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Editorial

For Postal Service, it's not in the mail

A plan to slow first-class delivery times is a terrible way to cut costs.

December 07, 2011
  • Over the past five years, the volume of first-class mail has dropped 25% as electronic deliveries, mainly email and, more recently, online bill payments, have cut into Postal Service revenue. As a result, the service faces a $14-billion budget shortfall next year. Above, letter carrier Felipe Raymundo moves a tray of mail to his truck to begin delivery Monday at a post office in Seattle.
Over the past five years, the volume of first-class mail has dropped 25%… (Elaine Thompson, Associated…)

The U.S. Postal Service could hardly have come up with a worse solution to its financial problems than its proposal to slow first-class delivery to the point of irrelevance. Instead of delivering mail in a day or so, it would take two to three — at least. In other words, unless people who still pay bills by mail sent off their checks a week in advance, they wouldn't be guaranteed delivery by the due date.

The new delivery times could prove lethal to the DVD-by-mail portion of Netflix operations, though that company has been managing to damage its business on its own. If more than a week is needed to receive a DVD and get it back to the video-rental company (this doesn't count viewing time), many people won't consider the service to be worth the monthly fee.

In both cases, more people would be pushed to do their business over the Internet — paying bills and downloading movies online — which is the very trend that landed the post office in all this trouble to begin with.

In other words, the delays in deliveries would most likely precipitate a crisis for the Postal Service, which could, paradoxically, be exactly what it needs. That might force Congress — which has been sitting on its hands, as though resisting change would reverse the post office's decline — to free up the agency to make more sensible decisions, such as ending Saturday service and raising rates so that they more realistically reflect the cost of efficient mail delivery. The measly, overdue 1-cent raise in the price of a stamp that takes place in January will do little to save the system.

People need at least some of their snail mail to arrive in a timely, reliable manner. Most people would probably rather pay a few cents extra for that — there is, after all, little in private mail delivery that rivals the low cost and convenience of a first-class postage stamp — than to pay one extra cent for glacial service.

The Postal Service, no longer a government agency, receives no taxpayer funding, yet remains under the thumb of Congress. That has resulted in a quasi-private agency that doesn't work like a private business and irritates the public with its poor customer service. It forges labor contracts with untenable provisions — such as a prohibition on layoffs and a common pay schedule nationwide even though the cost of living varies wildly by region — and it doesn't innovate.

Congress needs to free Postal Service managers to offer a new range of services — online access and some financial services, for example — and to impose rates that reflect the cost of doing business. In exchange, if the post office wants to thrive or even survive, it will have to start thinking more creatively rather than coming up with proposals that only alienate more customers.

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