After he was asked, "Who can compete with the government? The answer is nobody," Mr. Obama's answer evoked the public-private competition in the mail business. "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right?" the president said. "It's the Post Office that's always having problems."
Now we're getting somewhere. People who fear ObamaCare compare it to the US Postal Service. And so does the president! Allow me to walk the president through my post office, on West 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam.
What you'll notice first, Mr. President is: long lines, always. Doesn't matter if it's rush hour or the quietest part of the afternoon, there is always a lengthy wait to get to one of the windows.
The lines have gotten even longer lately because a couple of years ago the two machines selling stamps and other items were removed. I was stunned. When was the last time you saw something de-automated? Ever heard of anyone trading in their washing machine for a new washboard? Are you thinking about buying a car with a hand-cranked ignition system? An employee told me, "It wasn't cost effective." USPS logic: It's more cost-effective to make people wait in line to ask a unionized employee for something than to use a machine.
As you wait in line, Mr. President, amid dingy, trash-strewn surroundings and people sighing heavily and checking their watches, observe the time-warp effect. It's like you have left fast-moving Manhattan and zapped yourself into the Deep South in 1934. Picture a drowsy moment in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
A clerk who has finished with one customer takes a good long pause to settle herself, exchange pleasantries with friends, arrange her workspace and so forth before she lights up the little box and asks for the next customer. If you arrive at her window before she has turned on this light, she will curtly send you away. Don't crowd her! You're just the customer.
There are always one or two supervisors lurking in the background, but unlike, say, the fast-thinking action man who is a whirl of authority at the Wendy's I go to in the Rockefeller Center concourse, these supervisors never encourage their employees to keep it moving, never take a turn at the till themselves, never parachute in to fix snafus. I've never seen any of them do anything except . . . supervise. They're as useless as mall cops.
If you should have to pick up a package, go to the window in the corner. Usually there is no clerk here. There is a doorbell-like buzzer. For a year or so it was labeled "Broken." So if you need a package, just stand there for a while. Someone will come by . . . eventually.
The Post Office frequently boasts that it is self-supporting. It is required to be. But it isn't.
Despite enjoying a legal monopoly on first-class mail -- private carriers are required to charge more than twice as much as USPS to deliver a letter -- and another monopoly on access to mailboxes, despite paying no taxes and being allowed to borrow $3 billion a year from the government at discounted rates, it still loses mountains of money. Projected losses are $7 billion this year, says a think-tank analyst, Don Soifer of the Lexington Institute.
The USPS answer to these problems? Cut services. It is lobbying to curtail mail delivery from six days a week to five. The Lexington Institute estimates that 60,000 mailboxes have already been removed from the streets.
Keep in mind that all the Post Office does is deliver mail, not babies, and that under ObamaCare you will be cooling your heels as you await surgery, not stamps. William Henderson, the US postmaster general from 1998 to 2001, wrote upon leaving that "what the Postal Service needs now is nothing short of privatization."
Leave aside the shocking off-handedness with which the president promised to put tens of millions of Americans in a system that he himself compared to the one that "is always having problems." The US Postal Service is characterized by monopoly, long waits, indifferent treatment of customers, dwindling services, billions in losses and expert opinion that it would work better as a private firm -- exactly the list of flaws critics cite about ObamaCare.
Thanks for drawing our attention to all this, Mr. President.
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