The U.S. Postal Service has had better days. Electronic
communication is quickly supplanting
first-class mail, and the recession has pushed even devoted letter-writers toward cost-free e-mail services. Last year, the USPS saw a 13 percent decline
in letters, with an attendant $3.8 billion loss. In response, Saturday delivery may be cut. Fighting the bad publicity, Postmaster General John Potter penned a defense
of the Postal Service in The Washington Post. Between the signs of decline and the stopgap measures, what's the future of the USPS and the American mail system?
- Shut It Down The Atlantic's Megan McArdle crunches the numbers
and wonders why we bother. American taxpayers annually give the USPS $23
billion in subsidies. "Probably not even worth my per-capita share of
the postal service, which if my math is correct, works out to about $75
a year. And then, of course, babies and small children neither receive
much mail, nor pay much in taxes. So call it $100. Would you pay $100 a
year for the privilege of getting mail? Yeah, me neither."
- Keep It For Now The Washington Post's Ezra Klein gushes,
"Frankly, I still find the existence of rapid and reliable mail
delivery to be baffling and an inarguable rejoinder to those who say
the government can't run complicated services efficiently." He notes
that mail service still blankets even the most rural areas and is still
widely used, if less so. "Within that context, the Postal Service seems
to be operating pretty efficiently, but it's trapped providing a level
of service to a breadth of people that can't possibly be profitable.
The result will be taxpayer-funded losses and a declining level of
service that will make the Postal Service look bad even as it's not
doing anything wrong, or inefficiently."
- Offer High-Level Services In the model of the Swiss postal service, the USPS could use its massive physical network to sell banking, insurance and telecommunications services. Matthew Yglesias writes, "This seems to be basically what Postmaster General Potter is looking to do." But he notes that the USPS lacks the necessary start-up funds, suggesting a "joint venture model" could work.
- Just Restructure Union Costs The Christian Science Monitor advises
a more modest path to sustainable costs. "The cost of labor sticks out
like an oversized letter. Compensation and benefits make up about 80
percent of USPS costs. Unionized postal workers are supposed to earn
wages comparable to those of their private-sector competitors, but one
study shows they get a 28 percent premium. Negotiations are coming and
unions will have to show more flexibility if they want the post office
to survive." Congress should work with unions to bring the cost down
and keep the mail running.
- USPS Should Scan, E-Mail, Print PDFs A commenter at economist Tyler Cowen's blog, Al Brown, suggests,
"There's no need for most mail to be physically moved around. The post
office can actually accept pdf files and present them to users, and
only print and mail when people want a hard copy. It can also get into
storage of data between you and all the entities you deal with. make
all your data private, secure, searchable, dependable, protected from
manipulation by either party."
- Make Junk Mail More Expensive Another Tyler Cowen commenter named rluser thinks
that the USPS must be charging too little for the bulk rates it uses
for junk mail. "Since these days most pieces move directly from my
mailbox to my waste basket (and it seems most apartment complexes in
cities have a bin dedicated for this task), I am tempted to think USPS
is undercharging for its standard mail services and presorts," rluser
writes. "A quick glance at the numbers suggests USPS has half the
revenue but twice the weight from 'junk mail.'"
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