EDITORIAL: What’s mail worth to you?

IN CASE YOU’VE EVER wondered, there are 32 U.S. Post Offices in Columbia County. That would be one post office for every 2,000 people. But as anyone who lives here can imagine, the math doesn’t work out anywhere near that neatly.

Each week we deliver papers to our subscribers through every one of those 32 post offices. Half of them are small–the size you’d expect for a post office in Hollowville, Austerlitz or Malden Bridge. Each one has a character all its own, which is nice but not nearly as important as the postal employees who staff those post offices, big or small. This newspaper would not exist without them.

So when President Trump issued an executive order last spring creating a Task Force on the United States Postal System, it raised questions about our survival. The report, scheduled for release last week, has been delayed. But the concerns it raises come from an earlier federal Office of Management and Budget “Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations.” The plan is to privatize the USPS.

Since 1970, the USPS has operated as a private company owned by the U.S. government. Most people agree there are problems with that system, but there is little agreement on the causes of, and cures for, those problems. The government plan says: “Major changes are needed in how the Postal Service is financed and the level of service Americans should expect from their universal service operator.” That term “universal service operator” is the USPS obligation to deliver your mail wherever you live.

The plan previews what major changes might look like: “A private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery) would operate at substantially lower costs.”

The report envisions a privatized service operated like an “investor-owned utility” with strong government regulation, which isn’t reassuring given the administration’s hostility toward regulation.

The USPS has huge debts, with one of the largest stemming from a 2006 law that requires it to pay its employee health care benefits in advance. Allowing the postal service to operate like other business and government entities where those payments are concerned would yield a more realistic and positive picture of USPS finances.

If the nation’s postal service drastically cut the services it offers, it would save money. But is the USPS really the basket case the administration says it is? Not if you think of it as part of our national infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

Or consider the challenge of access to high speed internet service. We’ve seen that for-profit companies don’t want to invest in high speed internet for small, rural communities. That’s not where the money is. For-profit mail delivery services work on a similar model: United Parcel Service (UPS), for example, ships packages destined for delivery to rural areas… but who delivers the package to your door? The USPS.

These days delivering packages makes money for the postal service. You’d think the government would be happy about that. But President Trump is angry that so much of the USPS revenue from package delivery comes from Amazon, which he says is a bad deal for the postal service. The owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post newspaper. The president has singled out the Post for harsh criticism. This is about Mr. Bezos and Amazon, not the USPS.

The task force report won’t seal the fate of the USPS. Congress will have a say. A recent proposal for boosting postal revenue from New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), proposes an old idea with new twists: letting post offices add banking services. She and other lawmakers see this as a way to protect low-income people from the “predatory practices” of payday lenders, who charge crushing interest rates, and as a way to bolster the USPS bottom line.

Postal savings accounts were introduced during the Progressive Era more than a century ago. The proposal to privatize the postal service has been around for years. But the USPS is a tremendously popular institution and Congress might just ignore this issue.

Senator Gillibrand’s idea deserves support. Likewise, when the administration’s plan is released, it needs to be read with care, though surely the government will spin the numbers to magnify crisis and promote benefits of private ownership like a fairy tale come true.

But whatever ideas emerge from the report, we urge readers to remind all our federal delegation that the United States Postal Service is a national treasure and it is not for sale.

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