What’s Up With the Mail?

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey, listener, we are talking about the postal service in this episode, and man, if you have tried to mail something, you know how frustrating it is. So I guess what I’m saying is we curse a little bit. You’ve been warned. If you Google around, try to figure out who is doing what at the post office these days, if you click the official organizational chart for the agency, you’re likely to get one of those 404 not found messages. At least that’s what happened to me when I tried to figure it out yesterday because a couple of days ago, who’s doing what at the U.S. Postal Service changed radically.

S2: Yeah, I mean, that’s never a good sign, right?

S1: Jordan Weissmann has been covering the post office for Slate. 23 executives were either reassigned or replaced, which is huge.

S2: Yeah, it’s just like the entire top of the org chart, you know, got shuffled around. I wouldn’t say everything changed. I would say everybody who had reasons to be concerned previously now have more reasons to be concerned.

S1: People have been concerned because the United States Postal Service is finding itself stretched increasingly thin, it’s running out of money like a lot of businesses that are dealing with this coronavirus. It’s being led by a new postmaster general, a guy known for pushing workers to a breaking point. And all this is happening as it’s begun to dawn on many politicians just how essential the mail is going to be come November.

S2: The sense of dread is escalating very, very fast because everyone has realized that the upcoming election is going to hinge largely on our ability to make vote by mail work. Right. It’s just there’s no way that everyone who would ordinarily go to the polls is going to do it this time around because we have a plague.

S1: And there’s one more thing. Do these people have been lining up all week at this post office trying to find their mail? They say that this slowdown in post office service, you can feel it all across the country. My wife’s been sitting here waiting for mail for like the last five days, dozens of frustrated.

S2: You can tell us a story when, like, local news is covering it everywhere. Right? Like that’s like, you know, it’s not just like, oh, you know, political reporters that, like The Washington Post or New York Times are worried about, you know, the speed of mail delivery. It’s like you’re seeing these local news stories about how, you know, residents in Maryland towns are like, you know, showing up, infuriated at their local post office and like banging down the door to get their letters and their mail and their packages because things aren’t showing up. Five to convict, five, everything. The only thing I didn’t survive was the mail, the delays. I’m not a conspiracist by nature, but like way to do exactly the thing you would expect the Postal Service to do if you thought it was aiming to sabotage and undermine vote by mail. Right. It’s just it’s nuts. It’s totally nuts.

S1: Today on the show, what Washington needs to do to get you your mail and to ensure a free and fair election. Both of these goals run right through the U.S. Postal Service.

S3: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: The Postal Service has been in rough shape for years, we’ve talked on the show about some of the reasons the Internet dealt a blow to mail volume. The Postal Service is dogged by a requirement that it funds its employee health care benefits. And many Republicans want the Postal Service to function more like a business. So it makes sense that the Trump administration would push the postal service in that direction.

S2: The pandemic just kind of accelerated all of these trends early on in the coronavirus crisis, it was very obvious that the Postal Service was going to be in financial trouble and they started asking for a very large a fairly large bailout, which Donald Trump was not at all on board with and the administration was not on board with because the entire Trump administration hates the Postal Service. Donald Trump has been ranting and raving about it for years now for all sorts of reasons.

S1: And to be fair, like every business was lined up for a bailout when the coronavirus hit.

S2: Right, exactly. But the difference is that most businesses don’t have Donald Trump’s, you know, burning antipathy to deal with. But the thing to realize about the Postal Service’s financial troubles is that most of them really are or have been due to this prefunding requirement for years. People kind of toss off that that phrase prefunding requirement. Right. And you see it mentioned in stories. But but it’s actually worth kind of getting into the background of what that was. Essentially, back in 2006, Congress decided that the Postal Service should have to prefund about seventy five years worth of its retiree health benefits.

S1: Does any other organization do this?

S2: No, nobody does this. No, no. I mean, it’s insane. Public. Private. Yeah. Just I don’t know of any private one that does this. There are certainly some companies that have overfunded. There are a few companies that are overfunded pension funds, but 75 years worth of retiree health benefits. I mean, for there’s no one in the federal government that does that. It was silly and it immediately started to go wrong because they passed this in 2006 or 2007 and then we got the Great Recession and the Postal Service just got walloped. And so for years and years after this, the Postal Service has been putting up these huge paper losses, the majority of which have come from this prefunding requirement. They’re often not even making these payments. They’re they’re deferring them. And so when you hear about the Postal Service being in debt, it’s because they’re essentially in debt to themselves, to people, to the government for not having prefunded these health benefits. And the issue, though, is that, yes, these losses are on paper, but it’s still prevented them from really investing and kind of, you know, modernizing some aspects of their operations. And they have also faced legitimate challenges. Obviously, the volume of first class mail write like just letters, which is sort of their bread and butter has plummeted, plummeted thanks to the Internet. That’s been balanced out a good deal by package delivery. And that’s helped a lot. And in fact, there are many years over the past decade where they would have turned a profit operationally if it had not been for this prefunding requirement. And most recently back in twenty nineteen, that would not have been the case. They would have still lost money even if you ignored this whole health benefit thing. But there have been years where there would have been fat years and there would have been thin years. So the Postal Service’s financial troubles are partly a result of its core business declining, but they are also largely a creation of Congress. And so that’s why the whole idea of just totally trashing service in order to save money on the edges is so, so absurd that it’s like, OK, well, we’ve we’ve totally screwed up this this key American institutions books for the past decade. Let’s make sure people now can’t get their mail so we can save a few extra shekels like come on.

