THE REST OF THE POST OFFICE STORY Part 2

The scandalous behavior of Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s new Postmaster General for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has gotten quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media, but there’s more to the story than they have been reporting. This post and my previous post present at least some of the rest of the story. (My previous post described DeJoy’s Friday night massacre of personnel and the role of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who obtained sweeping operational control over the USPS and unprecedented access to its information through negotiation of a $10 billion line of credit for the USPS from the Treasury. [1] [2] )

Despite the current characterization of the USPS has operating at a loss, the postal service wasn’t viewed as a profit-making business by our country’s founders or throughout most of its history. Moreover, Congress has put requirements and restrictions on it that mean it can’t be run like a business.

The USPS is a public good that supports our democracy, a civil society, and other economic activity, as roads and schools do; it shouldn’t be run like a business to make a profit. We don’t expect the military or the National Park Service to generate a profit, so why should we expect the USPS to generate a profit? Our country’s founders thought of the postal service as critical to ensuring that citizens of the new democracy were well informed and therefore believed it should, among other things, subsidize delivery of newspapers. According to the Postal Policy Act of 1958, the USPS provides an essential public service that promotes “social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse among the people of the United States”. The Act also states that the USPS is “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit.” [3]

However, in 1970, as the era of deregulation and privatization began under President Nixon, the Postal Reorganization Act made the USPS an independent federal agency (instead of a Cabinet agency like the Departments of Education or Defense) and required it to cover its costs. Nonetheless, the law limited the USPS’s ability to increase prices for its services, expected it to deliver mail to every household and business in America six days a week, and required it to keep postal rates the same across the whole country despite substantial differences in the costs of delivering mail in different areas. [4]

Since then, Republicans have been trying to privatize the USPS because it represents a large revenue stream, $71 billion a year, that they would like to see go to their friends and campaign contributors in the private sector. One strategy for doing this has been to undermine the USPS and make it look bad, to make it look like it’s poorly run, and to make it look like it’s operating at a deficit, in order to build an argument that privatizing it would make sense.

In 2006, in what many observers felt was an effort to make the USPS look financially unstable and therefore ripe for privatization, the Postal Accountability and Enforcement Act (PAEA) was passed. It required the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits far into the future, which no other federal agency or private business is required to do. Specifically, it required the USPS to pay $5 billion to $6 billion a year into a retiree health benefit fund from 2007 to 2017. This has made the USPS appear to be running a deficit, when, without these payments, the USPS would have reported operating surpluses from 2013 through 2018. [5]

The current slowing of mail service is just another tactic in the effort to make the USPS look bad. The resultant inability to deliver ballots or medicines in a timely fashion, not only makes it look bad, but also undermines its revenue because mailers and shippers are shifting their business to competing, private service providers. For example, the slowdown is forcing the Veterans’ Administration to use private shipping services to get medicines to patients in a timely fashion and Amazon is building up its in-house delivery capacity and its fleet of vehicles.

The USPS is prohibited by law from branching out into new business lines that could boost its revenue and its services to the public. Offering basic banking services is one example, for which there is historical precedent. From 1911 to 1967, the USPS offered savings accounts. In 1967, the Postal Savings System was terminated at the behest of private bankers who did not want its competition. Today, money orders are the only financial service offered by the USPS. [6]

Postal banking is now receiving renewed attention because there are sizable poor urban and rural areas where bank branches are scarce. In addition, private banks have a track record of charging high interest rates and fees to low-income account holders, as well as failing to provide equitable treatment in access to credit and other financial services. As a result, 9 million U.S. households are effectively excluded from banking services and are described as “unbanked”.

The payday lending business has emerged to fill this gap and has grown into a $90 billion business. However, its usurious interest rates and fees, and its business model of locking customers into a cycle of debt that it’s often difficult to escape from, have led to a search for more consumer-friendly alternatives. In 2014, the USPS’s Inspector General noted that the USPS could make profitable loans at a much lower costs to consumers than what payday lenders were and are providing.

In the presidential primaries, a number of the Democratic candidates proposed allowing the USPS to offer basic banking services and Senator Biden, the Democratic nominee for President, supports this policy proposal. It would make basic banking services more accessible and affordable, particularly for low-income households.

In the face of this revived interest in postal banking, which would help the finances of the USPS and benefit the public, Postmaster General DeJoy and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin have reportedly engaged in discussions with megabank JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) about putting its ATMs in post offices and giving JPMC the exclusive right to solicit banking business from postal customers. This is clearly a backdoor effort to eliminate the possibility of postal banking – competition private sector bankers and payday lenders vehemently oppose. (So much for the private sector’s belief in a free market and competition!) Moreover, this doesn’t address the issue of unbanked people because if they don’t have a bank account, they can’t use the ATM. JPMC has a particularly troubling track record in this regard as it has historically failed to provide branch services in low-income, minority, or immigrant neighborhoods. [7]

A postal banking system would provide free usage of Treasury Direct Express cards and other government payment services. This would have streamlined and simplified the distribution of the pandemic emergency relief funds to low-income households who badly needed the $1,200 but didn’t have bank accounts to which the money could be electronically transmitted. Furthermore, the privacy of users’ information would be much better protected by the USPS, which could only collect limited user information and is barred from sharing it. A private bank, on the other hand, will collect as much information as it possibly can and will use it, share it, and sell it for commercial, profit-making purposes.

Mnuchin and DeJoy are engaged in sabotage of the USPS, plain and simple. They want to discredit it as a public agency, undermine its union workers, and shift its revenue to private companies (namely their friends and campaign contributors).

My next post will review policy changes that would strengthen the USPS and better serve the public.

[1]      Dayen, D., 8/18/20, “Treasury’s role in postal sabotage,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/treasurys-role-in-the-postal-sabotage)

[2]      Queally, J., 8/8/20, “ ‘Friday night massacre’ at US Postal Service as Postmaster General – a major Trump donor – ousts top officials,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/08/07/friday-night-massacre-us-postal-service-postmaster-general-major-trump-donor-ousts)

[3]      Editorial, 8/21/20, “The US postal service lost $0,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Morrissey, M., 8/11/20, “Trump’s war on the Postal Service helps corporate rivals at the expense of working families,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/trumps-war-on-the-postal-service-helps-corporate-rivals-at-the-expense-of-working-families)

[5]      McCarthy, B., 4/15/20, “Widespread Facebook post blames 2006 law for US Postal Service’s financial woes,” PolitiFact, The Poynter Institute (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/apr/15/afl-cio/widespread-facebook-post-blames-2006-law-us-postal)

[6]      Shaw, C. W., 7/21/20, “Postal banking is making a comeback. Here’s how to ensure it becomes a reality.” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/21/postal-banking-is-making-comeback-heres-how-ensure-it-becomes-reality/)

[7]      Carrillo, R., 8/30/20, “Postal banking: Brought to you by JPMorgan Chase?” Inequality.org (https://inequality.org/research/postal-banking-jpmorgan/)

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