Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Jones v USPS

In Jones v USPS, the Postal Service provided weekly service performance data since the beginning of the year. This is the most complete picture of on-time performance that we’ve seen since the mail delays became an issue earlier this summer. The data set is discussed in this post. There was also a hearing today in the Jones case. We hope to have more on that later.

In the Washington case, an amicus brief was filed by the County of Santa Clara, the City of Columbus, and Thirty-Eight Local and Tribal Governments. The brief argues that the operational changes made by the Postal Service impede delivery and receipt of vote-by-mail, absentee, replacement, emergency, military, and overseas ballots, voter registration material, and outreach and education efforts. They also create significant burdens for officials administering elections and interfere with tribal government functions.

In the Washington case, the Postal Service filed a brief in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. As noted on Law360,”Between arguing that the states’ concerns were overblown and pointing to regulations that say the Postal Regulatory Commission and the Washington D.C. Circuit Court have exclusive jurisdiction over such complaints, the USPS said the court should not grant the proposed injunction to undo changes that have already been made.”

“This case is now about plaintiffs’ attempts to have this court oversee the day-to-day operations of USPS, based on a claim that courts have analogized to a ‘Hail Mary,’ to right wrongs that do not exist,” the brief said. “Plaintiffs’ legally deficient claims, arising from unsupported fears about the potential actions of USPS, do not warrant the extraordinary relief it seeks.” See the Law360 article for more details.

Lawsuits against DeJoy, USPS & Trump over mail delays and election mail, Save The Post Office, Steve Hutkins, September 16, 2020

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The Seven-Percent Solution: The Not-So-Secret Plan to Downsize the Postal Service

Steve Hutkins authors Save the Post Office on issues affecting the Post Office.

First, a disclaimer. The following analysis is largely speculative. It’s not based on insider information. The evidence comes from news articles, government reports, legal filings, and a few leaked internal USPS documents that were published on postal news sites. The analysis could be totally wrong.

The hypothesis is simply this: The Postal Service has embarked on a plan to reduce labor costs by about 7 percent. That represents approximately 67 million workhours, or the equivalent of about 33,000 jobs.

The analysis will also suggest that all the things we saw earlier this summer — the removal of blue collection boxes, the decommissioning of over 700 sorting machines, trucks leaving plants partially loaded or empty, letter carriers heading out on their routes with mail left behind, a presentation saying that overtime was being eliminated, post offices closing for lunch or earlier in the day, rumors of post offices closing completely — were not, as the Postal Service claimed, isolated incidents, business as usual, or the result of miscommunication between headquarters and local managers.

Rather, they were part of a comprehensive plan to eliminate tens of millions of workhours and downsize the Postal Service in significant ways.

The Seven-Percent Solution

According to its 10-K financial report, in FY 2019 the Postal Service experienced a total “controllable” loss of $3.4 billion. That doesn’t include another $5 billion or so in losses related to pension and retiree health care costs that the Postal Service didn’t pay.

To balance the books, the Postal Service can increase revenues, raise prices or cut costs. Revenue increases are difficult, since First Class letter volumes are falling and Congress has limited what new forms of business the Postal Service can expand into.

The Postal Service has already introduced a temporary rate increase on commercial parcels through the holidays, and it will raise rates again next year. But price increases on letters and flats are limited by law and increases on parcels are constrained by competition in the marketplace. In the past, increasing rates has basically helped the Postal Service keep up with rising costs but done little to reduce the losses.

That leaves cutting costs as the only way to make significant inroads. Given that nearly 80 percent of the Postal Service’s expenses are related to labor, cost cutting means one thing, reducing workhours.

In FY 2019, compensation and benefits costs totaled $47.5 billion. To offset a loss of $3.4 billion, the Postal Service would need to reduce these costs by about 7 percent.

Back in July, District Managers and Plant Managers around the country began sharing Standup Talks in which they outlined the downsizing plan to employees. The talks identify exactly how many workhours need to be eliminated in each district in the three areas of postal operations: mail processing, delivery, and post offices.

