I went to the post office this week. This is something I try to avoid doing at all costs, like dental surgery and balancing my checkbook. But I had received a certified letter from somebody somewhere, and so out I trudged, to the post office at 7th and Dickinson, to retrieve it.
At 8:30 in the morning, there were two people in line ahead of me. There were five counter windows—and one open. As the clerk went through her sleepy routine of stamping and jotting on forms and opening drawers and walking to the back and to the front again, back and to the front again, I watched various other postal employees mull about, some mumbling to one another, others simply circling the place. One was eating a doughnut. It was like a casting call for The Walking Dead.
Eighteen minutes later—yes, 18, and remember, I was third in line—I finally got to the window to retrieve my letter. The clerk had me sign for it, then handed me an envelope—addressed to someone else. We endured another five-minute dance to finally find the right one.
My point isn’t that my time is so precious I shouldn’t have to wait in line, and occasionally a cumbersome or long line, for my turn. That’s life. My point is that my trip to the post office is hardly an anomaly, but rather typical. Because when was the last time you stepped into an efficiently run post office? (Need proof? Read a post by Philly Post contributor Richard Rys bemoaning the post office on South Broad Street.)
Thought so. In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. Postal Service is in some serious trouble. The cost of mailing a letter will rise to 45 cents in January, part of the agency’s attempts to offset annual losses that totaled $10 billion last year and could balloon to $16 billion a year by 2016. First-class mail volume is dropping like a stone, and expected to continue to drop at a rate of 7 percent a year through 2020.
So I’m going to just say it: It’s time to disband the U.S. Postal Service.
The biggest problem the postal service has is the one no one wants to discuss: It has crushing pension and health-care obligations to its work force, promises it had no business making and can’t hope to keep. In other words, it is spending a good chunk of its revenue paying—and paying generously—defined-benefit pensions and benefits for people who no longer work for it. I know of at least two different people who retired with fabulous post-office pensions before they turned 50. Just calculate that for a second: If they each live to 80, they will have collected pensions and Tiffany health care for longer than they worked for the post office. Police and firefighters have similar sterling opportunities to cash out, but at least we justify that by saying they’re risking their lives during the time they’re on the job. But the people who throw a booklet of stamps at you? Who have a phrase for snapping and committing mass murder named after them? This is a service we are supposed to all band together to save?
Typically, the media has dragged out its heart-tugging stories of ye olde post offices in Little Towns, USA that are threatened with closure, replete with fist-waving seniors talking about these “hubs of the community” and weeping steel-bunned postmistresses. “I just wish they would leave our post office alone,” retired nurse’s aide Norma Bowling told the New York Times earlier this month, about hers in rural Neville, Ohio. “If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.”
Really, Norma? News flash: While you’re out there with your coffee gossiping with your other retirees about who’s got bursitis and recapping last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives, the rest of us are paying for your quaint little post office. I’ve got news for all of you: Welcome to the new American way of life. Those of us who work in the private sector have, for years now, lived with the unsettling hum of a daily existence that includes going to work and not really being entirely sure the office is still going to be open when you get there. We’ve seen our job security, never great in the first place, disappear overnight, our health benefits slashed, and our jobs combined and combined and combined until we’re each zipping each other work emails most nights before bed. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t work at least some portion of the weekend or send email from a vacation. And I’m supposed to pay more for postage just so you can keep your clubhouse?
The conundrum of the postal service only serves to reminds us that in America today there are two classes of people: the people who work for government—who can shoot someone in the hallway and not get fired, who never sweat a doctor’s bill, and who don’t have to save a dime for retirement because Uncle Sam & Co. have it all covered—and the rest of us, who pay for all of that.
Yes, yes, yes, I can already hear your caterwauling from here: I know that there are people in the public sector who work hard. But there are far too many who don’t, and a disproportionate amount of them are at the post office. I can only hope that the crisis becomes so critical that someone wakes up and pulls the plug, privatizes the whole shebang, and forces some of these drones to actually work for a living. Perhaps then the other hordes who greedily gobble at the government trough might begin to see how the other half is living.