19th April 2012
This surprisingly objective story from NBC Politics about the financial difficulties of the USPS discusses the inability of the USPS to close unprofitable offices because of political concerns, and it discusses the labor costs of the USPS, but it doesn’t mention anything about fuel costs.
The USPS is in the transportation business — airplanes, trains, trucks, and delivery vehicles all require fuel, and the rise of fuel costs in recent years is one of the primary reasons that the USPS is losing money. Since there isn’t anything that the USPS can do about fuel prices, any other business would address this situation by cutting costs, but the USPS can’t cut costs because it is politically controversial either to close post offices or lay off large numbers of workers. So their hands are tied.
There is an interesting political tension in regard to the USPS. The USPS is a universal service that serves a function in unifying the US. As a universal service, one would expect that its critics would come from the right. In some cases this is true, but there is another political dynamic involved here.
Although I haven’t seen any statistics, I would guess that those individuals most likely the see the USPS as an expendable and unnecessary institution would be residents of large urban areas, but residents of large urban areas are more likely to view themselves as “progressive” and therefore friendly to providing universal services, even if these services cannot pay their own way. People in small towns and rural areas are much more likely to be reliant on the USPS, but they are also more likely to view themselves as being on the political right, and therefore less friendly to government-mandated universal services.
I previously wrote about the political split between rural and urban populations in The Rural-Urban Divide. There is an obvious and global trend toward urbanization. This trend, which is likely to increase with the passage of time, will give added political strength to those who share urban concerns. But, as I have mentioned above, there is a tension on both sides of this issue. It remains to be seen whether urbanized populations who view themselves as being less dependent upon institutions like the USPS, which is easily mocked as being outdated, will allow their political instincts for universal institutions to trump their perceived financial interests in using taxpayer money to support an institution that likely benefits small towns and rural areas more than urban areas.
There is another political dynamic also going on here, which is that elderly people are much more likely to use the USPS than younger people. Cities are disproportionately youthful in their populations, but as urban populations increase, they will also age. Elderly populations are much less dismissive of universal institutions and less concerned about looking “dated” or “out of fashion” for patronizing an unfashionable institution. So, once again, there is a political tension.
A political tension usually means a compromise of some sort. This means that the USPS is likely to be kept on life support by the US government, but also kept under government control so that it cannot make business decisions to contain its costs. This in turn means that the USPS will be expected to continue to do what it is doing, but will never be given the resources in order to do a really good job at what it is doing, and will also not be given the freedom to operate as a business would operate (in contradistinction to how a universal institution is expected to operate).