Does it Really Always Get Through?
By Patrick F. Cannon
In 1775, Benjamin Franklin became our hopeful republic’s first Postmaster General. He was a logical choice, since he had held essentially the same job for the former colonies. In those days, most mail within the colonies and the young country moved by horsepower – either by horseback or coaches. As I recall, you could count on a letter from Boston to New York taking just a few days. Transatlantic mail – there was much between America and England – was subject to the vagaries of wind and weather. Air mail was unknown, since it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone to train pigeons.
Until 1950, American homes got two deliveries a day; businesses as many as four. Now, if we’re lucky, we get one, and Saturday deliveries may soon go away. Many of you will recall going days without getting mail during the last winter. In 1999, the Postal Service had 787,538 employees; in 2020, 495,941. Mr. Louis De Joy, the current Postmaster General and CEO, is not a fan of overtime, so is unconcerned if the mail sits around for an extra day or two. And I don’t imagine he spends much time in line at his local Post Office, waiting to be served by the single clerk on duty. He did rouse himself when it became clear that he would be blamed if mail-in ballots didn’t arrive in time for last November’s election.
The Postmaster General was once appointed by the president, and the Postal Service was a government department, just like the State and Defense departments. This changed in 1971, when it became a quasi-government “business,” expected to be run as such and even turn a profit. Vain hope. More often than not, it loses money. Its package business now has stiff competition from the likes of UPS and Fed-Ex, whose stockholders expect them to turn a profit, which they do. With the possible exception of Christmas and other holiday cards, few people use the mails to correspond with relatives and friends. Like most other folks, I use e-mail and the occasional text to keep in touch. The Postal Services only response to this is to raise the cost of First Class Mail, which might just further discourage its use.
I think it was a mistake to “privatize” the mail. It should be a service government provides to its citizens. Is the Department of Agriculture expected to make a profit? The Defense Department? The Department of State? While we might think we spend too much money on them, we don’t suggest they be run as businesses. Why the Post Office?
After World War II, many governments – notably the British Labor party – decided to nationalize important industries (steel, rail, coal, power, etc.). The total failure of this trend caused later governments to reverse it, as the government-run industries not only lost money, but market share and reputation. This trend toward privatization no doubt caught the Postal Service in its tide.
Most Americans frankly don’t care what happens. But as someone who still pays a few bills by mail, I do. A case in point: a couple of months ago, I sent a mortgage payment about two weeks before it was due, and three weeks before a late fee could be charged. The check arrived a day after the late fee became effective. So, it took three weeks and a day for a First-Class letter to travel from Chicago to Iowa, which you may know is right next to Illinois.
And just a couple of weeks ago, my wife got a card that was postmarked more than a month before we received it. And finally, let me mention that law-abiding citizens who live in high-crime areas in many cities are forced to go the post office to pick up their mail because letter carriers refuse to deliver it. Would any of this happen if the Postmaster General had to report directly to the president instead of some commission? Hell, the taxpayers are on the hook for deficits anyway!
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon