Government Crowding Out, USPS Style

October 1, 2014
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This is a really bad policy idea: the U.S. Postal Service wants to get into the grocery delivery business. Economists will sometimes support government interventions in industries where there are serious market failures. But with grocery delivery, private businesses are already performing the service, and no market failure is evident.

The USPS grocery idea is a desperate attempt to save the agency’s hide, rather than to solve any problems in the marketplace. The Washington Post frames it correctly: “After nearly six years of multibillion-dollar losses, the U.S. Postal Service has developed a new plan to help turn its finances around: Daily grocery deliveries.”

The problem is that government expansion into an activity squeezes out private providers and deters entrepreneurs from getting in. As the government expands, the private sector shrinks. Such “crowding out” occurs in many areas. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal [$] today on retirement savings in different countries notes, “OECD data show a strong negative relationship between the generosity of public pensions and the income that retirees collect from work and private saving.”

The decline in mail volumes is prompting the USPS to extend its tentacles. GovExec reports, “from banking to passport photos, nearly all postal reform stakeholders agree any legislation must unchain the Postal Service to leverage its unique, in-every-community network to create new sources of revenue.” By “stakeholders,” GovExec appears to mean groups—such as the labor unions—that benefit from the subsidized status quo.

The Wall Street Journal reports [$] that the grocery gambit “is the latest in a string of aggressive moves by the Postal Service to compete in the package-delivery market.” But why would we want the government “aggressively” undermining private businesses, especially in an industry like package delivery that is already efficient and competitive?

If the USPS expands into new areas such banking and groceries, we will end up with a mess of cross-subsidies between the agency’s different activities. Banks, for example, would complain that subsidized USPS banking was undercutting them, which would be inefficient and unfair. Such disputes would be chronic, and each dispute would descend into a battle over accounting between lobby groups in front of Congress.

For more efficiency and less lobbying, Congress should be encouraging the USPS to shrink, not expand. Does it make sense for a letter carrier to deliver groceries? The best way to find out is to privatize the letter carrier, repeal its legal monopoly, and then let it have a go. Postal privatization works. Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands have shown the way. 

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