Sunday, December 4, 2011

Poste Waste

In today's New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal offers a thoughtful analysis on the current state of the United States Postal Service. There has been some talk of getting rid of Staturday mail delivery, as a means of helping the Postal Service stay affloat. But as Ms. Rosenthal says, the primary customer of the USPS is no longer the average citizen, but rather the advertiser, the companies that distribute the mass mailings and catalogs that fill the mailbox, especially during the holiday season:
The fact is that the primary beneficiary of the United States Postal Service today is arguably the advertisers whose leaflets and catalogs flood our mailboxes. First-class mail — items like bills and letters that require a 44-cent stamp — fell 6.6 percent in 2010 alone, continuing a five-year-long plunge. Last year was the first time that fewer than 50 percent of bills in the United States were paid by mail. There were 9.3 billion pounds of “standard mail” — the low-cost postage category available to mass advertisers — but only 3.7 billion of first-class mail.
And this is no accident, as the USPS actively courts the business of the junk mailer, as this business is the only thing keeping it afloat. And as Ms. Rosenthal notes, getting rid of Saturday delivery won't change a thing in this regard: letter carriers will just be delivering all of those catalogs, credit card offers, and other junk mail five days a week instead of six.

This isn't the first time such an idea--getting rid of Saturday delivery--has been floated. Every time there is a hint of financial problems at the USPS, out comes the call to end mail delivery on Saturday.

But that won't fix the problem; it's addressing the symptoms, not the cause. The real problem with the USPS is that it's no longering doing what it was set up to do, no longer providing its chief function. Ms. Rosenthal suggests the privatization route as a fix, but that too misses the boat.

The United States Postal Service exists because it was mandated by the Constitution, because the Framers knew that communication and information throughout the States needed to exist, formally and consistently. That's all there is to it, there isn't any more. It wasn't mandated to help people make money, to sell commemorative stamps, or to make sure thirteen year old boys got a chance to look at women in their unmentionables (thank you, Victoria's Secret).

There really is no good reason for six day delivery. So cut it to five. Or don't. Either way, it doesn't matter. But the way to fix what ails the USPS is remember what it is there for. Get rid of all the secondary stuff. And establish correct rates for mailing letters and packages. There's no reason why some catalog company should get a reduced rate, no reason why anyone should. Because the USPS shouldn't be about making money, it should be about doing what it was established to do, end of story.

If this means chopping half the staff and half the offices--or doubling the staff and number of offices--so be it. Simple stuff, really.

Cheers, all.

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