Tag: postal regulatory commission

Postmaster General Stepping Down

Postmaster General John Potter has announced that he is stepping down. The Washington Post speculates on the reason for Potter’s departure:

It is not immediately clear why Potter decided to step down, though USPS staffers and others in the postal community – a wide fraternity including the shipping industry, labor unions and large retailers – signaled recently that he was likely to go after another record year of financial losses and failing to earn greater management flexibilities from Congress.

When Potter testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in March on the USPS’s desire to drop Saturday delivery, I noted that his comments indicated the need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service.

In his testimony, Potter stated:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

Of course, Congress has shown virtually no interest in giving the USPS, which is bleeding red ink, the greater flexibility it needs. This makes me wonder if Potter will reach the same conclusion that his predecessor, William Henderson, reached following his departure from the USPS.

Three short months after Henderson stepped down as postmaster general in June 2001, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for the USPS to be privatized.

Henderson wrote:

But for all the ways in which the Postal Service already resembles a private company, it lacks the advantages of any other corporation, such as being able to turn on a dime when it comes to rate changes, perhaps raising prices at times of high demand and lowering prices to entice customers during traditionally slow times, which for the Postal Service means summer. Today, a price change requires the permission of the Postal Rate Commission – a yearlong process.

And unlike a private company, the Postal Service has a universal service obligation, meaning it must deliver everywhere, six days a week, at a regularly scheduled time, making the delivery even for a single piece of mail, which is not cost-effective. And it means delivering in the Grand Canyon and in rural Alaska and in high-risk neighborhoods and lots of other places where delivery is not cost-effective.

The trade-off is that the Postal Service gets monopoly protection; no private company is allowed to compete with it head to head by carrying letter mail or using the mailbox. It should give up that protection for the greater benefits of privatization.

Henderson’s conclusion still rings true almost ten years later:

I can’t believe that 25 years from now the Postal Service will still be owned by the federal government. But the point is that, as with any government asset, this one needs to be maximized. And that means we need to free ourselves from the usual discussion about controlling costs or keeping rates stable or mailing more, all of which is simply a form of denial about the real issue. The model itself is not going to work for the long haul: It must be changed.

Unfortunately, Congress is still in denial. In commenting on Potter’s departure, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) offered the vacuous statement that his successor “must strengthen the Postal Service by cutting costs, enticing more customers and putting this vital institution on a sound financial footing.” Instead, Sen. Collins and her colleagues need to recognize that the USPS model “is not going to work for the long haul” so long as politicians ultimately remain in charge.

Thoughts on Five-Day Mail

The USPS has taken the first step toward reducing mail delivery to five days a week by sending a request to the Postal Regulatory Commission. However, it will be ultimately up to Congress whether or not Saturday delivery is eliminated.

The USPS, which is in a death spiral, views the elimination of Saturday mail delivery service as a step toward regaining its financial footing. Not surprisingly, the decision is proving controversial among some members of Congress.

Here’s a better idea: give Americans the freedom to choose the mail services they want by repealing the USPS monopoly. That way consumers and businesses could choose to provide and use mail services zero days a week or seven days a week.

Online movie rental services like Netflix offer a small example. A lot of folks time their Netflix rentals so that they have movies for Saturday night. Eliminating Saturday delivery will necessarily degrade the quality of online movie rental services that people are paying for. With competition, Netflix could offer Saturday (or even Sunday) delivery through a private alternative. Perhaps there would be a surcharge, but at least consumers would be allowed to make that choice.

Supporters of the government mail monopoly regularly cite their amazement that they can drop a letter in a mailbox and it will arrive unharmed in another mailbox clear across the country. As a $70 billion operation with the largest workforce in the country, I would hope the USPS can pull off such a feat.

I find it more impressive that I can go into a grocery store almost anywhere in the country and be met with an incalculable number of choices. Take Coke products for instance. I recently made a list of the various Coke products available to me at a local grocery store. The following is just a sample: regular Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Coke, Diet Caffeine-free Coke, Coke Zero, Coke with Splenda, Coke with Lime, Coke with Lemon, and Diet Coke Plus. Don’t like Coke?  There’s a similar array of Pepsi products. Don’t like either? The grocery stores also offer pricier micro-brands with all sorts of unique flavors.

These choices reflect the awesome power of the market, which provides nearly all the goods and services people want without any direction from officials in Washington. It would interesting to see what sorts of innovations and products private mail deliverers would come up with if the government’s mail monopoly didn’t exist. Instead, Americans are stuck with a government operation whose floundering business model will require it to raise prices while simultaneously reducing its services. So much for freedom of choice.