Sunday, January 01, 2012

The better angels of our workers

To avoid bankruptcy of the U.S. Postal Service, Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general, announced in early December that the USPS needed to cut $20 billion in expenses by 2015. Among the immediate cuts announced to save an initial $3 billion were closings of thousands of local post offices and hundreds of mail processing centers. The cuts will result in roughly 100,000 employees losing their jobs.

Initially my reaction to these and other cuts such as the possibility of eliminating mail delivery on Saturdays was less than outrage. A day without catalogs and solicitations for donations to not-for-profits or politicians would not kill me. Plus, I wouldn't have to worry about the mail piling up on my front stoop if I had to be on the road for a long weekend.

But in the midst of my indifference, I remember Ed, the guy who's been our local postman for the better part of 15 years. (He took a year or so off to take a desk job at the USPS, but missed the beat and returned.) When Ed is on vacation, his substitutes invariably can't figure out the correct addresses for some of the houses in our neighborhood (our next-door neighbor, for example, has our same house number but lives on a different street) and we end up having to redeliver the mail to the appropriate neighbor.

A couple of years ago, after a shipment of three boxes of books I'd written had been "misdelivered," Ed spent months tracking the package down and finally found the boxes on the porch of a neighbor several blocks away.

My indifference to the USPS is not shared toward Ed, my mail carrier.

Pollsters don't find this disconnect all that unusual. Labeled the "halo effect," it's common for people to loathe the education system but adore their kids' teachers, despise Congress but appreciate their local congressperson, complain about the postal service but appreciate their local postman. The abstract is easy to dismiss. When it's personal, that's a different story.

Of course, it makes sense to try to shore up businesses or agencies when they are bleeding money. But in doing so, it's important to remember the effect that shoring up will have not just on the abstract but on the tangible people involved.

Layoffs happen. Jobs get cut. Economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that the economy consistently rebuilds itself through the process of creative destruction. In the process, jobs are lost, but new companies are launched that ideally will create new jobs.

The right thing, however, is to never forget that the people caught up in this creative destruction are not abstract figures. They are our postal workers, our teachers, our favorite salespeople, our neighbors.

Making layoffs the go-to solution without remembering the individuals who might be affected by the loss of their livelihood makes it too easy to consider before all other options are exhausted. Given the severe financial condition of the USPS, it does seem that it will take many options to right itself.

Ed deserves to be thought of as someone who tries to do good work, day in and day out . . . and so does your mail carrier. And so, too, do the vast majority of workers whose businesses are facing economic challenges.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I find my mailmen to be extremely helpful and go above. All you need to do is talk to one.

Our stupid government should get rid of the nukes we will never use or the prisons we waste $ on to train felons to get better. Or the officials who do nothing but collect six digit asalaries plus graft.

Let us not even talk wars of stupidity.

This whole USPS thing is stupid. They can and will shape up. This is life.

Maybe the rest of the corrupt people who run the system will at least merit a looking over.

We should be the only civilized country without a postal system. What a bad joke. Your government stinks.

Sorry, a broke taxpayer.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings. As a P.O. Box renter, my daily visits to the P.O. to pick up my mail allows me to become aware of and an admirer of the work the post office does and of the dedication of the postal workers, who clearly work hard and diligently, including the postal carriers.

However, there is another side to this story. The Post Office is like any other business - it's success is based on economics just like that of other businesses. Income minus expenses equals profit (or loss). Part of the expenses of the Post Office are the worker's salaries, but even more important, also include the retirement and insurance packages earned by the workers, who are all members of the Postal Union. There is every reason to believe that the economic failure now being talked about of the Post Office is clearly tied in with the expenses represented by the Union demands of high pensions and health benefits, which, taken in their entirety, amount to years of high guaranteed retirement benefits. Of course, all of us who have worked, did so in hopes of retiring with a nice retirement package, including a pension. But, this pension in the case of the Postal workers amounts to pay benefits for retirement way above that which many, if not most workers in their pay scales earn. The union benefits are guaranteed to the workers in their union contract, but since the P.O. is a government institution, their pay and retirement benefits come out of your and my taxes. Therefore, we as taxpayers should not have to support these P.O. workers in these kinds of extravagant retirement packages. Is it any wonder, that with these kinds of guaranteed retirement packages, paid for by the taxpayers, that the Post Office loses money every year? Think about it.

And, I must comment on the other comment - the amounts of money spent by the U.S. government on military, including our nuclear costs, has nothing to do with the concerns about the Post Office. Politically, we all may agree or disagree with our government's costs in protecting ourselves with military and weapons, but these are costs borne by the government for the citizen's protection from outlaw countries. Discussions about "nukes" in connection with the success or failure of the Post Office are totally differerent subjects.

Charlie Seng