Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Us Postal Service

The United States government has done a fine job of delivering mail.  Founded very shortly after the formation of the US government itself, it's been doing the same thing almost without fail for well over 200 years.

Anywhere you want to send a first-class envelope, it goes for 44 cents.  That's a bargain to send something across town, but I could send the same envelope to my parents in the DC area, or to my grandmother in Minnesota, or anywhere else in the US.  That includes Alaska and, I think, Hawaii.  That's a major bargain.

Maybe too much of a bargain.  The USPS is in the red and getting redder.  First class volume is down, and so is junk mail.  Less first class mail goes than junk mail anymore, and where 100 first class envelopes would be a decent revenue stream for a single postal carrier to deliver in an hour, it takes as many as three pieces of junk mail to equal the same revenue - and three times as much weight and volume for that same postal carrier.  You can see that the balance is tipping in the wrong direction.

So what's the solution?  Part of the problem is that the USPS is hamstrung by a strong union.  That doesn't do any favors to an institution whose revenue stream is fading, while it also has to bear up under a Constitutional mandate.  Some of the old sacred cows of the USPS will have to be shot and eaten before they can get a complete handle on their expenses.

Here's a weird factoid: the USPS is prohibited by law from closing a post office solely for economic reasons.  And yet, the Post Office also receives no tax revenue for its day-to-day operation, instead relying on postage for its income.  Well, if you had a store that wasn't doing any business, wouldn't you close it?  And post office collection boxes that receive less than 25 pieces of mail per day have been removed from operation in many locations in Florida.  It just doesn't make sense to send someone to a box that gets no business.

UPS and FedEx are both in the black.  They're mail companies too.  How do they do it?  Well, for starters, something the size of a flat legal envelope is $16.00 or more to get where you want it.  That's making the Post Office look like a bona fide miracle of economy, isn't it?  With rates like that, why would anyone ever send anything via UPS or FedEx?

Why indeed.

But the fact is that the USPS simply isn't going to survive in its current form.  Postal services around the world have experienced these same kinds of pains, and many in Europe in particular have done a great job of weathering the growing pains successfully.  One of the necessities of the change has been for the government to let go of a lot of the reins of the service, and turn it over to private operation.

This will be difficult to do.  But we've already survived the dissolution of Bell Telephone into the wide panoply of the differing phone companies and that seemed to work out all right.  We can do it again.

There are a few forms it could take.  Back in the day, you might find the local Post Office was in fact a corner office in a local general store.  How if it came about that the local Post Office was a counter at the grocery store?  That would be super convenient, and you can bet any grocery chain that could secure the contract would fight tooth and nail to win and keep it.  Anything that brings the customers in brings the customers in.  Even if they're the kind of folks who don't normally shop there, they'd be in the door.  For example, I almost never - I mean, maybe once a year - shop at Food City, a local brand of the KVAT line of grocery stores.  I prefer Kroger, Ingles and, when I'm feeling flush, Earth Fare.  But if the PO was in the lobby of a Food City I'd be in there once a week.  There are already banks in the grocery stores, and coffee shops.  Why not a PO?

The country prides itself on freedom of speech, of expression.  It may be that it's a little paradoxical that the baseline form of communication, the written word, the penned missive, has to pass through the government's own hands before it can arrive at its intended destination.  Considering that, maybe it's about time the government got out of the business of conveying all that free speech.  So as traumatic as it is that the USPS is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I think it's a good thing, and I look forward to the new iteration of postal service.

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