Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Eating Eric Roberts

I've spent half my life in small town and rural America, so I have a pretty good feel for just how big a role the postal service plays in many people's lives. And it's not just in the country. There are millions of others who depend on the mail, housebound seniors, the unbanked, people left behind by the internet age. (To say nothing of the businesses that rely on the service and the benefit we all get as a society from being able to get documents and packages to anyone in this country.)

I don't see a lot of concern about these people, not from the pundits and certainly not from Patrick Donahoe, the U.S. Postmaster General, who seems to view himself as a consultant brought in to smoothly dismantle the institution rather than a leader appointed to represent its interests.

And (because my mind works in strange ways) that got me thinking about the South Park episode where members of the town are trapped by a storm and decide to eat visiting celebrity Eric Roberts. What makes the bit so inspired is how quickly and casually the townspeople descend to the last resort, arguing that they could be there for hours and that some of them had skipped breakfast.

I see similar reasoning in this debate. We have jumped to the extreme measures (having mass layoffs, slowing down first class mail, closing small town post offices) when there are simpler, far less painful steps that can usually be achieved just by loosening some of the highly restrictive rules that hobble the USPS:

Allow pricing a little closer to what the market would bear. Even after a twenty percent jump, postal rates would still be a good deal;

(From Andrew Gelman) Round prices up to the nearest round number (would anyone really mind paying forty-five or even fifty cents instead of the current forty-four?);

(From Felix Salmon) Allow the post office to offer a wider range of products and services;

End Saturday delivery (not my favorite, but less drastic than much of what's been suggested);

And finally, remind congress that since they passed all these rules effectively preventing the service from turning a profit and storing money away in good times they should take responsibility when times turn bad.

I realize that at some point drastic steps may be necessary, but I don't see why they always have to be our default option.


  1. My worry for, and issue with the USPS is that it is trying to provide a level of service that no other postal service in the first world comes close to anymore. Near-next-day delivery for the low-low cost of ~ 0.5$? Delivery on Saturday? These things are unheard of in Canada now, but we still get by just fine, and we're arguably more spread out and rural than the US. We're certainly less dense, with more land mass, although most of that is Arctic tundra and unpopulated.

    People in Canada still get mail, and it's still reliable ... it's just much slower than it seems to be in the US. If you want it faster, you pay for it. Canada Post also owns and runs Purolator, which gives them an increased revenue base as they compete with UPS, Fed-Ex, and DHL. They also spun off the running of the post offices (not all, but many) a long time ago, so we are still able to have a choice for buying/sending mail items by visiting a number of local drug stores that paid for the franchise.

    It just seems to be a typically American route that is being taken: restrict your agency so they can't do anything reasonable to survive, then dismantle them when they don't pull a magic rabbit out of a mythical hat.

  2. Canada has not had Saturday delivery in my lifetime so I always worried that it was an odd flashpoint. Similarly, 2-3 day delivery works fine so long as companies adopt longer billing cycles.

  3. Or if you (as Canadian companies are increasingly doing) switch to entirely electronic billing, with email notifications. Save the stamp, save the paper, delivery is instantaneous.

  4. Yep! I think that electronic bills really are the way of the future. It is actually more reliable than paper bills that can be lost and the newest generation of late fees makes reliability important.