FOR MONTHS, the US Postal Service has been singing its own praises in a series of "good news" print and radio advertisements. You've undoubtedly seen or heard some of these ads. They are uniformly pathetic, except when they're false.
One ad, for instance, boasts that 33,000 post offices will "soon" be accepting credit cards. Twenty years ago, that might have been something to brag about. That the Postal Service is just now entering the 1970s is hardly a mark in its favor.
A second ad touts the superiority of mailed correspondence over faxes and computer messages: When kids send letters by mail, it claims, "they're learning about the value of the written word." Hello? Unless the Postal Service imagines that letters sent by fax and e-mail aren't written, that is an absurd non sequitur.
Yet another ad tries to prove that stamps are a bargain by showing how other prices have climbed. "In 1940, a one-pound loaf of bread cost 8 cents, and in 1995 cost 79 cents; a half-gallon of milk went from 25 cents to $1.43 in the same period; and a first-class postage stamp went from 3 cents to 32 cents. Which, bottom line, means that first-class postage rates remained well below the rate of inflation." Wrong. Do the math: The price of stamps rose 9 percent faster than the price of bread and 105 percent faster than the price of milk. Doesn't anyone at the Postal Service have a calculator?
To be fair, there is some good news the Postal Service could trumpet. Such as? Well, so far this year there has been only one report of a postal employee turning into a homicidal nut. In April, Robert Shulman of Hicksville, N.Y., who worked the night shift at a Long Island post office, confessed to killing at least 10 prostitutes over the past decade, cutting up their bodies and disposing of the limbs in plastic bags. "I can't give you a motive," he said when he was arrested. "I'm sorry."
Gruesome, yes, but consider the silver lining: At least Shulman didn't kill his co-workers. It's been 15 months since an employee "went postal," whipping a gun out of a paper bag and shooting his boss at a mail processing center in California. If this trend continues, the federal Centers for Disease Control may be able to revise its finding that murder is the No. 2 cause of workplace fatalities for postal workers. Wouldn't that make an upbeat ad.
Just what are these advertisements meant to accomplish? The Postal Service, after all, enjoys a government-backed monopoly. Under the archaic Private Express Statutes, attempting to compete with the post office in delivering first-class mail is a crime. Even slipping a note into your neighbor's mailbox is illegal. The Postal Service has a storied reputation for lousy service and crummy customer relations, but consumers have no choice: If you want to mail a first-class letter, it's the post office or nothing. So why the ads? What's the agency afraid of?
The Postal Service is far behind the curve of communications technology. With every innovation -- telephones, fax machines, Web sites -- it has grown increasingly obsolete. It loses new ground daily to 800 numbers and the Internet. Already, more merchandise is ordered through toll-free calls than by mail. Even the Postal Service expects one-third of its customers to be paying all their bills electronically by 2000. And the commercial possibilities of the World Wide Web are only beginning to be dreamed up.
"To make matters worse," wrote four postal experts (including a former chairman of the Postal Service board of governors and a former assistant postmaster general) in The Washington Post last May, "the money the Postal Service has invested in modernization has had little impact on productivity. Twenty-eight years ago, 83 percent of the Postal Service's total budget went to wages and benefits. Today, after the expenditure of billions of dollars for automation, there has been a substantial increase in the number of employees. Labor costs are still 82 percent of the budget. It costs more to process a piece of mail today than in 1991."
Without its monopoly over first-class mail, the Postal Service probably couldn't survive. Where it does compete for business, it usually places last. In the overnight delivery market, FedEx and DHL crush the Postal Service's Express Mail. For package delivery, who chooses Parcel Post when they can ship with UPS?
Once, when the country was empty and Americans were far-flung and isolated, a government-run postal system may have seemed sensible. Today, the Postal Service only gets in the way of more efficient, more reliable alternatives. Desperate to stave off obsolescence, it tries to muscle its way into markets that are working quite well without it. Latest gambit: a "digital postmark" for e-mail. (Don't send your electronic message directly to a recipient -- detour it through the post office first!)
And all the while, the Postal Service keeps pouring money into those ads, trying to convince us to love an agency that is out of touch and out of date. Not that it doesn't occasionally bite the bullet of reality. The Postal Service just sacked Loren E. Smith, its chief marketing officer. He had, it seems, overrun his advertising budget by $85 million. On his way out the door, he was praised by the postmaster general. For doing a "remarkable job."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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