The talks indicate that there is a comprehensive plan to reduce workhours across the board by about 7 percent. Even though it hasn’t been stated outright, that goal appears to be a key element of the Postmaster General’s transformative plan for the Postal Service.

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Is Mail Delivery Taking Longer?

Is U.S. mail delivery becoming slower for First Class mail? A New York Times analysis of more than 28 million pieces of mail found that on-time delivery declined noticeably in July and August. This comes after PMG Louis DeJoy put cost-cutting measures in place. Delivery has sped up slightly since the summer but remains slower than earlier this year. Twenty-eight million pieces of first-class letters were tracked by SnailWorks. The results of the analysis shows how on-time delivery declined noticeably in July after the arrival of the new and politically aligned PMG Louis DeJoy and the start of his mandated policies to trim transportation costs.

It appears mail delivery did slow down in July and August.

As you already know, timely mail delivery has become a key part of the 2020 election outcome due to an unprecedented number of Americans who are likely to vote by mail to avoid visiting a polling place during the pandemic.

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Testimony of Mark Jamison; Jones v. United States Postal Service Part II

Testimony of Retired Postmaster Mark Jamison in law suit against the USPS and DeJoy filed Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Save The Post Office

Jones vs Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service and Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion for Preliminary Injunction, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Declaration of Mark Jamison, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Election Mail

Angry Bear added this chart to depict how people are voting by mail. There are 44 million voters in nine (4 just added) states + D.C. voting by mail only, 118 million voters in 34 states where absentee voting is allowed for all, and 46 million voters in seven states where an excuse is required for absentee voting. The chart above reflects this pattern although some states changed how they vote by mail with some going to all mail, etc.  The purpose was to depict how big the mail-in voting is.

Mark: In the 2018 election there was an audit of election mail that showed that only 96-98% of ballots were delivered on time; in some areas these percentages were worse. The current on-time percentage for the USPS is somewhere closer to 95% right now (again, much worse in some areas). If we applied that number to election mail, that would be like throwing out 5% of the ballots. I do not think that you can deliver 100% of 1st class mail to all of the various addresses that they go to nationwide; there will always be a few problems with deliveries. However, 100% on time delivery of BALLOTS should be the goal for the USPS. There are many articles related to election mail concerns and suggestions that are being published in the leadup to the 2020 election and in response to nationwide concerns about holding free and fair elections, including one that I wrote.

A simple lack of institutional attention could noticeably slow down mail. For the most part ballots originate and are processed within a local area serviced by one or possibly two plants. This takes some transportation issues out of the equation. There are some areas, e.g. Florida where a significant portion of residents have second homes and may be mailing ballots from a distant location. Otherwise the concern is processing and on-time performance within a local area.

Not all first-class mail receives a postmark since some of it does not run through the machines that the USPS uses to cancel mail. Marketing mail would not normally receive a postmark. As recently as the 2018 election, the USPS typically treated ballots and other election mail as 1st class mail, even if it was sent at marketing mail rates.23 The letter sent by Thomas Marshall to 46 states’ secretaries of state and that is referenced above indicated that the USPS would not be able to guarantee on-time delivery of ballots (at least eight days out in the case of Washington state). Marshall’s letter suggests that election mail (ballots or requests for ballots) that is entered at marketing mail rates will be handled as marketing mail, which receives the least preferential handling.

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Testimony of Mark Jamison; Jones v. United States Postal Service Part I

Testimony of Retired Postmaster Mark Jamison in law suit against the USPS and DeJoy filed Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Save The Post Office

Jones vs Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service and Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion for Preliminary Injunction, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Declaration of Mark Jamison, US District Court, Southern District, New York

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Introduction

Those were the stirring words of President Lincoln during his first inaugural address. The nation had come to a crossroads or perhaps it was a dead end, we could no longer go on without facing our original sin, what some euphemistically called “that peculiar institution.”  After four years of the bloodletting, we finally put aside the evils of slavery, but rather than finish the job we stopped half way.

