BY CHARLES MEMMINGER – To understand why the United States Postal Service will be something like $15 billion in debt by the end of the year, you simply have to go the official USPS Internet website where the organization frankly, which is to say, insanely, states: “Ours is a proud heritage built on a simple yet profound mission: Connect every American, every door, every business, everywhere through the simple act of delivering mail.”
It may once have been a simple yet profound mission, but now it sounds like crazy talk. A mission to deliver little pieces of paper to every American, door, business everywhere using jet airplanes and gas-powered trucks in these days of instant digital communication is more than bizarre. Especially if the organization delivering the pieces of paper (and boxes) doesn’t charge even a break-even rate for the service.
Federal Express and UPS have shown that it is possible to run a profitable company involved in delivering “mail” but only if you 1) charge the customers the true cost of shipping the product, 2) limit your clientele to people willing to pay for the service and 3) not try to connect every person or business in the entire country through the dubious act of delivering stuff.
I love the post office and I think the people who work there are swell. They are friendly, efficient and rarely “go postal” in the mentally-impaired sense. But, heck, I would have liked those Pony Express riders, too. And I would have liked Ben Franklin in 1775 when he was appointed the first Postmaster General. But folks, missions need to change with the times.
To understand the absurdity of the government postal service today, cast your mind back to 1861 when brave young riders might have bragged: “Ours is a proud heritage built on a simple yet profound mission to deliver the messages across the country on horseback.” No fellas. Look up. See that wire up there. It’s called a telegraph. It does what you do faster and cheaper and is easier on the livestock. That’s why the Pony Express lasted only about a year. Because technology passed it by. And it didn’t try to stay in business by borrowing money from the U.S. government and plunging itself into ever deeper debt.
But that’s exactly what happened to the U.S. Postal Service. Right now, some in Congress, including apparently Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye, are considering a partial bailout of USPS to the tune of about $8 billion. The postal service liked to brag in the past that it was a self-sufficient operation financed by the sale of stamps. Postal officials claimed the post office hadn’t received taxpayer money “directly” since 1980. Yes, because there was a beautiful way to do it indirectly, just borrow billions from the government because you haven’t figured out how to run a business like a business. And wait for a bailout of federal tax money down the road.
Speaking of roads, just to show you how blithely ignorant modern postmasters general have been of how to run a business, while the USPS was rapidly sinking in a vast sump pit of debt, it was paying more than $30 million to sponsor Lance Armstrong’s bike racing team. It claims to have gotten “value” out of that misguided investment but doesn’t say what that value is. The “value” obviously wasn’t valuable enough to keep USPS from careening toward receivership faster than Lance Armstrong flying down a hill in the Pyrenees. Why were American taxpayers giving – however indirectly – millionaire celebrity professional bike rider Lance Armstrong any money at all? Why not give it to Donald Trump so a USPS banner could hang above the door of one of his casinos?
To their credit, some in the postal service are desperately trying to figure out a way to make the enterprise solvent. Sadly, I’m afraid this passel of bureaucrats are genetically incapable of running a business for profit. They are talking about shutting down all of 2,000 of more than 36,000 post offices nationally. And maybe delivering mail only three days a week.
What they need to do is understand that the Internet has eclipsed USPS’s once proud mission by connecting every American, every door, every business, everywhere through the simple act of being the Internet. We simply don’t need to burn expensive gasoline and jet fuel to move mostly worthless pieces of paper around the country. And they are mostly worthless: mass marketing flyers, credit card applications, jury duty demands … they don’t call it “junk mail” for nothing. Most of the stuff that lands in my mailbox gets tossed into the trash immediately. What? The state court system can’t send out jury duty demands by e-mail?
The simple solution to solving the Post Office’s financial problems is to find out how much it actually costs to send stuff through the mail and charge more than that amount to customers. If they don’t like it, screw ‘em. That will cut the amount of mail delivered by at least half and limit mail delivery to physical items that really need to be delivered by hand. The mass marketers will have to go back to trying to steal our money the old fashioned way: Internet spam.