A tax by any other name

And so it has come to pass – nearly 100 years since the post office ceased Sunday mail delivery (dropped in 1912 primarily due to religious and workers rights reasons) the United States Postal Service will cease Saturday mail delivery later this year. This time the reasons are financial rather than ecclesiastical. The Postal Service expects this change to save $2 billion a year – although this barely scratches the surface of a $15.9 billion loss in 2012 (although $11.1 billion of that loss was the result of a Congressional mandate forcing it to pre-fund future retiree health benefits – something it requires of no other federal agency). The Postal Service is a quasi-private entity. It technically receives no funding from Congress, however it’s ability to operate is tightly controlled by Congressional whim. But one area where it does benefit from its governmental relationship is with respect to the “Private Express Statutes”. These are a set of statutes that confer on the US Postal Service a legal monopoly of letter delivery. This monopoly is enforced by a mandate that any entity delivering “letters” must charge at least 6 times the current rate for the first ounce of a single piece First-Class mail letter. Fortunately “parcels” do not fall under that mandate; otherwise FedEx and UPS would be nothing but big “What ifs”.

Although Congress is specifically authorized in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) to  “establish Post Offices”, such authorization does not on its face imply that the federal government is the ONLY entity permitted to do so, merely that this is one thing it MUST do. The reasoning behind establishing a monopoly position in the marketplace was the concern that private business would simply come in and “poach” business away from the more profitable mail routes. This would then mean either prices would have to rise on the less profitable (rural) routes or tax dollars would need to be employed to subsidize costs along these less profitable routes. Gee, with a justification for monopoly like that I don’t understand why we don’t establish a monopoly within each sector of the economy. Why not give Publix a monopoly on groceries in this country? Then they wouldn’t have to waste money on competing or advertising and could provide “affordable” food prices for everyone by subsidizing less profitable stores with the receipts from the more profitable stores.

Mandated monopolies, whether in private industry (e.g. utilities), or in government (Postal Service) make no economic sense. Consider the argument here: private mail delivery companies would out compete the Postal Service by charging less thereby depriving the Postal Service of income. So instead of overcharging some customers in order to subsidize the undercharging of other customers it would be necessary to overtax some people in order to provide a net benefit to some other people. How are the two processes different exactly? Both involve individuals in Group A paying more than necessary in order that individuals in Group B pay less than necessary. So if the worst outcome (raising taxes) is equivalent to what you are doing right now, then there is nothing to lose in trying the alternate approach. Best case it is a zero sum game (the money people save is simply taxed away to fund the Postal Service losses). The more probable outcome is that there is a net benefit to society when multiple entities compete for the customer’s dollar. Perhaps private competitors might be so efficient that they could provide mail service to even the “unprofitable” areas at an “affordable” price (which is what I believe UPS and FedEx currently do in the area of package shipments).

Congress should eliminate the monopoly provisions on mail delivery, let the chips fall where they may and let the market solve this problem. In the age of $20 cell phones somehow I doubt there will be an issue in providing “affordable” delivery of folded pieces of paper.