It took a century to bring the hope of healing to the next step with the Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s. And still we hid from our responsibilities and the hopeful destiny that could have been our course. Some clung to hate and privilege, resisting and rejecting the idea that all of us were created equal and had a role to play as citizens in this experiment of self-government.

Today we have the opportunity to starkly face and solidly put to rest the sins of our past. Even now when the chance to make amends is within our grasp there are those who choose anger and dissension, hate and separation, obfuscation and obstruction over opportunity.

There is no right more sacred than the right to vote, to exercise one’s choice in free and fair elections. Through the Civil War, World Wars, the 1919 flu pandemic and all matter of natural disasters, we have made it a point to hold elections. In these troubled times, faced with another pandemic, there are those who would obstruct our ability to vote for purely partisan reasons. There are those who are too cowardly to stand before the electorate and seek an honest count.

We can and must do better. Every citizen who wants to vote should be able to vote and there should be no question or impediment that prevents that or the counting of their ballot. Every voice must be heard.

The U.S. Postal Service is a treasured institution. It has been around in one form or another since before our country was founded. The mandate of Title 39 gives the Postal Service a mission — binding the nation together. Those words are reminiscent of Mr. Lincoln’s mystic chords. The idea of binding the nation together also implies a healing and a connection. For our entire history the Postal Service has bound this nation together.

Today there are at least ten lawsuits seeking to ensure that the Postal Service does not become another casualty in our age where our most cherished norms and even basic truth itself are rejected for fear mongering, conspiracy theories, financial  advantage, and the exposition of ugly hate that tarnishes any notion of our better angels.

I had the privilege of testifying in one of those suits.

The following testimony was submitted to the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the case of Mondaire Jones, et al., v. United States Postal Service, et al, on Sept. 2, 2020. The testimony in its original legal format is here.

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Former Deputy PMG Ron Stroman discusses mail delays and threats to the election

H/T: When I woke up.. blog. Everything you don’t know that you don’t know..

Former Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman was on MSNBC with Nicolle Wallace. His take on the Senate hearing yesterday, the delays going on at the Postal Service, and the risks for voting by mail is fantastic. Stroman believes that there is a ‘significant question’ whether delays in mail are intentional, and he expresses concerns over the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters in light of significant delays in mail delivery.

I had more to this and somehow deleted it. So, I am starting over with “why” I think we need to heed former Deputy Post Master General’s concerns.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked PMG Louis DeJoy, “Will you be bringing back any mail sorting machines that have been removed?” To which PMG Louis DeJoy answered, “There is no intention to do that, they are not needed.” This occurred during a Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee. I am not sure if Senator Peters pursued this further; but, I believe this needs a “Why” question and maybe 4 more until he has satisfied he has an answer to a potential problem such as a lack of capacity. PMG Louis DeJoy does not look like the type who would wander around a Postal Sorting facility such as located in Pontiac, Michigan from which 12 of these machines were removed. Pontiac, MI is a major sorting facility which might cause issues with ballots being delivered timely. There is more to DeJoy’s answer than we do not need them anymore.

And the old machines, what happened to them?

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Need proof changes at the USPS are slowing down the mail?

Here you go!

Save the Post Office is edited and administered by Steve Hutkins, a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. Prof. Hutkins (Steve) is the author of this commentary. (Angry Bear Blog has had a long relationship with both authors Steve Hutkins and Mark Jamison both of whom author the “Save The Post Office Blog.”)

Everyone knows the mail has been slowing down. News reports are filled with stories from postal workers and customers about delays. E-bay sellers are complaining about shipping problems with the USPS, and many say they have been switching over to private carriers. Talking Points Memo has an ongoing column based on reports from the field.  Ask anyone, and they can tell you about problems they’ve had getting a package or an important letter.

For a while, it seemed that the pandemic was causing these problems, and there’s no question that the surge in packages was a challenge for the Postal Service to keep up with.

But then came Mr. DeJoy, the new Postmaster General.

Within weeks of his taking office in mid-June, changes were being made at processing plants and post offices that appeared to be causing delays not just in parcel delivery but for letters and flats as well. In a memo to postal employees, DeJoy admitted it: “Unfortunately, this transformative initiative has had unintended consequences that impacted our overall service levels.”

