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Sell First Class Postage, Not First Class Stamps

This is an idea for the United States Post Office, as overseen by the Federal Government. Do you have any idea how irritating, and expensive, it is to the entire stamp-buying public of the United States when you raise rates on first class (standard) postage by a penny or two?

Most citizens buy stamps by the booklet or by the sheet and pull them out as needed over a period of months or even years. There is nothing more annoying than to go to find postage for a critical bill or letter or even something mundane like Christmas cards and discover that you have a whole sheet of stamps that - a few weeks ago - were sufficient to pay for the delivery of a standard first class letter. Now, on the other hand, you will have to make an inconvenient and expensive trip to a post office to purchase a matching sheet of one or two cent stamps to make up the difference.

This is not only annoying, it is wrong-headed, unethical, and easy to change for the better. Changing the way postage is handled, at least for stamped standard envelopes within standard weight ranges (the kind that citizens can generally stamp with a single stamp without having to weigh the letter or take it to a post office) will brighten many citizens' view of the entire postal service.

It is wrong-headed because it undoubtedly costs the post office almost as much to print and sell a sheet of very cheap stamps as they earn from the sale. Postage rates typically go up a penny or at most two, and a penny won't even buy a the envelope, the piece of paper inside the envelope, or a piece of gum to chew while writing the letter any more. In fact, a penny won't even buy a penny any more - the government almost certainly loses money stamping out the coinage. The post office can't be keeping more than half a penny on the penny for those extra postage stamps that they force everyone to go out and buy. They should just give it up.

It is unethical for a number of reasons. One, most citizens purchase the ex-first class postage stamps in the reasonable expectation that they can use them to mail a standard first class letter. In many cases they bought them in good faith long before the postage increase was proposed. From a certain point of view, any rate increase that invalidates their perfectly valid assumptions at the time they purchased the postage is an ethical breach of contract.

Second, because the citizens in many cases purchase their postage weeks or months before it is actually used, the interest earned by the post office on the unexpended part of their purchase is nearly invariably greater than any proposed increase on the unexpended part.

That is, if I buy a 35 cent stamp and don't use it for three or four months, it has already earned the post office more than the 1/2 cent profit they could hope to realize by forcing me to buy an extra 1 cent stamp should the decide to raise the basic rate to 36 cents. Third, forcing the purchase of additional postage especially hurts to oldest, the poorest, and the most frugal parts of our society. In many cases, purchasing a dozen additional one cent stamps (to rescue some four dollars worth of otherwise useless postage) costs far, far more in gasoline, human time, and energy than a ``mere'' 12 cents. Recall that even with a very fuel efficient car, it costs more than 12 cents to drive as little as two or three miles.

Hopefully the arguments above make it clear that the current methodology for raising postage rates isn't just bad or annoying, it is a tiny bit of Evil in our daily lives. Especially Evil, in that no one seems to be in the slightest bit aware of just how inefficient and stupid the whole process is by this point.

Fortunately, it is easy to make a tiny trivial change that for all practical purposes won't cost the post office a cent but will eliminate a great fraction of this evil.

All that is required is to add a letter code to a printed value to each and every stamp sold that is the precise value (at the time of sale) to purchase a standard level of postage. For example, First Class standard mail might carry and ``F'' and a value of 33, 34, 35, or (eventually) 40, 50 or 75 cents as the post office keeps raising rates.

The post office then has to honor the letter value instead of the dollar value. If I buy an ``F'' stamp expecting to use it on first class postage, I should be able to whether I use it this week, this year, or ten years from now. Sure, in ten years first class postage may cost half again what it costs now. On the other hand, the post office has had the use of the money it cost me for ten years, and the value of the this is greater still. This is a cosmically fair solution. It vastly reduces the amount of ``junk postage'' (small value stamps) that need to be printed and that are inevitably sold at a heavily discounted profit by the post office. It prevents the elderly from being forced to purchase a taxicab ride to the nearest postoffice at the cost of four or five precious dollars to purchase fifty cents worth of stamps so that they can remain in touch with their loved ones.

It is the right thing to do.

The reason to carry the cash value on the stamp as well is to facilitate its reuse for classes of mail other than the designated class corresponding to the letter. If one purchases an ``F'' stamp for 35 cents and need to use three of them on some bulk package, I see no reason that they shouldn't count as 35 cents instead of 37 cents if the current value of ``F'' stamps is 37. That should prevent undue speculation in stamp futures - any standard class stamp you buy will be valid for that class forever, but cannot be speculated into a reduced cost in other classes.

Of course, the post office might find it profitable to encourage speculation in stamps. For example, they might choose to deliver bulk package, postcards, first class mail, and more in utterly private units - say ``p'' (for postal units) so that stamps are printed as 1p, 2p, 3p and so forth. 1p might suffice to send a postcard, 2p might suffice to send a second class letter, 3p a first class letter, and so forth. This would literally create a futures market in stamps, and stamps would immediately be viewed as being slightly more valuable than their base price.

Folks would buy more than they need at any given time against the chance of a rate increase. The post office could draw interest on all that lovely investment in stamps as long as they continued to hold them instead of use them. The federal government might be a bit irritated - this de facto introduces a private currency backed the postal ``bank'' into the American economy - but stamps have long formed the basis for a private currency.

To conclude, at the very least the Post Office should immediately label both post card and first class postage stamps with a special class label (``P'' and ``F'') and honor all stamps issued for these purposes regardless of when they are used and regardless of any rate increases for that basic rate in the meantime. They might well also consider other alterations to the way postage is charged and issued, but they should always do so remembering the interests of their customers, the American Public. It is not only possible to raise rates in a way that is fair and minimally inconveniences and irritates those customers, it is easy.

Let's hope that well before the next rate increase they see the light and do it the right way from now on.

next up previous contents
Next: Regulate Direct Advertisements Up: A Few Modest Proposals Previous: Preface   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-14