealthy corporate elite above those of the country as a whole — it’s more than sad, it’s a crime. It will not be good if the nation’s lawmakers continue to permit it to happen.

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Some things fit and some things don’t; but of the things that don’t, maybe I understand them better*

Guest Post by Mark Jamison, retired Postmaster Webster, N.C.

This post originally appeared at Daily Yonder Blog, entitled Speak Your Piece: Pray in Closet, Not Public

Town of Greece v. Galloway SCOTUS in a 5-4 decision held the town of Greece’s practice of opening its town board meetings with a prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the Establishment Clause when the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures, the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and the prayer does not coerce participation with non-adherents.

Dillsboro is in the southwest corner of North Carolina. It has 232 residents, according to the 2010 Census. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has a station in Dillsboro and the town’s business district is focused primarily on tourism. According to a Sylva Herald article (which a retired philosophy professor friend sent me), the town has two churches: Jarrett Memorial, which is a Baptist church, and a storefront nondenominational congregation. The town’s website makes clear that the town’s focus is its business district, which makes the mayor’s contention about being exclusively Baptist perhaps a bit presumptuous.

The mayor of Dillsboro, North Carolina, has decided to open the town’s official meetings with Christian prayers delivered by local clergyman after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for such invocations in a 5-4 vote last month.

invisible hand

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald defended his decision by saying the community will accept the new practice and it is in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. “They said [public prayer is legal] as long as it’s what your town is used to,” he said in an article in the Sylva Herald. “And we ain’t got nothing but Baptists in town.”

Prior to the announced change, Dillsboro opened its town meetings with a moment of silence.

My initial response to my friend’s email was to suggest that perhaps the town might also find it appropriate to read the lyrics to the Bob Dylan song “God on Our Side” (a beautiful Joan Baez version is here). I sent him a link to the lyrics, and he replied that I’d saved him the effort of raising several philosophical arguments in response to the mayor’s position.

I thought too of Mr. Fitzgerald’s own tradition as a professing Baptist. Matthew 6:5-6 seems to offer a pretty clear stance on public prayers. From the King James Version we are told that Jesus taught:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you they have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and they Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Fitzgerald told the Sylva newspaper that the prayer was about seeking wisdom, not conversions. “We’re not trying to make anybody a Christian,” he said. “We are just going to ask for a blessing on the town’s decisions.”

invisible hand Who wouldn’t want a public servant to hope for wisdom? If we take the mayor at his word that he is not trying to make anybody a Christian, then there’s no reason that he and like minded board members couldn’t gather quietly before their meeting and ask for specific religious guidance. But Fitzgerald’s actions seem designed to demonstrate a particular prejudice, not simply toward a Christian preference but even a denominational one with his presumption that, “we ain’t got nothing but Baptists in town.”

My friend the philosopher said that such public prayers are theologically suspect:

In Christianity, prayer is a human action directed to God which derives its sacred meaning from God. (The same can be said of almost any other great religion.) Prayer directed to anything other than God has no sacred significance and is, in fact, profane in the sense that it is not sacred or holy. Prayer that has its purpose, prayer that is directed to, social and political cohesion is not directed to God and is profane. Prayer whose purpose is social and political cohesion is without sacred meaning. The majority opinion in [a] recent Supreme Court decision included the claim … that the prayer in [another] town had only a “ceremonial function and thus was not a state establishment of a religion.” Such prayer is desecrated.

The Supreme Court’s latest decision on this subject is not likely to be its last. The opinion, including the dissents, is well worth reading and pondering. It should make us think about how we get along with our neighbors in small towns when spiritual and religious beliefs enter the public square.

Despite disagreeing with much of what Joe Carter, author of the blog, “First Things” and a self-proclaimed member of the religious right, says in this post from 2010, I can appreciate the respect he shows in his conclusion:

. . . We must recognize that America is not a “Christian nation,” though we should aspire to be a nation whose Christians are admired as good and noble citizens. America is not a “shining city on a hill,” though we should let our light of freedom be a shining example for the entire world. America is not the “greatest blessing God gave mankind,” though it is a great nation worthy of our faithfulness. Patriotism has a role but must not be allowed to expand beyond certain intellectual borders. We are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man, and must always be sure not to confuse the one for the other.

I’m more comfortable with Carter’s sentiment than I am with that of a commenter on the Sylva Herald site who intoned: “Fortunately, anti-American goons like Mike Fitzgerald are dying off. Hope he’s in heaven really soon!”

Mayor Fitzgerald’s decision to open town council meeting with prayer seem quick and lacking much thought or insight. I do not think; however, the comment above is an acceptable response. I am not sure what it accomplishes other than to demonstrate that emotional reaction is not solely limited to one side in these sorts of discussions.

