Be My Guest

Be My Guest Column by Steve Fox

Saving Ben Franklin

The Royal Mail is for sale. Reuters reported this week that the British government has authorized two investment banks to inititate arrangements for an IPO to sell the Royal Mail… it’s Britain’s largest privatization in the last 20 years. The state-owned Royal Mail could earn the government as much as $4 billion, and earn the banks a sizable commission.

The Royal Mail, founded in 1516 by King Henry VIII, is a major employer and the IPO is fiercely opposed by British postal unions. If the Royal Mail is sold, can the United States Postal Service (USPS) be far behind?

It would be a real shame to waste Ben Franklin’s greatest gift to us – the USPS.

Nowadays, the most famous riders associated with the USPS are probably Lance Armstrong and his bike racing team, rather than the Pony Express. Unfortunately, that scandal takes attention away from the more important news that the Postal Service is set to run out of operating capital in October. It’s been losing a reported $25 million a day, $16 billion during 2012, despite the fact that it raised the price of a first class stamp to 46-cents.

 Running out of operating capital means no money to pay workers or buy fuel for trucks, so no mail delivery. There’s already talk of severely cutting back the Post Office, which is on the verge of bankruptcy due to burdensome retirement fund costs and decline in regular mail because of the Internet. Congress recently passed legislation prohibiting the Post Office from cutting Saturday mail delivery, which would have saved $2 billion a year.

Postmaster General Pat Donahue blames Congressional inaction for most of the financial problems. According to a recent story in US News & World Report, Sally Davidow, a spokeswomen for the American Postal Workers Union said, “Congress is killing the USPS, forcing it to the brink of bankruptcy.” The 112th Congress adjourned before passing a proposed law to cut costs and plug losses. The USPS is a government agency. It’s supposed to be self-sustaining, but it’s regulated by Congress, which keeps voting down proposed postal rate increases.

When I drive around my neighborhood in Norhern California, it brings a smile to my face to see Post Office trucks here. To me, it means the government is still alive and doing the people’s business.

I know many people complain about the Post Office, but it’s better and cheaper than the alternative in any country I know of in the world. A letter mailed on the West Coast will get to its destination, even on the East Coast, in a couple of days. Mail delivery to foreign countries doesn’t cost us a lot more and is also dependable.

The USPS carries mail by pack mules to the Havasupui Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it into the wilds of Alaska. The mail gets delivered to 160 million American homes 6 days a week. According to Bloomberg Businessweek magazine: “It may be the greatest bargain on earth.”

The answer to keeping the Post Office alive is simple and easy.

Let the Postal Service charge more for their stamps and other services. In fact, they should charge a lot more for the 84 billion pieces of junk mail Americans got last year. Instead, the Postal Service recently cut a deal with a major junk mail provider giving them a 45% discount over standard mail rates. Let the USPS raise prices and see what the market will bear. Politicians should stay out of this.

The Post Office has more than 700,000 employees, despite 60,000 layoffs last year. In exchange for keeping their jobs and the Postal Service alive, postal workers can be asked to do more than just deliver the mail. They already have a fleet of federal vehicles and knowledge of local neighborhoods. They could, in order to keep their jobs and benefits, be put into service as early assessors of damages in emergencies

They already know the neighborhoods and most of the residents. My bet is that they would be happy to do this, both to keep their jobs and also because they are – in the true sense of the words – civil servants.

Seeing the mail trucks disappear or come less often would be a terrible loss, both in practical and cultural terms. It would be worse than seeing the milkman trucks disappear, the ones that used to deliver fresh milk, butter, cream and eggs daily, which they did when I was a kid in the Midwest.

A retired postmaster wrote recently that “the American people built the postal network,” not Congress.  The American people can also save the Post Office, by telling their Congressional representatives to focus on doing something this term before adjourning once again with nothing accomplished.

The USPS serves us well; it’s reliable and an important source of jobs. It’s up to we the people to save it before Congress fails to do its duty once again. They should at least consider the legislation that’s already been drawn up. If Congress was as efficient as the Post Office, it wouldn’t be suffering the low approval ratings it is.

Some conservatives have suggested “privatizing” the Post Office. I’d suggest “privatizing” Congress, but it often seems that’s already happened, given the influence of lobbyists and business interests.

Steve Fox is a former national correspondent for ABC TV network  program Good Morning America. He has also reported for other ABC News programs, such as 20/20, Nightline and World News. He covered stories ranging from the Fall of the Berlin Wall, drought and famine and genocide in Africa, the Olympics and U.S. national elections and political conventions. He started his career as a local TV news anchor and reporter in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and a newspaper reporter in Southern California. He has won Emmy Awards and other industry accolades. Following his 30-year career in journalism, he worked briefly as a public relations executive for a global firm and taught multimedia journalism at a San Francisco University. He is currently a freelance writer.

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