Posts tagged ‘Postal Service’

On the Death Penalty and Ideological Turing Tests

Actually trying to understand how those you disagree with think, rather than just accepting some straw man version, can make one a much better debater.  Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test is not just about empathy and being open to opposing arguments, but it also pays dividends in making better arguments for one's own positions.  I love how Jesse Walker begins his pitch to Conservatives against the death penalty:

The typical conservative is well informed about the careless errors routinely made by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and city hall. If he's a policy wonk, he may have bookmarked the Office of Management and Budget's online list of federal programs that manage to issue more than $750 million in mistaken payments each year. He understands the incentives that can make an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to acknowledge, let alone correct, its mistakes. He doesn't trust the government to manage anything properly, even the things he thinks it should be managing.

Except, apparently, the minor matter of who gets to live or die. Bring up the death penalty, and many conservatives will suddenly exhibit enough faith in government competence to keep the Center for American Progress afloat for a year. Yet the system that kills convicts is riddled with errors.

USPS Problems Not All Their Fault

As much fun as it is to mock the US Postal Service, their inability to restructure their costs is not all their fault. Every time they try to close a facility, they get met by opposition from about everywhere.  Here is an example where Berkely, CA is doing all it can to prevent the USPS from selling a post office building.

The Postal Service over the summer began moving ahead with a plan to sell its 1914 Beaux-Arts post office in the heart of Berkeley near the old city hall and a park named after Martin Luther King Jr. The move drew howls from residents worried that the building would turn into condominiums or office space, even drawing dissidents to camp out for days by the columned building entrance.

Now, opponents are gaining traction with an unorthodox zoning restriction: that the mustard-colored building must remain open to the public

The Berkeley Planning Commission last month approved a measure that would restrict the use of the post office and adjacent government buildings to government agencies or public uses like a theater. Residential use and many other private functions would be banned by the action, which requires City Council approval.

This is simply bizarre.  What, do residents have so many fond memories of their time spent in the line at the post office that they want these golden memories preserved?    The assumptions made by local opponents are just bizarre -- they seem OK if the building is used for offices of the Social Security Administration but not if it is used for private offices.  Why would anyone possibly care.   From my experience, private urban office buildings tend to be cleaner and better maintained than government offices.

Government "Investment" Of the Day

Over the course of Lance Armstrong's career, the US Postal Service paid him over $40 million in sponsorship money (at least according to the radio report I heard this morning).

I don't necessarily begrudge advertising -- the USPS was nominally acting as a business enterprise, and businesses advertise to promote their services.

But I do find this expenditure odd in the extreme for a couple of reasons.

  • First, sponsorship money of this sort generally can only build name recognition.  Paying to name a ballpark "Chase Field" builds name recognition for Chase, but by necessity does not communicate anything else about its services or value proposition.  The same is true for putting one's name on Lance Armstrong's jersey.  Does the US Post Officer really need name recognition?  Are there people wandering around unaware of the US mail?  I could understand advertising such as "this is why our express mail is better than Fedex" or "you should send a real paper thank you note and not just an email to really thank someone."  But name recognition for the USPS?  "Oh, so that is what that funny box in front of my house is...."
  • Second, to the extent one did indeed feel the need to build name recognition, why in the hell would one do it in a sport primarily competed and followed in Europe?  This seems an odd strategy for a service that is essentially limited by statute to US operations.

The only thing I can guess is that someone in the USPS decided, "Hey, everyone hates us.  Let's sponsor someone (preferably in a tangential sport that we could actually afford) who is beloved so some of those positive feelings might transfer to us."   That worked out well, huh?


This post and this post came up back to back in my feed reader this morning.  The first explored per capita GDP between Greece and Germany, and wonders why the published numbers can be so close when visual evidence is that the average Greek is far less prosperous than the average German.  Brian Caplan explains the largest difference between Greece and Germany in terms of public sector productivity, with 10% of the workforce in Germany working for the state while a third of Greeks do so.

