Sunday, April 29, 2012

Congress Kills No Birds with Two Stones

Kevin Drum notes that the Senate (but not the House) has passed legislation to save the Post Office. As we discussed here, the Post Office is fighting a losing battle against e-mail, so much so that first-class mail now makes up less than 30% of all mail delivered. (The rest -- mostly catalogs and the like -- is sent via standard mail.)

The USPS had suggested a series of sensible changes -- ending Saturday delivery, relaxing delivery times (40% of first-class mail is delivered within one day), and closing a bunch of post offices and postal centers.

We also noted that much of the current "crisis" is fake, as the USPS was forced by (the Republican-controlled) Congress to pre-fund 75 years worth of its employee benefits within a 10-year window. That helped turn the USPS' $1 billion surplus in 2006 into a $5 billion deficit in 2007.

So how did the Senate do? Kevin Drum summarizes (and we editorialize):

Allows USPS to recoup more than $11 billion that it had overpaid into one of its pension funds. 

About time.
Provides early retirement incentives for nearly 100,000 USPS workers.

Good one.
Restructures payments to a health benefits fund for future retirees.

Probably a good thing.
Frees up USPS to offer a broader range of services like delivering beer and wine for retailers.

Okay – but we could do more.
Creates a USPS chief innovation officer.

Absolutely pointless.
Halts the immediate closing of up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices.

Not good.
Forces USPS to preserve overnight delivery of mail sent to nearby communities.

More not good.
Forbids USPS from closing a rural post office unless the next-nearest location is no more than 10 miles away.

Still  more not good.
Places a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices and then requires the mail agency to take rural issues into special consideration.

Oh, Christ.
Prevents USPS from cutting Saturday delivery for two years, until the agency can prove such a cut is needed as a "last resort."

Transitions from door-to-door delivery to curbside delivery in some areas, such as suburban neighborhoods.

Strengthens the appeals process for customers opposed to closing a post office.

Caps bonuses and pay for USPS executives.

Forces USPS to wait until after Election Day to close postal facilities in states that permit voting by mail.

Apparently, these states don’t have mailboxes.
Permits USPS to co-locate post offices in government-owned buildings.

So, Kevin, what do you think?
There's nothing in there about allowing the postal service to increase postal rates
This is crazy. 
Take a look at countries around the world that have smaller volumes of mail than us: they all charge higher postage rates. They have to. And as volumes keep declining in America, we're going to need higher rates here too. Right now, a first-class equivalent stamp runs 75¢ in Germany, 72¢ in Britain, 82¢ in France, 98¢ in Switzerland, 97¢ in Belgium, and 63¢ in the Netherlands. There's no way that we can stay at 45¢ as volumes decline and pretend that somehow everything will be hunky-dory. 

And the Senate also failed to consider resurrecting the United States Postal Savings System, which was shut down during the patchouli-scented days of 1967, when we all thought the banking system was safe. Not only would the United States Postal Savings System provide another revenue stream, it would require virtually no start-up costs -- the USPS already engages on certain small-scale financial transactions (money orders) and the post offices themselves are already built and fully staffed.

A revived Unites States Postal System would also provide crucial financial services to a population which increasingly can't afford to use banks. An April 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trust found 16.4% of all Mississippians didn't have a bank. And it's about to get a lot worse.

The New York Times reports that:

An increasing number of the nation’s large banks — U.S. Bank, Regions Financial and Wells Fargo among them — are aggressively courting low-income customers ... with alternative products that can carry high fees. They are rapidly expanding these offerings partly because the products were largely untouched by recent financial regulations, and also to recoup the billions in lost income from recent limits on debit and credit card fees. 
Banks say that they are offering a valuable service for customers who might not otherwise have access to traditional banking and that they can offer these products at competitive prices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new federal agency, said it was examining whether banks ran afoul of consumer protection laws in the marketing of these products. 
In the push for these customers, banks often have an advantage over payday loan companies and other storefront lenders because, even though banks are regulated, they typically are not subject to interest rate limits on payday loans and other alternative products.
For example:
When David Wegner went looking for a checking account in January, he was peppered with offers for low-end financial products, including a prepaid debit card with numerous fees, a short-term emergency loan with steep charges, money wire services and check-cashing options. 
“I may as well have gone to a payday lender,” said Mr. Wegner, a 36-year-old nursing assistant in Minneapolis, who ended up choosing a local branch of U.S. Bank and avoided the payday lenders, pawnshops and check cashers lining his neighborhood. 
Along with a checking account, he selected a $1,000 short-term loan to help pay for his cystic fibrosis medications. The loan cost him $100 in fees, and that will escalate if it goes unpaid. 
And it gets worse:
 Lenders are also joining the prepaid card market. In 2009, consumers held about $29 billion in prepaid cards, according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a payments industry research group. By the end of 2013, the market is expected to reach $90 billion. A big lure for banks is that prepaid cards are not restricted by Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. That exemption means that banks are able to charge high fees when a consumer swipes a prepaid card. 
The companies distributing the cards have drawn criticism for not clearly disclosing fees that can include a charge to activate the card, load money on it and even to call customer service. Customers with a “convenient cash” prepaid card from U.S. Bank, for example, pay a $3 fee to enroll, a $3 monthly maintenance fee, $3 to visit a bank teller and $15 dollars to replace a lost card. 
Capital One charges prepaid card users $1.95 for using an A.T.M. more than once a month, while Wells Fargo charges $1 to speak to a customer service agent more than twice a month.
Banks are evil. The Post Office is not. For more on why the United States Postal Savings System is a good idea, check out our earlier post here.

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