These “service levels,” aka “service performance,” refer to the percentage of the mail that is delivered on time, i.e., within the “service standard” for each type of mail. For First Class mail, the standard is 2 days for local mail and 3 to 5 days for regional & national mail. Marketing Mail has a service standard of 3 to 10 days. Typically, about 85 to 95 percent of the mail is on time, although in some cases the performance scores can be lower and the delays can go on for several days.

The Postal Service shares quarterly service performance reports on its website and with the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), which posts them here. The most recent reports cover the third quarter, April 1 – June 30. This table based on those reports compares the third quarter performance for single-piece First Class mail in 2019 and 2020. It shows declines in near every district. In some, the drop was striking. Nationally, performance on 2-day mail dropped from 93.9 percent to 92.4; for 3-5 day mail, from 86.5 to 81.4 percent. Presumably, these declines were due to the pandemic.

As for what happened after June 30, the Postal Service hasn’t provided any details about the delays. It knows, of course, exactly how bad the delays are and where they are occurring, as reported internally in weekly performance reports similar to the quarterly reports. But these weekly reports are not shared with the PRC or the public.

One can, however, get a good sense of what’s in those weekly reports by looking at some charts that appear in two USPS presentations given earlier this month that were published on PostalPro, a website where the USPS shares information with its business customers.

As seen in the following charts show the on-time performance for the Pacific and Eastern Areas on a weekly basis for the past few months.  The charts prove that it’s not your imagination. The mail has clearly been slowing down since the beginning of July — dramatically.

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How to Privatize the Post Office: Piece by piece, step by step

Steve Hutkins, a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. A few days ago, the Trump administration announced that one of its goals is to privatize the Postal Service. A private postal system, says the White House proposal, would deliver mail fewer days per week, shift to cluster boxes instead of door and curb delivery, adjust prices and negotiate wages and benefits without government interference, and “shrink its physical and personnel footprints,” i.e., close post offices, consolidate processing facilities, sell buildings, and shed jobs. According to Trump’s proposal, before privatization can happen, the Postal Service must show that it can be profitable, so it needs to cut costs on delivery, wages, benefits, and footprint sooner rather than later. That process is actually well underway, and it has been for decades. The following post was originally published in July 2011, but it seems as relevant as ever, so it’s reprinted here with a few minor edits to update some numbers.

Marketization is “the process that enables state-owned enterprises to act like market-oriented firms.” It is achieved by reducing government subsidies, deregulation, organizational restructuring, The post office thus came to be viewed in terms of a business model. Like a private corporation, it was expected to adopt the methods and values of the marketplace — cut costs, streamline operations, fight unions, don’t run in the red — rather than operating as a public service “to bind the nation together”and decentralization. It often paves the way for complete privatization.

It was the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 that began the marketization of the postal system. It transformed the U.S. Post Office Department – a government agency and part of the Cabinet — into the independent U.S. Postal Service – a government-owned corporation that is self-supporting and receives no tax dollars.

The post office thus came to be viewed in terms of a business model. Like a private corporation, it was expected to adopt the methods and values of the marketplace — cut costs, streamline operations, fight unions, don’t run in the red — rather than operating as a public service “to bind the nation together.”

That’s why you keep hearing politicians and USPS leaders say “the Postal Service is a business,” and it needs to “optimize its infrastructure facilities” and “shed under-utilized assets.” And that’s why a few weeks ago Dennis Ross’s committee on postal infrastructure brought in a couple of corporate execs to explain how they run their businesses.

The Reorganization Act, it’s worth noting, was the product of a presidential commission in 1967-68, chaired by retired AT&T Chairman Frederick R. Kappel, who, in testimony before Congress, said, “If I could, I’d make it 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.” It would be left to others to “get from here to there.”

