Tour de Farce

USPS doesn't want to level playing field with UPS, FedEx

He endured the flu, a crash, and the pressure of high expectations to win a record-tying fifth straight Tour de France. His average speed was the fastest in Tour history. Lance Armstrong is simply the fastest human on two wheels.

Even those of us who aren't particularly interested in cycling marvel at Armstrong's dominance. We tried to savor some of the exhilaration he felt when he stood on the winner's platform, worn but victorious. The "Star Spangled Banner" played in tribute to this champion who so exemplifies the romantic spirit of America.

Armstrong even received a very special congratulatory phone call from the Postmaster General. Imagine the thrill. Who among us hasn't dreamt of getting a call from the most important mailman of them all?

Actually, that's not right at all. After all, the U.S. Postal Service exemplifies the bureaucratic sprit—sluggish, dreary, and frightened of competition. Which makes it all the more ironic that the postal service would use Armstrong as its spokesman. Have sponsor and spokesman ever epitomized such differing values?

No doubt the postal service enjoys associating itself with someone who does what it cannot—dominate the competition. Of course, Armstrong gets plenty of money from the deal, and maybe donning the USPS logo isn't all that awful. Perhaps it's a motivator that reminds him of the agony of defeat—like a dieter who keeps a picture of a fat man on the refrigerator.

Just last week yet another presidential commission urged the USPS get its act together. Act more like a business, said the commission. Slim up that bureaucracy, improve efficiency, and create a culture that emphasizes performance. It seems like some commission is always urging the postal service to perform better. And the postal service knows the drill. It nods like an annoyed teenager then goes back to slacking off.

But, unlike Armstrong, the postal service practically hyperventilates when critics suggest it should compete on a level playing ground. The postal service enjoys unfair advantages that—if applied to the world of cycling—would allow it to start the 2,125-mile Tour de France with a head start. Consider just three advantages and some wild guesses that translate their worth into the cycling world:

1. Monopoly on first and third class mail: Let's say this allows the USPS to begin the race 300 miles ahead of the competition.

2. Tax exempt status: Add another 150 miles.

3. No chance of bankruptcy: Add 200 miles.

To be fair, the postal service must endure disadvantages that private firms don't face. For example, it must subject any proposed innovations to a long bureaucratic process. The Postal Rate Commission must approve any rate changes, and that usually takes over a year. After the advantages are weighed against the disadvantages, it's tough to determine where exactly the postal service would begin the race. But in any event, the consumer still loses.

Either the postal service sits on its advantages and grows complacent or innovation-killing regulations overwhelm any emerging spirit of progress. Either way performance suffers, and the consumer is stuck with a worse product than would be provided by genuine competition.

Certainly, the presence of firms like Fed Ex and UPS has exposed the postal service to a modest dose of competition, and some limited improvement has followed. For example, the postal service has turned to outsourcing for some duties, like telephone inquiries. But too often its resistance to real world competition leads to phony improvements—like when it pretended to be a real company by changing its Internet address from usps.gov to usps.com. It's cute when little kids play dress-up and pretend to be something they're not. When adults do it, it's just sad.

And there's little sign that the USPS will be subjected to genuine competition any time soon. The presidential commission didn't recommend the postal service give up its monopoly privileges, and when it suggested modest efficiency improvements the president of the American Postal Workers Union retreated to tired overstatement.

"They've declared war on postal workers," he announced.

Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong voiced concern that his margin of victory was not sufficiently large. He vowed to improve next year.

What are the chances we'll see the day when the USPS beats its competitors five years straight, and then vows to improve even more?

Ted Balaker is the Jacob's Fellow at Reason Foundation.

Ted Balaker is Producer





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