Thursday, March 25, 2021

Putting the snail in mail -- March 25, 2021 column


Remember Save the Post Office Saturday?

The demonstrations weren’t huge, but thousands protested outside post offices last August against Postal Service cuts.

Democratic lawmakers, fuming that President Trump was trying to cripple mail service to discourage millions from casting ballots by mail, called for Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump mega-contributor and appointee, to resign. He delayed the cuts.

It’s 2021 and Joe Biden is president. Crisis averted? Not exactly.

DeJoy still runs the post office, and Tuesday he announced a new round of cuts to save the financially struggling Postal Service.

The “Delivering for America” plan in brief: slower mail at higher prices. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that won’t sit well with the American people or Congress.

Instead of delivering first class letters in one to three days, as it tries to do now, the service wants a five-day goal. To save money, more mail would go by truck and less by plane. Perhaps horses weren’t available.

The plan would cut hours at post office windows, because Americans love to stand in line at the P.O. And it would raise mailing rates.

The agency has lost $87 billion over the last 14 years. The plan is supposed to reverse a projected loss of $160 billion over the next decade.

But to reduce service and raise prices at a time when many Americans already distrust government seems tone deaf at least. We need to build up our institutions, not make them less efficient and less customer-friendly.

The Postal Service consistently ranks as the country’s most popular government agency. An astonishing 91 percent of respondents last April had a favorable view of it – higher than any other federal agency, a Pew Research Center survey found.

Strictly speaking, the Postal Service is not run by the federal government; it’s an independent agency that receives no direct taxpayer funding, relying on revenue from stamps and other fees.

Its sterling reputation has been tarnished. Trump had a gripe against Amazon and wanted to force the Postal Service to raise shipping rates, and he wanted to cast doubt on the integrity of mail-in voting.

The Postal Service’s election performance was better than many expected. On average, the service said, it delivered ballots to voters in 2.1 days and from voters to election officials in 1.6 days.

The holidays saw a record 25% growth in the volume of shipping and packages, which resulted in highly publicized delivery delays. On the upside, shipping revenue rose $2.1 billion. The agency plans to focus more on its package business.

While many Democrats want Biden to fire DeJoy, the president lacks that authority. The postmaster general serves at the pleasure of the nine-member Postal Service Board of Governors for an indefinite period. DeJoy enjoys the support of Trump’s appointees on the board.

“Get used to me,” DeJoy told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last month.

Biden has nominated three people to fill board vacancies and replaced the head of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which sets postal rates and has other oversight authority, with his own nominee.

Mailing a letter in the United States costs less than in most other countries, DeJoy’s plan notes. Currently the “Forever” stamp for first-class letters costs 55 cents and a postcard stamp is 36 cents. The plan wants flexibility to raise rates but doesn’t say by how much.

The plan avoids some of the most unpopular cuts floated in the past. It keeps open most post offices, even in rural areas, and maintains mail deliveries six days a week and package deliveries seven days a week.

Raising the price of stamps won’t solve the Postal Service’s problems. Congress in a 2006 “reform” ordered the service to pre-pay its retiree healthcare program decades into the future.

 DeJoy’s plan calls for repealing the requirement and enrolling retirees instead in Medicare, saving $44 billion over 10 years. Congressional Democrats have legislation to do just that.

The Postal Service “binds our nation together in a way that no other agency or organization does,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Oversight committee at the hearing.

No other entity in the world has to pre-pay a benefit 75 years in advance, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee, adding that Congress has an obligation to fix the problem it created.

It’s time Congress acted to restructure the Postal Service so it can provide its valuable services for decades to come. Email and texts have their place, but nothing can replace a letter.

©Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

In 2021, patriots bare their arms -- March 18, 2021 column


Last year, wearing face masks divided Americans.

Now, a political gap has opened around the COVID-19 vaccine – with some Republicans saying they are hesitant, at least, to get the jab.

One in three Republicans say they will not get the vaccine when it becomes available, a CBS News poll found.

An Associated Press-NORC Center poll reported 42% of Republicans said they probably or definitely will not get the shot, compared with just 17% of Democrats.

Nearly half of those who supported President Donald Trump in 2020 said they would not get vaccinated, according to an NPR-Marist poll, and 59% of Republicans said in a Monmouth poll they’d either wait or wouldn’t get vaccinated at all.

Some say they are concerned about allergies and side effects, while others cited a distrust of the government, the polls reported.