Knowing the Germans, it's easy to believe that its government employees accomplish as much as the Greeks' despite their smaller population share.  This implies that 25% of the Greek labor force is, contrary to official stats, producing nothing.

So using Sumner's other numbers - and assuming output is roughly proportional to labor force - per-capita GDP is more than 50% higher in Germany than Greece.  First-hand observation tells me that's still an understatement, but it still closes a big chunk of the gap between official stats and reality.  How's that for a mental image?

UPDATE: The NY Times apparently overstated the 1/3 figure, see here.

Right after reading that piece, I read this from Jim O'Brien via Tad DeHaven:

Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term "automation refugees" to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn't lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.

O'Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren't working, manual operations were always up and running.

A decade later, O'Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn't changed:

More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?

Years ago, I briefly consulted to the SNCF, the French national railroad.  I say briefly, because thought they technically asked us to benchmark them against US firms, its clear they did not really want to hear the results.  The one figure that sticks in my mind is that they had something like 100,000 freight cars, but 125,000 freight car maintenance employees.  I remember observing to a highly unamused SNCF executive that they could assign one maintenance worker to his very own freight car and still lay off 20% of the staff.  And apparently France is an order of magnitude better on stuff like this than Greece.

Well, My Health Insurance Policy Just Became Illegal

My health insurance policy, which is an actual "insurance" policy that insures me against catastrophic medical costs but leaves me with responsibility for day to day expenses, just became illegal.   Over the last couple of years, I have documented my learning curve as, for the first time, I actually had an incentive to shop around for medical care, or to push back on doctors when I thought they are calling for too many tests and procedures.  I have learned a lot about saving money, but all of this education is now for naught, as I will now be required to buy a pre-paid medical policy that leaves very little of the decision-making to my family and provides zero incentives for me to be cost conscious.  Apparently, the operators of the US Postal Service and US military procurement felt they were better qualified to manage these cost/value trade-offs than I am.

Here, by the way, is my favorite quote from today, from Nancy Pelosi (who else):

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the health care legislation for its ability to "unleash tremendous entrepreneurial power into our economy."

Only if one considers rent-seeking to be entrepreneurship.  There will certainly be a mad rush of special interests to Congress to get their pet procedure or drug included in national must-cover rules.  I discussed this rent-seeking process, which used to have to proceed inefficiently state by state but now can be achieved single-source, here.   Naturopath coverage, anyone? (already required under coverage rules in 4 states).   Already a lot of so-called medical research is really just thinly disguised pleas to have a certain procedure in must-cover rules.  For example, I wrote about one study:

In other words, the study surveyed a bunch of cosmetic surgeons.  They were asked "should an expensive procedure you provide be covered by insurance."  They all answered "Hell YES!"  Anyone want to bet whether the funding for the study came from the company that makes the laser equipment?

That Great Public Service

Via Cafe Hayek:

American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus complains that "It is deeply troubling that Journal editors advocate ending the Postal Service's exclusive right to sort and deliver mail.  The Postal Service must remain a public service if we are to honor our nation's commitment to serve every American community "“ large or small, rich or poor, urban or rural "“ at affordable, uniform rates"

My family has  a ranch that is absolutely in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming - it is 30 minutes by dirt road from a town of 2,000.  The USPS delivers mail to a box 3 miles away from the ranch, and does it 3 days a week.  The USPS will not deliver overnight mail.   UPS delivers 6 days a week right to our door, including overnight mail.

The word "uniform" is the key -- what the USPS government protected monopoly buys us is a massive cross-subsidy, where city dwellers subsidize rural communities, Alaska, and Hawaii.   Further, because the USPS knows that these subsidized routes are cost black holes, they tend to cut back on service to try to save money.  The result is that no one is served well, as is often the case when a large cross-subsidy exists -- cities pay more for their mail, and everyone gets worse service.

