Tag: usps

The Post Office Is Broke: End Washington’s Postal Monopoly

The United States Postal Service has run up $4 billion in losses so far this year, on top of last year’s $15.9 billion deficit. Washington should get out of the mail business. 

Congress created the Post Office in 1792, turning it into an important patronage tool. Legislators also passed the Private Express Statutes, giving the government a monopoly over first class mail.  

Washington imposed fines on early competitors, including the famed Lysander Spooner. Uncle Sam continues to rigorously police his monopoly.  

The Postal Service boasts that it would rank number 42 on the list of the Fortune 500—but that is only because the other 499 companies on the list, as well as everyone else, are barred from competing to deliver mail. Unfortunately for USPS, government lawyers cannot force people to send letters. The number of pieces of mail delivered dropped from 213 billion in 2006 to 160 billion last year. 

In 1971 Congress voted to turn the post office into a quasi-private company. However, Washington preserved the monopoly, retained control over system operations, and preserved a variety of indirect subsidies. For instance, USPS is exempt from taxes, regulations, and even parking tickets.

Postal Reform in the Lame Duck?

According to the Hill, policymakers are “scrambling” to do something about the U.S. Postal Service in the current lame-duck session of Congress. The USPS’s recently announced $15.9 billion loss for 2012 apparently inspired policymakers to act.

It’s hardly a surprise that Congress has waited as long as it can to do something about the USPS. Interest in postal issues for most members probably doesn’t go beyond naming post offices and franking. And regardless of whether Congress passes “reform” legislation in the lame-duck or next year, it will end up just kicking the can down the road. (Policy analysts who are frustrated with the inability of Congress to tackle entitlement reform would be wise to stay away from postal policy issue for mental health purposes.)

To get an idea of how absurd the current negotiations are, take this line from the article:

[S]ome liberal lawmakers and postal unions have pushed back against any attempts to limit six-day delivery, saying it would make bad business sense for the Postal Service to give up any competitive advantage as it moves forward.

Competitive advantage? By law, private carriers can’t compete with the USPS on the delivery of first class mail. To the degree that first class mail “competes” with the private sector, it’s with the internet. Going from six-day to five-day delivery won’t change the fact that the demand for the USPS’s flagship monopoly product is in permanent decline as more and more people decide to click “send” instead. What makes “bad business sense” for the USPS is to leave politicians in charge of it.

[See this essay for more on privatizing the U.S. Postal Service.]

About Those Postal Retiree Health Benefits

While Congress is busy trying to figure out how it’s going to continue screwing up the U.S. Postal Service, postal expert Michael Schuler has been busy analyzing the reasons why it’s so screwed up to begin with. Last week, Michael released a paper on congressional micromanagement of the USPS. A new paper looks at the complicated and controversial topic of postal retiree health benefits.

A common claim made by the postal unions and other defenders of the unsustainable status quo is that the USPS would be a-okay if a 2006 law hadn’t required the postal service to start setting aside money for future retiree health benefits. Here’s the background from Michael:

Before enactment of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA, P.L. 109-435), the U.S. Postal Service had been promising generous retirement health benefits to its workers without setting aside any money to pay the costs it would owe in future years. Because the Service was ignoring a very expensive fringe benefit in its income statement, its reported costs were artificially low and its reported income artificially high. The unfunded retiree health care obligation had mushroomed to $74.8 billion by September 30, 2006.

The 2006 law addressed the unfunded liability by requiring the USPS to annually set-aside an average of $5.6 billion from 2007 to 2016. However, USPS revenues began plummeting shortly after the PAEA’s enactment. The annual “prefunding” payments have been exacerbating the USPS’s financial woes. Naturally, postal management and the unions would like Congress to make the payments disappear. The problem is, eliminating the payments won’t put the USPS in the black, and it would merely set the stage for a major taxpayer bailout down the road. As Michael explains, moving to pay-as-you-go financing for retiree health benefits is a bad idea:

First, prefunding is always more transparent than pay-as-you-go. Prefunding shows the costs of commitments when they are made instead of ignoring the costs until years later. Second, pay-as-you-go with regard to deferred postal compensation is unfair because it transfers costs incurred for today’s mail service to future mail users or taxpayers. Third, pay-as-you-go is extremely risky for an organization like the Postal Service where the future obligations are huge while income is stagnating or declining. (It would not be dangerous if future obligations were small or if income were growing rapidly enough to easily pay future bills.) Fourth, a sometimes overlooked hazard of the pay-as-you-go method is that costs can appear deceptively low for many years and then suddenly climb as more workers retire and as retirees, with increasing age, need more medical care. In that vein, OPM estimated that if retiree health care financing had reverted to pay-as-you-go in 2010, the Postal Service’s pay-as-you-go expense would have been only $2.3 billion in 2010 but almost tripled to $6.4 billion by 2020. If PAEA had not moved toward prefunding, insolvency and the need for a massive taxpayer bailout would be virtually inevitable for USPS, although that might not have become clear to the public for several more years because of pay-as-you-go’s lack of transparency.

Michael says that the prefunding payment schedule should be stretched out given the USPS’s financial woes. However, the extended schedule should come with reforms that would “lower the extraordinary cost of USPS’s health care fringe benefit.” I think a common sense reform would be to eliminate retiree health care benefits for new employees. As I noted in an essay on the U.S. Postal Service, the health benefit is something that a decreasing number of private sector workers receive:

Opponents of pre-funding USPS retiree health benefits argue that private companies and the rest of the federal government are not legally required to do so. That is largely irrelevant. Retiree health care coverage is an increasingly rare perk in the private sector, and the federal government’s financial management is nothing to emulate. In 2008, only 17 percent of private sector workers were employed at a business that offered health benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees, down from 28 percent in 1997.

USPS: Stuck With the Government Business Model

The U.S. Postal Service has released a new five-year plan for congressional consideration that it says would get the beleaguered government mail monopoly on sounder financial footing and thus avoid a taxpayer bailout. The plan repeats previous suggestions (i.e., workforce reductions, postal network consolidations, elimination of Saturday delivery, elimination of the retiree healthcare benefit funding requirement) and proposes an increase in the price of a first-class stamp from forty-five to fifty cents.

Whether or not it would achieve what the USPS hopes, it probably doesn’t matter given that asking Congress for greater operational flexibility is like asking a two year old to stop playing with their food. That’s why the focus should be on completely transitioning the USPS from a government-run business to a privately-run business (or perhaps businesses).

Over at the Courier Express and Postal Observer blog, Alan Robinson says that “just like all plans that came before, [the new USPS plan] started with the assumption that the Postal Service remains a quasi-governmental entity.” As a result, Robinson notes that the plan is missing two key ingredients for success that foreign posts have utilized: private capital and an expanded range of products and services.

In an essay on the U.S. Postal Service, I discuss how liberalization in other countries has enabled foreign mailers to diversify into non-postal activities:

Consultants at Accenture have found that diversification not only has a measurable impact on the performance of international posts, but that it is what ultimately distinguishes high performers from low performers. America’s relatively dynamic economy is particularly suited for the diversification opportunities that would arise under postal liberalization.

Germany’s former postal monopoly, Deutsche Post, illustrates the type of transformation possible by liberalization. Today, the private Deutsche Post World Net has changed its compensation structure, imported managers from other industries, modernized the mail and parcels network within Germany, and developed new products such as hybrid mail and e-commerce. The company now has interests in not only the traditional mail and parcels business but also express mail logistics, banking, and more.

Given that the USPS’s plan is going to be unpopular with various postal stakeholders (i.e., special interests), Alan says that they should consider the advantages of privatization:

It is clear that the business plan that the Postal Service has chosen is not the one that has worked in other countries. The plan avoids talking about either private capital or expanding the breadth of service offerings as neither is on the legislative table.    Introducing thinking about how private capital could be introduced and the product offerings could be expanded forces stakeholders to think about privatization, an idea that is nearly as unpopular as the changes that the proposed business model introduced.   However, as this brief post notes, privatization offers significant financial advantages that could reduce the operating and price changes envisions by the Postal Service’s business plan. Therefore, those who see the greatest harm from this plan need to see if the advantages of privatization could benefit their interests sufficiently to overcome long-held objections to the idea.

I think Robinson is right, but I suspect that the “stakeholders” believe there’s a good chance that Congress will ultimately come to their aid with some sort of taxpayer bailout. Therefore, it’s possible that they believe that it is in their best interest to continue fighting for the status quo. Unfortunately, the recent bipartisan federal bailouts of the financial industry and the automakers suggest that they could be correct.

