Machines save money, except, apparently, during a presidential election.
Machines save money, except, apparently, during a presidential election. Comstock/gettyimages.com

U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has done something that defies the key logic of capitalism. He is cost-cutting by destroying labor-saving machines. The American voter needs to sit down for a moment and give this development some thought.

Recall that DeJoy claims to be making big changes to the United States Postal Service in the name of efficiency, which only means making the operations—collection, sorting, delivery—cheaper. But he is doing this how? By removing mailboxes (this is understandable, as some of these boxes are rarely used) and removing machines that sort letters and packages in USPS plants. These machines were built to do two things: speed up processing and reduce the number of sorting workers. How it is possible that costs will be cut by removing cost-cutting machines?

The KUOW report on the destruction of sorting machines in Washington State includes this important comment by Brian Warden, a worker at the mail-processing plant in Kent:

“These machines require so much power that the power cord to them is about the size of a firehose or bigger,” Warden said. One machine can sort six letters a second, more than 20,000 an hour, into hundreds of trays for different letter carriers. Letters in each tray are stacked in the exact order each mail carrier will need to grab them while walking a route. “It would take a crew of 20 to 30 people hand-sorting the mail all night to do what one of these machines can do in a couple hours."

Does Postmaster DeJoy know something about capitalism that capitalism doesn't know? Saving money by removing machines that can do the work of hundreds of humans—humans who are always demanding higher pay, more benefits, greater job security? One would expect DeJoy, a man who celebrates the freedoms of free enterprise, to do the very opposite thing: put more machines in the plants and remove those troublesome workers. This is what capitalism is talking about when it comes to reducing costs that reduce profits.

A recent WaPo article was completely confused about how to present the odd situation of removing machines to cut costs. The journalists seem to know that machines were decommissioned for one reason or another (changes in mailing patterns, age of machines, and so on), but they could not explain with certainty how the destruction of mail machines is a net cost benefit. Indeed, the subheading for the article is: "USPS officials and industry insiders say sorters are taken offline every year, though the 671 earmarked represent a substantially larger share of the agency’s inventory." If one reads the article closely, it becomes clear that the workers in USPS plants are worried because the removal of the machines (the enemy of the worker) will not mean the addition of labor. No. It simply means delays in delivery.

In short, DeJoy is basically turning nearly 200 years of economic thinking upside down. If you go all the way back to 1821, you will find a new chapter in the third addition of David Ricardo's On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation called, "On Machinery." In this chapter, Chapter 31, Ricardo admits he was wrong about machines. They do not help workers at all. In fact, they make life harder for them because the "[fund] which capitalists derive their revenue, may increase [because of machines], while the other, that upon which the labouring class mainly depend, may diminish."

You can read the whole chapter here. It's nearly 200-years-old, and it will tell you nothing you do not already know about capitalism. Enter an Amazon Go (almost entirely automated), or a QFC (packed with self-checkout machines), or a General Motors factory (mostly robots making cars). I mean, there is even a Marxist rock band that calls itself Rage Against the Machine for a very good reason.

The conatatus (reason for being, for striving to be) of machines in our society (a capitalist society) is to make humans work less. When it comes to domestic machines (such as the Roomba or washing machine, dishwasher), we tend to feel liberated in a positive way (we have more free time); when it comes to machines in the factory or a in a sorting plant, we feel liberated in a negative way (we will lose a source of income). This understanding is as old as the hills, as obvious as day and night, as fundamental as the ground beneath your feet. This is capitalist realism, pure and simple. Yet, the Postmaster General wants U.S. voters to believe that the destruction of labor-saving machines will actually save USPS money. This is too wonderful to be true.

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That said, I must give the reader a little treat to close this post. It is a passage by the late-19th century Russian economist Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky. The passage was translated into English by the 20th century American Marxist Paul Sweezy. In this passage, the Russian economist imagines a world where all that matters is production—meaning, machines making machines.

Tugan-Baranovsky writes:

If all workers except one disappear and are replaced by machines, then this one single worker will place the whole enormous mass of machinery in motion and with its assistance produce new machines – and the consumption goods of the capitalists. The working class will disappear, which will not in the least disturb the self-expansion process of capital.