Usually, when I'm in Paris and someone warns me that he's sending a package, I mentally consign that unfortunate parcel to the Great Lost & Found in the Sky. If the package actually arrives — anytime in the following six years — I assign the windfall to sheer, dumb luck.
Theoretically, the French post office resembles the US Postal Service. It's committed to delivering every letter or package sent to or from every address in France, come Hell or high water. However, in practice, La Poste is a sort of daily maelstrom into which tons of innocent mail are dumped unceremoniously. This roaring vortex randomly spits out a pitiful few shreds of mail and swallows the rest. Some items that it coughs up land, coincidentally, where they were intended to go.
The rest of the mail? Who knows. Your Parisian mail carrier, preoccupied with the chore of shoving letters down the sewer drain, doesn't know. Or care.
I ponder this because my wife, Hotlips, and I are preparing to spend more time in Paris, which requires me to bid adieu to my Brooklyn mail carrier, Wendy. Like most of the USPS workers I've known over the years, Wendy's a peach. She and I stop and talk whenever we meet on the street or at the mailbox. Hotlips and I travel often, but Wendy has never complained about holding our mail and delivering it — in a back-breaking 40-pound block wrapped in rubber bands — when we get home. Sometimes I try to compensate for her labors by bringing a souvenir — chocolate from Paris, cheese from Wisconsin.
For a while last year, I worried about Wendy's job, because the US Mail (founded in 1792 by Ben Franklin) was in dire fiscal straits. It ended up losing $16 billion and making painful cutbacks. Luckily, Wendy was too valuable to lay off.
The USPS's troubles are ironic. Among the world's postal services, it is the absolute cheapest. Americans bridle at 45 cents to send a first-class letter, but this is about half the first-class rate in France, Japan, Germany, and most other countries. Moreover, the USPS is the rare national post that pays its own way, requiring no taxpayer subsidies.
So, why the big deficit?
Fact is, the USPS would be at least solvent and very likely using a surplus to expand into new services (like the postal bank that sustains Japan's P.O.), if not for a law passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress in 2006. This weird measure mandated funding of the USPS employee pension plan for 75 years forward. Suffice to say that no pension fund anywhere — public or private — requires a nest-egg good for three quarters of a century.
But that's not all. The mandate imposed a 10-year deadline — at a cost of $5 billion per year in postal revenue — for fully funding the pension plan. As these annual outlays have piled up, the postal service has gone artificially and unnecessarily into the red.
Meanwhile, House Republicans, back in the majority and led by anti-government zealot Darrell Issa (R-Cal.), chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, are pushing new legislation to further gut the good old P.O. and land Wendy on the unemployment line (but with a really nice pension).
Theoretically, the right wing's animus toward the US Postal Service is a rigid free-market belief that all services are better performed by private outfits than by public bureaucracies. However, there are ample examples to contradict this philosophy. Take, for instance, the Post Office.