Saturday, September 24, 2011

That Terrible Inefficient Boondoggle Government Post Office

Growing up in California, my best friend in the whole world was 2000 miles away in Chicago.  The elementary and middle school years were lonely ones, without a single playmate from my school.  To survive the ages from 11 to 16, my friend in Chicago was my anchor.  Leslie and I wrote long silly letters to each other nearly every day.  That fat letter addressed to me in Leslie's handwriting was the first thing I looked for when I came home from school.  It was always there.  The cost of my daily lifeline ranged from 6¢ to 10¢.

Once a month or less, our parents let us call each other on the telephone.  Long distance was expensive and the egg timer was always set for three minutes.  We talked fast and there was no dead space.  In between, we wrote long letters about our lives, the top songs on the radio and whatever silliness girls that age tend to.  Usually the letters arrived with personal messages for the postman penned on the backs of envelopes.

Today a first class letter costs 44¢ and the Post Office is less used and much abused.  Competition for many services -- express mail, package shipping and postal boxes -- drains some of the most profitable services away.  The privatization forces are rallied again though.  They point to the success stories of UPS and FedEx.  The Postal Service's bloated employment and employee pay and benefits are blamed.  But mostly government itself is blamed.  We read that private industry will always do a better job than government at delivering services.

Unfortunately for the Post Office's critics, the federal government's postal responsibilities are encoded in the US Constitution.  Article I enumerates the powers of Congress and included is authority to establish post offices and postal roads.  Our first Postmaster General was none other than Benjamin Franklin himself.  Historically, the Pony Express and mail delivery were crucial to our development as a nation.

The Post Office was subsidized as a vital government service until 1971 when it was required to generate its own revenue.  First class stamps cost 3¢ from 1885 until 1957.  Taxes contributed the rest.  The last government subsidized stamp price was 13¢ in 1971.  Since 1971, fuel for all those mail vehicles (the largest fleet in the country) has risen from 36¢ per gallon to $4.00Average wages in 1971 were $6500/year.  Today the average worker earns $40,000.  If stamp prices rose in line with inflation, first class stamps today would cost 74¢.  (See the Inflation Calculator)  It's remarkable to me that our Postal Service has managed to keep prices so low, roughly half of inflation.

Daily mail delivery to 140 million homes and businesses is a big deal.  Those of you living in cities and suburbs where the task of bringing your personal mail to you doesn't seem so daunting might imagine what my local Post Office does.  Driving all the way to my mailbox (8 miles each way) every day to deliver my mail is an expensive proposition.  These days, I receive about three pieces of mail (mostly at bulk prices around 25¢ each) per day.  A few years ago, the mail averaged six or eight pieces including a few personal first class items.  The potential revenue supporting just my little mailbox has dropped from about $2.00/day to less than $1.00/day.  Of course the Postal Service is losing money.  Higher costs and lower revenues can be expected when fewer pieces are delivered and stamp prices aren't beginning to keep up with inflation.  Neither of those factors has anything to do with inefficiency,  inflated labor costs or any of the other accusations leveled at the Postal Service.

Neither FedEx nor UPS undertakes the costly basic mail service.  They do ship packages and overnight letter delivery at prices comparable to the Post Office, but not necessarily cheaper.   My husband ships flutes all over the world and in most cases, gets a lower price shipping through the Post Office than with UPS.  I have shipped many "care packages" to my daughter's family in Tajikistan and only the Post Office was affordable (though nothing is cheap to Tajikistan).  Curiously, only the Postal Service publishes its prices on its website; both UPS and FedEx keep their rates under wraps, only revealing your costs once you input all of your shipping info.

Often criticism of the Post Office centers on its worker pay and benefits.  UPS handlers start at $8.50/hour; US Postal Service handlers start at $14.18/hour.  Kudos for the Postal Service.  Their full-time workers start at $29,000 in a year, above the poverty line of $22,000 for a family of 4.  An entry level full-time UPS worker grosses $17,000 per year and would qualify for Food Stamps.  If we let UPS take over the Postal Service, we'll all be subsidizing again through our taxes, but this time via food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance.  But full-time pay isn't really the right comparison.  More than half (53%) of UPS' workforce are part-time workers.  FedEx also has 40% part-time employees. The Postal Service is 13% part-timers. (CitationConverting the second largest civilian employer in the US to starvation wages is not in our national interest.