Perversity of Government-Selected Winners

Technocrats love to pick winners.  Leftish technocrats, in particular, love to believe that the complex operations of the entire economy choose technologies that are inferior to those the technocrat would have imposed on the economy had she been in charge.  But here is what happens when they try, in a cautionary tail that is particularly relevant given the number of specific technologies Barack Obama has said he would promote (e.g. a million plug-in hybrids by 2015) (via Tom Nelson)

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.
But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in
place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

"I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come," said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. "It hasn't happened."

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them "flex-fuel," capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government's alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A 2005 law -- meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations -- now requires agencies to seek waivers when a vehicle is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles come only with larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program --
known as EPAct -- has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended....

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The article does not even mention that E85 ethanol made mostly from corn does absolutely nothing to reduce total CO2 production (it just shifts it around, due to the amount of energy required to grow corn and convert it to ethanol) while raising food prices.

California did something like this years ago, putting the force of subsidies and state law behind zero-emission vehicles.  This wasted a lot of money on electric and hydrogen vehicles that were not yet technologically mature enough to prosper, while missing out on low (but now zero) emissions approaches that could have had much more impact because they were technologically ready (e.g. CNG for fleet vehicles).

Y'all know where I stand on the dangers of CO2.  But if we really have to do "something", then the only efficient way to do it is with a carbon tax.  But politicians hate this idea, because they don't want to be associated with a tax.  But the fact is, that every other action they are proposing is a tax of some sort too, but just hidden and likely less efficient.  There is no magic free lunch that Barack Obama and his folks can think of and impose, no matter how smart they are.  In fact, to some extent, smarts are a hindrance, because it tempts people into the hubris of thinking that they are smart enough to pick winners.

Postscript: If you are reading this and thinking "well, if I were in charge, I would not be that stupid and I could make it work" then you don't get it.  1)  No one can make it work, for the same reasons the Soviets could not plan their economy from the top -- its just too complex.  At best, policy-makers are choosing between a handful of alternatives to back.  In contrast, every individual has a slate of opportunities to reduce his/her CO2 production at the least cost, and when you add up all these individual portfolios, that means there are hundreds of millions of individual opportunities that must get prioritized.  That is what pricing signals do, but government bureaucrats cannot.  2) The morons and knaves ALWAYS take over.  Even if you are brilliant and well-motivated, your successor likely will not be. For years, folks have generally been comfortable with the outsized role of the Federal Reserve because they thought Greenspan  (and Volker before him) ran it brilliantly.  Well, there are arguments to be made about this, but even if we accept this judgment, what happens when the next guy is in charge and is not brilliant?

Postscript #2: If you want a specific example, let's take plug-in hybrids.  How can anyone be against these?  I personally like the concept of cars being driven by electric traction motors (I like the performance profile of them) and would love a good plug-in hybrid.  But what happens when we find out that many of these cars were bought in coal-burning areas where electricity is particularly cheap, and discover coal-fired electricity pollutes more than an internal combustion engine?  Or when we use a cap and trade system to cut back on coal fired plants, and find that the huge number of plug-in hybrids are exacerbating brown-outs and electricity shortages?  Or we find that the billions of dollars of capital diverted by the government to expanding plug-in hybrids could have easily yielded far more CO2 reduciton had it been applied in another area?  That is why a carbon tax is the only way to go (if we are going to do anything) because it allows individuals to make capital expenditure decisions to reduce CO2 based on their vastly higher knowlege of the opportunities and the pricing signal of the tax.

This is Just So Short-Sighted

OK, here is the story to date:  Paradise Valley is a small, very wealthy town within the boundaries of Phoenix.  There is no commercial development allowed in the town except for a series of golf resorts, of which there are a number.  The town had one last large tract of unbuilt land, owned by the Wrigley heirs, I believe, that has for years been zoned for a resort.  There was an auction several years ago in which the land was sold for some figure north of $70 million to a group who wants to build a Ritz-Carlton resort, a hotel chain notorious for bringing riff-raff into communities ;=).  The Ritz group unanimously obtained all the town council and planning board approvals it needed to build.