S1: So let’s talk about the new postmaster general. As soon as he began taking the helm, folks started ringing the alarms saying, we need to talk about this guy. And I got to tell you, you look at his resume and it’s not quite the same, but I get, like, real Gordon Sundlun vibes off this guy. Like, I don’t know if you remember from impeachment, he was like a donor who was made an ambassador. You know, he’s he’s a big donor put in charge of the post office. His wife was just was an ambassador.

S2: And she she’s previously been an ambassador and she’s currently nominated to be the ambassador to Canada. Yeah, it’s similar. It’s similar vibes. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. So explain a little bit who he is.

S2: So Luis Dejoy is a former logistics executive. Right.

S1: What is logistics?

S2: It’s shipping. It’s trucking. It’s getting goods from one place to another. Right. And he ran a company called New Breed Corporation. It was a family business that he took. Over when it was a small trucking company and he made it into, you know, a fairly large a fairly large corporation. In fact, in the U.S. Postal Service was one of its clients. And eventually he sold that company, New Breed, to another logistics firm, a much larger one called XPO Exports, a global corporation. And again, they also do, you know, logistics, shipping, trucking, moving, moving your Whirlpool dishwasher from Lowe’s to your house or whatnot. One of the first things that most people noticed when he was nominated to be the postmaster general was or selected to be the postmaster general, said he was a major Republican donor. He’s given money to the Republican Party, apparently about two point five dollars million total. And he also donated to Donald Trump’s victory fund. So he’s a Trump donor and he’s a Republican donor. And his people immediately started to worry that Donald Trump was putting a funky in charge of the postal service. And the reason this would concern people is because Donald Trump has spent the last several years trashing the postal service, calling it a joke, saying how it needs to increase package prices, mostly because he hates Amazon, because Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

S1: Do you have like a greatest hits of what Trump has said about the post office?

S2: He’s called it Jeff Bezos, a delivery boy and is he’s called it the Amazon like scam. And he’s totally, baselessly talked about how the Postal Service is supposedly giving Amazon a sweetheart shipping deal for a long time. He latched on to this stat. Let’s call it a factoid, because as I’ll explain in a second, it wasn’t remotely true. But a while ago, Citibank put out this report suggesting that the Postal Service was losing like one dollar and 50 cents per package, like it was losing money on every package it shipped and the way it arrived at that conclusion, it was essentially essentially adopting a line that lobbyists for UPS had been spouting in their attempts to get the Postal Service to up its package prices because, of course, that would mean more business for them. Private shippers want the Postal Service to charge more because that means more people will use private shippers like UPS and FedEx.

S1: So using the data from the USPS is major competition.

S2: Yeah, basically. And with the Postal Service, basically how you view their finances and whether or not they make money on packages kind of depends on how you think about the way they distribute their their fixed costs, like how they they cover their fixed costs. Basically, the Postal Service says that they cover their fixed costs through the price of their their letters, their first class mail, and that lets them charge a little less on packages so they can get more of that business. And UPS says that’s unfair, that they should charge less for the letters and charge more for the packages. That’s like that. The whole argument is. And so they try to turn that into into the idea that the Postal Service is losing money. What’s funny about this?

S1: So what do you like? Who cares what you think?

S2: Yeah, exactly right. It’s like, well, no, they just distribute there, just like that would be cool.

S1: You have your own business. Yeah, you, buddy.

S2: Yeah, exactly. It’s just like, well, no, they’re not losing money on the packages. It’s just that they’re like they’ve they’ve priced their different products in order to maximize their amount of volume so that they make more money. It’s very silly. But Donald Trump, like, you know, latched on to this and he still cites it. Right. Like it’s this idea that he is just wedged in his brain. And so he has have this vendetta against the Postal Service for a variety of reasons for a long time. And then also he’s been on the warpath about vote by mail for the last several months. And so we’ve had all these reasons to be worried about what about Donald Trump’s ill intentions for the United States Postal Service. And then he puts this flunky or this guy who looks a lot like a flunky in charge of it, and that immediately caused a lot of people’s spider senses to start tingling.

