Free The US Post Office From Bondage

Count me among those who won’t miss Saturday First Class mail delivery, at all. In fact, at least as far as my house is concerned, they can take Friday and Monday, too.

Yes, I realize this translates into lost jobs. The U.S. Postal Service has already cut its workforce by 35%, according to the link. Yes, I understand there was a Congressional mandate to fund retiree benefits that the private, for-profit companies don’t have to deal with, but this story seems to indicate that even without those payments, the USPS still operates at a deficit of more than $10 billion.

The U.S. Postal Service is in trouble. That’s just reality, folks. The way people do business and communicate has changed, radically, and very quickly, and their traditional business model is now out of date. Change has already come. And the USPS needs to be allowed to change for the times.

Look, I go to my mailbox every day and 90% of what I get is shit I don’t want. It’s junk. It’s catalogs, coupons and unwanted marketing and direct mail pieces that I put in the recycling bin as soon as they come in. It’s wasteful.

The last time I wrote about this I proposed a couple of ideas that no one seemed to like: get rid of bulk rate, or slowly transition to an entirely digital postal service. Nobody liked those ideas so let’s look at some of the innovations which European postal services have adopted:

After selling off all but 24 of 29,000 post office buildings in the past 15 years, the German postal service is now housed mostly within other business “partners,” including banks, convenience stores and even private homes. In rural areas, a shopkeeper or even a centrally located homeowner is given a sign and deputized as a part-time postmaster.

At the same time, many European postal services, including the one here, have developed a host of electronic services that are increasingly making traditional post offices and mailboxes obsolete. Bills and catalogs can go first to digital mailboxes run by the post office on customers’ computers, and the customers can tell the post office what they want it to print and deliver. And while Americans are asked to send in suggestions for what celebrity should grace the next stamp, Germans can buy virtual postage from their cellphones.

Deutsche Post has expanded package delivery networks to profit from the uptick in online shopping and has also progressively expanded its offerings into completely new areas, like running online marketplaces similar to eBay for freelance writers.

Let me say, I love love love the idea of telling the post office what I want them to deliver.

Here’s another idea I like: “lockers” which deliver your packages at locations like supermarkets or train stations, with the locker code delivered to your cell phone. How about this:

SendSocial, a start-up in Britain, allows consumers to send packages to people even if they do not have their postal address – by showing SendSocial that they are friends on Facebook or by providing the addressee’s Twitter ID. The firm then turns around and sends a request to the addressee to get the delivery details. If she accepts, collection and payment details are confirmed, and the sender receives a label with delivery information – but without the real address, which is not divulged during the transaction.

Why can’t the U.S. Postal Service offer a service like that?

I admit I am not an expert on our USPS. But they need to be allowed to innovate if they’re going to survive — and people, they have to survive. The U.S. Postal Service is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. They’re not going away. So let’s untie the Postal Service’s hands and allow them the freedom to try some new stuff. Congress is the biggest roadblock to this — I guess that’s because they’re all about government not competing with private enterprise or some such — but they need to get the hell out of the way. Maybe, just maybe, a functioning postal service that isn’t bleeding money works for private enterprise as well as the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, operating a post office in a private business like they do in Germany is something a private business would like to have as a traffic generator. Maybe, just maybe, the very existence of a functioning, innovating U.S. Postal Service isn’t a threat to the freedom monkeys and capitalism ponies some folks in Congress think it might be.

I love the USPS and they do some things really, really well. I use them for shipping all the time. But I’m not going to be nostalgic about maintaining a level of service I don’t want while at the same time preventing them from trying new stuff I really might like. The U.S. Postal Service is going to have to reinvent itself, just like all of us who have been displaced by the massive technological changes of the past decade have been forced to reinvent ourselves. Congress needs to get out of the way and let this reinvention happen.

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32 Comments

Filed under U.S. Postal Service

32 responses to “Free The US Post Office From Bondage

  1. It’s sad to hear that…. about USPostal Service. I know it won’t go away, and I’m glad. I have an image of the postman delivering mails , rain and snow. I also know it’s the 21st century, but I still love to get Christmas cards, love to read real books, and to hear real voice on the phone.

  2. democommie

    The USPS hemorrages money, as does every other federally funded organization. but it;s not really a federally funded organization. It depends on revenues generated by its activities.

    There is a shitton of criticism that may be fairly made of the USPS but this:

    http://www.apwu.org/dept/presvp/magart-10may.htm

    tells the rank and file’s side of the story.

