April 6, 2001, - 1:17 am

Enough to Make You Go Postal

By Debbie Schlussel

“Dear Little Laidy [sic]. How is school?” That’s the text on a postcard sent to Posey Cullen, 92 years ago, on Feb. 23, 1909. It just got delivered — last month!

Is that the United States Postal Service (USPS) “through snow, rain, and gloom of night”? Sounds more like the East Germans under communism.

No Saturday delivery? Cullen, then a student at Bethel College in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, missed her mail for almost a century of Saturdays. She’s probably dead. Postal workers, who found the postcard at a Cincinnati mail plant, hoped to deliver the postcard to her. Or, more likely, her descendants.

Cases like this are the reason USPS, which lost $199 million, last year, is on the verge of a $3 billion loss. It’s unreliable and serves a bad product. Even though it just raised the cost of stamps to 34 cents in January, the second such raise in two years, USPS now proposes canceling Saturday delivery and raising stamp prices, this time by 10 or 15 percent.
USPS isn’t being driven to ruin by tough competitors. Though e-mail and Internet services are great alternatives to unreliable, old-school snail-mail, it’s USPS that’s driving itself out of business. By attempting to legislatively protect its turf from true competition, languishing in anachronistic technology, and spending wastefully, USPS barely survives.

The postcard screw-up by USPS isn’t surprising because postal delivery is among the last industries in capitalist, free enterprise America that’s still an artificial, government-protected monopoly. An industry or company free of competition doesn’t have to compete. In the Post Office’s case, things get lost. They don’t get delivered on time. Businesses and people suffer. While the government sued Microsoft, the real outrage — the real monopoly — continues at USPS.

If the post office were privatized and companies like FedEx and UPS were truly allowed to compete, things would be different. President Reagan’s budget director, James Miller, found that USPS could save $6.6 billion (in 1988 dollars) by contracting out or privatizing various portions. But that never happened and won’t, under “private express statutes” for first- and third-class mail. USPS has expensive lobbyists and congressional committees solely for the purpose of overseeing it. It has powerful labor unions, making it virtually impossible to lay postal workers off. Incredibly, my mailwoman spends hours reading a book parked in her mailtruck, while millions in real businesses get pink slips. Going private and having to compete would end that.

And stop ridiculous witch-hunts like those the postmaster general and his postal inspectors conducted a few years ago. Several businesses that used FedEx and UPS were investigated and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for not using USPS instead. Ludicrous laws, still on the books, mandate that businesses must use USPS, except in urgent emergencies.
Expensive postal lobbyists, which your stamps pay for, didn’t like competition from private PO box vendors, like “Mailboxes, Etc.” and “PakMail.” So they made a law, requiring users of those stores’ private mailboxes to designate “PMB” for “Private Mail Box” in their addresses. This harmed many small businesses owners who operate out of homes and used such private boxes to add legitimacy and privacy to their businesses. Let alone 24-hour access to PO boxes, which you can’t always get at the generally nine-to-five post office.

Investigations and anti-competitive laws aren’t the only stupid place your 34-cents-a-stamp goes. Remember Lance Armstrong’s heroic bicycle victories in the 2000 Summer Olympics and the elite Tour-de-France? I’m glad Armstrong overcame testicular cancer to win these races. But did my stamp money really have to go to finance USPS’ official sponsorship of his efforts? Sponsorships market businesses that must compete for consumers. Do we really have anywhere else to go for first-class mail? No. And USPS, to the tune of millions, was Armstrong’s and the U.S. Olympic Bicycle Team’s biggest sponsor. FedEx has stayed away from the Olympics, and even UPS walked away from Olympic sponsorship. But they must compete in the market and answer to shareholders, unlike USPS.
Then there’s 1999′s “Millennium Clock,” counting down-to the second-the time left to mail millennium greetings to your buddies. If held captive like most people suffering in the average long line at any U.S. post office, you were forced to watch the count down. Was this useless, expensive promotion really necessary? I knew the “Millennium” was coming without this costly reminder. Citizens Against Government Waste found that USPS loses at least $1 billion each year to waste, fraud and abuse, and another $84 million peddling products bearing postal logos.

There are also lazy postal execs we get to pay for. Last year, an audit revealed that USPS executives took chauffeur-driven limousines to and from work more than 500 times over the previous two years. According to the Washington Post, USPS spent $142,311 and $105,817, respectively, to move two executives just 10 and 30 miles. Did they use Lamborghinis for the move? USPS granted the questionable expenses, even thought the two continued to report to the same USPS headquarters in Washington and didn’t qualify for relocation benefits requiring new duty assignments and household moves of at least 50 miles. Expense allowances were granted to also cover new carpets, drapes, home alarm systems, and plumber’s bills. Would a company with competitors operate this way?
But even government monopolies can’t prevent or survive change. New technology, including the Internet, e-mail, and online bill paying are making USPS obsolete. That’s why it’s “partnering” with UPS and FedEx to use mailboxes and started eBillPay and online postage. But it is too little, too late.

And higher stamp prices with no Saturday delivery? It’s enough to make you “go postal.”

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