 

Steps two, three and four after the leap

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DC Circuit grants Postal Watchdog’s challenge to PRC’s approval of rate hike on Forever stamps

An introduction to Save the Post Office and Steve Hutkins. I am not quite sure how I got to Steve; but, I do remember chatting with Mark Jamison who also wrote at Save the Post Office and posting his words up at Angry Bear (Asking the Wrong Questions: Reflections on Amazon, the Post Office, and the Greater Good earlier this year. Mark and I still exchange emails and I owe him a trip out to western North Carolina. Steve is the blog owner, a Prof. of Literature teaching “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. Prof. Steve Hutkins has been writing about the Post Office for at least a decade and the attempts of government, UPS, Fedex, etc. to close it down or limit its operations.

“Save The Post Office” has been writing about the last 5 cent increase in First-Class mail earlier this year.

Back in January 2019, the Postal Service raised the price of a First-Class stamp from 50 to 55 cents. Postal watchdog Douglas Carlson filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (aka the DC Circuit) challenging the Postal Regulatory Commission’s decision to approve this rate hike.

Carlson argued that in approving the rate hike on Forever stamps the Commission had failed to consider the statutory pricing factors and objectives in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) and the public comments questioning this increase. He also argued that the Commission did not reasonably explain its decision. Therefore, he claimed, the Commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.

Today the court issued a ruling granting Carlson’s petition and vacating the PRC’s approval of the rate increase on First Class postage. (The court’s opinion is here; the order vacating the PRC ruling is here.)

It’s not clear what will happen next. The PRC could file a petition for a hearing en banc, meaning that it will ask the entire DC Circuit to review the case, as opposed to the three-judge panel that issued today’s ruling. Apparently anticipating such a possibility, the DC Circuit today also issued an order “that the Clerk withhold issuance of the mandate herein until seven days after disposition of any timely petition for rehearing or petition for rehearing en banc.”

If such a petition is not granted, the PRC could even appeal to the Supreme Court. (After the DC Circuit ruled against UPS on an unrelated case involving postal rates, UPS took both of those steps, to no avail.)

In the meantime, we don’t know what impacts today’s ruling will have on the rate hike, which has been in effect since January.

Under the PAEA, the Postal Service has the right to request its next inflation-based rate increase this fall, with an effective date in January 2020. How the next increase will interact with today’s court decision is also unclear.

Past the leap is the section of a court determination that reviews the main issues in the case:

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Asking the Wrong Questions: Reflections on Amazon, the Post Office, and the Greater Good

The author of this post which was published in April 2018 on Save The Post Office is Mark Jamison, a retired North Carolina Post Master. From time to time, I have featured both Marks and Steve’s post office advocacy on Angry Bear. Steve is a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. One of these days I will visit Mark in the mountains of North Carolina.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I have not written or said much about postal issues for the last couple of years. After seven years of writing articles for Save the Post Office and other websites, as well as contributing numerous comments to the Postal Regulatory Commission, what more was there to say?

I spent thirty years of my working life at the Postal Service. I’ve put in countless hours reading USPS reports, OIG reports, GAO reports, and who knows how many pleadings before the PRC. I have written numerous articles about the general idea of the postal network as an essential public infrastructure, the arcane minutiae of postal costing and the actions of the PRC, and the machinations of a Congress that seemed more inclined to bloviate and posture than attempt to solve a serious problem affecting millions of Americans and thousands of communities, large and small, rural and urban.

I never stopped thinking about these issues, but what more was there to say? And why bother, really, when the politicians and managers that could actually make changes seemed inclined to let inertia and the status quo slowly erode the capabilities of the postal network while degrading hundreds of thousands of good middle-class jobs?

And then President Trump had one of those brain farts he periodically shovels out over Twitter.

Motivated by his dislike for Jeff Bezos — who has far more money than Mr. Trump will ever have or imagine having and who also owns the Washington Post, which tends to say things that are not particularly complimentary of Mr. Trump and his Alphonse-and-Gaston act as president — the president let forth a blast about how Amazon was ripping off the Postal Service.

It was obvious from his Tweets and subsequent comments Mr. Trump did not have a clue about postal policy, let alone any sort of command of the details. Then again, when the president speaks, people tend to listen. And, as the English poet William Cowper once observed, “A fool must now and then be right, by chance.” (Here in the mountains of North Carolina we might say that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while).