    I worked at the Post Office, briefly, in 1972-73 after leaving the USAF. There were plenty of clueless moronz on both sides of the management/labor line. The vast majority of postal workers are hardworking employees, same as teachers, cops, firemen and the like. On days like today when we’re getting clobbered with “belts” of near whiteout snowfall, the temp hovers in the teens and the roads are a mess, my mail will be here at or near the usual time. The same is true when we have torrential rains or heat waves. Mail delivery is used by junk mailers as a cheap way to generate lots of recyclable material. Same for magazines. If they had to pay anything like the true cost of delivering the shit, it wouldn’t be cluttering up the mailboxes.

    The semi-privitization of the USPS has not been the panacea; but, like NPR it’s an easy target for the asshats.

    • I know that the USPS is not really a federal organization, I know that it’s one of those quasi-federal-quasi-independent business things. But Congress does mandate what they can and cannot do. If the postal service is going to expand into digital communications and digital services Congress is going to have to give the Okay. I mean shit, I read that somewhere in Europe their postal service offers satellite communications. There are all sorts of broad communications services they could provide if Congress unshackles their hands.

  3. Jim from Memphis

    SB – I agree with you. The Post Office should be released to operate however it needs to stay alive. They should be free to set rates at what they need to operate without governmental approval. They should also be free to expand services offered. Seems like the government should just charter the USPS as a non profit organization and let it go at that.

  4. democommie

    The object of the act in 1970 was to “unshackle” the Post Office. It didn’t work, mainly because it’s been run as an unprofitable business instead of a public service. Privatizing it, or eliminating it will make a .47 cent stamp seem very quaint indeed.

    I don’t use the mails much. Most of what I need to do CAN be done online. That is not the case for millions of americans.

    The USPS is required to deliver 1st class mail at a fixed rate to every business and dwelling place, regardless of its locale. Check UPS, Fedex or the other courier services and see how that works out.

    Why is it that we never hear that the military should be paying their own way and showing a profit?

    • Nah, the object of the 1970 act was to get the USPS to live by “free market” principles and “operate as a business.” I lived through that same thing with TVA, another quasi-government-quasi-business agency.

      I don’t think the USPS needs to be privatized but I do think it needs to stop being forced to go to Congress and ask “mother may I?” every time it wants to do something new.

      And while I get your point, having the military “turn a profit” sorta gives me the moral ickies. Though don’t tell that to Blackwater/Xe.

  5. Whenever I get a pre-paid reply envelope from a credit card company – I cut up the contents of the junk mail (removing my name) and mail it back to them.
    And non-profits really irk me – give $100 once and they will send you monthly emergency solicitations for years. Dammit, I wanted to save the puppies, not support the junk mail industry!

  6. Chris V

    The problem with the Postal Service is that in 2006, a Republican Congress passed a bill signed by a Republican President which required the USPS to fully prefund retirement benefits for the next 75 years. (Yes, that includes the retirement benefits of people who don’t already work for the USPS, some of which haven’t been born yet.) Further, the bill required the USPS to collect all that money over a 10 year period. That means the USPS has had to make and reserve $5-8 billion dollars PER YEAR, EVERY YEAR since 2006.

    The Republicans hate government. They hated a successful Postal Service. They also hated the union workers who work there. How best to break the Postal Service and its unions? Saddle it with unreasonable debt that no other agency in the government or private sector needs to pay. Then, spread the story that the agency is hopelessly outdated and constantly losing money.

    The fact that the USPS has been able to pay these debts until now shows just how much money this agency truly makes. It’s wildly successful.

    • From the link:

      In fiscal 2012, the USPS experienced an operating deficit of almost $16 billion on revenue of about $65 billion. Granted, this deficit was exacerbated by the fact that the USPS was supposed to make two larger-than-usual retiree health benefits payments last year. But it didn’t pay either. Even if you subtract these additional scheduled payments, the Postal Service would have still run a deficit of more than $10 billion. Most important, without significant legislative and operational reforms, the financial situation will only get worse.

      So it doesn’t sound like it has been able to pay those debts.

      I agree that the Republicans are trying to kill the USPS. I read somewhere that it’s the largest employer in the U.S. after Walmart. That’s reason enough for the GOP to hate it, since they hate all government employment. GOPers also have a fantasy that FedEx and UPS can do everything better/shinier/sparklier/cheaper blah blah. But the thing is, the USPS ain’t going anywhere without amending the U.S. Constitution. And liberals are annoying the fuck out of me by pretending that problems with the current service don’t exist. The USPS is losing money, things have changed, most of the crap we get in the mail is shit we don’t want anyway. Let’s stop pretending that everything is awesome and allow the USPS to enter the digital age already.

