Smash the post office monopoly

May 13, 1994|By Thomas A. Bowden

I WAS doing research in the old Maryland law books the other day, when I came across a case report from 1909. An important issue in that case was how long it took the U.S. mail to deliver a first-class letter from Baltimore to New York City.

A witness testified that the letter was mailed on Saturday but did not arrive in New York until the following Tuesday. "Impossible," said the Court of Appeals. "It is common knowledge that a letter written during business hours in Baltimore on any day except Saturday, would be delivered in New York in the early morning delivery of the next day, and if written on Saturday afternoon, would be delivered on Monday morning."

You read that right: Normal weekday delivery was the next day -- and in the early morning, no less. (Is anyone old enough to recall when the postman rang twice each day?)

Remember, we are looking back 85 years, to the dawn of the 20th century, when cars, trucks and airplanes were in their infancy. Yet somehow the post office had managed to establish such a solid reputation that judges could talk about next-day service with the same certainty as tomorrow's sunrise.

Nowadays, the post office charges $10 or so for next-day delivery (called "Express Mail"), and even then it's not guaranteed.

As for an ordinary first-class letter, if you slip it in the mail slot on Monday, you can't be sure it will arrive on Tuesday across the street. Forget about next-day service to New York City -- you're foolish if you don't allow four or five days for a letter to travel that far.

The cost of a stamp in 1909 was two pennies. In 1994, it looks as if we will soon be paying 32 cents per letter, a 10 percent increase over the current rate.

How many private industries could survive without government subsidy by offering services that are so obviously inferior to those they offered almost a century ago?

The reason, of course, is that a private company with such a disgraceful record of declining service would soon be wiped off the map by competitors. But the post office is a government monopoly that, for most of its history, has jealously guarded its power to prevent competition.

When quality sinks low enough, however, even a government agency reaches a point of public embarrassment. The post office reached that point in the 1970s, when it reluctantly began to permit private couriers such as Federal Express to deliver "extremely urgent" mail, meaning mail that needs to arrive the next day.

Consumers loved the private couriers and soon grew addicted to quick, dependable, private mail. They even began to use private couriers for documents that didn't necessarily have to arrive on a particular day, so called "non-urgent" mail. It was 1909 all over again.

But here's the catch. It's illegal to send non-urgent mail by private courier unless (I swear this is in the statute) you paste on the envelope the same amount of U.S. postage that it would require if sent by ordinary mail. Then you must cancel that postage in ink, so it can't be used again.

That's in addition to the private courier's fee, which is already 30 times the price of a first-class letter.

Obviously, many consumers disobey that particular law. Just the other night, the CBS Evening News reported that the post office is aggressively auditing companies who send "non-urgent" mail by private courier, slapping them with big invoices for U.S. postage due.

After all, what better way for the post office to get its customers back than to fine them for hiring the competition?

I don't know why we allow the post office to go on exercising these monopoly powers, generation after generation. One obvious answer is that the postal unions flex their political muscles whenever the idea of reform is mentioned. But I have a hard time believing that the entire American populace can be cowed by a few hundred thousand workers in a backward industry.

I offer this modest proposal: The post office has had about 200 years to prove itself. Let's get rid of the monopoly and give private industry the same number of centuries to show what it can do. Then, in the year 2194, our descendants can compare the performance records of public versus private postal service.

Something tells me that, on that distant day, no one will be the least bit tempted to resurrect our U.S. government snail mail.

Thomas A. Bowden is a Baltimore lawyer.

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