Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | April 4, 2009

P.O.’ed

I got a notice in my mailbox yesterday, from the Post Office.  It informs me of the following:

The carrier delivery routes in your Zip Code have recently been involved with route evaluations.  It is anticipated that these evaluations may result in changes to either your assigned letter carrier or your time of delivery each day.

In today’s economic times, route evaluations and associated changes are necessary to control rising operational costs and to allow the USPS to provide consistent, efficient, and reliable mail service to our customers on a daily basis.

My own – uneasy – evaluation of this announcement was, I admit, influenced by the fact that there was nothing else in my box yesterday.  It is very rare for me to receive nothing in the mail on a given delivery day.  Today’s mail was at a low count, but perhaps not suspiciously so.  Time will tell.

In light of recent news that the US Postal Service is running out of money, however, and will be bankrupt by the end of FY09, I am set to wondering what exactly is going on with our Congress, and how to redress the lack of rational accountability now rampant in our federal government.  What sensible American could view with complacency the contrast between, on the one hand, Congress’ repeated approval of spending bills full of high-speed rail lines between Disneyland and Las Vegas, and programs to create “green jobs” associated somehow with school lunches; and on the other hand, apparent inattention to the fiscal state of the national postal service, which is depended on by virtually all Americans?

I know the USPS is not a taxpayer-funded organization.  It is, however, a federally-chartered organization.  People rely on it for receiving and paying monthly bills, for sending and receiving money, for shipping goods, dispatching important documents, and in many places, for being their entry point for access to the federal government, for such administrative requirements as registering for Selective Service or obtaining a passport.

One can accomplish most of those things in other ways, although for millions of people, losing the option of relying on the US mail for bill processing would be a significant adjustment.  This particular process is, in fact, emblematic of what Congress does not currently allow:  the handling of first-class, 1-ounce letter mail, by private commercial carriers.

It is all very well to say that people can bank and pay their bills online.  Adjusting to doing that is (a) a psychological hurdle for many people, and (b) much harder than a far simpler adjustment that Congress has felt it necessary to provide funding for – and now President Obama has delayed the implementation of:  all-digital TV broadcasting.  Sparing the people extra cost, for uncomfortable adjustments, has a contemporaneous precedent ready-to-hand.

And it costs quite a bit, in the average budget, to keep household computer capacity updated so that online access remains smooth and routinely useful.  For many people, especially older Americans, affordable first-class letter mail is much more cost-effective.  That would be the case even if there were a competitive, market-driven way to determine the “right” price for first-class letter mail – and if that price as much as doubled over what it is now (soon to be 44 cents per item, on 11 May 2009).  A private commercial carrier might well have to charge more per “first-class letter” to deliver the same performance as the USPS; but for most people who still make broad use of postal services, this method of communication would remain their preferred, and most cost-effective, one.

Consider, however, how antique it sounds in April 2009, to speak of Congress having a care for the convenience and cost-effectiveness of the options in ordinary citizens’ most basic daily arrangements.  The services of the USPS are as boring to a modern Congress as those of the FDIC:  mere one-dimensional obligations undertaken decades – centuries – ago, that today do not offer the opportunities for media posturing and constituency-tending afforded by hearings in which CEOs are raked over the coals, or spending bills in which “green jobs” are featured, and the digitization of all our medical records is lauded – absurdly – as a means of “improving” our access to health care.

I don’t have any ingrained objection to our methods of communication changing.  That is not the point here.  The point is the contrast between Congress’ apparent lack of attention to a national service we have every right to expect to continue functioning – or to at least be transformed on a deliberate and considered basis; and Congress’ relentless attention to political theater, and surreally irresponsible spending, for things we can never hold Congress accountable for.  You and I can tell whether mail shows up in our boxes.  And our creditors and service providers will notice immediately if the bills we mail do not make it to their mailrooms.  But who will know what really happens with all those “green jobs” that the market, apparently, does not demand – since it takes government to insist on them?

Eventually, one supposes, it will be possible to point back to the $787 billion spending bill of 2009 and ask, “Where is the high-speed rail line from Disneyland to Las Vegas?”  Even supposing that it does get built, however, we may apply the same market test to it that we apply to the “green jobs,” and suspect that, since the tourism market has not prompted private investors to build this line themselves, the demand for it will not requite the taxpayer in any way a sane person would consider fiscally sound.

The untethered nature of the fiscal insanity being displayed by our federal government may be starting to come home to us.  Before I see even one more stage-managed theatrical in a Senate hearing room, I want to know what Congress is going to do about the Post Office.  As far as I’m concerned, turn it over tomorrow to private industry, and let FedEx or UPS run it.  But don’t just ignore it because it’s boring, and it only serves the millions of American taxpayers who are not snuffling up to the federal trough demanding power, control, or money.