      Why can’t I have a USPS digital mailbox where I tell the postal service what mail I want and what mail I don’t, like they do in Germany? Why can’t we have mobile mailboxes for package delivery? Why can’t I mail a package at a grocery store instead of having to go to the actual post office?

      • Chris V

        Keep in mind that bill also prevented the USPS from doing what a business would do in this situation: raise rates. Further, unlike UPS and Fed Ex, the USPS goes to EVERY rural area in the country regardless of whether those areas are profitable or not.

        Yes, times have changed with the invention of email. However, we’ve had email for over 20 years. Companies still deliver packages by the USPS. Netflix still delivers by USPS. Magazines still get delivered by the USPS. The main difference in the last few years is this legislation designed to kill the USPS. Paying over $5,000,000,000 PER YEAR is no insignificant task. That number is so mind-boggling that most people can’t truly comprehend it.

        As for your point regarding the Constitution, that only ALLOWS the federal government to run the USPS. However, the Constitution does not mandate the USPS.

      • Keep in mind that bill also prevented the USPS from doing what a business would do in this situation: raise rates.

        Yes of course. That’s what I’m saying, Congress needs to untie the USPS hands. They need to free them up to do whatever it is they need to do to stay alive. 50-cents is still a great deal to send a letter across country.

        And no, my reading of the Constitution is that it’s mandated, not allowed.

        By the way, David Horsey’s column on this is a must-read. He writes:

        In truth, the Republicans who crafted the bill were not interested in turning the Postal Service into a better business; they were seeking to run the post office out of business. With all those unionized employees working for a quasi-governmental operation that competes with private sector enterprises, the Postal Service is an affront to those who hate government, hate unions and hate to think that there is anything that government can do better than the private sector. The post office may be mandated by the United States Constitution, as clearly as freedom of religion or the right to bear arms, but it does not fit with modern Republican dogma and, therefore, has been targeted for extinction.

        This is the absolute truth and we need more people speaking it.

      • Chris V

        Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution:

        “The Congress shall have Power… To establish Post Offices and post Roads;”

        Post offices are allowed under the Constitution. They are not mandated.

  7. democommie

    Most people don’t care about saturday delivery, because they still have it. I would guess that the first person who receives a check that was mailed to them on a wednesday and doesn’t receive it until the following monday will go shithouse bonkers.

    Also, that the USPS will and not deliver mail on saturdays does not mean that the mail will not be delivered. So, instead of having six days to do the work, the USPS will now have five. I’m pretty sure that making people work harder while cutting their pay is not gonna be a popular move.

    What Chris V mentions about the pension funding is in the piece I linked to but it’s something that NOBODY in the media has been making any noise about, afaia.

    • Oh FFS. I know about the pension stuff. And it’s mentioned in the link in my post. The thing is, a) the USPS has not made the two last two pension payments it’s supposed to and b) as I wrote in the post, even without those pension payments the USPS is still losing $10 billion a year.

      I don’t think it’s going to overburden the USPS to do six days’ work in five days’ time, considering they’re still going to deliver packages on Saturdays and the volume of First Class mail itself has drastically declined.

      This whole conversation annoys the hell out of me. I’m not sentimental for a business model that no longer works. You know, I don’t remember anyone crying over the lost blacksmithing and wheelwright jobs when we gave up horse and buggy transportation. Or how about all the crying over lost journalism and copy editor jobs when newspapers went out of business?

  8. deep

    While they’re at it they can get rid of the Penny and the Nickel. We seriously have no need for hundreths of a dollar anymore and it just pisses me off whenever I have to pay in cash and I get a pound of worthless metal in return.

    • Jim from Memphis

      Definitely agree on this. The country wastes a ton of money maintaining the circulation of pennies and nickels. After a short time to get used to it, I doubt many people would miss them.

  9. democommie

    Southern Beale:

    I would not bother defending the “business model”. It’s not supposed to BE a business.

    How competitive would UPS and the rest of them be if they had to contribute to the pension system in the same way?

    The USPS has a SHITLOAD of dead wood in it and a lot of it is management. The guy who did my mail delivery for five years (he just took a different route) used to have a supervisor come out and time him on his route. He was treated like a fucking disobedient child and I know for an absolute fact that he is a very good employee. He goes out of his way to do things that are NOT required by any work rules for the elderly and disabled. He treats his customers like customers.

    USPS management has a long history of fucking with the help. When I worked for them back in ’72-’73 there was a level of hostility between labor and management that was breathtaking. From people I know who still work there, the situation has not improved.

