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USPS 2006 - Benjamin Franklin doubtless would be proud

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted February 1, 2006

Benjamin FranklinAs historians, people fascinated with centennials and many others celebrate the 300th birthday of that unique statesman and scientist of Colonial American history, Benjamin Franklin, how many of us associate him with the founding of our postal service? He was, after all, functionally if not officially, the first (in 1753) "Postmaster General" in Colonial America and among those responsible for the language (if maybe not the peculiar punctuation) of the Constitution, Article I, § 8: "The Congress shall have Power . . . To establish Post Offices and post Roads . . ."

Probably many of us are diverted from the significance, value and efficiency of the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), as the Post Office Department was rechristened in 1971, having become a Federal instrumentality in 1829 and a Cabinet Department in 1872. Now some of us are complaining about the 2-cent increase in the first-ounce first-class postage rate from 37 cents to 39 cents. Truly, it would have been simpler had USPS gone to 40 cents and even numbers for additional ounces but that deficiency, if annoying to those who utilize stamps rather than postage meters, is minor in the scheme of things.

We should bear in mind more significant considerations, beginning with the threshold fact that our postage rates compared to those of most other nations are cheap - and even cheaper when we consider relative cost-of-living and incomes. This writer, in his travels, has found few countries in which postage rates are much less than double our rates. Further, the efficiency level not uncommonly is less, the convenience level even more uncommonly less - such as, try to get home delivery in most of the world. There also is the safety factor: Would one dare deposit in the mail of most countries a check or a document?

So many of us take it for granted that postage will be cheap; that first-class mail will be delivered to almost any address between the next business day after collection and several business days; that properly addressed mail will be neither stolen nor lost; and that mail will be delivered to our residences and offices or to boxes very near them in all locations, including high-crime neighborhoods.

The fact is that USPS operates an efficient and reasonably mechanized operation. And gigantic! Some 580 million pieces of mail are moved daily, six days weekly (except for an occasional Federal holiday), which equates to about 212 billion pieces of mail annually, to some 144 million different addresses; about 38,000 retail post offices; some 700,000 employees - more than the balance of the world combined.

At that, some people complain, seldom (as a percentage) justifiably. Of course, post office lines sometimes are long, occasionally with too few clerks - more often aggravated by the ignorant and time-consuming questions some customers ask; the picky-picky of some customers, undecided as to what pretty-picture stamps to buy or how many; questioning rates; revealing their arithmetic limitations; so on. Many customers also seem unaware that they can conduct much postal business over the Internet, buy stamps in numerous commercial stores, seldom, if ever, entering a post office.

USPS does have a major impending problem, however. First-class mail volume is down. Many creditors encourage customers to pay bills by e-mail, to make enquiries by e-mail, to conduct as much business as possible by e-mail - all designed to reduce costs for the creditor, not to benefit the debtor. Whether literacy is falling (as this writer believes it is), more people are utilizing e-mail, the ubiquitous cellular telephone or both for virtually any kind of communication - hence (again, as a percentage), lower postal use.

Not surprisingly, some Members of Congress, and particularly two Senators, are heavy-footing their way into the act, once more to prove that more government usually means more cost and confusion. The theory in creating USPS as an independent entity, with only a nominal governmental connection, was to free the [then] Post Office Department of politics and government control. Let's leave it that way. If some years hence USPS were to begin to run into serious financial or operating trouble the Executive and Congress at that juncture could investigate the extent, if any, to which that trouble might have a governmental solution.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation. (In Eisenhower II, Mr. Harrison was Associate General Counsel of the [then] Post Office Department, a cofounder and Member [now denominated Administrative Judge] of its Board of Contract Appeals. He has observed its evolution since, written law-review and other pieces about it, and some years past represented clients dealing with, and some litigating against, it.)

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