Truth Doesn’t Come in Neat Little Packages

Authored By 
Matthew Graham
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
May 3, 2018

To many observers, President Trump’s tiff with Amazon over U.S. Postal Service package profits is the same story in a different tweet. President makes a claim. Evidence to the contrary exists. Another day, another falsehood—or so it could seem.

The truth is that nobody knows whether the Postal Service makes or loses money on packages. Not the president, not the Postal Service, not the first page of Google. We need to update our standards for truth to accommodate the fact that we often can’t know it.

Determining whether the U.S. Postal Service makes or loses money on packages is harder than determining whether it rained on inauguration day. In responding to the president’s claim that the Postal Service loses money, some have framed the issue as an open-and-shut case: the Postal Service is required to make money on packages, and estimates that it does, so the president is wrong. This overlooks the issue of cost attribution, the technical term for how businesses figure out what costs go with what products.

The Postal Service’s cost attribution system is outdated and potentially inaccurate. Rather than use data from its mail processing system, the Postal Services relies on hundreds of thousands of manual samples each year—a method that costs $500,000 more than modern alternatives. Nearly half of the Postal Service’s costs are not attributed to anything at all. The outside analysis President Trump appears to have been citing, a Citi Research report, might be wrong. Others who came to the same conclusion may be wrong as well. But the Postal Service might also be wrong. We just don’t know.

President Trump is often guilty of assuming that because one statistic or example supports his view, his claim is true and others are false. When his detractors apply the same low standards, they become complicit in eroding our ability to reach common understandings. It’s nice when the truth comes in a neat little package. When it comes to postal package profits, the truth is neither neat nor satisfying.

The narrow lesson is that postal cost attribution needs to be brought into the 21st century. Postal governance has been chronically neglected in Washington, leaving us without answers when we need them. The prime example of postal neglect is its nearly-empty board of governors, operating under emergency authority since 2016 due to a permanent lack of a quorum. These details matter. President Trump is incorrect to suggest that taxpayers are paying for the Postal Service’s losses, but the prospect that the Postal Service may be unknowingly taking a loss on packages is troubling. We should want to know if improper cost attribution causes ordering products online to be cheaper than it should be. If it is, the president’s claim that cheap package delivery speeds main street’s decline might have some merit.

The broader lesson is that standing up for truth requires a dose of humility about what we know. President Trump’s low standards for truth do not give his critics an excuse to reflexively disbelieve his claims. Not every claim that can be contradicted is false. Low standards for truth are corrosive to our democracy, but low standards for accusations of falsehood are arguably just as damaging.

We need to be more comfortable setting our truth-o-meters to “no good answer.” Issues few people had heard of until recently seem like a good place to start.

Matthew Graham is an ISPS Policy Fellow  a doctoral student in Yale’s political science department. His research focuses on information in politics, polarization, and mass preferences.