No One’s Got Mail

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S1: Jacob, you strike me as the kind of reporter who’s doing your own unofficial research on Postal Service mail delivery times is that. So I have your number, is that right?

S2: No, because I have people who do that for me. All of my mother’s friends. The amount of emails or text messages I have gotten from my mom about her friends, who their package is stuck in a processing plant in Richmond, and they want me to write about it. You know, that gives me a pretty decent metric.

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S1: What’s the state of mail delivery bad? Jacob Bogage is a reporter at The Washington Post. He’s been covering the U.S. Postal Service as it goes through some of its biggest changes in years. First-Class mail delivery times were slow down Sunday. The price of sending a package goes up. The change that’s most noticeable has already taken effect. Your post office used to aim to deliver the mail within three days of receiving it. Now the goal is delivery within five days

S3: as part of a 10 year plan to slash billions in debt and modernize the Post Office. Controversial Trump appointee Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ordered to slow

S1: down the postmaster general Louis DeJoy says his agency is running up too many costs. The slow down on mail is just one way he’s trying to fix that.

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S3: If I paid all my bills, I’d be out of money tomorrow. And you know, I’m trying to take this board and myself and his management team to try and take seriously. The issues that face us is that we have a bet we’re in a broken business model and changes need to happen.

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S1: Democrats have been unhappy with DeJoy’s changes.

S3: How does changing the standards to lengthen delivery times, to double or triple delivery times successfully address service problems? It sounds like your solution to the problems you’ve identified is just surrender.

S1: Let me just say the idea of the mail makes sense as a concept, sure. But the U.S. Postal Service is confusing and the debates over how it should fulfill its mission and what its finances should look like. Those debates are practically guaranteed by the law governing this agency. I say this because that law does not make sense. And if you have any doubt of that, Jacob Bogage will read the law to you.

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S2: I have done Tom Dudek, scholar like Level Reading on 39 U.S.C. 101. But you could not write a more confusing thing if you tried. Postal Service shall have as basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the nation together. And then you have one sentence that says and the value is also very important. Like I read section eight of U. S. B is shall provide maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural communities. No post office shall be closed for operating in a deficit. OK, but how do you expect to make money and planning to build a new postal services shall emphasized the need for facilities and equipment designed to create desirable working conditions. So it’s basically like spend all this money on everything

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S4: but break even points and. And.

S1: And with a law that muddled neither snow nor rain will keep us from arguing about the Postal Service and the core disagreement, Jacobs says, is profound

S2: questions about what we want our Postal Service to be are not fundamentally about the mail. They are about what we expect from our government. That is the same conversation we are having about. Every other aspect of government. In one way or another, and the Postal Service is just another and frankly more personal battleground for that argument.

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S1: Today on the show, Democrats spent months fretting last year about the Postal Service and the fate of democracy, now the Democrats are in charge. So why is the mail slowing down? I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Go buy some stamps. What are the most controversial parts of the new plan that’s been approved for the USPS?

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S2: There’s two main parts that are most controversial, and they work in tandem with each other. One is the service slowdowns your mail is going to get slower no matter where you are in the United States. If you set a piece of First-Class mail, it was supposed to be delivered previously within one to three days. Now that will be within two to five days. It could be longer for offshore areas including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, other territories. The other is a price increase that will go hand in hand with that. So not only is your mail going slower, you are going to pay more for it.

S1: Here’s the professed reason for changes to the Postal Service. It’s carrying around a lot of debt. We’ve talked about that debt before on this show, but the quick version is back. In 2006, Congress passed a law requiring the Postal Service to prepay its retiree health benefits. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Postal Service was making money. Smartphones were not yet a thing. Since 2006, the Postal Service has accrued about $116 billion in debt due to that pre-funding mandate. But even without the 2006 law, the Post Office has a problem. People are sending less mail, and Jacob Bogage says that means the USPS needs to find new ways to make money and cut costs.

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S2: The Postal Service is required by law to be self-sustaining. Now, the way that’s been interpreted is the Postal Service does not get taxpayer funding. It supports itself based on the rate payer, right? You send a piece of mail that is what qualifies the Postal Service’s funding. The profit it can take from that, the Postal Service, clearly it’s not self-sustaining because it has all this debt. It has racked up this debt. It cannot pay it back. So it’s clearly not subsidizing. That, however, drives so much of the decision making of postal leadership that they feel an obligation to rein in spending to get back on that track. What none of them will tell you is that getting back on that track without writing off a lot of that debt and putting it on the taxpayer anyway is impossible. We have passed the point of no return for a self-sustaining post office unless we want to ask it to do a bunch more things or we want to start paying taxes to it, which most other developed countries do.

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S1: Maybe the Biden administration would like a post office that doesn’t need to be self-sustaining. But Biden can’t radically change the way the Post Office works right now. The agency isn’t under the thumb of the president. It’s run by a board and the CEO. The board chose last year with much input from the Trump administration is Louis DeJoy.