My grandfather often wondered why when he opened a window for fresh air, someone else might complain about a draft. My grandfather spent his life looking for fresh air, as he called it. We could use a little as we discuss prayer in the public square and state-sanctioned religion.

* Grace Mountain Express, Ashville, NC

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US Postal Management’s Dysfunctional and Failing Culture

by: Mark Jamison; A retired Postmaster having served the town and community of Webster, N.C. Mark can also be read on Save The Post Office, a blog discussing the state of the USPS.

“In the following weeks, Mr. Green would go on to scream at me, ALL YOU ARE IS A LIABILITY, YOU EXIST ONLY TO REDUCE OVERTIME,’and enforce a rule no one ever explained to me: We had to be off the clock by 5 p.m. Before I broke my toe, the rule was you had to be off the street and back at the station by 6.

I tried to explain to Mr. Green, who strictly enforced the 5 p.m. deadline, that most days I wasn’t able to leave the station until after 10 a.m., often with more than eight hours’ worth of mail to deliver. When you factor in travel times to auxiliary routes, I could not finish by 5 p.m., even running between houses and never eating lunch. His response? ‘You’ll have to work off the clock.’ If I weren’t willing to do this, he explained, I might not be worth having around. He offered another alternative: Get the routes done faster than required or every morning admit to him that I wasn’t capable of doing my job. An often-toxic work environment had become untenable. Mr. Green didn’t behave this way just to CCAs; I watched him dress down carriers who had worked for the Post Office for decades.” “Blues on Wheels,” Jess Stoner The Morning News.

I worked for the Postal Service for thirty years, the last fourteen as Postmaster of Webster a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. Over the years, I became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Postal Service. While I was still employed, I began participating in cases before the Postal Regulatory Commission. I also began contributing to the website Save the Post Office, a site started and edited by Steve Hutkins, a professor at NYU who became concerned about changes to his local post office. STPO has done some of the most detailed and in depth reporting on postal issues and I would encourage anyone interested in the fate of the Postal Service to take a ramble through the site.

Last week the folks here at Angry Bear were kind enough to host an STPO post I did titled “What are People and the Post Office for?” The “crisis” surrounding the Postal Service is in some ways much more complex than what has been reported in the broader media. In some ways, though it is very simply an attempt to eliminate a well paid unionized work force while privatizing an essential national communications network.

One of the aspects of this issue largely ignored is the dysfunctional institutional management culture that has infected the Postal Service. Since postal reorganization in 1971, the management of the Postal Service has abandoned any pretense of fulfilling its public role while pursuing dreams of corporatization. One consequence of this behavior has been a terribly hostile workplace. The phrase “Going Postal” has entered the lexicon after multiple incidents of workplace violence. Stephen Musacco has a tremendous book “Going Postal: Shifting from Workplace Tragedies and Toxic Work Environments to a Safe and Healthy Organization” detailing the history of the failing postal management culture. I have also written about this at Save The Post Office.

Now there is a wonderful article by Jess Stoner in The Morning News. “Blues on Wheels” highlights the short tenure of Ms. Stoner as a CCA (City Carrier Associate), a temporary category of worker who delivers mail. The article chronicles in sad and brutal detail the difficult conditions under which mail carriers work.

One of the most popular memes in today’s society of the self is to claim that folks who do regular jobs are not worth the money they are being paid. To listen to some folks everybody else is lazy and overpaid and the problems of our society would all be solved is we simply bucked up, worked hard and paid people what they’re worth (which usually demeans anyone who performs physical labor of any sort) . It’s a toxic variation on the myth of meritocracy that ultimately treats human labor as merely an input to production and eschews any concept of human dignity or the value of honest labor.

Over the years, Congress has held hearings about the toxic postal work environment but they never amount to very much. In all the discussion over the last five years over about the Postal Service’s business model, it’s cash flows, it’s finances, and it’s long term liabilities; there has been virtually no attention paid to the fundamental lack of competence embodied in the culture of postal management. Toxic work environments are only part of the problem. Processing plant closures and arbitrary methods of scheduling have created situations where carriers are delivering mail late into the night. There are reams of OIG reports demonstrating wasteful and dishonest practices by postal management.

The Right tells us the privatizing the Postal Service is the answer; but, the current management of the Postal Service has already done everything they can to act like a private corporation. The treatment of employees at the Postal Service is a reflection of our disdain for the human element of labor across society. Regardless of what changes are made to the postal business model the plain and simple fact is that those changes will result in failure because the Postal Service has a corrupt and largely incompetent management culture. Mail delivered somewhat efficiently is more a testament to the efforts and pride of the hundreds of thousands of clerks, carriers, and mailhandlers that care about their communities; that and simple inertia.

It is far past the time for Congress to take a serious and unstinting look at the way the Postal Service is managed, the honesty of its projections, and the competence of its managers. Ms. Stoner’s piece touches on a small piece of the postal puzzle but it ought to serve as a wakeup call.

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