Before leaving this topic, we may well ask how we got to this point:  where middle-class citizens justly suspect that routine services might collapse, and Congress is off experimenting with theories about stimulating the economy through colossal spending plans, on programs for which the citizenry cannot possibly hold Congress accountable.  If you have read one of my first “hobby horse” posts, you know that I would trace much of the break in Congressional accountability to the adoption of the federal income tax, and the 16th Amendment.  The percentage-basis income tax, combined with the practice of payroll withholding, effectively severed all relation between Congressional spending and the tax burden individuals carry.  The “alert” mechanism for the taxpayer was eliminated a century ago:  our taxes do not go up or down with what Congress spends, and with payroll withholding, many of us don’t even pay any effective attention to the amount of our taxes.

But the other side of the coin has been our high tolerance for government spilling over boundaries it has officially set for itself – usually with rodomontade and sanctimony.  The original income tax was supposed to affect only the top 1% of incomes; but of course, that did not last.  There were plenty of commentators who warned at the time that it would not.  The original premise of Social Security was redressing the loss of savings of the Depression generations, and seeing them through retirement with dignity; but of course that didn’t last either, as many predicted it would not.  Social Security now represents an enormous, and growing, unfunded entitlement, responsible for at least 45% of the more than $65 trillion in US national debt staring us in the face when we include total current account deficits and unfunded entitlements.  We can say all the same things about Medicare and Medicaid.

A little bit of regulation – to consider things by turning the prism to a different angle – never seems like too much, especially when we bury the cost of it in consumer purchases.  The latter is what we do whenever we “make business pay for” regulatory requirements and mandates.  But when we divorce the consideration of regulation from the cost of implementing it, we loosen the tether of Congress (or state legislatures) to any accountability to the people.  We also perform the highly dangerous act of ceding the principle of regulation, in government’s hands, no matter what it costs.  When we do not demand an accounting from our legislators, that is what we are, de facto, approving:  regulation as if it carries no costs – regulation regardless of cost.

The man-made California water shortage is a superb example of this blanket approval of regulation on principle.  There is plenty of water to serve California, even with below-average snowfall totals:  what there is not – because of the regulatory principle, ceded independent of cost – is enough infrastructure to capture and distribute it.  Add to that negative factor the positive factor of a federal judge deliberately withholding water from human consumers to avoid inconveniencing a fish, and you have a man-made water shortage, imposed on the principle of regulation at any cost.

The unaccountability of government has been increased dramatically by judicial activism:  California, for example, has already made plans under three different governors to improve its water-handling infrastructure, and been stopped on all three occasions by lawsuits from activist groups in federal court.  But we need not look any further than Congress, the legislative branch, to see the long-term build-up of a whole political environment of unaccountability:  of legislative theatrics and posturing, entirely untethered to any fiscal reality.

The regulatory costs imposed on our health care system are another ideal example:  they are buried, for many people, in employer-paid health care plans, so that the insured only rarely realize how much it is costing them to pay for a whole lot of bureaucracy and cost-shifting that they would not, of their own volition, choose to fund.  Congress is well aware of how much of an average person’s health care dollar goes to government-mandated regulatory costs, and to cost-shifting from the non-paying to the paying; but we the people too often go about in fog, unaware that much of the same cost of health care decried by our politicians was actually imposed by our politicians.  We are instead transfixed by emotional appeals and demagoguery.

What we see today, with the homely Post Office on the brink of collapse, possibly having to cut services that millions of people depend on, while Congress spends its time thinking of ways to go into debt for things no one actually needs, and that practically no one will notice if our debt spending doesn’t even produce – this is the culmination of decade upon decade of voter tolerance for unaccountable performance by government.

I don’t know:  maybe the disorderly demise of the Post Office won’t wake Americans up.  It may be that only such a demise by our Department of Defense – or the Social Security Administration – will do that for us.


Responses

  1. I confess, at first, I was not interested in reading a post (ahem) about the Post Office. But it shifted into a nice reflection on government in general.

    I’m still waiting for your post, however, on the report of China’s “kill weapon” for aircraft carriers. I’m really eager to hear what you know about it and what your perspective is.

  2. Term limits.

  3. Like the article, even if it meandered off the theme of the post office, but I think there is indeed a thread which connects all these examples of the failure of our government system. I just happened to come across this article last week on the post office specifically, which I thought you might like as it goes into a little more depth about a) how the USPS strangled itself, and b) how other countries avoided the saem fate. Hope you find it as interesting as I did: http://www.the-american-interest.com/ai2/article.cfm?Id=567&MId=24

  4. Manny — welcome, and thanks. I will check out the link.

    Ritchie Emmons — you may be right, although I think getting back to constitutional limits on the scope of legislation is at least as important a line of effort. Just think of all the businesses and constituencies that couldn’t batten on the taxpayer if Congress didn’t regulate and subsidize them.

    Ahithophel — brain flatulence turned your earlier question about the Chinese ASBM into one about anti-satellite capability. I wrote a lengthy response to the question you didn’t ask, but will try to at least address the correct topic here.

