Going postal

I was standing in line at a U.S. post office the other day (thank you for the sympathy) and was fascinated by the employee on the stool.

While two harried clerks struggled to deal with the ever-lengthening line, this man sat alongside the line ready to schmooze with customers, not actually serve them. Mainly, he complained to the regulars about his allergies. He moaned to a woman he knew that the air conditioning on this 72-degree spring day had not yet been turned on.

Patiently shifting her heavy package to her other hip, she suggested gently that the room seemed cool enough to her and that possibly it was a good thing to save the energy.

He shrugged.

Going postal, these days, no longer necessarily means a disgruntled postal worker going off the deep end. Now it means customers shaking their heads over the ever-rising price of stamps and slow, sometimes grudging service.

And the U.S. Postal Service, which is seeing a decline in the volume of first-class mail even as its energy costs soar, knows it. The service regularly spends money on surveys to reassure customers that mail is delivered promptly and that postal workers are friendly, competent and hardworking. And, to be sure, most of the 700,000 men and women who work for the service are.

The latest survey finds that “the men and women of the U.S. Postal Service attained a 95 percent on-time score for overnight delivery of First-Class Mail for the second quarter of fiscal year 2006.”

The small print says that this is not a systemwide measurement, but is based on a number of selected cities and regions, such as Montana, Washington, D.C., and western New York. Overall, consumer satisfaction with the country’s mail system is at 91 percent. (People standing in line were not queried.)

The postal service, which is an independent federal agency and gets its $70 billion annual budget from the services and products it sells (thus the new emphasis on motorcycles, Mickey Mouse, flowers and NASCAR), is worried that the price of mailing a first-class letter in the age of e-mail is rising nearly as fast as a gallon of gas.

With some thinking that the price of a stamp will go up every year (it’s now 39 cents and next year will rise to 42 cents), the service has announced that it wants to issue a “forever” stamp.

This would mean that if you bought a 42-cent forever stamp a year from now, you could use it even if the cost of a first-class stamp went to $1 a few years from now. And someone who bought a $1 forever stamp could use it when the price of a stamp went to $2. The forever stamp would be a hedge against inflation.

I have just gone through my stamp box and have discovered enough weird denomination stamps from years ago, that if all were forever stamps, I’d never have to buy another stamp in my lifetime.

Nonetheless, I have a few questions. Is there a guarantee that the glue would not cement stamps together, turning forever stamps into a worthless paper wad?

What would happen if business owners and consumers raced to buy enough forever stamps to stockpile for years and the postal service didn’t have enough money down the road to meet its annual budget, already $2 billion short?

What would happen if an eBay market in cheap forever stamps got started? Would quality of service eventually go down for letters mailed with forever stamps? Your grandmother might not get that Mother’s Day card until July 4.

How would citizens react if a new Postal Rate Commission decided to abolish the forever stamp? What would be the consumer confidence score then?

The postal service says it is still in the process of toying with details, although it is committed to the concept.

Meanwhile, it wants to set up a new pricing system that is based not just on weight, but on shape. Thus, if people reconfigure their parcels and letters into smaller, flatter sizes, they would save money!

Postmaster General John Potter says his people will “work closely with our business mailers in the coming months to show them how they can take advantage of the new pricing system to keep their mailing costs as low as possible.”

He further explained that the new pricing system, based on “reconfiguring parcels as flats,” will be more efficient and that heavier parcels will actually be cheaper.

That’s our government _ always and forever working for us. Well, except maybe for that guy on the stool.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)