“I don’t quite understand . . . this sort of macho thing about `I’m not gonna get the vaccine. I have a right as an American, my freedom not to do it,” President Joe Biden said in an ABC News interview that aired Wednesday. “Well, why don’t you be a patriot, protect other people?”

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers may think saying no is about personal freedom, but let’s call it what it is: selfish and unpatriotic.

The idea of a patriot has been usurped by some on the political right. Trump talked about forming a Patriot Party though has backed off. His supporters, sometimes armed, wear Patriot T-shirts and wave Patriot banners at “Patriot” rallies. Several political parties already have Patriot in their names.

It’s time to reclaim the word patriot, as Merriam-Webster defines it: “one who loves and supports his or her country.”  

Americans who revere the right to keep and bear arms should also bare their arms for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Getting vaccinated is a patriotic act because someone is taking  responsibility not only for their own health and wellbeing but for that of their community, state and nation.

More than 111 million Americans have received at least one dose, and 15% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among those 65 and older, nearly 37% are fully vaccinated. But we still have a long way to go.

For the United States to reopen safely and fully, we need what’s called herd immunity and that means upwards of 75% of adults need to get vaccinated, health officials say.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush recently starred in a public service video showing themselves getting vaccinated and urged Americans to follow suit.

Trump and his wife got vaccinated before they left the White House in January but didn’t make their vaccinations known to the public until this month. He acknowledged on Fox News that many of his supporters don’t want to get vaccinated and he recommended, in a qualified way, they do so.

‘I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” he said. “But, you know, again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that, also.

“But it’s a great vaccine, it’s a safe vaccine. And it’s something that works,” Trump said.

Getting vaccinated doesn’t mean you won’t get the virus, but it does mean the effects likely will be less and you’ll be less likely to need hospitalization. So, if patriotism doesn’t move you, how about enlightened self interest?

Or follow the lead of about two dozen men and women of faith who rolled up their sleeves at Washington National Cathedral the other day. Think of getting vaccinated as a form of prayer for a healthier, better country.

Biden has directed states to make every adult eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine no later than May 1. He also wants to make signing up for and getting vaccinations easier. The administration is expanding vaccine distribution, the number of vaccination sites and the ranks of professionals authorized to give the shots.

It’s an impressive effort aimed at getting as many people vaccinated as soon as possible.

But the effort will succeed only if people -- patriots -- bare their arms.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

What time do you want it to be? -- March 11, 2021 column


Daylight saving time is back.

We “spring forward” and turn our clocks ahead one hour at 2 a.m. Sunday, losing an hour of sleep.

And at 2 a.m. on Nov. 7 we will “fall back,” set back the clocks and supposedly reclaim that lost hour. Or will we?

States can opt out of daylight saving time, but it would require an act of Congress to make daylight saving permanent. Now, a bipartisan group of senators wants to #locktheclock and do just that.

“The call to end the antiquated practice of clock changing is gaining momentum throughout the nation,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chief sponsor of the so-called Sunshine Protection Act, said Tuesday in a statement.

It’s no secret people hate changing their clocks. Since 2015, at least 350 bills or resolutions have been introduced in virtually every state legislature to make permanent either standard time or daylight saving time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which said the biannual changing of the clocks raises “vexing and multifaceted state policy questions.”

Since the Florida legislature passed a law in 2018 for permanent daylight saving time, 15 other states have also passed laws, resolutions or voter initiatives backing permanent daylight saving. They are: Arkansas, Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

In Virginia, a bill to study the effects of daylight saving time died in committee last month, so there will be no change at least until next year’s session.

Seven in 10 Americans want to stop changing their clocks twice a year, an AP-NORC poll found in 2019. It’s disruptive of sleep, difficult for one’s biological rhythms to adjust to and makes life less safe, critics contend.

Among those who want to stop changing the time, 40% favored year-round standard time and 31% year-round daylight saving time, the poll reported.

Joining Rubio in reintroducing the Sunshine measure Tuesday were Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma; Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, Rick Scott, R-Florida; and Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts.

Some senators want you to believe they are giving you an extra hour of sunshine. A summary of the bill, however, helpfully explains it does not change the amount of hours of sunlight.

Nor does the bill alter or change time zones or mandate the states and territories that do not observe daylight saving time do so. Hawaii, most of Arizona and the major U.S. territories do not change their clocks.

Benjamin Franklin floated the idea of daylight saving time in a humorous article in 1784. The United States first adopted daylight time during World War I, but it was unpopular. Congress ended it after the war. 

President Franklin Roosevelt restarted “War Time” in 1942 during World War II. When War Time ended in 1945, some states chose to start daylight saving in the summer.

