THE NOTE I sent Fred and Anne to thank them for their Christmas gift had to be mailed to a P.O. box number. Very few residents of Plessis, N.Y., enjoy home delivery; the US Postal Service requires nearly everyone to pick up their mail at the post office. Soon, mail service to Plessis may get even worse: The US Postal Service has been talking about closing the post office entirely and making everyone drive several miles to Redwood to collect their mail.
Fred and Anne aren't the only Americans whose mail service is getting worse.
In some Western states, residents have to travel up to 40 miles to get their mail. A few years back, the Miami Herald found that only 29 percent of South Florida residents get their letters delivered to their doors. According to researcher James Bovard's newest light-shedding book, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, the Postal Service abolished doorstep delivery for new homes in 1978 and is gradually phasing it out for older homes.
The Postal Service will use almost any excuse, it sometimes seems, not to complete its appointed rounds. A disabled woman in Altadena, Calif., was told her mail delivery would be cut off until she removed the leaves from the street in front of her house; in Lynn, the Postal Service refused to deliver mail to dozens of residents on Vine Street in 1989 after a female letter carrier said somebody verbally hassled her.
Lousy mail service is nothing new, but has it ever been this bad?
A Price Waterhouse audit completed in 1994 found that one-fifth of all letters mailed nationwide arrive late. Late, that is, by the Postal Service's own derisory standards. In 1960 the post office proclaimed a goal of next-day delivery for a first-class letter anywhere in the United States. By 1980 the Postal Service promised overnight delivery only within a radius of 150 miles. In 1990 it slowed delivery further, limiting its next-day-delivery standard to letters traveling no more than 50 miles. Even so-called "Priority Mail" -- for which postal patrons have to pay $2.90 -- arrives late 23 percent of the time.
There is no mystery about why the Postal Service performs so poorly. It is a monopoly. The Postal Express Statutes, passed in 1872, forbid private carriers from delivering first-class mail. With no competitors to worry about, the Postal Service feels free to treat its customers like dirt -- and overcharge them in the bargain. The price of a first-class stamp has more than quintupled since 1971, and the Postal Service owes $9 billion to the US Treasury. Name another service that in the past 25 years has gone up so sharply in price and down so sharply in quality.
Competition is the remedy. Until consumers have the right to take their business elsewhere, the government's mail monopoly will keep charging more and more and delivering less and less. As proof, consider the areas where the Postal Service doesn't have a monopoly. To ship packages, most customers turn not to the Postal Service but to United Parcel Service, a private company. About 90 percent of overnight-express mail is entrusted to private firms like Federal Express and DHL -- not to the government's unreliable Express Mail.
Late last December I received a book that had been mailed in March. Stamped on the parcel were the words "Found in supposedly empty equipment." Somehow that never happens with books sent via UPS.
Happily, my book was not time-sensitive. Vice President Al Gore's 1993 Christmas cards were. Mailed in early December, they arrived in February 1994. I'll say this much for the post office: It is no respecter of persons. In 1992, sacks of mail bound from Washington, D.C., to Arkansas -- containing invitations to President Clinton's inaugural -- were lost for a year.
Like many monopolies, the Postal Service has a bloated, inefficient work force. In the private sector there are rewards and incentives for employees who work harder, accomplish difficult goals or satisfy customers. Not in the regulation-choked, morale-depressing quagmire of your local post office. Vast numbers of postal workers hate their jobs -- and I don't just mean the ones who periodically show up with an AK-47 and shoot their co-workers.
When Postmaster General Marvin Runyon, to trim his payroll, offered an employee buyout equal to six months' pay, nearly 48,000 workers quit. These are people who earn, on average, $43,000 in pay and benefits, way above the national average for semiskilled labor. If that's how they feel about their jobs, how do you think postal employees feel about you? Or your mail?
But let anyone else try to deliver some mail and the Postal Service springs into action. "In 1980," Bovard writes, "a pack of Cub Scouts in New York City tried to raise money by carrying Christmas cards among neighbors. Postal Service lawyers responded by threatening the 10-year-olds with a $76,500 fine. In June 1991, postal officials threatened to fine an 10-year-old boy in Palm Beach, Fla., $300 for putting fliers advertising his lawn-mowing service in neighbors' mailboxes."
A Postal Service that snarls at 10-year-olds but can't deliver the Veep's Christmas cards is an agency whose time has passed. As it is, fax machines, e-mail, and modems have changed forever the way we send and receive information. The government's monopoly over the carriage of letters is foolish and obsolete.
Open the postal window to the fresh breezes of competition. Private enterprise moves this country; it's time we let it move the mail.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)