IT'S GROUNDHOG DAY at the US Postal Service: time once again for the familiar laments about how the agency's financial losses are surging, how demand for its services is plummeting, and how officials have no choice but to close local facilities, raise the price of stamps, and reduce delivery standards.
Last week the Postal Service announced plans to cut $3 billion in costs by slowing down first-class mail service and eliminating about half of the country's 461 mail-processing centers. That would mean an end to next-day delivery of first-class mail. Although that might not seem like much of a threat for something already thought of as "snail mail," the Postal Service has insisted for decades that 95 percent or more of local first-class mail is successfully delivered overnight. When the new standards take effect next spring, two-day delivery will become the new overnight, even for mail that's just traveling down the street.
If all this sounds familiar, you aren't hallucinating.
"In 1990, the Postal Service launched a nationwide plan to intentionally slow down mail delivery," policy analyst James Bovard wrote in his 1994 book, Lost Rights. First-class letters were already taking 20 percent longer to reach their destination than they had in 1969, but Postmaster General Anthony Frank assured Congress that the reduction in delivery standards would "improve our ability to deliver local mail on time." In the weird logic and language of the American postal system, the key to success was to give the public less for its money.
The more things change in Postal World, the more they remain the same. In the 1960s, a stunning 83 percent of the agency's total budget went to wages and benefits. Three decades later, after billions of dollars had been spent on automation, labor costs still accounted for 82 percent of the budget. And in 2011? "Decades of contractual promises made to unionized workers, including no-layoff clauses, are increasing the post office's costs," The New York Times recently reported. "Labor represents 80 percent of the agency's expenses, compared with 53 percent at United Parcel Service and 32 percent at FedEx, its two biggest private competitors."