The Post Office Is a Valuable Government Service. Why Don’t We Treat It That Way?

Louis DeJoy unveiled his 10-year plan to cut hours and raise prices, all in the name of profitability

Photo: Matthew Rader/Unsplash

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy presented his much-awaited—or, rather, much-dreaded—10-year reorganization plan at a news conference yesterday and it was pretty much what people expected it would be. DeJoy wants to cut hours, shut down some post offices, raise stamp prices, and lengthen the amount of time it takes first-class mail to be delivered, all in the interest of saving the U.S. Postal Service money.

I’ll leave it to others to debate the specific details of DeJoy’s plan. What I think is most important to understand is that this plan is that it only makes sense if you believe the post office should be a business rather than a government service. DeJoy made the case for his plan by saying that without it, the USPS was going to “run out of cash and require a government bailout.” In other words, his governing assumption is that the Postal Service should be economically self-sufficient, and should make whatever changes are necessary in order to make that possible — even if those changes significantly impact service and access.

DeJoy has, predictably, already taken a lot of flak for his plan, just as he’s taken a lot of flak for the operational changes and cuts to service he’s put in place since he was appointed by Donald Trump. But the truth is that he is more a symptom than a cause of what’s wrong with the USPS. DeJoy’s assumption that the Postal Service should be self-sufficient isn’t some personal hobbyhorse; the Postal Reorganization Act, which Congress passed in 1970, decreed that the USPS was supposed to be self-sustaining. What DeJoy is doing is, in effect, taking Congress at its word and saying, “If you want the Postal Service to not lose money, this is what you have to do.”

The fundamental problem is not Louis DeJoy. The problem — as I wrote about in Marker before the election — is that Congress wants the Postal Service to be a profitable business and essential government service at the same time. And it’s impossible for the Postal Service to be both.

What’s the solution? We have to pick one. If we want the USPS to be self-sustaining, then we have to reconcile ourselves to changes like the ones DeJoy is proposing. But if we want first-class mail to be delivered quickly everywhere for the same price, regardless of distance, and if we want post offices to stay open everywhere, then we should just abandon the idea that the USPS should be self-sufficient, and we can treat it like any other government agency.

In that scenario, the Postal Service wouldn’t need a “government bailout,” it would just have an annual budget. And it wouldn’t have to worry about “running out of cash,” any more than the Department of Defense worries about running out of cash. If we don’t like what DeJoy is proposing, we don’t need to accept it. We just need to give up on the idea of the Postal Service as a business, too.

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.

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