Just got finished reading an article from Newsweek (I thought they were out of business!). The article is entitled “Do We Need a Postal Service?” and is written by Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute; a Washington D.C. think tank.
It’s an interesting piece, filled with data about the Post Office’s indebtedness (maxed out at $15 billion), unfunded medical benefits liability ($50 billion and counting), inadequate capital investment (140,000, 20 year old vehicles in need of replacement) along with the same sad song about its inability to modernize and adapt to a greatly reduced mail volume caused mostly by widespread preference for digital communication.
The tease of the article’s headline gives way to some hedging by Kosar on why the Post Office couldn’t be completely eliminated. He also avoids taking direct responsibility for his implied conclusion by saying the “public” views the Postal Service as a “pointless, environmentally harmful anachronism” which they therefore would be reluctant to bail out once the gargantuan bills come due.
Certainly those bills will come due and need to be paid and that is a huge problem for the service and ultimately the taxpayers. Unlike a private enterprise which has to be competitive and answer to stockholders, the postal monopoly just keeps rolling along beholden to its political masters; very few of whom have any desire to upset any of their constituencies who might complain about commonsense reforms like doing away with Saturday delivery and closing unnecessary post offices. The largest single constituency is the postal union which of course will not take kindly to any significant lay-offs or cuts in pay or benefits.
Kosar succumbs to the canard that mail is an environmentally harmful exercise because it cuts down trees which are turned into paper in factories that pollute the air and then delivered in old trucks that do the same. I’ve never quite understood why some people think that growing trees and then harvesting them for paper is such a bad thing. New tree growth is an unequivocal positive for the environment. The more paper that’s consumed, the more new trees need to be grown to meet the demand. On the environmental argument I’d say “don’t get me started” but that’s obviously too late. I’ve posted several times on that topic if you’re interested.
But the larger question is how best to provide the mail delivery service that we still need. You can make the argument that much of what’s delivered (direct mail advertising) isn’t really a “need” but you can also make the argument that we should all ride bicycles and take public transportation and not drive cars. The fact is that while the amount of first-class mail has declined significantly over the past couple of decades, there are still billions of letters and packages that need to be delivered. I don’t think it matters whether those letters are now primarily marketing-related rather than love notes or letters from camp. There is a market for mail delivery services and that needs to be serviced.
Is the Post Office as presently constituted the best way to do that? I think not. In an ideal, non-political world (yeah, right!) we’d have private companies competing to deliver the first class mail just as we do for packages. Pricing would mostly likely be based on the destination and if you lived in a remote area, it would cost more to send you mail which is how it should be.
While that utopian scenario seems far-fetched, ironically I think that the same technology which has caused the mail to be less important than it used to be will actually allow it to be delivered more efficiently in the future. The direct marketing industry should be a driver for Post Office reform rather than defending the status-quo as it too often does.
I also think the country could do with many more hand-written love letters!
What do you think?