Los Angeles Times: Postal Service’s Almost 50-Year Intentional Slowdown of Mail

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed December 16, 2011

U.S. mail: Slow and slower
The Postal Service has been intentionally slowing down first-class mail for almost 50 years.

By James Bovard

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% to the average delivery time for first-class mail, which was already 22% 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.

James Bovard is the author, most recently, of “Attention Deficit Democracy.” He has been writing about the Postal Service since 1978.


12 Responses to Los Angeles Times: Postal Service’s Almost 50-Year Intentional Slowdown of Mail

  1. David Wooley December 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    I am writing about your constant complaining about the USPS. You complain that the USPS is too slow and they have a monopoly on letters. What is your solution? All you do is present perceived problems without offering an answer. Pretty chicken shit of you. Would you rather have 20 different agencies in charge of letter mail? Who delivers which letters? Your rantings abouth the Postal Service are not only convoluted and uneducated they are idiotic and irresponsible. Have you ever even stepped in to a Postal Service mail processing facility to see what goes on and how mail is processed? I highly doubt it. All you are is an uninformed blowhard and even worse….a liberal or libertarian if you prefer. Go get a haircut, you look ridiculous.

  2. W Baker December 18, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    I just posted a response to your excellent piece, Jim. It’ll get picked up tomorrow and may get to you by the New Year!

  3. Jim December 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Wes – thanks! If you want to repost the comment here, that would certainly add to the fray.

  4. Jim December 18, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    David Wooley, it’s been a few years since I thumped the Postal Service in the newspapers. I wish I was guilty of the “constant complaining about the US Postal Service” that you accused me of — I have been a slacker on that agency.

    But now that the Postal Service is making itself more newsworthy, I will try to make amends.

  5. Alpowolf December 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    Mr. Wooley: if you read Mr. Bovard’s column more carefully, you will see that he did propose a solution.

    It’s time to end the post office’s monopoly on letter delivery.

    Libertarians do not propose “20 different agencies in charge of letter mail”. We propose the free market, with providers competing to provide the best service at the best price.

    Impossible? Why? That’s how you get your food. And surely you’ve heard of FedEx and UPS?

  6. Tom Blanton December 19, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    I’m actually fairly impressed that the Post Office works as well as it does. Compared to everything else the government does, the Post Office excels. I almost always get my mail sooner or later.

    I’m thinking that maybe the Post Office should get out of the mail business and take over all other government functions. Mailmen are pretty decent compared to most government bureaucrats.

  7. Jim December 19, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Dunno – but the thought of the Postal Service running the drones doesn’t fill me with confidence.

  8. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 20, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    And just how would that be noticeably different than the pension drones they’re running now, Jim?

  9. Jim December 20, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Okay, I withdraw my quibble.

  10. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 20, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    Be careful, in the future, just where you PUT that quibble, too.

  11. Mel December 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    At United States Postal Service:

    1) Lower Value = Higher Fee
    2) Lowering Standards = Priority #1

    For Mail Delivery, only labor costs exceed transportation costs, so how does USPS reward customers who save it thou$and$ by using a post office box? By charging exorbitant rent for a box.

    If they weren’t made felons, would private citizens accept being charged 44 cents each for haphazard delivery, while watching corporations get precisely-timed delivery of oversized advertising circulars for 4 cents each?

    Who but a government monopoly could get away with such shoddy treatment of their customers?

    What elected official could be behind slowing holiday mail delivery to a crawl? What is their model?

    Tom Delay?


  1. Quoted for thought: Jim Bovard on the Post Office « Hobbit@Law - December 16, 2011

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