Except now a ballot initiative will be voted on by the town residents in November as to whether to allow them to build a resort on their own land that is zoned for a resort (my previous report, complete with Zillow maps).  This action is consistent with the absolute resistence that every resident's attempt to do a major remodel of their house encounters from various community groups and zoning bodies.

One lesson, of course, is that local participative democracy can be just as much a threat to individual rights as the worst dictatorship  (though this is not a new lesson -- it was in fact learned in Athens when it was first tried).  But a second lesson is just how short-sighted this is.  I am sure residents convince themselves in each such individual effort that they are somehow protecting their property values.  But in sum, the effect of multiple such efforts is to make people reluctant to invest in property in the town, fearful that some citizens group or zoning body will take control of what they can do with their land. 

I live about 4 houses away from the Town of Paradise Valley in the city of Phoenix, though most of my neighbors and even the US Postal Service think I live in PV.  It used to be, about 10 years ago when I moved in, that living outside the PV boundary was considered a negative.  There was a big enormous value gradient between the nearest PV home and mine, based as much on snob appeal of the address as anything else.  Now, however, the gradient is reversing (hurray for my home equity!)  Real estate agents in my neighborhood who used to hide the fact that the homes are not actually in tony PV (shame on them) now use it as a selling point.  My remodel contractor breathed an enormous sigh of relief when he found out that I was, in fact, not in the town of PV.

Help me out, readers.  I seem to remember there was a name for an economic game where the profit maximizing strategy when playing once was different than if one were playing multiple times in sequence.

PS - If you are confused why a town would consider a Ritz to be bringing down the neighborhood, see here, complete with Zillow maps where not a single surrounding home is going for less than $1.8 million. 

OK, the Post Office Still Sucks

I had been lulled into thinking maybe the US Postal Service was modernizing, but I was wrong.  I have a PO Box in Colorado where I have my mail for our business forwarded to our Phoenix office for the winter months.  However, there is apparently absolutely no way to have all the mail coming to that box forwarded.  It can only be forwarded by name.  So, if I have 7 business names and 12 employees with mail in that box, I have to submit 19 change of address cards.  And, if anyone makes a typo in mailing to one of these 19 names, it won't get forwarded - only if the letter is addressed to the name exactly as it is written in the change of address card will it get to me.  Anyone want to guess how often that happens?

Worlds Most Expensive Printer Ink

Today I bought what may be the most expensive consumer printer ink available.  We have a small Pitney-Bowes postage meter that has a little built in ink-jet printer to print out the metered postage symbol (that sort of red looking stuff that replaces the stamp).  One of their little print cartridges doesn't last more than at most a thousand envelopes, which represents at most the equivalent of 50 pages of text for a normal printer.  For this little cartridge with its smidgen of ink, I paid $39.99.  At the same time, I bought two-paks of the HP cartridges I needed (no bargain themselves) for $25 per cartridge, and these cartridges last for hundreds of pages.  I can't directly compare the volume of ink, but my sense is that the P-B cartridge is priced such that it would be over $500 with an equivalent amount of ink to an HP cartridge.  Insane.  And its worse because the P-B postage meter has this annoying tendency to announce the cartridge is almost out of ink before it is even half empty.  We have gone weeks with the meter telling us the cartridge had to be replaced soon.

I am not sure I fully understand the relationship Pitney-Bowes has to the US Postal Service, but to all appearances, they have been handed a virtual monopoly for decades.  For years business have been forced to pay egregious rental rates for P-B equipment with long, long minimum lease periods because the USPS does not seem to be comfortable with competition.  Only the advent of Internet postage in the late 1990's forced P-B to come out with a small business postage meter that you could purchase at relatively low cost.  I am flabbergasted that the US government continues to give them this monopoly.  It is ironic to me that several of the abusive monopolistic practices used by Pitney-Bowes and encouraged by the US government are the same practices Xerox got busted (under anti-trust litigation) years ago by... the US Government.