U.S. Postal Service Fares Worse in Recession than Foreign Posts

A new paper from postal expert Michael Schuyler compares the financial performance of the U.S. Postal Service to foreign postal service providers. Not surprisingly, the USPS, which has lost over $25 billion since 2006 and ranks near the bottom of the Postal Index of Freedom, doesn’t fare too well.

From the paper:

[Universal Postal Union] data indicate that, in each year, the majority of posts in high-income jurisdictions were profitable. Declining mail demand was stressful, though: the share of posts reporting losses increased from less than one in ten in 2007 to more than one in three in 2010. Nevertheless, few posts lost money consistently: under 20% over the period 2008-2010 and under 10% over the period 2007-2008, which suggests most foreign posts reacted quickly and effectively to financial setbacks. The good news is that posts can adjust to change and remain financially viable. Unfortunately, USPS is among the posts with consistent losses. Further, UPU data show that, in each year, more than half the reporting posts in medium-income jurisdictions were profitable. Few spilled red ink year after year.

Schuyler says that he will explore the reasons for the USPS’s comparatively poor performance in a future paper, but notes that “A key finding will be that Congressional restrictions and pressure often deny the Postal Service the operational flexibility needed to manage its costs properly.” In a Cato essay, I discuss the problems with Congress’s micromanagement of the U.S. Postal Service and conclude that it should be placed on the path to privatization.

Another postal expert, Alan Robinson, notes Schuyler’s piece and offers additional commentary on the need for policymakers to figure out what to do with the flailing postal service. Should the USPS go back to being subsidized by taxpayers?  Or should the USPS remain a part of the federal government at all? Robinson concludes that “it is time for postal service stakeholders, and in particular its labor unions, to develop an acceptable path toward privatization.”

Postal Vision 2020

Postal Vision 2020 is a conference scheduled for June in Arlington, VA, that will discuss the U.S. Postal Service’s long-term prospects in our increasingly digitized world. Here’s how the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe frames the gathering:

As mail volume continues to plummet and more Americans use the Internet to pay bills and keep in touch, Google executives, social media experts and some of the most passionate tech evangelists are planning to meet in Crystal City in mid-June to sort out how to save and remake the nation’s mail delivery service.

That sounds like a good group for discussing ideas on how to “remake the nation’s mail delivery service” given that the USPS is the antithesis of companies like Google. Creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and competitive are words that one would associate with Google—not the government’s mail monopoly. However, should these folks be getting together to discuss saving the USPS? That notion strikes me as akin to having Henry Ford come up with ideas on saving the horse and buggy.

As I discuss in a Cato essay on the USPS, the socialist mail enterprise cannot survive in its current form—at least not without a reintroduction of taxpayer subsidies. The USPS’s revenue base has been irrevocably undermined by the growth in digital communications, and congressional micromanagement makes sufficient cost-cutting extremely difficult. Thus, I would argue that the goal should be to create a market for postal services rather than to “save” the USPS:

Policymakers resistant to reform often depict the USPS as a “national asset” that “binds the nation together.” But these days, it’s the Internet and our telecommunications networks that bind families and businesses together across the nation. It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.

Unfortunately, the sclerosis at the USPS is a reflection of the sclerosis in Congress. As Chris Edwards and I have repeatedly discussed with each other, it is incredibly difficult for Congress to think outside the box on policy. One reason is that because the federal government has become so massive, policymakers have little time to devote to big ideas like transforming the USPS. That, of course, assumes that policymakers are interested in such big ideas. For many members of Congress, interest in the USPS doesn’t go much further than franking privileges and naming post offices.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Taxpayers received a rare, albeit small and temporary, victory when a pork-laden omnibus bill died in the Senate. We’re now about to find out how serious Republicans are about cutting spending.
  • Chris Edwards looks at breastfeeding and argues that bigger isn’t better when it comes to subsidies.
  • “The nearest earthly approach to immortality is a bureau of the federal government.”
  • Former President George W. Bush defends his abysmal spending record in his book Decision Points. Upon further review, perhaps the book should be retitled Deception Points.
  • A new Cato essay discusses the problems of the U.S. Postal Service and concludes that taxpayers, consumers, and the broader economy would stand to gain with reforms to privatize the USPS and open mail delivery up to competition.