Do you care about Saturday mail delivery? Amazon does. Hallmark does. Catalog companies and and mail service pharmacies do. By contrast, Netflix has said it could accept the elimination of Saturday mail.
Trying to decide what to do about the huge financial difficulties facing the postal service, Congress is holding hearings. Their stated alternatives are to raise rates, cut Saturday delivery, and diminish labor and facility costs. While opinions vary about Saturday delivery, all who testified expressed little price elasticity. Higher postal rates would decrease their usage, further exacerbating post office problems.
Recently, the Washington Post expressed wisdom about the postal service. Comparing creative innovation from a privatized Swiss system to tired thinking from the USPS, they said we are dealing with a hybrid entity “hamstrung by a large and heavily unionized workforce, congressional management, and an antiquated business model.”
The Economic Lesson
A market economy can thrive when fundamental infrastructures function well. In the U.S., a transportation infrastructure emerged during the 19th century as roads, canals, and railroads increasingly connected disparate areas of the country. Similarly, a financial infrastructure developed that moved money from those who had it to those who would use it productively. The US Postal Service is a part of a communications infrastructure. When an infrastructure is crucial, is more government or less government the appropriate approach?
Having just read a Washington Post article about the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), I started thinking about its future. But first, its past:
While we have had postal services since the 1600s, Ben Franklin transformed the system. Appointed Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies by the British, he established our first home mail delivery system, diminished to a single day the letter delivery time between New York and Philadelphia, and to 6 days between Philadelphia and Boston. When Franklin was fired by the British for his rebellious political activity, the postal system was making a profit.
Although it has a monopoly on letter delivery and mailboxes, still, the USPS lost a total of $12 billion during the past 3 years. As explained in a Teaching Company lecture, they face competition from UPS and FedEx, from email, faxes, and texts. Their salaries average 30% higher than the private sector, they have massive pension and retirement obligations, and their productivity lags behind national averages.
While Congress has begun hearings on Postal Service problems, it appears unlikely that they will select any solutions that New Zealand and Germany have successfully implemented. Congress could divide the system into separate privately or publicly owned, profit seeking corporations or just eliminate all monopoly protection. To cut costs, they could stop Saturday delivery. As 80% of its expenses, labor could be cut. (Only Wal-Mart employs more people than the USPS.)
Having had nothing to do with the USPS, perhaps the title of the movie “You’ve Got Mail” sums it all up.
The Economic Lesson
Hoping to preserve the status quo, some people have said that the Postal Service is a natural monopoly. Most economists disagree. Having a natural monopoly means that one firm is more efficient than a competitive market structure with many firms. Until new technology transformed the industry and government broke up AT&T, the U.S. phone system was called a natural monopoly.