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U.S. mail: Slow and slower

Posted: December 27, 2011 - 1:00am

The U.S. Postal Service announced plans this month to phase out overnight delivery of first-class mail. Postal officials are portraying the decision as a painful but necessary budget-induced departure from a long history of exemplary service. In reality, the Postal Service has been intentionally slowing down first-class mail for almost 50 years. It’s time to end the post office’s monopoly on letter delivery.

In 1960, the post office’s annual report announced “the ultimate objective of next-day delivery of first-class mail anywhere in the United States.” But official standards for overnight delivery were lowered later that decade, trimming the target zone from statewide to areas conveniently covered by mail-sorting centers. At a high-level meeting in 1969, postal management decided “to no longer strive for overnight mail delivery and to keep this a secret from Congress and the public,” the Washington Post reported in 1974. Management also considered cutting costs by educating Americans not to expect prompt service, according to the Post.

Back in 1764, colonial Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin — yes, that Benjamin Franklin — proclaimed a goal of two-day mail delivery between New York and Philadelphia. In 1989, the Postal Service’s goal was two-day delivery from New York City to next-door Westchester County, N.Y. Under the new standards, the target for overnight first-class delivery was reduced from a 100-to-150-mile radius to often less than 50 miles. The Postal Service estimated that the changes could add 10 percent to the average delivery time for first-class mail, which was already 22 percent slower than it had been in 1969.

In 1989, Postmaster General Anthony Frank claimed that the standards would “improve our ability to deliver local mail on time.” But this was simply because the Postal Service lowered the definition of “on time.” Frank also defended the reduced standards by noting that Mexico’s mail service did not have an official overnight delivery goal for any of its mail. The Postal Inspection Service concluded that post offices “generally have a negative attitude toward service improvement, even when the capability is there at no additional cost.”

In 1996, partly to counter its widespread “slacker” image, the Postal Service began bankrolling a Tour de France bicycle racing team. But this did not deter the service from again hitting the brakes on the mail.

Beginning in 2000, the Postal Service quietly slashed delivery targets in much of the nation for first-class mail going beyond local areas. A 2006 Postal Regulatory Commission report found that the Postal Service scorned federal law requiring the “highest consideration” to speedy mail delivery. Instead, “administrative convenience resulted in mapping coverage of the two-day standard exclusively in terms of surface transportation.” The commission found that “postal patrons in several Western states, including California, experienced far more service downgrades than those in other parts of the country.”

The Postal Service has often acted as if mail delivery was a mere nuisance distracting from the gainful pursuit of pensions. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2006 that the Postal Service fails to “measure and report its delivery performance for most types of mail.” The GAO also found that the Postal Service’s “outdated standards are unsuitable as benchmarks for setting realistic expectations for timely mail delivery, measuring delivery performance or improving service, oversight and accountability.”

The Postal Service has gotten away with scorning its customers because it is effectively a federal crime to provide better mail service than the government. The Postal Service has a monopoly over letter delivery (with a limited exemption for urgent, courier-delivered letters costing more than $3). The monopoly, which dates back to the 1840s, has become more indefensible with each passing decade.

When people bought “forever” stamps, they didn’t realize that the name referred to the delivery time, not stamp prices. The American people can no longer afford a monopoly more interested in storing letters than in delivering them.

• Bovard is the author, most recently, of “Attention Deficit Democracy.”

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