S1: Yeah, totally. I mean, like, well, I was looking into this story. I wanted a better picture of how, like, postal workers were thinking of Lewis Dejoy and their newborn not happy now. I mean, the head of the postal union runs his Facebook group where he puts out videos like 25 minute videos where he just like free associates, how he’s feeling. And he did one just all about Lewis Dejoy, I think it’s called Lewis Dejoy must go destruction.

S4: The only thing that this man is concerned about is making money. The problem is you’re the postmaster general of the Postal Service. The Postal Service mission has never been to make money.

S1: That’s why they call it as he looks into everything that happened at Joy’s last job. And he’s like, listen, you need to know about this guy that this logistics company. He ran The New York Times, did an investigation of them. And the pregnant workers at this company were miscarrying because they were working so hard and. They’ve never been unionized, you know, and he raises all these points and was like, yeah, that is that’s a good point.

S2: He is not pro labor, but this is he is not known as a union friendly guy. And that is one of the core tensions between conservatives and the Postal Service. Right. One of the reasons they hate it so much. Let’s be honest. Why a lot of conservatives despise the Postal Service is because it’s a huge, huge unionized workforce. They see it as the enemy. And a lot of ways and, you know, some people some people even talk about this, that there’s a racial element to this because it’s a it’s a large unionized workforce with a lot of black employees and conservatives just, you know, they’ve wanted to spin it off and privatize it and break the union. And for four years now and the Trump administration, I’d say also at one point put out a plan to eventually spin off the the Postal Service and outright privatization plan. They kind of walked it back afterwards because it’s not exactly a popular idea. But, you know, this guy that they’ve put in charge is sort of sort of the antithesis of what the Postal Service stands for. He’s a union busting former private logistics executive. It’s very much fox in charge of the henhouse, you know.

S1: So let’s lay out exactly what he did when he took this job, because very quickly he started remaking the organization, not just what happened this weekend, but he started doing things like cutting overtime.

S2: Well, just saying they won’t pay overtime. Yeah. And within about a month of arriving, he announced a, quote, operational pivot. Right. Like, that’s that’s and no one ever wants to hear about an operational pivot or pivoting to video.

S1: Yeah, that’s right.

S2: Journalists especially fear that phrase. But in this case, it was a series of cost cutting measures. He said there would be no more overtime pay. He told letter carriers that they were not to return to pick up mail that had to be left on the factory floor if they couldn’t make it all one trip. They are just to leave it there. They weren’t to do multiple trips in order to make sure all the mail got sent out each day. It was just, you know, you make your one scheduled delivery and if stuff doesn’t fit on the truck, too bad we get it the next day.

S1: Don’t work too hard is what is Sony saying?

S2: Yeah, don’t work overtime. But that was like, you know, he just wants to, quote, cut costs and and find efficiencies.

S1: Is there a charitable interpretation of this, like we needed our workers to be more efficient and so we really had to draw a line somewhere.

S2: The most charitable interpretation is that he’s trying to save a little bit of money for the Postal Service because it’s had these big, quote, losses over the past decade and that it’s time for it to become more efficient and lose less money. But even if you were looking at this from the perspective of trying to fix an organization, it’s extremely penny wise, pound foolish. These changes have resulted in massive backlogs in mail that are undermining people’s faith in the Postal Service’s ability to do its basic job. If you were trying to fix an organization and get it in shape for the long term, this is not the approach you would take.

S1: Just making it shittier at its job is not is not really plan A, and we should lay out really explicitly why a lot of politicians are thinking about this in terms of the election, because in 34 states, you don’t just have to, you know, sort of have your absentee absentee ballot postmarked by Election Day. It has to be received by Election Day. So you can see how well-meaning person could drop off their ballot, you know, a few days early and it still wouldn’t reach the destination on time.

S2: Right. There’s the concern about whether or not people will get their ballot on time and whether they’ll be able to get it delivered to the county election office on time. Right. We’ve seen some discouraging signs already, for instance, with the Michigan primary where some people weren’t getting their ballot until literally the day before new people go to. Yeah, it was there have been signs that this is not an imaginary problem, that this is this is a real and present danger. And Detroit is so far given absolutely no signal that he has any real plan to fix this problem. His first public comments have just been that we are fixing the post office and we’re going for these operational efficiencies. And don’t worry that we will be able to handle election mail.

S1: But he’s not explaining how Jordan says there is a way to avoid an election meltdown. Make restoring the Postal Service a sticking point of the next coronavirus relief package thing is doing that will take more than money. Any aid for the Postal Service? It’ll need some tamper proof legislation around it.

