The U.S. Postal Service is both a sentimental representation of imagined simpler times and an anachronistic throwback to a different era. It is also a heavily bureaucratized and bloated organization whose heyday seems well in the past. Perhaps the most revealing fact of this dysfunctional agency is the sorry state of its labor and services management.
After all what other agency can claim to have invented a euphemism for insanity; ‘going postal’?
Sentimentality aside, recent news concerning the U.S. Postal Service is troubling. In an attempt to break even, stamp prices have been raised to 45 cents, but the Postal Service still plans to default on its retiree health care payment obligations for the second time in two months, to a combined tune of $10.1 billion. For a single quarter of fiscal 2012, the Postal Service lost $5.2 billion and mail volume is down 20 percent from its peak as a growing amount of correspondence is sent through the internet.
Congressional meddling disallows the Postal Service from enacting significant money-saving organizational restructuralization, such as ceasing mail delivery on Saturdays or slowing delivery speeds. Meanwhile, Senators refuse to allow underutilized post offices to be closed in favored districts in order to avoid public ire. The the Postal Service even plans to cut sweet deals with advertising companies in order to send discounted junk mail to mailboxes in an attempt to raise badly needed revenue.
These measures ensure that the Postal Service will continue to hemorrhage money and never again become a profitable government agency; all while alienating the public and calling into question the basic premises of the Postal Service’s mission.
Lysander Spooner is a name that unfortunately has almost been lost to obscurity. However, he and his adversarial relationship to the post office are a major contributing factor to why we have postal service in a form which we recognize today.
Spooner was a 19th century entrepreneur who lambasted a strangely familiar problem: poor postal service at high prices. Seeing a good business opportunity, he created the American Letter Mail Company to deliver parcels for as low as 6 ½ cents (while the post office charged 25 cents). Private innovation developed other novel ideas that we now take for granted, such as prepaid stamps and door-to-door pickup and delivery.
Of course, this perturbed the Postal Service, who sought governmental protection to halt the flouting of their monopoly and loss of revenue to Spooner’s and others’ new start-ups. Spooner was finally defeated in the courts and forced to shut down, but not before the the Postal Service adopted his innovations and standard postal rates were forced to dip to 4 cents-where they remained for almost another century.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates to Congress the power “To establish post offices and post roads,” but enshrined nowhere is a granting of government monopoly. In fact, it is currently perfectly legal to create a private-sector mail carrier service under the Private Express Statutes, with one prohibitive caveat; mail cannot be delivered at prices below that of official the Postal Service rates. Unfortunately, governmental price-fixing intentionally makes a competitive mail market impossible.
We can observe the striking differences between a governmental operated agency and its private sector quasi-competitors of UPS and FedEx. To maintain legality, these private parcel delivery services are allowed only to ship packages, but they might stretch the definition of ‘package’ by enclosing documents and letters in cardboard envelopes for delivery. Nevertheless, they are fiscally solvent and suffer none of the dilemmas currently plaguing the Postal Service.
Perhaps Congress should look to the lessons of history and legalize competitive private mail delivery. Then again, that action is exceedingly doubtful, since the government hates competition.