Sunday, May 13, 2007

Congressional Sleight of Hand

The U. S. Postal Service (Postal Department until Reagan partially privatized it) almost with clockwork ups the price of an ounce of first class postage, almost always by two cents. The explanations given always sound suspicious, and the current increase, going into effect May 14, 2007, is no exception. It sees a 39-cent stamp increasing to 41 cents. (At least the increase is exactly the same as the previous one; I still have plenty of two-cent stamps and now have a use for them again.) The apologia this time concerns a vaguely-stated necessity of upgrading equipment or procedures to keep up with the competition.

But, all this stuff about the USPS charging more for stamps because it struggles to compete with rival free market services (UPS, Air Express, &c.) is a lot of hokem and bunk. By law, NO carrier BUT the Postal Service can move first class letter mail. The government has given them a monopoly on it. If the rival, private services are more efficient at parcel movement and other services, perhaps the USPS should simply bow out of the market entirely.

Each time they raise postal rates, the services remain the same. In fact, some wags claim that you can always tell when an increase in postage is coming by the way the services decline. Also, from time to time, they change the names of some services, e.g. "library materials rate" to "media mail," but they don't bring us mail on Sundays, in fact threatening perennially to drop Saturday deliveries altogether. They continue to under staff their counter service, causing long waiting lines and great consternation, although it is to be admitted that the clerks at least seem to have had some training in people skills.

And they still refuse to give us the benefit of the doubt when it comes to postage due, again causing consternation when, sometimes, mail is returned to sender for an additional penny or two. The consternation in this event can be extreme, as the postage-due recoil can cause charge-backs by banks, stiff late fees on unpaid bills, and emotional let-downs for things as simple as a missed birthday card. The USPS simply do not give value for the added costs of mailing.

Now, here is the Big Secret about the USPS: the additional stamp money doesn't all go to improvements in equipment, &c. A hefty hunk of it goes to their boss, the U.S. government. It is then spent in such stupid, misguided activities as building bridges across rivers to connect a few hundred persons on both sides of a river; funding studies to determine if the Wisconsin newt actually has the ability to alter its sex at will, and sending young men to die in colossally misguided misadventures in the Mideast. If the USPS were not the best mail service in the world (and, actually, one of the cheapest) the government might privatize first class letter mail, too. But, then, they wouldn't have all that extra revenue to fund their boondoggles.

The new "forever" stamp, which you can buy for a one-time price of 41-cents, and which you can use till Hell freezes over, is a silly idea. It may seem economically sound for some; after all, with these every-two-or-three-year increases of two to three cents, paying 41 cents when others are paying 43, 46, or 49, could bring to your face the kind of smug smile one gets when buying low and selling high in the stock market. "Ha! I told you so!" But, think about it, let's say you're a business person and mail at least 500 first class letters a year. That's going to cost you $205 for each year you figure you will remain in business.

You may die in a year or two. Or you may retire. Congress might throw in the towel and let UPS or some other carrier deliver first class letter mail, in which your cache of USPS forever stamps will be worthless. Assuming the 41-cent rate will be good for at least two years, perhaps you can wait until 2009 before buying the priceless franking. (Again, to borrow from stock market analogies, you might have, within the Postal Service, a tipster, aiding you in some insider trading.)

Then, again, you might do a bit more correspondence by fax or email. Come to think of it, these may put the USPS out of business. How will you get value for all your leftover forever stamps when the seller winds up in bankruptcy?

No, I think I will buy a roll of 41-centers at a time. Somehow I don't trust this forever stamp ploy.

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