S2: It’s pretty obvious at this point they just giving USPS more cash is not. Good enough, because it’s not clear that the Trump administration or Louis Detroit would actually use the money, right? That’s the problem. Good faith or use it in good faith. It’s not clear that they would. So we’re now at a point where whatever happens or if if they if Democrats and Republicans can reach some sort of a deal and coronavirus relief, that bill needs to contain a bailout for the Postal Service, that one provides more money to tells the Postal Service how it has to use the money and how it has to restore service and has to speed up delivery back to where it was and prioritize ballots. And then it also has to have all these other, you know, legislative protections to make sure that the Trump administration doesn’t just essentially freeze the money and not use the funds, which, as I discovered while I was talking to some appropriations experts, there are all sorts of backhanded ways the Trump administration could actually basically impound any money if Congress wanted to give it, if they’re not careful and don’t put restrictions. So there like these multiple layers of the Congress needs to give it money, tell them how to use it, and also give very specific legal instructions that they can’t not use the money like it’s just. And then on top of all of that, we have to hope to God the Trump administration actually just follows the law and doesn’t totally flout it, which, as we know, they might just you know, they occasionally just follow the law when they feel like it.

S1: Hmm. Is it crazy to think that Republicans might want to help Democrats save the Postal Service?

S2: You know, it’s crossed my mind. I don’t know. It’s hard. There’s also a large contingent party right now that’s actually happy to just, like, not pass any bill to deal with coronavirus relief at this point.

S1: But the USPS is the most popular federal agency like more popular than parks, more popular than NASA.

S2: Yeah, but again, you have to realize that they really hate the Postal Service, like a lot of a lot of the world. Conservatives really, truly dislike it. But I think the reason why some conservatives might want to fix this issue is that Republicans are worried that their elderly voters in places like Florida are going to get screwed by this because they rely on vote by mail. You know, we saw a little bit of movement on this from Trump, where he after months and months of talking about how, you know, voting by mail wasn’t reliable and it was fraudulent, it was going to you know, it was going to be part of the Democratic plan to rig the election. He suddenly kind of reversed course and said, except in Florida, in Florida, vote by mail is great. They have an established system and absentee ballots that are totally safe. And you should if you’re an old person, Florida, you should feel 100 percent comfortable putting your ballot in the mail.

S1: And of course, that’s where the president votes by mail, right?

S2: It has for a while. And so it was silly. And it shows how some it clearly shows how some Republicans are whispering in his ear, hey, you might be screwing us over, too, by doing this. And so, you know, maybe, just maybe that provides an opening to actually try and take action to fix what’s wrong with the Postal Service right now. But I would not I would not count on a big hand from Republicans on this, let’s put it that way. I would not there needs to be as much volume about this as possible as soon as possible like this. If I’m the Democrats right now, I’m just talking every single day about how Donald Trump is sabotaging the Postal Service.

S1: Yeah. You know, your business reporter and I think I know where you come down on this, but a lot of the criticism of Dejoy from postal experts has been that he talks about the USPS as a business with the idea that it’s not a business, it’s a service, it’s a postal service. I heard the the union guy say this, too. He’s like, it’s not a business, it’s a service. Do you buy that? Do you agree with that?

S2: Yeah. I mean, yes, yeah. It is a I mean, like it’s in the goddamn constitution, like for various reasons, the Postal Service is treated as an independent agency that’s supposed to sort of be self-sustaining. And I don’t think it’s totally crazy to look for the Postal Service to kind of sort of break even. Right. Like just like, you know, you don’t want to be totally spending taxpayer dollars, deeply subsidizing Amazon deliveries. Right. Like private corporate customers and such should probably be paying their fair share at the same time, like there’s no reason not to treat the mail as a government service. There’s no reason to be thinking of it as a profit making entity. If you believe in government services, you know, the Postal Service is kind of the original one. It’s the thing that actually made the United this big, sprawling country into something approximating a unified whole. The fact that you could actually send letters across from it in the across it and the government would carry them. So, yeah, I mean, not to wax eloquent but or grand eloquent, but I think treating it as a business is a little bit base and a little bit and and wrong. And it tells you a lot about the people who do that. They, they, they can’t. Conceive of something as just a public good. You’re a believer. Oh, yeah, no, I like if you believe in functioning government services and public goods. You know, this is the oggi, you know, like this is this is the original.

S1: Jordan Weisman, thank you so much for joining me.

S5: Thanks for having me on.

S1: Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt and Jason de Leon. We’re getting a little help from Daniel Eavis. We always get a boost from Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. I’m Mary Harris. Find me on Twitter at Mary’s Desk. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.