Dead Letter Office?

Postal Service privatization: a return to the Pony Express?


| September-October 1995


The media relish bashing the U.S. Postal Service. Conservative pundits point to it as the classic example of the impossibility of providing good government service. And Saturday Night Live skits depict postal workers as either homicidal or so inept they could lose an elephant behind a cabinet.

Despite this poor image, the postal system remains vital to the goals and promise of American democracy. Its commitment to universal service means that any person can communicate with any other for the same low price (which is especially crucial since fax machines and email are economically out of the reach of many Americans). And it provides a rare avenue of upward mobility for the thousands of minorities, veterans, and handicapped people it hires.

The harsh attacks that have been leveled at the system might explain why few have questioned the current restructuring of the Postal Service, even though it’s likely to eliminate those democratic goals. In an effort to compete with e-mail, fax machines, and Federal Express, the Postal Service is turning over large parts of its work to the private sector.

This year, about 60 percent of the U.S. mail will be sorted by businesses, and there are plans to start contracting for postal delivery services as well, Sarah Ryan reports in the leftist economics magazine Dollars and Sense (Jan-Feb 1995). Congressional Republicans want to sell off more of the Postal Service, and some suggest that the whole agency should be sold.

Critics cite a recent series of scandals in Chicago as evidence of how ill-prepared the Postal Service is for the information age. As reported by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker (Oct. 24, 1994), the problems were enough to make residents think twice before sending a postcard: Carriers left tons of months-old mail in their trucks, in their homes, underneath bridges. People lost phone and gas service because of bills that never came.

While an impressive 88 percent of Americans give the Postal Service high ratings in polls, the underlying problems that led to the Chicago mess can be found throughout the U.S. Postal Service, Franzen argues. “Although the postmaster general, Marvin Runyon, is fond of calling his $50-billion-a-year operation the eighth-largest corporation in the country, he labors under constraints that no private-sector CEO has to deal with,” Franzen writes. That’s because Runyon isn’t a CEO—and those “constraints” are government regulations that keep the post office loyal to its democratic principles.