Article Published in The Indianapolis Star
Like the mythic postmen of yore who were delayed by “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow nor gloom of night,” it seems Lance Armstrong can’t be stopped from winning the Tour de France. On Sunday, he once again crossed the finish-line first for his fifth straight victory. But while Lance may embody the spirit attributed to yesteryear’s couriers, his competitive nature clashes sharply with that of his bloated, bureaucratic sponsor – the U.S. Postal Service.
Yet the U.S. Postal Service is touting Lance’s image around as though he’s the USPS incarnate. The home page of its web site (www.usps.com) shows a prominent picture of Lance and his cycling team, accompanied by a caption: “Here’s to another team that always delivers.”
But the Postal Service doesn’t always deliver. Not even close.
Just ask anyone who uses Priority Mail on a regular basis. The “two-day guarantee” is an empty promise. Three to five days is closer to the truth. In fact, a report issued last year by the Postal Rate Commission documents false advertising and service claims. As much as 27 percent of Priority Mail is not delivered on time.
Lance is the top contender in what is arguably the most drawn-out and grueling competition in human history – a three-week, 2,077 mile race of 198 of the best cyclists in the world. He has overcome crashes, exhaustion, dehydration and an against-all-odds battle with testicular cancer, which had metastasized to his brain.
Today’s Postal Service conjures up a completely different image than that of the man it has spent $40 million to sponsor over the past six years. In fact, the USPS web site really ought to show a picture of an oversized, out-of-shape bully. Lance Armstrong is the ultimate competitor. The Postal Service, on the other hand, is a poor performer and adamantly opposed to fair competition.
Today, the Postal Service is $11 billion in debt and losing money fast. In fact, it lost over $2 billion in just the past two years. Meanwhile, it enjoys a government-enforced monopoly over letter mail service so no one else can compete with it. What could be more unsportsmanlike?
As a quasi-government agency, the USPS has the regulatory power to enforce this monopoly aggressively. The Postal Service has red-taped the law so that potential competitors like FedEx and UPS can’t compete – unless they charge at least twice USPS rates and an absolute minimum of $3.
The Postal Service’s monopoly also encompasses the right to exclusive use of your mailbox. In other words, no one else can use it. Not the pizza delivery boy. Not the girl scout with the box of Thin Mints. And forget about FedEx and UPS. That’s why those private services always leave packages on your doorstep. And the Postal Service actually has its own police force to enforce these monopolies.
To make matters worse, the Postal Service gouges prices. The fair market value of a 37-cent stamp is probably closer to 20 cents. But no company can legally compete with first-class mail, so the USPS just keeps raising rates and consumers have no alternative.
The artificially high rate of first-class mail helps subsidize trucks and other equipment the Postal Service uses to deliver express mail and packages, giving it an unfair advantage over private companies like FedEx and UPS. And the Postal Service enjoys other advantages that make the playing field still less level. Its operations are largely tax exempt, and it’s free from much of the paperwork and record-keeping required of non-government organizations.
The Postal Service isn’t UPS or FedEx. If it were run for profit, it would be out of business. With its $66 billion annual budget and poor quality of service, the Postal Service is already a burden on taxpayers and consumers alike. Yet it has spent $48 million over six years on things like cycling, baseball, football and golf sponsorships. Why – when it already has a monopoly on first-class mail – is it spending additional millions to raise its public image? The money would be better spent lowering the cost of stamps.
Or if the Postal Service really wants to measure up to its poster boy, then it should surrender its monopoly – and all its other regulatory advantages – and embrace a fair and open marketplace. After all, Lance Armstrong didn’t win the Tour de France by forcing his competitors to ride tricycles.
Sam Ryan is Adjunct Scholar with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, VA.
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