Privatize the USPS
Excerpts from a lengthy, but comprehesive and well worth-reading analysis of the USPS titled "Going Postal: The Imminent Death of the U.S. Postal Service?" in the May/June 2009 issue of The American Interest (thanks to Colin for the pointer):
USPS and General Motors have a lot in common these days. Both are currently generating multibillion dollar annual losses, pushing products that ever fewer people want, burdening themselves with bloated payrolls and huge fixed-cost infrastructures, continuing to roll up enormous unfunded pension obligations, and contending with some of the largest and most powerful labor unions on earth. Both, too, are expecting the American taxpayer to bail them out.
Just as General Motors has in effect subsidized Big Oil by continuing to build gas-guzzlers in recent years, so has the USPS continued to subsidize Big Mail by shaping its operations to encourage what it now calls, revealingly, “standard mail”—that is, advertising junk mail. Most American citizens are blissfully unaware of the degree to which USPS subsidizes large U.S. businesses ("Big Mail") by means of the fees it collects from ordinary postal customers. For example, if you wish to mail someone a large envelope weighing three ounces, you’ll pay $1.17 in postage. A business can bulk-mail a three-ounce catalog of the same size for as little as $0.14.
USPS management claims that “standard” mail makes lots of money, that the USPS makes a better margin delivering a “standard” mail package for $0.14 than it does a first-class one for $1.17. Why? Supposedly because of efficiencies produced by bulk-mail, machinable, zip-plus-four and zip-plus-nine standardization schemes. If you look at the revenue stream from advertising mail, it does look impressive, and it has been growing. But when you juxtapose next to that revenue stream the enormous transactional costs of maintaining a riotously complex rate structure to service it, you quickly reach a different conclusion: Standard mail, the costs of which are also generally tax-deductible for businesses, does not make money. It amounts to a corporate subsidy, which helps to explain why Congress, insofar as its members understand this, typically doesn’t object to the status quo. After all, these corporations have been known to contribute to electoral campaigns.
As with many failed and failing government organizations, the team that got you into a mess isn’t likely to be the team that gets you out. The USPS needs to be torn down to the studs and re-invented. The Obama Administration and Congress must practice what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction” in order to save the USPS from itself. Here is what to do, and the order in which to do it:
1. Replace the USPS senior management team with proven corporate executives who know how to run a $76 billion company with vision and accountability to stakeholders.
2. Negotiate with the unions to gain the concessions necessary to get the USPS’s labor costs in line. To be competitive with private competitors, the USPS will need to pay its workforce less than the $42 average hourly wage they receive today. Between layoffs and renegotiated compensation and benefits, drop the payroll costs from 80 percent of USPS’s expenses to 60 percent.
3. Invest in modernization of the sorting centers to gain long-term efficiencies, but tighten up the network so that unprofitable centers and unprofitable post office branches are closed.
4. Normalize the pricing differences between first-class, second-class (publications) and standard mail (advertising) to reflect actual delivery costs, and end the ratepayer and taxpayer subsidization of Big Mail.
5. Redefine the Universal Service Obligation so that it makes sense in the 21st century. Use available online technology that enables the Postal Service to know when customers don’t need delivery or would forego a default delivery option to have their mail delivered electronically, redirected elsewhere or destroyed.
6. As consumers switch to all-electronic delivery of postal mail, modify the USPS’s delivery fleet with in-vehicle dynamic routing systems like the ones that UPS and FedEx use, so that USPS vehicles don’t have to stop at every house, every day.
7. Follow the international model for liberalization. Having competitors in the marketplace will force the USPS to become more efficient and truly competitive. Customers will have a choice, just as they do today with phone-service providers. Better yet, move to privatize the USPS before the option disappears.