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November 27, 2012

by Matthew Broder
VP, External Communications
Twitter: @ctwordsmith

Imagine a patient checking into the hospital with a serious, but curable, illness. The vital signs have been deteriorating for awhile, but there is disagreement among the medical staff about the exact underlying cause. Loud arguments even break out about the best course of treatment, all while the patient continues to suffer.
Then, into the room walks a stranger with scarcely any medical training at all. “Let the patient die,” he says. “He has no more value to anyone, and can easily be replaced. Let him die.” You can imagine the reaction among experienced medical experts to this suggestion, and even common sense tells us to ignore such a radical idea.

Yet this very scenario continues to play itself out on the pages of respected publications and websites when the ‘patient’ is the United States Postal Service. It’s time for this nonsense to stop.
The latest uninformed “pull-the-plug” recommendation comes from Huffington Post columnist Eli Lehrer, the president of a free-market oriented think tank, R Street. In a Nov. 25th blog, he describes the Postal Service as ‘useless,’ and advocates a complete sale of the brand and assets to the private sector.
I’m not blind to the huge challenges facing the Postal Service. Its business model is under assault, and meaningful reforms are hard to achieve. But any serious conversation about postal reform should be based on facts, and the facts cited by Lehrer don’t stand up to scrutiny. Among the problems in his critique:
  • Postal privatization, which Lehrer extols as a universal good, is already part of the landscape of America’s postal network. The Postal Service contracts out significant amounts of work to the private sector, and uses its rate structure to foster additional commercial participation in postal activities. There is probably room for still more work by the private sector, but in the end it’s that postal carrier that links the country every day.
  • Lehrer asserts that “there isn’t a single major activity the Postal Service undertakes that some private company doesn’t do better and on a similar scale already.” Really? Really? Can he name the company whose delivery network drops 160 billion documents to 152 million unique addresses every year? UPS is a wonderful company, but it moved a mere 4 billion items in 2011; FedEx, another fantastic company, moved fewer than 2 billion. Lehrer, a free-market advocate, might want to ask UPS and FedEx executives—and their shareholders—how eager they would be to replace the Postal Service.
  • And don’t worry about the millions of people who lack internet access and depend on the Postal Service for vital communications. Lehrer suggests that someone (he doesn’t say who) could purchase “a very nice” computer and broadband internet connections for these people. It’s hard to take this argument seriously. People who have had internet access for years still use the mail to interact with companies both large and small. Access to the internet does not automatically end the need for mail.
Since Lehrer’s think tank is free-market oriented, he might want to touch base with some of the millions of private sector companies that use (and pay for) the Postal Service. They’ll tell him that mail remains an important part of their communications portfolio. They’ll tell him that, sure, they wish it were cheaper, but they’ll also tell him that they do not want to lose access to valuable customers who prefer mail. They’ll tell him that mail complements their digital marketing and sales efforts. And small businesses will overwhelmingly tell him that mail is the local advertising medium they can most afford, and that can be easily targeted to the specific demographic groups they are trying to reach.
The patient doesn’t deserve to die, Mr. Lehrer.