But was Mr. Trump right about Amazon? A good many folks in the media wanted to know, since if the president says it, it may not be true but it is certainly news.

As it happens, I had written a number of pieces here on STPO specifically about Amazon’s Negotiated Service Agreement with the Postal Service and about package costing and pricing methods in general. In 2013, I also filed a motion with the Postal Regulatory Commission seeking access to the non-public materials in the PRC docket approving Amazon’s NSA. Both the Postal Service and Amazon immediately filed comments opposing my request.

Not content with making an argument for why the NSA should remain secret, Amazon went on to disparage me personally by quoting my articles on Save the Post Office. Amazon observed that I had written that the “postal rate system has become a morass of embedded privilege,” business mailers “are doing fine,” and the Postal Service is a “wholly owned subsidiary of Mailers Inc.” I had also opined, noted Amazon, that PMG Donahoe lied in recent testimony to the Senate, and “Donahoe and the [Board of Governors] have demonstrated an unrestrained contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and most importantly, the American people.”

For what it’s worth, the PMG did give “misleading testimony, and later said he “misspoke.” Everything else I wrote about the rate system, the mailers, and the BOG was true, too. Not that this should have had anything to do with the PRC’s decision not to allow me to see the Amazon NSA it had approved

Anyway, Google being what it is, my pieces about Amazon and the post office showed up in searches, and a few intrepid or at least curious reporters contacted me with questions.

I should give those reporters credit for caring enough about their work to attempt a thorough job. While some of them just wanted a simple answer to, “Is Trump right or wrong?” a couple of these reporters really did want to understand the issues that were involved. Rather than go with a Citibank report that was seriously flawed both methodologically and factually (which just goes to show that highly paid financial analysts writing for elite firms are just as prone to self-delusion and tipping the scales towards their preferred narrative as the rest of us), there were at least a couple of outlets that made the effort to dig beyond the headlines.

The problem is that even the more thorough journalists were asking the wrong questions. Their questions were based on an ingrained narrative about the post office. And, as has become the case in much of our political dialogue, the narratives that prevail and the agendas that drive them originate not from a broad civic space balancing the interests of the American people but from relatively narrow interests. As discussed in a recent post here on STPO about postal retirement and benefit liabilities, it is these agendas that tend to drive the policy prescriptions.

In 2015 I wrote a piece titled “When Titans Collide: UPS petitions the PRC to change USPS costing methodologies.” The piece examined a year long attempt to gerrymander postal costing and pricing systems in ways that best served those in the mailing and package delivery industries. Some of the players have changed over the years as the mail mix has changed, but the goal remains the same – find a way to defenestrate the Postal Service.

The piece looked at the issues that were at the crux of Mr. Trump’s complaint – the Postal Service wasn’t charging enough and it was making “bad deals.” I looked in detail at some of the costing and pricing methods and tried to engage those specific arguments. But the heart of the matter was that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the 2006 law that in many ways governs the operation of the Postal Service, had set up an impossible and counterproductive environment that failed to recognize the value of the postal network as an essential national infrastructure.

PAEA had many aims but good policy wasn’t really the focus. After decades of trying to fit the Postal Service into a box it was ill-suited to occupy — that of simply another mailing business rather than an infrastructure — PAEA took a big step in the direction of privatization. By separating postal products into market-dominant and competitive categories and by creating a rate mechanism designed more to satisfy mailing interests than create and sustain a reliable and ongoing postal network, PAEA set up a system that would engage a lobbyist’s feeding frenzy. Other provisions of PAEA were designed to lead to the elimination of postal jobs by saddling the Postal Service with unwarranted and punitive liabilities for its retirees. Though the legislation was filled with all manner of technical provisions, it was largely ideological.