Senators may want to be careful what they wish for. An emergency daylight saving time order in January 1974 during the OPEC oil crisis was supposed to last a year. It proved so unpopular when kids had to wait for the school bus in the dark of night, the edict was lifted.

Farmers, contrary to popular belief, hate daylight saving time, which upsets their schedules. They would rather let the sun and seasons dictate their work.

The Transportation Department, which oversees daylight saving time, says on its website daylight saving time can cut electricity use, save lives, prevent traffic injuries and reduce crime. Some studies dispute these findings.

Changing clocks is hard on people physically, with more people suffering heart attacks and strokes on days just after the spring time change, studies show. Heart attacks decline when we fall back.

Save Standard Time, a nonpartisan group, agrees we should stop changing our clocks twice a year but argues we go with permanent standard time. It blames “corporate lobbyists for special interests like Big Oil, Big Golf and Big Candy” for wanting to extend daylight time “and make its false clock permanent.”

Several organizations representing educators and sleep researchers as well as religious and medical groups have endorsed permanent standard time.

So, what time do you want it to be?

I don’t mind changing a few clocks twice a year, so the current system is OK with me. If we had to stick with just one year round, though, I’d go with standard time. Daylight saving is great in the spring and summer, but winter mornings are already dark enough.

Under permanent daylight time, sunrise in Virginia on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice, wouldn’t come until about 8:20 a.m. No thanks.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Real world beckons after `second one,' but . . . --March 4, 2021 column


“Well, I’m glad you got your second one,” the woman wearing a mask and walking on the sidewalk said to the maskless man smoking a cigarette on his front porch.

In years past, this snippet of conversation would have been mysterious. What “second one” did the man get and why was the woman glad?

Now, anyone overhearing such an exchange, as I did on a walk in Alexandria Wednesday, knows exactly the subject. He’d received his second COVID-19 vaccination.

“But we’re still going to wear masks and socially distance,” she said. “Right?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “This is my big thing: I stand on the porch and smoke a cigarette and feel like I’m in the real world.” Then he chuckled and stubbed out his prize smoke.

Leave aside the irony of someone getting fully vaccinated against COVID while continuing to indulge in a nasty, health-defying habit. More Americans these days are sharing the joy of the jab and new-found optimism.

I had gotten my “second one” earlier that day. The sun was shining, it was early March and no snow or ice was in the forecast. What’s not to like?

We all feel the urge to return to the “real world,” however we define it. We yearn to see friends, go to dinner and concerts, shop and travel without worrying that these simple activities could literally cost us, our family members or loved ones our lives.

Ironically, some governors who are going the full-open may make it less appealing, not more, to visit their states.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, announced that as of this coming week schools and all businesses of any kind in the Lone Star State could fully reopen at 100% capacity, and masks would no longer be required.

COVID has not gone away, but the time for state mandates has, he said. Businesses can still require or ask customers to wear masks, but the message from the governor is clear: Be there, be bare or be square.

We’ve seen how well de-regulation worked for the Texas power grid during the winter storm disaster, which is to say not at all. Many residents there are still without potable water.

So now the state, where fewer than 2 million of its 29 million residents are fully inoculated against COVID, is de-regulating the pandemic. Mississippi’s governor and others are making the same decision.

“We cannot have an endless shutdown,” said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican.

Public health experts say fully reopening as if life is back to normal is risky at best. They are pleading with residents to stay masked, keep social distance and wash their hands. 

President Joe Biden blasted the decisions to reopen in uncharacteristically harsh terms.

“The last thing – the last thing – we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters,” Biden told reporters.

Everyone is sick and tired of being home. Millions of Americans are suffering economically, and we all want to get out into the real world.

But even being fully vaccinated is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. You can still get sick, though likely not as sick; it’s uncertain whether you can spread the virus.

Americans must choose for themselves whether to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control to stay safe or throw caution to the winds in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Governors believe opening their states will juice the economy. But moving too far too fast could have the opposite effect. It could discourage tourism and usher in a third wave of the deadly virus.

I was born in Texas and enjoyed visiting the spectacular Big Bend National Park four years ago. Since well before the pandemic, I’ve wanted to visit my late mother’s tiny hometown in Northeast Texas. I didn’t get around to it, and the pandemic stopped everything. I thought this summer might be a good opportunity.

But now is not the time for me to be a tourist in any state that’s tempting fate. I’ll   wait, thank you.

©Marsha Mercer 2021. All rights reserved.