Be wary of talk about privatizing the post office

While thumbing through the household mail one recent day — a bill from the vet, a statement from the bank, 47 come-ons for low-interest credit cards and a birthday card from Grandma — I pondered the following riddle:

Why is it that the same conservatives who harped on how an obscure provision of the U.S. Constitution should have invalidated the healthcare reform act never talk about the provision that gives the federal government responsibility for postal service?

It's right there, at Article I, Section 8. Yet, in some quarters, talk of privatizing the post office never seems to ebb. That talk is experiencing another surge just now, because theU.S. Postal Service is in the process of defaulting on a payment of more than $5 billion owed to the Treasury.

The default has conservatives and libertarians chattering again about how the Postal Service long ago outlived its usefulness. Almost nobody uses the mail anymore down our way (goes the argument), and universal flat-rate service, the governing principle of theU.S. mailfor some two centuries, is a relic of the past and should be put to sleep. The post office, it's said, should be privatized.

A couple of things should be kept in mind as this debate unfolds. One is that as a fiscal crisis, this is as artificial as they come. It's largely the result of a 2006 law that required the Postal Service — almost alone among public and private enterprises — to pre-fund its entire future liability for retiree healthcare expenses. The payments totaled $38 billion through 2011, with further installments of between $5.6 billion and $11.1 billion a year due through 2016.

Combined with the impact of the slowdown in mail volume, the shift toward email and online bill-paying, this put the system in big trouble. Without the unnecessary healthcare payments, however, its deficit is manageable. In 2011, the Postal Service collected $65.7 billion and ended up about $5.1 billion in the red. How big a deal is that? Last year the postal service's deficit came to just over one-tenth of 1% of the federal budget.

The other important point is that the U.S. mail hasn't come close to outliving its usefulness. The day may come when all mail can be delivered electronically, but as long as we're still getting 168 billion pieces of mail a year, we're not there yet. Not even close.

Conservatives who like nothing more than to boil down the national debt to a scary per-capita number act as if they think that postal volume is negligible. OK, let's play it their way: 168 billion pieces of mail works out to 540 pieces per year for every man, woman or child in the United States. Life without paper mail today exists, if anywhere, only in the world ofPhilip K. Dickstories. (And who wants to live in that world?)

What could explain conservative hostility toward the U.S. Postal Service? After all, most members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, will defend to the death the smallest one-room post office in their district.

But what about the characteristics of the workforce? It's heavily and effectively unionized, for one thing. For another, over a long period the post office has been a reliable steppingstone to the middle class for African American families. (Black workers make up about 11% of the USPS payroll, about twice their representation in the overall workforce.) Maybe some people just think these workers are expendable.

The pro-privatization argument rests on the assumption that private enterprise is capable of providing adequate service anywhere in the U.S. at competitive prices. The argument usually doesn't incorporate standardized flat rates, though — the idea being that any dope who "chooses" to live in a remote spot should pay the cost of getting his mail there.

This argument has many obvious flaws, but the most glaring are that not everyone has it within their power to "choose" where they live; and not everyone can live within walking distance of the Dupont Circle stop on the Washington, D.C., subway, from where a lot of these nonchalantly Darwinian pronouncements seem to emanate.

The most insidious claim heard in this debate is that mail service ought to be cost-effective. First of all, there's no such thing. Delivery to some communities is never going to be cost-effective. As economics blogger Kevin Drum points out, in some places delivery always will be unprofitable, except at prices that would make service effectively unusable.

The idea that government services such as mail delivery should be cost-effective is a conservative fetish, with no grounding in the Constitution, history or practice. If every government program were held to this standard, we would have no interstate highways. No international airports. No Internet. No levees on the Mississippi and no Hoover Dam.

These things were all designed or built precisely because private industry was unable to make a cost-effective case for the investment. In each case, however, it was understood sooner or later that, if the cost were spread out over the entire country and even over several generations, the expenditure would be plenty worthwhile.

That's certainly true of universal postal service, which helped bind together this country when it was only a loose confederation of agricultural regions and population centers. If anything, these bonds are even more important today, when anyone can choose his or her own news slant and erect a guarded fence around the neighborhood, and when whole socioeconomic communities are at risk of falling off the map entirely.

Could commercial entities provide the equivalent service on a privatized or contract basis? It's doubtful. Private industry always enters into such deals with earnest promises that they will provide public services without fear or favor, and more often than not they end up promoting their own parochial interests at the expense of the public interest.

Look at the rollout of broadband Internet service — the basis, after all, of the assumption that physical mail delivery has become an anachronism. Broadband is entirely in the hands of commercial companies completely uninterested in providing service except where a commercial return is dependable.

If you doubt that, compare the penetration of broadband in poor neighborhoods versus rich ones, or in California (56% in 2007) versus Mississippi (33%). Don't overlook the evidence that big Internet providers such as Comcast are willing to torpedo open-Internet rules to benefit their own subsidiaries. These are the companies that will have a stranglehold on nationwide communications in a post-privatized world.

Then there's the legal protection afforded U.S. mail. Law enforcement can't open your mail without a judge's say-so, and any private individual who tries could face a long sojourn as an involuntary guest of the feds.

But laws governing the sanctity of your email are in their infancy. Actually, that's a gross overstatement: They're positively fetal. Government agencies may not need any warrant at all to read some of your emails. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and anyone else whose system carries your email can read your messages at whim, with no consequences.

These are all good reasons to be wary of the movement to privatize postal delivery. But the best reasons are the most fundamental: Government is not a business, and citizens are not customers. Universal mail service is one of the defining characteristics of a civilized society, and why would anyone want to throw away something so precious at any price?

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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