Politicians, the news, and social media are all full of stories about the Post Office: According to most, the present administration is attempting to gut it for nefarious purposes. To this end, they’ve hired a major party donor and Wall Street crony to run it into the ground. This person’s payment will obviously be through his massive investment in competing companies.
One of the first rules of detecting Fake News is the following question:
Is this too good to be true?
This story certainly qualifies — Trump’s political enemies are having a field day at his expense — so we’ve done some digging to find out what the actual story is — and if there’s fault, whose?
The two most common accusations are that (1) Republicans would like to privatize the Postal Service in order to save money and (2) Trump wants to destabilize the organization in order to delay mail-in ballots this November.
Long before Donald Trump took office, the Postal Service was losing money. It has a mandate to provide all citizens with nationwide service at a uniform price, and rural addresses have always cost more than they earn. Some rural post offices exist to service only a few dozen customers. That it exists as a public service rather than a business has been the justification for this imbalance since it was founded, and it’s a worthy argument.
Recently, however, there has been a significant decline in mail volume. Discounted ad circulars and catalogs bring in a great deal of revenue, but business letters are being systematically replaced by email, and most billing is going online — ostensibly because saving paper is good for the environment, though compared to the sheer volume of advertising paper this argument appears a bit thin; it does, however, save companies mail costs — at the expense of the Postal Service.
Postal employees are civil servants, and are paid at Federal scale rates. They have pensions and health care costs far exceeding those of competing businesses UPS and FedEx, and naturally these must be fully funded as obligations arise. (More on this later. -Ed.) Congress has mandated six-day delivery, and a deeply discounted (and likely profitless) contract requires the USPS to deliver Amazon packages seven days a week. Finally, official government mail goes out without payment.
As a result, it’s not at all surprising that the USPS loses money. What is curious is that anyone expects it not to. Regardless, as a cost-cutting measure, budget hawks periodically bring up the idea of privatizing the Service (it’s not some new idea of Trump’s). Rural customers would pay more and the nearly seven hundred thousand federal employees would likely lose their pensions — which, naturally, upsets their union.
Of course, this could never happen without consent of Congress, which will never do it at the cost of the votes of the second-largest employer in the country. That it’s being mentioned at all is purely for reasons of partisan politics. Republicans want to appear fiscally responsible; Democrats want to fearmonger about Trump’s desire to tear down the government and its sacred institutions.
As a result, this entire topic is at present purely academic. Don’t worry about it.
At the end of July, President Trump suggested delaying the election to accommodate unexpected delays in mail-in ballots. He’s spoken quite fervently on the topic, which would be unusual for most presidents since only Congress has the theoretical authority to do this — and never has, not in war or plague or revolution. Trump, however, frequently employs the tactic of speaking belligerently on unpopular or impracticable topics in order to control media attention and dominate the public narrative.
Bearing this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he’s also brought up the price tag associated with ballot delivery, the increased time constraints, the unwillingness of states to comply with the same pre-sorting requirements businesses would need to, and the disproportionate expense incurred in large cities (which, as a matter of course, tend to vote Democrat). Some of these points are valid; some are so much hogwash. The intent appears to be to blame the increased cost of voting by mail on his political opponents.
The Democratic counter-narrative, which Trump has fed with his intemperate Tweets and public utterances, is that his intention is to destabilize the election process itself (presumably at Russia’s behest), deliberately interfering with ballot delivery while laying the groundwork for legally contesting election results. Most recently, Trump has said he’d sign a hypothetical bill that contains vote-by-mail funding although he personally opposes it — exactly the sort of doublespeak we’re used to by now.
The truth of the matter is simple: There will be ballot problems and delays in some states due to poor infrastructure. Kentucky ran a nearly flawless test-run; California does this every election as a matter of course — but Pennsylvania, an important swing state, is fatally ill-prepared. Whether the fault for this last belongs with the Postal Service or Pennsylvania’s inflexible election laws is academic; for the election to proceed flawlessly will clearly require cooperation from both parties. There’s a plague on; success demands adaptation. The fact that some states but not others can bulk-mail ballots suggests that the greater burden should be on the states.
