Postal service has proven efficiency

There are tough times ahead for the U.S. Postal Service — cuts of 120,000 jobs, and service cutbacks of up to three days per week.

But one thing is increasing — fodder for anti-government rants online. More than one online discussion I’ve had somehow involved the phrase, “Government’s inefficient. Just look at the post office.”

My short response paraphrases a Bill Maher argument. I tell them, “You mean the place that’s existed for 200 years, that takes a note in my hand in rural New Mexico, and gets it to my brother’s house in rural Montana a few days later for 44 cents? I wish all government was that inefficient.”

My editors expect columns longer than three paragraphs, so here’s the long response.

I got a used book in Albuquerque sometime last year, and inside was a U.S. postal service postcard regarding the price increase — 32 cents for a first-class stamp, effective Jan. 1, 1995.

I keep that flier as a reminder. That same stamp is now 44 cents. Also since 1995, a gallon of gasoline went from $1.15 to $3.61, an average new car went from $17,959 to $29,217, an average new home went from $147,400 to $275,500, and a credit hour at Eastern New Mexico University went from $43.75 to $118.29.

When you drive from a home that costs 87 percent more, in your car that costs 62 percent more, burning gas that costs 283 percent more, to go to school for 170 percent more, you have to ask: Does it feel inefficient to pay 37.5 percent more for a stamp?

Private industry has agreed. Netflix sends off 1 million DVDs daily to 23 million subscribers, in no small part because of the efficiency of post offices. If those discs were delivered by FedEx or UPS, they’d run out of “You weren’t home” sticky notes long before you’d finish watching “True Blood.”

The problem isn’t that the USPS is inefficient. It’s that it has less to do.

Take me, for instance. I have 10 places I would consider “bill collectors,” from the rent and the car payment to the department store credit card I never use.

Now, 10 years ago, I would get postal notification for nine of these, and I would have mailed 10 checks each month. Next month, I’ll get two postal notifications for the same things. I’ll send out two checks, and handle the rest online.

That means 2001 Kevin is part of 19 separate postal transactions, and 2011 Kevin is part of four. That’s a 79 percent drop, wholly based on technology changes unrelated to the USPS. It’s not offset by Netflix and similar businesses. Or tax dollars, since the postal service’s only revenue stream is the sale of postage. If the Internet caused a permanent 79 percent drop in Whopper sales, Burger King would cut hours and employees, and nobody would call them out as inefficient.

If the USPS shut down, the free market would fill the void — at a higher cost, using an infrastructure of ZIP codes and mail collection facilities long ago established by the postal service.

The postal service has problems, and proposed cutbacks are evidence to that. But let’s look at the actual root of those problems, and not lean on paternalistic arguments. To do otherwise would be, to put it kindly, inefficient.