I don't want more underpaid workers I have to subsidize with safety net charity programs.  Plunging the Postal Service's sizable workforce into poverty is not the answer to shrinking revenues.  Eliminating Saturdays sounds fair to me.  Five days is all Canada and many other countries provide.  Raising stamp prices to 1971 levels (74¢ with inflation factored) also seems reasonable.  Continuing to discount bulk mail, necessary to help the Postal Service pay its bills, makes sense too.

I know my grandchildren will not experience the joy of settling into one of Leslie's letters immediately after school.  They will text and email and may not be able to even read our old handwriting.  But we are not at a time where email has fully replaced snail mail.  That thank you card, the catalog from your favorite merchant, a handwritten appeal for a favorite non-profit, actual Christmas cards with family photos, a real magazine arriving in the mail -- these are still very much a treasured part of my world.

Besides, if we didn't walk the half mile each way to the mailbox every day, what would replace the highlight of my dogs' day?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Forgotten Right

When most folks think of the Bill of Rights, they remember the 1st Amendment free speech and freedom of religion guarantees, the 2nd Amendment regarding guns, the 5th Amendment right to remain silent and maybe the 10th, guaranteeing powers to the states.  But the Bill of Rights provided many more essential protections, both for criminal defendants and for ordinary citizens.

The 4th Amendment is perhaps the most violated and least understood.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
 In 1791 this language was pretty clear.  It referred to physical searches of your person, house, papers "and effects".  Yet while Courts have tended to elevate the 1st Amendment protections, keeping them current with modern technologies, not so for the 4th.  Our courts have tended to loosen our 4th Amendment protections while zealously guarding free speech and freedom of the press.

Gradually, the courts approved searching your possessions without probable cause if they were in your trash can or in your locker at school.  It became legal to search your body and possessions without reasonable suspicion or probable cause before boarding a plane or entering a public building.  Hidden video cameras that track your every move on the street, in stores or in public buildings are now permitted.  And on the Internet, websites are permitted to track you, recording your behaviors and planting "cookies" in your computer.  In fact, the courts allow nearly everyone but the police to search you at will.  And even if the police perform an illegal search, you have no legal recourse.  They can't use the evidence at trial but you as the violated individual have no redress.

The latest assault on search and seizure protections is mandatory drug testing (urinalysis) for individuals applying for public assistance.  Already many private and public employees have allowed this highly invasive form of search and explain that if it can be done to them, it should be done to others.  Some pipe "If you don't have anything to hide, there's no objection."  An interesting rejection of the 4th Amendment's protections in toto.

The erosion of privacy rights guaranteed in the 4th Amendment ought to matter to everyone.  There is nothing more terrifying than a more powerful entity -- government, big business, your employer or even your nosy neighbor -- able to cross into your personal space and rob you of your privacy and dignity.  We will soon see widespread DNA testing for whatever reasons they concoct to use the technology and create the database.  These invasions are usually sold as ways to make us feel more secure.

As the colonists were expressing their grievances and rallying for a revolt against the British, Benjamin Franklin told the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1775:  They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.  This is precisely the sentiment of the 4th Amendment.

Yet sadly, whether it involves students in schools, employees in the workplace or citizens going about their daily business, we have so generally accepted violations of our privacy that she who speaks up is quickly shouted down.  Why shouldn't government be able to spy on citizens?  Why shouldn't businesses be able to spy on us?  Why shouldn't a TSA officer be able to photograph you nude or grope and fondle you?

If even a fraction--perhaps 10%--of Americans were willing to speak up and challenge incursions on their personal privacy, the trend to ever more invasive surveillance and searches might be halted.  But alas, I hear no one in education speaking up for student rights and no one but the ACLU and a few of us crackpots speaking up for citizen rights.

Last year, I wrote about the appalling collection and dissemination of very private information about every student in Oregon and throughout the U.S.  Yet there is no outrage and there has been no change.  When the system was introduced, I was told by the Oregon Department of Education that mine was the only voice of concern.  This is highly troubling.

Why don't those decrying big government speak out against government surveillance programs?  Why does the Patriot Act get renewed over and over by bipartisan majorities?  Like Rodney Dangerfield, the 4th Amendment gets no respect.

Click here for a history of U.S. government surveillance.