Money Talks

The Election Exposes Why the Post Office Should Not Be Treated Like a Business

It can be an arm of government or a profitable business — it can’t be both

James Surowiecki
Marker
Published in
6 min readOct 22, 2020

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Illustration: Pablo Delcan

Money Talks is a column that explores what happens when business, the economy, and culture collide.

On April 13, 1957, America was rocked by a national crisis: The mail did not come. It was a Saturday, and Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, facing a budget crisis, decided to cut off Saturday deliveries. The decision was sensible, economically speaking. But it was politically disastrous, provoking a huge outcry from Americans who found it intolerable to wait two days for a letter. Later that week, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill that provided more funding for the post office, and on April 20, letter carriers across the country were back on their appointed rounds.

That April 13 hiatus was the only time in the history of the U.S. Postal Service that mail wasn’t delivered on a Saturday, and from one angle, it looks like just a little quirk of postal history. But it was actually a perfect expression of the post office’s basic dilemma: It’s expected to be run like a business, but it isn’t allowed to do the things a business in its position would.

The post office has been losing billions of dollars for years, but this year, because the pandemic crushed mail volume, it’s on pace to lose at least $12 billion.

This is a dilemma the USPS has faced for many decades. But the combination of the pandemic and this year’s election — which has brought an unprecedented increase in mail-in voting — have thrown the problem into even sharper focus.

The post office has been losing billions of dollars for years, but because the pandemic crushed mail volume, it’s on pace to lose at least $12 billion this year. The post office is a government agency, but thanks to the Postal Reorganization Act, a law that was passed in 1970 in order to help modernize the post office, it’s supposed to be self-sustaining — meaning it gets no regular federal funding. So in order to stay afloat, it had to get the government to…

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James Surowiecki
Marker
Writer for

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.