    The union is also at fault in the current situation but they do not have the bully pulpit or the power of the US gummint backing their play.

    Congress will never, imo, let the USPS function as what it used to be because they like using it as a whipping boy. They will also not let it innovate in most areas for the same reason.

    One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that when I lived in Germany in the late 60’s and early 70’s I could receive a letter mailed from Omaha in 3-4 days. A letter mailed to a friend in Mannheim, about 50 miles from Wiesbaden took as long as a week to be delivered. I’m told that was normal.

    The Bundespost and the British Postal Service are/were akin to other forms of civil service until fairly recently and the employees were considered to be professionals. U.S. Postal workers are, by many people, considered to be about a step above (or below) welfare queens.

    • Jim from Memphis

      Demo – if the USPS is supposed to be a government provided service should it be funded by the general taxes instead of user fees currently charged? I bet if the funding was changed to this, then you would see the republicans quickly repeal the pension contribution requirement they placed on the USPS.

  10. Min

    We should treat the Post Office the way we do the military. Decide what it is we want it to do, and then pay whatever it costs to make sure that it does it well.

  11. Slate’s ‘Explainer’ column offers some interesting insights into the history of the USPS’s current situation.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/business/explainer/2013/02/post_office_ending_sunday_delivery_why_can_t_the_u_s_postal_service_make.html

    Among the key points:

    “With the profits from first-class mail, the Postal Service priced the delivery of newspapers and magazines at well below cost. In 2006 alone, the USPS subsidized periodicals to the tune of $273 million.”

    “The Internet eventually made letters obsolete; gas prices surged; and health care and retirement costs rose beyond projections, turning letter delivery from a cash cow into a burden. (The true cost of delivering a letter is likely more than twice what we now pay.)”

    “Federal officials have opposed attempts to save money by closing remote post offices and cutting Saturday delivery in the past. The USPS also has the government looking over its shoulder in labor negotiations.”

    “A less-regulated Postal Service could also impose surge-pricing for periods like the holidays or could rearrange delivery schedules to satisfy periodic changes in demand.”

    • “… the Postal Service priced the delivery of newspapers and magazines at well below cost. In 2006 alone, the USPS subsidized periodicals to the tune of $273 million.”

      Yes those of us who work in the news media know about this well. The Newspaper Assn. Of America, Magazine Publishers of America and similar groups always lobbied really hard against postage rate increases, since that was one of the biggest costs for print media. I used to work at a weekly newspaper and postage was an astronomical expense. Nobody wants to pay $10 for a newspaper or $20 for a monthly magazine.

      The ones who really suffered are the small, community newspapers serving rural areas. These are all delivered by mail, they don’t have delivery people like we do in the city. And they have small circulation and a small advertiser base. On top of that, internet service in rural areas is spotty, these are the last areas to get the infrastructure upgrades; only fairly recently have people in rural areas been able to use cell phones to get the internet. When I lived in rural Kentucky I really did feel cut off from the world. Hell, we had to jump through hoops to get FedEx delivery — you had to call the day before if you had a package, there was none of this daily service stuff, unless you wanted to drive 45 minutes to Hopkinsville. Seriously, rural areas are where you depend on the USPS the most! That’s why closing remote post offices is problematic, people in rural areas don’t have the other options that us city folk have. But I digress….

      The MPA’s ideas, some listed here, weren’t necessarily good options, either. “Trim your staff,” well, the USPS did that. One good idea is to get rid of the real estate, that goes back to my idea about partnering with banks and grocery stores and operating USPS “windows.” I can see a small little grocery store and bait shop in Rock Castle, KY having a postal window. Why not? Still, it’s a short-term solution.

      You know, it just all goes back to the print media suffering from the same issue that plagues the USPS, it’s just more fallout from the digital revolution. Several newspapers, like the Christian Science Monitor, killed their print editions and switched to online-only. That’s usually seen as a death sentence for a newspaper but it doesn’t have to be, if you market yourself properly. The thing people forget is that you have to aggressively market your online presence, at least initially, because the web is huge and people need to find you.

  12. “Seriously, rural areas are where you depend on the USPS the most!”

    I grew up in hyper-rural Eastern KY and totally agree. The importance of a local post office goes beyond the basic mail service. Lots of rural places derive their existence from the post office. In my case, Smith, KY was the post office, operated by my Uncle Creed and his wife. Without that post office designation, Smith would have not had the same reality.

    • And it’s funny that when we’re having this national debate about the USPS I don’t hear anyone in the media really addressing the issue of rural needs. I guess that’s to be expected, the media is located in big cities. But the bulk of this country is rural. This should be part of the conversation.