After examining all the arguments in the PRC docket on costs and prices, all the briefs and studies presented by the Postal Service, UPS, the PRC’s Public Representative, and various stakeholders, I came to the conclusion that we had lost the forest for the trees. We had lost sight of the big picture in the sense that the ideas of universal service and access became wholly secondary considerations. We were no longer discussing the broadly-based concerns of national infrastructure. Instead, we had waded into a swamp of special interests where every group of mailers sought the best and highest advantage.

I sent a link of the Titans piece to the journalists who called wanting to understand the current kerfuffle created by Mr. Trump’s comments. I suppose it’s immodest of me to include the response I got from one of the journalists, but I will because it makes a greater point. After reading the piece he e-mailed: “I think this is probably the most insightful and brilliant blog post that synthesizes a generation of (misguided) political thinking and explains how that altered the trajectory of the USPS.”

He said some other nice things, went on to thank me for spending an hour and a half on the phone with him, and then continued to call and email with more questions. But despite my efforts to get him to look at the big picture, he kept coming back to the issue of whether or not the Postal Service could and should be charging more for Amazon packages and if other mailers were also getting sweetheart deals.

So there we were, back to talking about the wrong questions.

What we should have been talking about is how to preserve an essential national infrastructure that connects every American while providing good solid middle-class jobs with salaries and benefits that sustain families and get spent in local communities, an infrastructure that provides affordable rates that benefit American consumers and businesses.

Instead we were arguing about whether charging more for packages would make the Postal Service more profitable and whether big companies like Amazon ought to be paying more, while neglecting to factor in that most increases in package prices would simply be passed on to consumers while allowing UPS and FedEx more freedom to raise prices.

At this point I thought that maybe I was missing something, so I went back and looked at a couple of PRC dockets and recent Annual Compliance Determinations, which review how well the Postal Service is fulfilling its general legal obligations. I also looked at a recent docket on costing methodologies, a subject UPS has repeatedly sought to litigate even though they have never made a credible case the methodologies currently in use aren’t reasonable. Most particularly I looked at RM2017-1, the PRC docket that reviewed the level of institutional contribution that competitive products had to make. This was the one area where I thought UPS had at least a reasonable point in its 2015 filings.

After reading a few hundred pages of legalese and lobbyist pleadings and maneuverings, I came to the conclusion maybe Macbeth had a point, this was all sound and fury signifying nothing. (Macbeth’s greater point is that it still ends in death.)

But Mr. Trump Tweeted.

Recalling Mr. Cowper’s admonishment that a fool could be right and still be a fool, I thought maybe we should look for some validity in his Tweet. Mr. Trump seemed to be making two points. First, the Postal Service was making bad deals, and second that Amazon was destroying retail across America. Let’s take the second one first: Is Amazon destroying local retail?

Maybe, perhaps probably, but that’s not a new phenomenon. Before there was Amazon there was Wal-Mart. In 2006 Tom Slee wrote a wonderful little book titled “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deception of Individual Choice.” Slee uses game theory to demonstrate that the cumulative total of what appears to be a series of rational choices by individuals turns out to have a vastly negative aspect for local communities.

Actually, it’s not a new idea. Back in the 1930’s, Keynes made the same observation in describing what he called “The Paradox of Thrift.” Keynes noticed that in an economic downturn, individuals make the rational choice of spending less and saving more. If the economy is sour, it’s better to be conservative than a spendthrift. That makes a lot of sense for the individual, but when lots of individuals make that same perfectly rational decision, the end result is that consumer spending dries up, which makes the downturn even worse.

Slee’s updated version of Keynes’s insight is that people rationally value low prices. They also have preferences for nice communities, for vibrant downtowns, and a healthy local business sector. But in most cases those other preferences are somewhat indistinct or at least not entirely obvious.

What is obvious is that saving a few cents on a loaf of bread is a good thing. And while many of us valued wandering around the local grocery market and hardware store, talking to the local owner who probably knew a little bit about a lot of things, we also value the convenience of one-stop shopping. It’s just convenient to be able to look at that new drill in the same store where I’m doing my grocery shopping, and the fact the new drill costs a few dollars less doesn’t hurt.