    The best online discussion of the ASBM system I’ve seen was at Info Dissem, here:

    http://informationdissemination.blogspot.com/2009/03/plan-asbm-development.html

    I don’t see a need to rehash it, and will let it stand on its own. My personal take on the ASBM is that it is not a system intended for “routine” use, on the sensible premise that, as a ballistic missile system trying to hit a moving target, it can’t be one. Not with the present state of technology, at any rate.

    No weapon should be dismissed, but this one has a huge, gaping vulnerability: it needs lots and lots of guidance virtually all the way to the target, to have any hope of producing much bang for the yuan. The good news is that we have the means to deny the missile’s support system that targeting information and guidance.

    There is no question that it would require a large, concerted effort by a whole carrier strike group (and potentially theater assets as well) to defeat the missile’s targeting support infrastructure — and that that would be a sizable nuisance interfering with accomplishment of the primary mission.

    But we have reason to consider this defensive proposition feasible, even assuming China continues to refine the system — as long as WE continue our national military priority of improving our missile defense capability. Just about all the elements we would need to defend a carrier against the ASBM, we are pursuing already in our layered BMD concept. And the Navy is already an integral part of that concept, so ASBM defense constitutes an extension and refinement of what we are doing anyway, rather than a separate or new effort.

    I have to say I disagree with the comments of some respondents at the ID post, who suggest that the mere threat of the ASBM will force us to keep our carriers outside its range off the Chinese coast, and thus ruin our operational conditions there in the event of a Taiwan contingency. Suppression of the missile’s guidance infrastructure, and tactical evasion, while inconvenient, are feasible. The weapon is not a game-changer or show-stopper, as long as we prepare for it.

    That said, in a larger context it forms part of an increasingly intimidating array of Chinese capabilities that will give us more and more pause. I think most Naval professionals would agree that the Chinese submarine threat is by far the most worrisome one for the aircraft carrier. China has enough submarines to envision sacrificing some to put a carrier — or two — out of commission, and the water conditions are atrocious for submarine detection in the area where US carriers would have to operate.

    If you add to this the threat of Chinese destroyers with supersonic antiship cruise missiles, and swarms of antiship-armed aircraft from China’s coastal bases, the multi-axis threat begins to mount. I myself don’t think the Chinese would expect the ASBM to act as a failsafe superweapon, but rather as a means of complicating our operational posture and defensive tactics. One thing they could very possibly do with it is time a launch to drive a carrier and her escorts into reactive disorder just when she is about to begin aircraft recovery operations — the most vulnerable period for both the carrier and the airwing.

    While, again, I don’t think the ASBM is even close to the weapon most likely to hit an aircraft carrier, one more general point about “hitting aircraft carriers” needs to be made. It is often pointed out that it takes a lot to sink a carrier. The most likely forms of attack will probably be defeated by escorts before they do enough damage to sink the carrier.

    But this point misses the larger one that a carrier doesn’t have to be sunk to be rendered ineffective. If you can render her unable to control aircraft (e.g., damage the tower badly), or unable to make 35 knots of wind over the deck with her own propulsion, you take her out of action. Without her own speed to make wind, she is not a reliable recovery platform for aircraft. Hit her in the propulsion just before recovery, and you may even succeed in forcing some number of pilots to ditch their aircraft at sea — especially in a combat zone where fuel constraints and enemy fighters could impede their diversion to alternate recovery bases on land. A submarine, obviously, is the platform to use for this propulsion disabling task.

    In summary, it’s not the perfectly reliable character of any one weapon system or threat that makes China increasingly formidable versus Taiwan — and I’d put the ASBM at the top of the list of systems that applies to. It’s the cumulative effect of system piled on system that would have to be dealt with in a relatively small and contained battlespace. We impose a political constraint on ourselves that gives China a big advantage as well, and that is our reluctance to think of taking out Chinese capabilities in their home bases preemptively, before an actual Chinese attack. Our planning posture has long been entirely defensive in that regard.

  5. Awesome. Thanks for the info and perspective, Commander. Now…what do you think are the chances that the US Navy recovered the remains of the Taepodong 2 launched by Lil’ Kim? Any chance?

  6. J.E., you are right of course. I think term limits would be a great 1st step in reining in wayward politicians. They wouldn’t legislate for re-election as much. And perhaps fewer appalling laws/regulations would ensue as politicians would be less likely to garner the power that the Kennedy’s, Reid’s, Specter’s, Waxman’s, etc… have accumulated from being entrenched in their seats for so long.

    I sometimes dream of being given dictatorial powers over the USA (despite my love for the concept of democracy). The first thing I would do would be to limit the influence of govt on us and wipe out tons of laws and regulations. And as dictator, I would demand that you blog a favorable story on my efforts!

  7. By the way, I don’t quite understand the nice square shaped designs that accompany our comments. Random, or purposeful? I like them.


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