      • In the Slate piece, I found this noteworthy:

        “Private carriers charge substantially more to deliver parcels to rural locations. According to the UPS website, the lowest rate to deliver a four-pound package from New York City to White Owl, S.D., is $20.51. The Postal Service, which is under pressure from the federal government to provide affordable service to remote locations, charges just $12.07 to deliver the same box.”

        With its superior infrastructure, the Post Office is $8.44 less expensive. But one assumes most people don’t know this. Of course, part of the USPS advantage comes from the monopoly on first class mail so the lower USPS cost may benefit some consumers but at the expense of others.

      • But one assumes most people don’t know this….

        Don’t be so sure about that! Our biggest problem was when we needed to overnight something, say some pictures or film for advertising or to a news outlet. We had to scramble around the office and pray that someone else might have already called FedEx and a pick-up was already scheduled. Because even getting to a post office was a 30 minute drive.

        But a lot of that got solved with e-mail, we could scan images and just send them over the internet.

        Rural areas need connectivity, they need broadband, IIRC there was a big broadband infrastructure project that was part of the stimulus and it got nixed. The thing is, the private companies like Comcast and AT&T are just not moving on this, it’s too expensive, there’s no profit for them in it. The government has to step in and build this infrastructure. Satellite internet is ridiculously expensive and way too slow, we looked into it and it’s totally not worth it.

        I’m not sure where we are with rural broadband, I know the FCC was doing something with this and I really haven’t been following it. I think they’re trying to transition to cell phone-3G/4G based service.

      • I do not deny that the rural telecommunications problem will require some mixed public and private solution. But the problems of the USPS suggest the solution or solutions ma need to be regional rather than national.

        Perhaps the federal government should start with the states with overlapping rural populations or states with the largest rural populations and help them craft specific solutions that meet their needs.

      • But the problems of the USPS suggest the solution or solutions ma need to be regional rather than national.

        I don’t get that at all. You certainly haven’t made that case. Just more “states rights” bs, Mark? What state DOESN’T have a rural population? Every single one of them!

      • SB,

        No, I don’t think this is a states’ rights issue. After all, this is a telecommunications issue and telecom stuff tends to fall under interstate commerce {and the FCC} so some federal involvement is necessary. Also the funding for broadband infrastructure in the largest and least densely populated states will have to come in no small part from the federal government {even if that involves fees on telecommunications providers rather than direct federal funding}.

        Can we start by agreeing that the telecommunications and broadband problems faced by rural populations in states like Montana or Wyoming or Texas are different than the problems faced by rural populations in Tennessee or Maine or Illinois?

        In Tennessee, for example, even the most rural communities are less than an hour drive from a city or town. I would imagine that few if any residents lived more than 1/2 hour from a school or library or community center. Any effort to provide additional broadband service can start with planning for individual counties to develop plans that incorporate community facilities and local resources.

        In states where rural populations are much more isolated, like in the geographically larger Western states, that sort of county by county approach would not be applicable. In those states any broadband infrastructure planning would almost certainly need to be do from the top down. Since there are several states where large geographical areas and small population pose the major barriers and since these states tend to border each other, regional solutions mean cooperation between several states. Regional solutions require the cooperation of multiple states and that is probably going to necessitate federal help in coordinating a range of factors.

        My point is that a national broadband monopoly {like the USPS} is not the answer because various states need different solutions. And different states are ready to move at different speeds, something that a federalized solution would be less inclined to permit.

      • Can we start by agreeing that the telecommunications and broadband problems faced by rural populations in states like Montana or Wyoming or Texas are different than the problems faced by rural populations in Tennessee or Maine or Illinois?

        No. There is already plenty of latitude built in to accommodate geographic differences between a place like, say, Alaska and a place like Delaware. The USPS has always contracted with local companies and partnered with private business when it needed to.

  13. jimvoorhies

    I think the P.O. could run itself at zero deficit (or make a profit that could then be plowed into expanding 20+ megabit broadband everywhere) if it weren’t for Congressional management and oversight and steadfast opposition from companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and other broadband service providers. Congress, which takes forever to make decisions (especially now) and which is going to be forever bound to members who do things for their constituents You want your own post office? OK.) is incapable of making decisions that need to be made.

    They P.O. has equipment capable of sorting mail automatically despite my horrid handwriting. It zips through the system, gets barcoded and slotted into the right spot for Gail, my local mail carrier to deliver it. They could use their expertise and current technology to turn the mail into digital delivery on demand, cutting delivery times to hours or minutes cross-country instead of days. All it would take is for the Congress to step out of the way.