Postal Service Should Stamp Out Efficiency’s Excesses

The southern Willamette Valley has been fighting for years to hold onto its Springfield postal sorting and distribution center, along with its 169 jobs. Washington, D.C. bureaucrats and politicians (U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio excepted) are trying to force the postal service to economize, but without stopping to consider what other costs the changes they propose will incur.

It may make economic sense for all of our mail to be trucked north every night, where it can be sorted for delivery more efficiently. It also would be more efficient if every newspaper reader in America settled for USA Today. Efficiency is not only overrated. It’s yesterday’s news.

Benjamin Franklin originally championed postal service for the colonies because he and others also wanted to declare that this vast continent was ours for the taking. He intended the service to tie us together and make our nation feel smaller, more manageable. It worked.

Franklin’s work allowed the country to cohere. One of his original intents was to get his Philadelphia newspaper into readers hands quickly and efficiently. He couldn’t have imagined what Sears and Roebuck would be able to do with the service only a century later. Sears actually sold entire houses to catalogue-shoppers in the early 1900s. Some of those kit houses still stand today.

Sears no longer mails millions of catalogues several times a year. There are more efficient methods of delivery now. The Internet has beaten the Postal Service at its own game.

It’s time to switch gears completely and begin drafting big plans for the postal service’s new role in our modern society. Looking far into the future requires a careful reading of a pamphlet written in 1837.

Our modern experience of mailing and receiving mail is shaped by a mid-19th century tax reformer, Rowland Hill. His 1837 pamphlet, “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability,” demonstrated that a single price for a standard letter, regardless of the distance traveled, was both practical and necessary. He also introduced the concept of a postage stamp, a delivery prepayment.

A single price for every letter popularized the service, leading to its universality. America had to go a step further than Europe to keep its rural areas tied to the network. If you ever wondered about the initialism in “Mayberry RFD,” that was a postal designation: “rural free delivery.”

But now our problem is the opposite. Our world has recently become too small. We eat lima beans from Chile in the winter, on a table imported from Indonesia covered with linens from Pakistan, while talking on a phone assembled in China, about how nobody knows their neighbors anymore. Now that we dial a ten-digit number to call a family member who may be upstairs, distance has become an abstraction.

Modern society has diminished degradation by distance. Mothers once begged their children to stay in the hometown where they (and she) grew up, because moving away would make staying in touch difficult, expensive, and uncertain. Now we have email and Skype, overnight delivery and air travel. Distance has become nearly irrelevant.

Except when it’s not.

Our federal government should concern itself now with rebuilding the social fabric, civic pride and self-determination that spring naturally from localism. A reimagined postal service could play a key role in boosting localism again. Hill’s 1837 arguments suited that time but not this one.

Universal postal service is assured and assumed — Hill’s dream was realized long ago. We should reverse course now and impose a distance tax — not just for letters, but for lima beans and linens. Transform the postal service into a newly essential government agency that measures and meters how far something traveled to reach its recipient.

Highways, airports, railroads, and bridges could be rebuilt with the distance taxes levied. Volume efficiency would be slowed a bit in favor of local control. Goods produced by those nearby would gain some advantage over goods produced in larger quantities, but from farther away.

Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a world where lima beans at the local farmers market are cheaper than the imported alternative you get at Safeway? I know I would.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.