Hey, Mr. Mailman! Make Up Your Mind About My Stamps!

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United States Postal Service window clerk Kim Robert

Is it just me, or is the Postal Service starting to sound a lot like a pathetic, perpetually unemployed uncle who shows up at family gatherings for the sole purpose of panhandling his relatives?

Thatís right — itís time, once again, for yet another rate increase from the U.S. Postal Service. Just four short months after hiking up the cost of a first-class stamp, the financial wizards over at the soon-to-be-vacated Postmaster Generalís office have discovered that, whoops, that one-cent increase isnít going to keep them from confronting $2 billion in losses.

No, siree. On Tuesday, in a move blamed in part to the growing presence of email, the postal Board of Governors announced a one-cent increase in the price of postcard stamps and a two-cent increase in the amount we pay for the second ounce of mail. In other words, you can keep your 34Ėcent stamps. But when you mail something heavy, youíll be charged 23 cents, rather than 21 cents, for each additional ounce. We can all look forward to paying these new rates sometime in July, or a month and a half after the current Postmaster General flees his office.

Before I continue, let me stress how much I appreciate and admire the men and women who deliver the mail to my apartment building, despite their tendency to smash wedding invitations and magazines into irreparable balls. They bring that mail to us every darn day, and I wholeheartedly admire their work ethic.

That admiration, as you may have guessed, does not spill over into my regard for the brainiacs in Washington. Would it have been easier to just raise the price of a first-class stamp to 35 cents, or even 36 cents, and then let us all get on with our lives for a couple of years? Yes, of course it would. But before you go expecting something as exotic as rational behavior from the postal service, you have to remember weíre talking about a massive government bureaucracy, in which estimates of profit margins can take months, even years, to travel up the chain of command. And when information finally reaches the top of that chain, it is often met by befuddled managers. Take, for example, Postal Board Chairman Robert F. Rider. When he announced the rate increases Tuesday, Rider said they were necessary "to assure the financial integrity of the nation's postal system." Wait — wasn't that just as true four months ago? Did I miss something?

Even beyond the horrifying flaws in the postal serviceís long-term budgetary planning, I have to question the methodology by which they came up with the latest increases. I can just see the brainstorming process now, somewhere in a dank basement office on Capitol Hill: "Hey, I have an idea! Maybe no one will notice if we raise the rates on postcard stamps!" Yeah, thatís a great idea. Because who sends postcards? Two demographic groups who are going to feel the pinch more than anyone: Old people — "What do you mean, you want 22 cents to send this postcard!? Why, in my day, during the great warÖ" — and little kids — "But Mommy, I only have 21 cents from my lemonade stand! Now great aunt Edna will never get her postcard!"

There are better ways to run a postal system, people. Granted, I donít happen to know what any of those ways are at the moment. But I can offer this advice. As the Bush administration looks for a replacement Postmaster General, I think they ought to consider one important screening device: For heavenís sake, find someone whoís capable of simple math. Maybe even long division — or, heck, fractions, if we really feel like pushing our luck.