So lots of folks make the perfectly rational decision to shop at the big box everything store because it’s convenient and cheaper. Oh maybe a few diehards make a conscious effort to give at least some business to local retailers, but margins are slim for local businesses, so the loss of a few customers makes a big difference. So one day we wake up and that vibrant local downtown suddenly has several vacant stores. And because Wal-Mart is big, it can exercise economies of scale like squeezing suppliers for lower prices. And as local retail businesses die so do jobs, which gives Wal-Mart more power in dictating wages.

One day we wake up and those cheap prices we rationally valued have cost us a lot of elements that we valued in our community. Things seem to tilt towards the lowest common denominator. The end result filters through all parts of the community. There’s been no end of reporting on how Wal-Mart instructed employees how to apply for food stamps or Medicaid or other benefits since they didn’t make enough to afford the basics. On balance local tax revenues may suffer. Perhaps the hardest things to measure are the damages to the quality of life and community cohesion.

Amazon is Wal-Mart writ large for the internet age. Amazon started out selling books, but now it calls itself “The Everything Store.” More importantly Amazon is much more than a retailer. It’s a logistics company. Jeff Bezos has simply used retail to generate the revenues to build a vast network of warehouses and backroom data support services. Amazon has a presence in nearly every sector of the economy.

It appears that we love it too, or at least the stock market which, unfortunately, seems to be the gauge by which we measure the success not only of the economy but of our communities and lives. The last I looked Amazon’s P/E ratio was nearly ten times higher than that of the average of the market generally. That means that investors value the company so much that the price of its stock is at historically high multiples of earnings.

Is Amazon killing American retail? Probably, but as Tom Slee might point out, no one makes you shop there.

That brings us to Mr. Trump’s other complaint, that the Postal Service is making terrible deals. Maybe but maybe not. If he’s basing that argument on the fact that the Postal Service is losing money, it’s important to remember that the Postal Service was designed to lose money. It is intentionally built to shovel funds back into the Federal budget, not through profits but from accounting trickery that saddles it with excess liabilities.

By all measures the package business that Mr. Trump focused on is adding to the bottom line with regularity. It’s also important to remember that the Postal Service has only about a 16% share of the package delivery market. It really isn’t in a position to dictate prices.

Much of the noise that followed Mr. Trump’s Tweets seemed to ignore the fact that forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would give its competitors, UPS and FedEx, an excuse to raise their prices. In the end, consumers would end up paying higher prices. Plus, forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would not only violate the basic market principles it has supposedly been designed to serve but also the structure of the free market itself.

We’re asking the wrong questions and it’s not because we’re stupid. We’re asking the wrong questions because those are the questions a large part of corporate America and the financial elites want us to ask. Mr. Trump got elected by sleight of hand – promising this and doing that – and that’s exactly what is happening with respect to the Postal Service.

So what are the right questions?

First of all, if competition is so important, why is 85% of the package delivery market controlled by two companies? Why aren’t the FTC and the Anti-Trust division of the Justice Department paying attention to this?

Do we value good jobs, local communities, and quality of life? Or do we value low prices more than anything else? If Amazon is too big and powerful, if it’s doing the same thing to local retail that Wal-Mart did a generation ago, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves what it is we really value.

Are we being given an honest accounting of the consequences of government policies? Why, given that 94% of the American public favored some form of protections for Net neutrality, did the FCC ruled in favor of monopoly providers? After a tax cut that was supposed to encourage more investment in the economy and higher wages for workers, why are we just seeing more stock buybacks? And are we going to have to pay for those tax cuts and avoid crippling deficits by cutting the wages and benefits of workers and further eviscerating the safety net?

Do we value the institutions that leveled the playing field and brought to millions of people the benefits of an economy that worked for the many and not merely the few? Do we value essential infrastructures like the postal network?

And finally, this. Are we content to play the duped mark in an oligarch’s confidence game? Are we going to watch valuable public assets and healthy public spaces and public participation in the economy get shuffled around in a game of three-card monte when the winner can only be the entitled elite?

(Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster. His articles on Save the Post Office can be found here, and the comments he’s filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission are listed here.)

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