How to solve the Post Office’s problems

By Felix Salmon
September 6, 2011
Steven Greenhouse's article on the Post Office's woes all over its front page yesterday.

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I like the fact that the NYT splashed Steven Greenhouse’s article on the Post Office’s woes all over its front page yesterday. There’s not much new here, but it’s a huge and important story and the public is far too ignorant of it.

“The causes of the crisis are well known,” writes Greenhouse, “and immensely difficult to overcome.” This is true. And the big one — the secular shift from snail mail to email — is not something that Congress can do anything about. But just look at how Congress is tying the Post Office’s hands behind its back here — and not just by forcing it to pay $5.5 billion per year into a retiree healthcare fund.

The law also prevents the post office from raising postage fees faster than inflation…

In some countries, post offices double as banks or sell insurance or cellphones. In the United States, the postal service is barred from entering many areas…

The postal service is also asking Congress for permission to end Saturday delivery.

It seems to me that a significant part of the problem here lies with Congress and that a massive bout of deregulation could be just the solution that the Post Office is looking for. Congress is micromanaging the Post Office, telling it how much it can raise postage rates, telling it that it can’t offer financial services (despite its huge business in money orders), telling it that it can’t get into all manner of other businesses either and telling it that it has to deliver mail on Saturdays. Astonishingly, amid all these rules and regulations, the Post Office is losing billions of dollars.

I see a lot of scope for bipartisan agreement here — unshackle the Post Office so that it has a hope of serving the country indefinitely into the future. Republicans like deregulation, right?

The problem, I think, is that for all that Republicans like deregulation, they really hate the idea of a state-owned organization competing with the private sector. Of course, the Post Office does that already — it competes with FedEx and UPS. But the USPS, as a government-subsidized organization with thousands of locations nationwide and a massive reserve of public trust, could be a formidable competitor in all manner of different markets and none of the incumbents in those markets would welcome the competition.

Over the long term, however, I suspect that the only way to save the Post Office will be to allow it to move into financial services. There’s a lot of expertise in the rest of the world when it comes to the questions of how to set up and run a post bank. Meanwhile, banks in the U.S. are mistrusted and disliked and many people would love to be able to just bank at the Post Office instead.

It might be too late now to set up a post bank — but I doubt it. (This is still a country, after all, where most people still use paper checks.) There’s a window of opportunity here. Let’s grab it, before it’s too late.

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