The postal reform bill passed by the Senate this week averts the decimation of the Postal Service that had been proposed as a way to save it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders took an active role in the Postal Service issue, and in Vermont the benefits will be real. The mail processing center in White River Junction and 15 small rural post offices will be spared. The proposed cutbacks for the Postal Service had included up to 252 processing centers across the nation, but the Senate bill will keep open more than 100 of them. It would also keep open many of more than 3,600 mostly rural post offices that had been targeted for closing.
Significantly, the Senate bill will prevent the loss of many of the more than 200,000 jobs that would have been lost as a result of the Postal Service cutbacks.
In order to cut costs and bring in new revenues for the Postal Service, the Senate bill would reduce current and future retiree health benefits by $5.5 billion a year. It would also point the Postal Service in the direction of new entrepreneurial ventures to adjust to our changing modes of communication and to bring in more revenue.
This approach to Postal Service troubles has much to tell us about a constructive approach to the economy as a whole. As the United States and Europe have contended with their economic travails, they have embraced to varying degrees the need to practice austerity ó to reduce government services, to cut back government payrolls.
In Europe austerity measures have been more severe, and the damage has also been severe. It turns out laying off people by the hundreds of thousands causes unemployment; it does not stimulate growth. England has returned to recession, and austerity elsewhere in Europe has led to depression-level unemployment. The combination of austerity and depression is causing voters to rebel, as they have done in France and the Netherlands.
The Postal Service response to deficits was to propose a significant degradation of the Postal Service, curtailing Saturday delivery, closing down rural post offices, laying off hundreds of thousands of employees. The result would have been the destruction of public infrastructure that in many small towns is central to community life.
The Senate bill reduces the cutbacks and keeps Saturday and overnight delivery. It rejects the premise that we must destroy the Postal Service in order to save it. It also accepts the responsibility of addressing the long-term financial issues related to health care obligations.
It is just what the federal government must do on a larger scale with the economy. It is possible to address the long-term fiscal shortfalls foreseen for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid without destroying the programs. Meanwhile, in the short term, it is important to stimulate the economy in order to get it moving again, rather than further cutting jobs and destroying infrastructure.
The United States has fared better than Europe in recovering from the recession because of the stimulus measures undertaken by the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve. Laying off hundreds of thousands of public employees would undo stimulus that our fragile economy still requires.
President Obamaís program has emphasized public investments in vital services: education, research, energy. It is a mistake to view the Postal Service as something other than a service ó a piece of vital infrastructure that is the underpinning of commerce. We have set it up as a business in order to minimize the cost, but to believe it must make a profit like a business is to set it up for failure. The same holds for other services, such as Amtrak or our public schools or hospitals.
Companies such as UPS or Federal Express handle a fraction of the material that the Postal Service does. They are like charter schools, occupying their special profitable niches, but we need to continue to support the vital services of the Postal Service, as we do our public schools. These services create community and enrich our society. We canít do without them, and in supporting them adequately we also lay the foundation for economic recovery.
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