S2: Louis DeJoy is the postmaster general of the United States. That’s a position that originated in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin. The Postal Service of the United States is older than the country itself. That speaks to the import of this position that Louis DeJoy inherits in June of 2020. He is a former supply chain logistics executive that is the business of getting objects from Point A to Point B.. He’s also a major donor to the Trump campaign. In the order of millions of dollars for his 2020 re-election effort. Less than a month after she takes over in June of 2020, she hands down a series of organizational changes at the Postal Service, instructing postal workers to slow down the mail that we cannot afford anymore to be heroic. We can be dedicated and consistent and that completely frazzled the agency’s network. We’re seeing mail left behind. We’re seeing piles and piles and piles of packages stacked up in postal facilities such that there are fire hazards and folks have to push them out of the way to create safe exits. In the case of emergency. And this is all happening as it’s becoming very, very clear that this election that elected Joe Biden, president of the United States, is going to be conducted in large part through the mail. And it’s becoming even more clear that even though it may not have been Donald Trump’s original design, hampering the Postal Service is going to be a major pillar of his attempt to delegitimize the election and ultimately try to cling to power.

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S1: Right, it was seen as this. I mean, Democrats were just freaking out last year. DeJoy was seen as like the apotheosis of their fears. What do we know about how the USPS actually handled election related mail?

S2: They did a decent job of the mail pieces that they were able to identify as ballots, which were not all of

S1: them write just about half right. Right.

S2: Just about half. They delivered the vast, vast majority more than 95 percent of that one time,

S1: and they spent money doing that. I mean, they made the effort to do it.

S2: And they spent money doing that because they were ordered by four federal courts to do that. So the election happens. Joe Biden’s generally accepted as the winner of the election November 7th. He forms a transition team, as all presidents do. He even forms a transition team for the post office, which is unheard of because it’s in such poor shape. By February, after he’s taken office, he names three nominees to the Postal Service’s nine member board of Governors. He does this before his attorney general, nominee Merrick Garland, is even confirmed. I mean, these were among his first appointments.

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S1: Why is that so significant?

S2: There was a recognition that the Postal Service was in deep turmoil, both financially and operationally. There was a deep distrust of this fundamental institution and part of the build back better agenda of the president’s agenda was restoring faith in institution. He is nothing, if not Washington’s foremost institutionalist. That made revamping the Postal Service a major priority before those nominees can be confirmed by the Senate. The Postal Service’s Board of Governors, which at that point was entirely appointed by President Trump, rushes to approve its 10 year plan for the Postal Service. That includes cost cutting and service slowdowns, and immediately after the new members to the Postal Board are confirmed, President Biden’s nominees, all three of them speak out publicly, saying We have strong disagreements with the service. Slow down portions of this plan. The committee will come to order today. We’re considering.

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S1: Here’s what Democratic nominee to the Postal Board, Anton Hajar said about plans to slow down the mail.

S5: Mr. Chairman, I agree completely. The service dictate the deterioration of service in recent times is simply unacceptable. It can’t be the hallmark of the Postal Service that that is declining in delivering service to emerging people. There is an enormous reservoir of goodwill among the people for the Postal Service that has to be preserved. It cannot be squandered.

S2: And so that’s where we are now with this deeply divided board that is trying to reconcile the future of this institution with the deep distrust that the American people have developed its enduring financial problems and a service crisis that really has not resolved itself.

S1: We’re going to take a quick break here. More with Jacob Bogage in a minute. I want to pivot back to the plan, this 10 year plan that has taken effect, at least in part. And I want to talk about how it’s changing the Postal Service and how it’s discussed by the Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy. You know, there’s a plan to slow down mail delivery that has already begun. Who’s expected to be most affected by the slowdown in mail?

S2: So the Postal Service won’t discuss who is going to be most affected by these mail slowdowns, which is why we did the math for them. What we found in our analysis of these slowdowns is that this is going to most affect folks on the coasts and the outer edges of the country. Why? Because we’re going to drive stuff across the country instead of flying it across the country. That’s going to take more time. So I sent something to my grandmother in Florida that’s going to take longer than it once did, because the thing is that letter is not going to ride on the belly of a Southwest Airlines flight on the way down there. It’s going to go in the truck and it’s going to ride down 95. That has a big impact on consumers. Because think about the the things that you rely on in the mail, prescription medication is huge. Your bills, your paychecks. A lot of those are sent from centralized mail houses. They are not necessarily sent from your workplace or your doctor’s office down the street or your insurance company percent from centralized mail offices that are scattered around the country. Sometimes those businesses can do something to get that now closer to you before it enters a post office. Sometimes they can’t. And so I get emails and letters from folks all the time saying I got a late fee on my credit card bill because my bill didn’t show up on time. And how am I supposed to know I can’t pay my prescription? Medications were late. I had to go to the pharmacy and beg them to film me something. So just to tide me over, you know, these are the kinds of issues that that folks face. And oh my god, we’re about to gear up for the holiday season. What a mess that could be.

