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Picking on Cliff Clavin

A few weeks ago I wrote my Baltimore Sun column about conservatives’ attacks on the Post Office as an example of government ineffectiveness and inefficiency. The USPS is, after all, losing money right now–burdened as they are by hefty labor costs and massive pension obligations. But industries that rely upon the postal service to deliver their goods and solicitations are not complaining. In fact, as I noted, many are strong advocates of maintaining the USPS:

According to the USPS’ 2008 annual report, of the 201.9 billion pieces of mail delivered, only about 10 percent originate from households. The other 90 percent comes from businesses, agencies and other nonhouseholds. And although the private letters, bills and magazines we receive at home comprise 40 percent of our mail, the other 60 percent is advertising: credit card applications, coupons and other forms of junk mail.

Which means that the post office is an even more important boondoggle for the companies flooding our mailboxes with solicitations. The trade groups know the score: The magazine publishers support USPS solvency, and the direct mail industry says it will gladly accept five-day mail delivery if necessary. And in 2006, a Republican Congress and Republican president passed a law mandating that the USPS set aside billions to cover its long-term pension obligations.

Big business and the GOP are not trying to starve this federal beast.

I went on to suggest that privatizing mail delivery would lead to far more expensive shipping costs. The idea that a private company would both deliver mail to every office and home six days a week, and collect it from the same plus thousands of drop boxes scattered across the nation– all the while maintaining walk-up offices in every town–and still be able to deliver a first-class envelope to any address for a mere 44 cents (an amount that hasn’t changed in real terms after 30 years) is simply an absurd expectation. And, while that means taxpayer dollars now subsidize the mail, again, a lot of the redistribution is going from taxpayers’ pockets to corporate balance sheets.


Anyway, I got a lot of nice emails from postal carriers, both active and retired, about the column. (They must have some network for circulating such stuff, because the emails came from many corners of America.) But a late straggler of an email that just arrived two days ago from a man whose identity I will not disclose–other than to report that he’s from southeast Oklahoma–really surprised me. Here’s the key excerpt:

Pres. Obama made the comment that UPS and FedEx are doing fine. [See video clip, above.] What I’m writing to you about is that in the very rural areas both UPS and FedEx take packages to the local post office and pay the Postmaster to have the rural carriers deliver their packages, neither UPS or FedEx want to take their trucks down the rough back roads to be shaken apart. I am a retired Postal employee, I was the [title redacted] in southeast Oklahoma where I serviced 125 post offices. Nearly every time I was in a rural post office FedEx or UPS would show up, bring a load of packages to be delivered and pay the postage to have them delivered. I asked a few Pm’s [postmasters] about it, they each explained that it was cheaper for them to pay the Postal Service to deliver the packages than to have to drive their trucks sometimes miles into very remote areas. I just never hear the USPS officials even mention this when being compared to the other delivery services. I don’t think Oklahoma is the only state where this happens. (emphasis added)

So there you have it. If the private carriers could afford to deliver everywhere for one flat rate and still turn a profit, they’d be doing so. But they can’t. And that means that, in terms of redistributive nature of the USPS, at least insofar as redistribution occurs from one segment of the American population to another, some portion of that redistribution goes from urban and suburban areas to rural areas. Maybe rural voters–who tend to vote Republican, and preferred John McCain over Barack Obama last year by eight points–ought to keep that in mind the next time they criticize health care reform by comparing it to Cliff Clavin.

And so should the president.