Article Published in USA Today
If you thought you’d seen it all after the 1993 Elvis stamp, think again. A few days ago, the world learned that the U.S. Postal Service will soon introduce a “forever stamp.” This wild-and-crazy stamp is unlike anything America has ever known. It will debut in May. And it will cost 41 cents, as stamp prices are also going up.
If you can hardly contain your excitement, you’re not alone. The forever stamp is a great leap forward for anyone who has ever waited in line at the post office to buy one of those annoying 2-cent stamps after a rate increase.
With a forever stamp, that problem will cease to exist. These super stamps will never require additional postage. They will work . . . forever. Hence the catchy name.
But buyer beware. The forever stamp also has a dark side. It will make it easier for the Postal Service to foist price increases on unwitting consumers. And there will be no public outcry when stamp prices go up because no one will notice.
Just think of the E-ZPass, used on many interstate toll roads today. It lets drivers bypass the tollbooth, lessening congestion and improving drive times. The upside is convenience and speed. But an E-ZPass also diminishes our awareness of how much we’re actually paying to use the road. We’re too busy laughing as we fly past the frustrated souls stuck in the tollbooth lines.
The same will be true with the forever stamp. It will be convenient, for sure. But it also will give the government cover to raise stamp rates year after year, to the point where such “toll increases” aren’t even posted.
Postal consumers will certainly enjoy the speed and ease of use of the forever stamp, but a few years down the road, we could be surprised to visit a post office and find that the rates have gone up two or three times since we last checked.
Postmaster General John Potter has hinted as much, suggesting that the Postal Service plans to move toward annual rate increases by 2009. It’s also no coincidence that the forever stamp was introduced in tandem with a price increase. It’s almost as if we’re being conditioned.
Perhaps consumers should be asking why stamp prices — unlike telephone prices, for instance — continue to go up. Over the years, postal operations have benefited from automation and numerous improvements in technology.
Modern sorters can process more than 30,000 pieces of mail per hour, which theoretically should make it cheaper to send a letter.
A 2004 study by leading experts of the Postal Rate Commission came to that conclusion: “The doubling of overall volume coupled with scale economies should have resulted in the average price of the stamp dropping in real terms.”
Yet prices mysteriously continue to rise.
The forever stamp will make it easier for this pattern of ever-higher prices to continue. It will certainly benefit consumers initially. But we might look back in a few years and wonder how stamps suddenly got to be priced in dollars, not cents.
Robby Schrum is a research fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank that promotes limiting the role of the federal government.
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