Commentary

The Bleeding Continues: USPS Loses $2.4 Billion Last Quarter

Following up on earlier posts here and here, the Washington Post reports today that the U.S. Postal Service—the beleaguered federal enterprise and proverbial “government option” in the world of mail delivery—continues to bleed red ink (the chart illustrates this vividly):

The U.S. Postal Service lost $2.4 billion in the quarter that ended June 30 and forecasts a $7 billion loss for the fiscal year, according to figures released Wednesday. Mail volume dropped 12.6 percent over a nine-month period, continuing a sharp decline fueled by the economic recession that began in 2007 and by wider use of the Internet.

Though attention in recent months has focused on the potential closure of hundreds of post offices or the elimination of Saturday mail delivery to narrow the budget gap, most of the Postal Service’s financial woes are tied to labor costs, especially billions of dollars in required payments to prefund future retiree health benefits. The cost of funding current and future retirees is likely to top $7 billion this fiscal year. […]

“The Postal Service does not want to do anything that would disrupt this economy,” he said. “Over a trillion dollars moves through the mail in any given year, and we are a hub of an industry that employs some 8 million Americans. We have no intention of doing anything that would disrupt the flow of mail.”

That flow has slowed in recent years, to an average of 4.1 pieces of mail a day delivered to each address, down from 5.9 pieces in 2000, according to Postal Service figures. The decline has contributed to losses in 11 of the past 12 fiscal quarters.

In response, the Postal Service has implemented hiring and salary freezes and has dramatically cut its workforce — by 37,000 employees in the past year, to a total of 630,000, down from a peak of 802,000 in 1999. It recently renegotiated more than 300 service contracts, saving $200 million.

The financial numbers follow last week’s classification of the Postal Service as a “high risk” government agency and come just days after it released a list of almost 700 post offices it will consider closing. The list once included as many as 3,000 facilities, and some postal officials privately acknowledge that no more than 200 locations, most of them in downtown urban areas, are likely to close. The varying figures have raised the ire of lawmakers concerned that mail service will be trimmed in their districts with little notice.

For context, the USPS lost a total of $2.8 billion for all of last year, so this year’s losses are projected to more than double. The business model is clearly failing—abysmally.

And even though the sensible thing to do immediately would probably be to close thousands of outlets, instead they’re talking a few hundred. And each one of those closure proposals may prompt a hard fought political battle, if the early, parochial reaction by several pols in the WaPo piece offers any indication. We will see numerous politicians effectively grovelling not to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic as it quickly sinks.

Why would any politician in D.C. think that the federal government could get healthcare right when it can’t even run a postal business? The sooner pols realize that the federal government generally has a “black thumb” with enterprises like this—a reverse Midas effect, if you will—the better.

Reason Foundation’s Federal Privatization Research and Commentary

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.

The project aims to promote solvent, sustainable retirement systems that provide retirement security for government workers while reducing taxpayer and pension system exposure to financial risk and reducing long-term costs for employers/taxpayers and employees. The project team provides education, reform policy options, and actuarial analysis for policymakers and stakeholders to help them design reform proposals that are practical and viable.

In 2016 and 2017, Reason's Pension Integrity Project helped design, negotiate and draft pension reforms for the state of Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Corrections Officer Retirement Plan, which both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gilroy is also the Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation, researching privatization, public-private partnerships, infrastructure and urban policy issues.

Gilroy has a diversified background in policy research and implementation, with particular emphases on competition, government efficiency, transparency, accountability, and government performance. Gilroy has worked closely with legislators and elected officials in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, California and several other states and local governments in efforts to design and implement market-based policy approaches, improve government performance, enhance accountability in government programs, and reduce government spending.

In 2010 and 2011, Gilroy served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Arizona Commission on Privatization and Efficiency, and in 2010 he served as an advisor to the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, created by Gov. Chris Christie.

Gilroy is the editor of the widely-read Annual Privatization Report, which examines trends and chronicles the experiences of local, state, and federal governments in bringing competition to public services. Gilroy also edits Reason's Innovators in Action interview series, which profiles public sector innovators in their own words, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and more.

Gilroy's articles have been featured in such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business, CNBC, National Public Radio and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Reason, Gilroy was a senior planner at a Louisiana-based urban planning consulting firm. He also worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Gilroy earned a B.A. and M.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.