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S1: Hmm. There’s been a lot of pushback about the mail slowdowns in particular and the 10 year plan generally. But I have to say, when I’ve read what the postmaster has said about this shift that this plan represents, he’s trying to move the Postal Service away from mail and toward packages because yes,

S2: that is the future revenue for the post office. Yes. Right.

S1: And that makes sense. That makes utter sense to me. I just I can also see why people are very skeptical of this plan because no one’s trying to compete with the Postal Service on First-Class Mail. That’s something that private companies don’t want a piece of. Postal Service already does it well. So it’s it’s a little bit odd. You know, I can understand skepticism. Why would you try to do that less well if you’ve already cornered the market in that spot?

S2: Think about it a little bit more skeptically, right? The Postal Service has a monopoly on mail service. It does by law. By the way, FedEx can’t use your mailbox. Amazon can’t use your mailbox. The mailbox belongs to you and your mail carrier. That’s it. If nobody else can break into that market, why do you need to be more efficient in that market? If you’re going to compete with Amazon, which is building out its own distribution service, by the way, which is a huge threat to the Post Office, if you’re going to compete with FedEx and UPS, you need to offer services that truly do compete with those firms. The Postal Service in the package area, they rely on this thing called coopetition, right, which is we have to go to one hundred and sixty one million addresses six days a week, which means that Amazon and FedEx and UPS, if we’re already going there, they can just give us that stuff and we’ll take their money to do it. The more its competitors build out their own distribution networks, which they use the pandemic to do, the more that model no longer works for the Postal Service. They need to innovate in the package area. And frankly, they need to do that even before the pandemic.

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S1: Last year, I spent a lot of time reading and hearing about how the Postal Service could be updated to reflect the way the world’s changed, to reflect the ease of online communication and and how it could still have a crucial role in self-government, you know, and knitting the country together, as was kind of envisioned by the founders. And the reasoning was, well, if post offices are crucial, but snail mail isn’t, let’s have a post office that provides other crucial services. Is any of that happening so far?

S2: So there is a pilot program underway right now to offer some expanded financial services, such as you can cash a paycheck up to $500 at four post offices on the East Coast. It’s only four of them, but it will expand in the new year. The Postal Service is pushing to get money from Congress to buy new electric mail delivery trucks up to one hundred and sixty five thousand of them. They would also need charging stations if you put charging stations at post offices and the trucks are not there all day because they’re out delivering the mail. Then could other folks use those charging stations and put the Postal Service collect revenue from that? So again, I think this gets back to the fundamental question of what do we expect our government to do and how active do we expect our government to be? Because putting banking services in a post office is not fundamentally about the post office. It’s about serving unbanked and underbanked constituencies, putting electric vehicle charging stations at post offices. Sure, I guess it helps the post office, but what else does too? It takes gas guzzling trucks off the road. So again, this question about the Postal Service. These are not necessarily about the mail, right? This is about all of society is changing and the Post Office is fundamental to the function of society. And so how can you make this fundamental institution that even though it’s in trouble, it’s not going anywhere? How can you leverage that institution to help more, folks? And if you truly believe the government should be in the business of helping more folks, then it’s a great tool for you. If you don’t believe that that’s the role of government, which a lot of people do not, then. You know, this is an agency that maybe does not need to have the same role in American society as it once did.

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S1: You know, you say that, and I immediately think of the the conservatives, I know who for all their feelings about the government, they really want to get their mail in three days or in two to three days like they really care about their mail. It’s it’s not a controversial agency. Really?

S2: Yeah. Let me let me say this. This is why the folks who are wary of government expansion. This is why there has been a year long campaign about postal policy, right? Because this is a very attractive way to expand the role of government without using other levers of government that are less popular. Right. The Postal Service comes to your door every day, and there’s someone in a nice little uniform and a cute little car that waves to you and drive slowly through your neighborhood. They don’t run over your child chasing a ball through the street, and they bring you your paycheck and they bring you your medications and they check on your in-laws, you know. I mean, and now and now they want to be a bank. The poor little Postal Service wants to be a bank. The poor little Postal Service wants new trucks. You know that those are massive expansions of government’s role through a massively popular institution. And I think that is why, for one reason, conservatives kind of see through this veneer of, well, we’re just tinkering with postal policy. Now you’re not just tinkering the postal policy, you tinkering with so much more.

S1: Jacob Bogage, thank you so much for talking.

S2: Oh, it’s such a pleasure. Let’s do it again soon.

S1: Jacob Bogage is a business reporter for The Washington Post. That’s the show. What next is produced by the heroic Elaina Schwarz and the unflappable Davis land, as well as Danielle Hewitt Carmel Delshad and Me Mary Wilson. Alison Benedict is the executive editor of Slate. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcast. Host Mary Harris will be back tomorrow. She said something about hitching a ride on a mail truck should be fun. Thanks so much for listening.