TCS Daily


Return to Sender

By Jeremy Lott - June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

Rarely can the framers of the Constitution be charged with naïveté. Robert Kaplan argues that, pre 9/11 at least, modern Americans could afford to be relatively optimistic because their institutions were forged by men who thought tragically. In his wonderfully twisted phrasing, "Before the first president was sworn in, the rules of impeachment were established."

However, even the most clear-headed signers of America's governing document stupidly failed to see the tragicomic farce that they were creating when, in article 1, section 8, they gave Congress the power "to establish post offices and post roads."

Granted, given the disjointed state of the nation at the time it made good sense to help facilitate communication between states and territories - to "form a more perfect union," in the words of the preamble. But, as with the adjacent clause on patents and copyrights, they had no idea just what a monster they were creating. The leap from establishing post offices and post roads to creating a quasi-monopolistic inefficient government works program turns out to have been a very low bar.

Witness the modern postal system. With about 800,000 workers - who account for some 80 percent of the total costs - the United States Postal Service constitutes nearly one third of the federal civilian workforce and occupies 38,000 separate facilities in every ramshackle city and Podunk town in the continental U.S and Alaska and Hawaii. It will deliver a letter from Anchorage to Atlantic Beach for the ever-rising price of a single stamp.

After a few flush years in which it came very close to posting a profit, the General Accounting Office - Congress's financial investigative arm - is again after the post office for its lackluster performance. Last year, its announced losses came to $1.7 billion and this year promises to be even more of a drain on taxpayers. To help staunch the flow, a first class stamp will cost 37 cents beginning on June 30 and there will be a corresponding hike in shipping rates, the third such hike in two years.

The excuses offered by the Postmaster General for the problem - a lower volume of shipping after 9/11 and the cost of upgrading facilities with technology to deal with the threat of anthrax - are plausible but insufficient to explain these gaping losses. The locus of the blame should be placed firmly on the head of the post office itself, which is fat, lazy, inefficient and, like the social security system, set to exact a horrible toll in the next few years.

Much hay was made a couple of years back when the post office started invoking archaic laws to fine companies for using other couriers to deliver non-urgent (e.g. first class) mail, which is the mailman's monopolistic bread, butter, salami and rye. Bad publicity kept this policy from being too overt or too punitive, but it was made clear that the post office felt it had a right to be paid for every piece of normal correspondence that winds its way through the U.S., whether it shipped it or not.

Even if the mailmen were able to enforce this provision with absolute efficiency, however, the next few years would still be hell for the U.S. Postal Service. Its own projections admit that first class mail is about to go into free fall as new technologies - from electronic mail to direct deposit to automatic withdrawals - drastically cut into the overall volume of snail mail. This fact, coupled with the post office's actual past performance, has led to one of the most successful e-mail hoaxes of all time, in which the writer assures that Congress, at the behest of the Postmaster General, is about to slap a one to five cent surcharge onto every e-mail sent.

The new economic reality of less snail mail will leave the postal service competing with private competitors on the shipping of larger items, on which it has never even had the head start of having a theoretical monopoly. Everybody, including many administrators in the post office, expect it to flounder, which has prompted the recent expansion of non-postal workers to service some mail routes

If the United States Post Office was a business... sounds like the set-up for a great joke. But it isn't funny when we consider that every penny the post office loses will eventually come out of the pockets of taxpayers, who will foot the bill for increasingly shoddy service and overgenerous salaries for an institution whose constitutional raison d'etere is quickly being overshadowed by new technology. As a result, the post office has recently expanded its online operations, offering such perks as automatically sent greeting cards and online bill payment options. But who is going to trust an institution for bill payment whose offline counterpart has for years been used to dodge creditors with "The check's in the mail"?

Jeremy Lott is the 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern for Reason Magazine. He can be reached at lott-at-deviantreadings.com.
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