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Faculty Viewpoints

Please Mr. Postman

Some have defended cutbacks to the United States Postal Service, weeks ahead of the election, by citing the USPS's financial struggles. But the postal service was created to provide a public service, writes Yale SOM's Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, not to turn a profit.

A USPS worker wearing a mask puts envelopes in a mailbox while driving past

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This article originally appeared in Fortune.

The Marvelettes’ 1961 chart topping song “Please Mr. Postman” pleads, “Deliver the letter, the sooner the better.” Now 60 years later, this group’s surviving singers, all in their late 70s, might join a chorus of others worried about their U.S. mail service, as voters who are older and who have impaired health increasingly rely on voting by mail. In fact, while mail-in voters made up roughly 25% of the voters in 2016, the number of such voters is expected to increase this year, given the public health warnings over COVID-19 transmission.

Thus the public was alarmed over the sudden removal of hundreds of high-speed letter sorters (which can sort 35,000 letters an hour), the removal of hundreds of collection boxes by the U.S. Postal Service just 70 days before the election, the cancelation of overtime payment to workers needed to process pandemic-caused backlogs, and the firing of dozens of USPS managers. This not only was seen as election sabotage, but it pointlessly jeopardized paychecks, Medicare payments, and deliveries of needed pharmaceuticals to patients.

“When President Richard Nixon recast the U.S. Post Office as the U.S. Postal Service in the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, his goal was to give the organization a clear public service mission not driven by profitability.”

In the aftermath of bipartisan outcry from political leaders suspecting a Trump administration effort at voter suppression of mail-in ballots, including a summons for the U.S. postmaster general to appear before Congress next week and lawsuits in 20 states, the USPS promised Tuesday to pause these service degradations. “We will not allow Donald Trump to steal the election by sabotaging the United States Postal Service,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement. “The president greatly misjudged the anger his unlawful policies would unleash across this country.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported Wednesday, “The postmaster general frankly admitted that he had no intention of replacing the sorting machines, collection boxes, and other key mail infrastructure that have been removed and that plans for adequate overtime, which is critical for the timely delivery of mail, are not in the works.”

Last weekend, a Wall Street Journal editorial supported the USPS cutback, claiming the post office has not broken even for years, with total losses over the past 15 years at $78 billion—and with another $2.2 billion lost just last quarter. The Journal cited a recent Government Accountability Office report calling the USPS’s current business model “not financially sustainable.”

President Trump has threatened to block $25 billion in emergency assistance to the Postal Service. The goal of those funds is to help the quasi-independent agency recover its lost revenue from the pandemic and fortify it in time for the election. But Trump has charged, without evidence, that mail-in ballots would result in massive election fraud favoring Democrats. Some Republican congressional leaders, such Senator Roy Blunt, have indicated support for financial assistance to the USPS to help ensure the election can successfully take place during the pandemic.

The charges of massive election fraud by mail-in ballots are not matched by evidence, with states long relying on mail-in ballots almost exclusively for years. While President Trump has called absentee voters cheaters, the only significant mail-in ballot fraud in decades was a Republican ballot harvesting scam in North Carolina, which led to the court overturning the election and sending the felons to prison. Ironically, even President Trump and his family vote by mail while continuing to assault this very process.

As to the President’s charges that the post office business model is broken, so what? We have fine alternatives in UPS and FedEx.

If the nation wants the post office to make money, perhaps charging $5 a letter would help. But then, making money was not why First-Class Mail was created. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin proposed the postal system as a vital network to bond together the 13 disparate colonies. This is why Franklin wisely pushed to certify this national institution in our Constitution, where Article I, Section 8 reads: “The Congress shall establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”

As seen with rural electrification, the national park system, the interstate highway system, and the internet’s parent ARPANET, the federal government provides services that supplement private markets. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

When President Richard Nixon recast the U.S. Post Office as the U.S. Postal Service in the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, his goal was to give the organization a clear public service mission not driven by profitability. The act reads: “It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.”

The disparaging term “going postal” was derived from an unconnected series of killings by postal workers in the 1980s thought to be suffering from stress. It may be that it is the President going postal today.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints