Monday, January 27, 2014

The US postal service — a tragedy of the commons?

    Today the US postal service announced it is raising the price of mailing a first-class mail letter to 49 cents, and a postal card to 34 cents. I am old enough to remember when it cost one cent to mail a postal card. It even had a name: the penny postcard. Good grief. Meanwhile, the postal service is losing billions of dollars. It’s tried and failed to get government approval to close to smaller post offices, and to halt Saturday mail delivery. What is wrong with the US postal service? What is wrong with us? Is our fate a tragedy of the commons?


     I’m prompted to ask the commons question not because of the price increases and threatened cutbacks, but because of a meeting I attended at my small nearby post office last week. The postal service had declared that its window hours were going to be cut back from 8 to 4 hours per day. We were surveyed about (a) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down entirely (no one chose that option), (b) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down and a stamp-selling operation be opened in a nearby retail shop (no one chose that option either), or (c) whether we’d prefer four hours of window operation instead, and if so, mornings or afternoons? It was like being mugged and offered a choice between a broken arm or a broken leg. As someone at the meeting pointed out, we were not given the option to vote for it to remain open 8 hours a day.    
     I wouldn’t normally think of the mail as a resource commons. True, it appears to be what these days is called an “entitlement,” a utility that government provides citizens in exchange for taxes. It became partly privatized back in the 1980s. It’s still a government agency, though, and it answers to Congress and, one would hope, to the citizens. But what made me think of it as a commons was something that came up at a citizen meeting last week.    
     In an effort to save money, the head of the postal service proposed closing the smaller post offices, which ones to be determined not only by their geographical distribution, but also by the amount of gross sales they make—that is, how much money they take in from the letters and packages that are mailed from their post office, how much money they make in selling stamps and postal supplies, etc. Citizens protested to their representatives at the state and federal levels, and the postal service decided that instead what they would do would be to cut back hours at those post offices, not eliminate them entirely—or at least, not yet. 
    What this did, though, was to put all of the post offices, and their postmasters, in competition with each other to do the most business so that they wouldn’t have to cut back hours. Those of us who regularly use the postal service weren’t informed about these criteria or the competition. The commons analogy appears here. Given a limited resource, if the post office were managed as a commons, the citizens would have been informed and decided which basket(s) to put their eggs into, and the postmasters would have been part of the discussion and gone along with those choices. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the postmasters of each of the smaller offices competed with one another, probably because they wanted to secure their own working hours. In my neck of the woods, what this meant, among other things, was that the postmaster in charge of the largest post office regularly withheld supplies (including stamps) from the postmasters of the smaller offices, forcing the customers to go to the largest post office to obtain them. Of course, they were given some stamps and supplies, but not so many as would meet the larger and more costly purchases of the customers. Predictably, the largest post office has kept its hours, while the one nearest me has been cut back to four, and another one not too far away has been cut back to two hours.
    As we pointed out when we met with the regional postmaster at our local post office, this is a slippery slope. The postal service will continue to evaluate based on sales volume. Now, a post office with its window open only four hours a day is at a disadvantage, and one open for two is doubly disadvantaged. The handwriting is on the wall. Soon they’ll be cut back further, and then cut out.
    The US postal service is not yet enacting a tragedy of the commons. That tragedy, as Garret Hardin famously wrote a few decades ago, supposedly occurs when individuals acting out of selfish interests overuse and deplete a resource commons, making everyone poorer as a result. True, the behavior of the postmasters in competition with one another might qualify as this kind of tragedy. But Hardin neglected to consider the possibility that those who used the commons could get together and discuss the problem and then attempt to manage it, by agreeing to follow self-imposed guidelines and regulations. In fact, that's what the lobster fishery off the Maine coast does, although the management is done by the government as well as by the fishing communities (and they don’t always agree).
    In the case of the postal service, citizens were not offered an opportunity to help manage the resource. Postmasters—who knows if they discussed among themselves the possibility of cooperation as well as competition? The result was the predictable tragedy anyway. The situation is made even more complex since the post office loses most of its money not because its own operations cost so much, but because the US government requires the postal service to pre-fund retirement health care for its employees. This is something no other business organization, to my knowledge, is required to do; and in fact very few do. My employer, Brown University, not only does not pre-fund health care for its retirees, it doesn’t fund retirees health care at all. They’re on their own, just as almost every other US retiree is, now. The result is that citizens are increasingly inconvenienced because Congress cannot agree on lifting the pre-funding requirement (let alone much anything else).
    Re-thinking and then managing the postal service as a resource commons might just help solve the problem. The tragedy that’s being enacted now was scripted by the US government; the postal service and the postmasters are the bad actors, and the citizens are the captive audience. Ticket prices are too high, and local theaters are going to be closing soon anyway. It can all be avoided. And there are analogies with music and sustainability to be made here, as well, particularly when considering such things as Internet neutrality, copyright legislation and monopolies.

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