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What if Google Ran the Post Office?
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From the Roanoke Times, an independent look at the issues facing USPS.


North Carolina wins again.

First, Roanoke lost out to Raleigh when Advance Auto announced last month it was moving some jobs to North Carolina as part of its takeover of General Parts Incorporated and a subsequent reorganization.

Then, the U.S. Postal Service announced last week it will close its mail processing plant in Roanoke and move the operation – and some of its 400 jobs – to Greensboro.

The move is part of a nationwide restructuring that will see 82 mail processing centers around the country close. Norfolk is also losing its center; merged into one in Richmond. North Carolina winds up with three centers – in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. The postal service estimates the consolidations will save $750 million a year.

Some have blamed the moves on a 2006 law that requires the postal service to pre-pay retirement health benefits for employees 75 years into the future – in other words, the postal service has to set aside money for benefits for employees it hasn’t even hired yet. Without that requirement, the postal service would be making money, not losing money. The postal unions, in particular, see this Bush administration requirement as nothing more than an attempt to create a financial crisis, and break a public sector union.

Independent observers take a longer, and somewhat different, view, especially in light of rising health care costs. “The prefunding requirement was the wrong solution at the wrong time to a very real problem (not limited to the Postal Service), and is draining the postal service just when it most needs to invest in new plant and equipment,” says Kent Smith, a former postal service executive who is now research director for Postal Vision 2020, a private group looking at ways to reform the postal system. “There are better ways to fund this liability, which is not going away.”

However, that’s not the real problem, they say. Take away the prefunding requirement, “and that might buy you a little time, but it doesn’t change the basic dynamics,” says Jeff Jarvis, who has studied the postal service as part of his work as director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York. Those basic dynamics, he explains, are that world is changing, and the volume of first class mail is falling. “If it can be digital, it will be digital,” he says. “If it can be consolidated, it will be consolidated.”

The odds are, Smith says, there might be even more consolidations in the future. The postal service faces the same financial pressures as everyone else, except with an obligation that the private sector wouldn’t tolerate – delivering the mail six days a week to everyone’s home, no matter where they live. The postal service is supposed to be self-supporting. However, Jarvis can see a day where that will change, too. “If you want to deliver to Sarah Palin’s grandmother in One Tree, Alaska, there’s a scenario in which universal service is a government subsidy.” That might also mean higher postal rates; something big mailers naturally object to (small mailers, too).

What would the private sector do if it ran things, other than do away with that universal service? You don’t have to wonder; just look at Fed Ex and the United Parcel Service. They have only a half dozen hubs apiece for the whole country, so most of your packages get shipped in and out of Memphis or Louisville. And they’re handled by lots of part-time, lower-wage workers, Smith says. Put another way, those full-time Roanoke postal jobs may be going to Greensboro, but someday may they go away altogether. In that light, the post office is going through the same, painful changes that other industries have already gone through.

Jarvis once wrote a book called “What Would Google Do?” How would Silicon Valley run the postal service if given a chance? “Google,” Jarvis says, “would just give everyone a computer and a printer.”