Mail shouldn't be run like a business

The only thing more certain than death and taxes is the U.S. Postal Service asking for yet another rate increase. It’s high time Washington put a stamp of disapproval on our mail system’s continual whining and perhaps even rethink the whole idea of making the Postal Service “run like a business.”

In this case, of course, the “business” would go broke in less time that it takes for a letter to get from Marion to Hillsboro. In fact, founding postmaster general Ben Franklin, not exactly a bashful type, would be red-faced with embarrassment to see how poorly his old post office has delivered on its promises and how miserably it has failed to heed one of his favorite adages: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

We have nothing but the deepest appreciation for local postal officials, who frequently go far out of their way to be of service to the people who pay their salaries. What’s rotten is in Washington, where the “run it like a business” concept has led to cockeyed innovations that invariably cost more while providing less.

The situation is so bad that if you subscribe to our papers through the mail, you might not get a chance to read this until two or three more rounds of postal rate increases are proposed. Personally, I received last week’s Marion County Record and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin on Saturday, pretty much on schedule by current postal standards — even though a few years ago they would have arrived on Friday. The problem is that the following Monday, two days later, I received the previous week’s Marion and Peabody papers, now 12 days old. Worse yet, as of Monday, the most recent Hillsboro Star-Journal I had received was the Jan. 1 issue. That’s right. I was still waiting on Feb. 3 for the Jan. 8, Jan. 15, Jan. 22, and Jan. 29 issues. From what we hear, that isn’t much different from what other subscribers are forced to endure, especially with mail that goes through the Hillsboro area’s sectional center, where the latest and definitely not greatest in cost-saving “advances” instituted by the Postal Service have occurred.

Trust us, folks. If we could do something about it, we would. We’re as angry as — well —disgruntled postal workers about how messed up our subscribers’ mail has become. Mail that people actually want to receive — periodicals they’ve paid for —– seems to arrive whenever postal workers have absolutely nothing else to do. What does show up on time — whether you want it or not — is piles and piles of junk mail you never asked for.

Why? Because the Postal Service is trying to curry favor with junk mailers, making it easier and easier for them to get timely delivery of their cut-rate mailings. It’s how the Postal Service is trying to run itself “like a business.” Let’s ignore the stupidity that if we mail something to the Courthouse across the street from our offices, the mail goes first to Kansas City, then back. If we mail something from Marion to Tampa it goes on a grand tour that might well see it stop over for a few days in Kansas City, Wichita, and even Salina. It used to be that someone from the Marion or Hillsboro office just drove the mail 10 miles to the other town. “Running it like a business” put a stop to that.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be businesslike. What’s fundamentally wrong is that the Postal Service never was intended to be a business. Make it a business and the first thing it’ll want to get rid of are deliveries to “non-profitable” areas — code words for basically every rural farmhouse and small town doorstep in existence. Saturday delivery? Of course not. Walk-up hours at local post offices? Make them no more than 45 minutes, scattered at odd times throughout the day.

Small town post offices and rural mail delivery are never going to be profitable. Nor will delivering newspapers and magazines people subscribe to. The answer is not to create more and more cumbersome Rube Goldberg systems that never seem to work and then, when they fail, try to compete with private businesses for junk mail distribution in hopes of making enough money to recover costs of universal service.

The Kansas Turnpike is a great example of how “running it like a business” sometimes works. But can you imagine what would happen if all transportation departments nationwide were expected to be run like a business? Rural areas like ours would still have little more ruts from ox carts instead of highways. And while we all lament the sad state of roads in Marion County, things could be a whole lot worse if every highway had to be justified on the basis of the revenue it brings in.

As a society, we subsidize schools, senior centers, airports, recreational lakes, radio and TV networks, and artists who produce works that many regard as offensive. None of them are run “like a business.” Why should the mail we receive every day be treated that way, especially when the only thing it reliably delivers is junk we never asked for. These days, when it’s hard to find anything government does that’s actually worth the price, why not subsidize a service we need — the U.S. Postal Service — but only for delivering things people want to locations where they want it?

— ERIC MEYER

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