We can expect further partisan games; if there are delays, Democrats will blame the Administration for failing to mobilize the Post Office while Republicans will blame the Democrats for being either inflexible or spreading panic about COVID-19. Needless to say, the fault will belong to both parties in moderately equal shares; it’s not as though we didn’t know the election date back when COVID first arrived, after all, which is plenty of time to both lay on more staff and adjust local election laws as needed.
Postmaster Louis DeJoy
While it’s true that Postmaster DeJoy is a partisan Republican, a major party donor, and believes the Postal Service should be privatized, these are not exceptional; many similar past appointments have been partisan in nature, and as explained above privatization couldn’t be achieved by any mere appointee. DeJoy was not selected by Trump (though it would be disingenuous to suggest the President had no say in the matter); the Postmaster is no longer a Cabinet office, and is now chosen by the Board of Governors. There exist potential conflicts of interest involving DeJoy’s personal finances — but it’s worthy of mention that there exist several Federal watchdog organizations designed specifically to investigate executive malfeasance at this level.
Contrary to several published reports, DeJoy is not at all inexperienced in the industry. His major employment for two decades was with a major logistics and transport provider; after it was bought out, he was retained by the parent corporation until his retirement. His area of expertise lies in cost-cutting and efficiency, and he’s got an industry-wide reputation.
Accusations that he’s sabotaging the Postal Service appear to have originated with the head of Iowa’s Postal Workers Union in an NPR interview shortly after a new order banning overtime and a massive hecatomb among middle management. These were quickly picked up and expanded on by websites such as The Week and partisan propaganda mill Common Dreams. An official communique from the Post Office indicates that these changes were a part of a larger program designed to improve efficiency, and that reported slowdowns were unintended consequences of changes necessary in the face of the present funding crisis.
In short, they’re closing processing centers and relocating machines from places that haven’t operated at capacity for the past decade — since the days when First Class Mail was common, profitable, and required these machines.
Aside from a word of caution with respect to potential financial conflicts of interest, The Not Fake News finds this topic to be baseless.
Points Of Note – Prepaid Pensions and Healthcare
In May 2019, AOC continued her policy of pursuing truth through inaccuracy with the following Tweet, which of course took off faster than any correction:
While the USPS does prefund its pension fund, it does so only to the normal extent. What solvent businesses do these days instead is refuse to provide pensions; private pension funds are required by law to be pre-funded. A popular meme (spread by the AFL/CIO on Facebook) suggests a 75-year requirement, which again is mostly nonsense. And the law to which Rep. Ocasio-Cortez refers actually concerns healthcare funds, not pensions; the pension requirement dates most recently from a 2009 law signed by Obama but has been in play as long as there have been pensions.
It’s more important to note, however, that while these obligations consistently drive the Postal Service some billions deeper into debt, they are not the primary contributor to the institution’s financial woes. High payroll costs stem from the Federal wage scale; pensions are outmoded; the high cost of USPS medical plans is directly due to the Union’s refusal to merge fully with Medicare policies standard across the rest of the government.
This isn’t just wrong: It’s deliberate political propaganda.
(For further information, I recommend this columnist. -Editor)
The Bottom Line
The U.S. Postal Service is inefficient, a hidebound organization designed for the needs of two decades ago. It is overdue for revision and efficiency programs, which are presently being undertaken by the present Postmaster.
It is certainly in financial trouble; it has been for some years thanks to changing markets combined with the high costs of running a public service at high Federal wage rates. The problems were not created by the newest Postmaster or the Trump Administration. President Trump is at fault for attempting to politicize the efficiency effort; Democrats — particularly the AFL/CIO and the Postal Workers Union — are at fault for massive and deliberate propaganda efforts.
This, like most such stories, is fake news.
There are two items of legitimate concern:
1. Postmaster DeJoy may have financial conflicts of interest. We will continue to explore this.
2. Some states are ill-prepared for massive ballot mailings this November. The Post Office has taken some steps to increase staffing; state and local governments should adapt as well.
The Not Fake News runs on ramen noodles and copious amounts of caffeine; the state of the coffee cart is becoming perilously sparse these days. Any help would be gratefully appreciated, particularly if it extends to some Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies or a bit of Bushmill’s honey whiskey to make the day more tolerable.
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“All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fake “public opinion” for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.”
― Vladimir Lenin, “Revolution!”
(Editor’s Note: Original source credits were revised upon error checking at the suggestion of a reader.)