The news came yesterday that the U.S. Postal Service is announcing cutbacks in service to deal with spiraling costs and a declining volume of mail. The question here is: "WWBFD?" That is, "What Would Ben Franklin Do?"
You may recall that in addition to inventing bifocals and the lightning rod, Franklin once served as postmaster general. He was the one who said that only two things are certain in this world: death and taxes. (Notice he did not add Saturday mail service to that list.) But he did say, "A penny saved is a penny earned."
It's safe to say that he'd be in favor of Postmaster General John Potter's plan to save as much money as possible, and to change the USPS's business model in the face of looming deficits. Potter wants the flexibility to close some branches, reduce the number of days mail is delivered, and end the legal mandate that he pre-pay healthcare benefits for future retirees, to the tune of $5 billion a year. It's controversial--because it involves hiking rates, cutting services, and reducing the funding for future retirement benefits ... sound familiar? And here's the fun part: All of this has to be approved by the unions and Congress. Good luck with that.
But it sounds like if anyone can do it, it's Potter. We need more government agency heads like this guy, especially if we ever want to reform entitlement spending. He's not afraid to make drastic changes for the sake of long-term fiscal health. Hopefully there are more out there like him: a businessman in bureaucrat's clothes.
I haven't seen any yet, but I bet polls would show that most Americans still want the government involved in mail service and that they think their mail carrier does a great job. But I also think most would be willing to accept some trade-offs to keep the USPS afloat and have it run more like a business than a failing government monopoly.
The Internet has changed our lives immeasurably, and Potter says regular mail isn't going to return to pre-recession levels. The USPS needs the ability to make up for declining demand due to E-mail invitations, online bill payers, and digital magazines--all of which are very popular and are not going away. And as Americans become more green and energy conscious, I think the days of junk mail and stacks of catalogs may be numbered too--the amount of resources put into not only manufacturing but delivering them is a growing concern.
A new business model is a great idea. If Potter can pull this off, maybe there's hope for reforming Social Security and Medicare. I think Ben Franklin would agree--after all, he said, "He that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing."