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Beatts Me!

They're Going Postal Over Billion-Dollar Profits

January 11, 1998|ANNE BEATTS

First, the good news. The U.S. Postal Service, unlike the federal government, is in the black. Yep, our post office--unlike those of us to whom it daily, except Sundays and holidays, delivers ever-increasing stacks of those unpleasantly foreboding white envelopes with the little plastic windows in them and the gargantuan bills inside--is winding up fiscal '97 with a ge-normous profit of $1.26 billion.

Rest assured, the post office doesn't deliver itself any of those nasty letters beginning: "It has come to our attention that. . . ." Nor, indeed, does it receive any of those jarring early morning phone calls from a Miss Morlock at Chase, who has a voice that could be more usefully employed to etch glass than to try to extract any blood from the stone that is me when awakened at 7 a.m.

No, the post office can just go on its merry way, secure in the knowledge that it's never going to see the words "exceeds available funds" flashing on the screen of its cash machine.

So what is the post office doing with its new-found financial security? But, of course: It's raising the price of stamps. This is the bad news I hinted at earlier by telling you there was good news. The oh-so-conveniently priced 32-cent stamp is scheduled to increase by one cent this coming July 1. Other increases have not yet been determined.

"But why?" you may moan, as I did on hearing the news. Postal money manager Michael J. Riley has a ready explanation: It's not a price increase, it's actually a price cut. He maintains that the cost of living has gone up since the last stamp price hike, way back in '95, a year so shrouded in the mists of time I can barely remember it myself. "You give people a price cut by price increases less than inflation," Michael J. Riley says.

Not only is less more, more is actually less. Thank you, Michael J. Riley, for clearing that up for me, and now perhaps you'd be happy to explain to Miss Morlock at Chase how, when I spend more and send her less, she and Chase and possibly the entire economy are actually benefiting from it.

"But why?" I moan again, feverishly counting the 32-cent stamps I foolishly stockpiled with the idea that it would save me trips to the post office. The new stamp, or "Lucky 33" as I call it, compels us to compute all future stamp purchases in multiples of three. Three stamps for 99 cents--sounds like a bargain, right? That's how they get you. That's the psychology of the marketplace. I sense the fine hand of Michael J. Riley at work once more.

Just in case you consider it improper for me to question the financial probity of so hallowed an institution as the U.S. Postal Service, let me just point out that this is the same organization recently revealed to have employed a worker who went on disability in 1940 and who died a few short years later, but whose family continued receiving payments for most of the following five decades.

Today, thousands of postal workers are eligible for bonuses of up to $12,000 apiece, based on job performance and customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction? Does that mean if you don't have to spend more than your entire lunch hour standing in line, and if the person behind the little window doesn't choose to go on break just as you get to him or her, and doesn't actually snarl at you while doling out ever-more-costly stamps, somebody gets a bonus? "Oh! Nobody got shot in the post office this month. Bonuses all 'round!"

To illustrate further the gap between what we actually think of the post office and what the post office thinks we think of it, consider the question of advertising. Surely you've seen those ads on TV, with cheery postal workers placing packages containing teddy bears in the hands of grateful recipients. All well and good, but why does the post office have to advertise? Where else are we going to go?

Of course, for the valuable stuff, the stuff we really want to make sure gets there on time and in one piece, there's FedEx and Airborne Express and UPS, and all those other, more reliable carriers. But when it comes down to mailing a letter, what choice do we have? "Thirty-three cents? No thanks, I think I'll hire someone to hand-deliver my Christmas cards this year."

There may be no truth to the rumor that the post office invested some of its billions of dollars of profit in return for product placement in "The Postman," directed by and starring Kevin Costner as an unkempt and dirt-encrusted letter carrier, but if I were in charge of auditing Michael J. Riley and his ilk, I'd take a good hard look at the Oscar campaign for "Il Postino."

(And speaking of Michael J. Riley, how come the post office can afford a money manager, a luxury that should be reserved for Hollywood stars who can't add up their bar tabs?)

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