Postal Service Plan: Kill Trees, Annoy People, Lose Money

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By Tobin Harshaw

There has been one silver lining to the rise of Internet spam: It is easier to get rid of than old-fashioned junk mail. Unfortunately, the U.S. Postal Service wants to step up the assault on your real-world mailbox.

Desperate to escape its financial sinkhole, the Postal Service has begun offering discounts to companies and direct-mail marketers that step up their use of unsolicited letters, which last year amounted to 84 billion credit-card offers, Coldwater Creek catalogs and so forth. Its website has a handy new section called Every Door Direct Mail to make it easier for small business to send citizens a flood of solicitations. Postmaster General Bob Donahoe belittled online alternatives to the New York Times: "You can advertise on Facebook, but I don’t see how you can trace the number of 'likes' to return on investment."

The Postal Service has plenty of problems: It failed to make a required $5.5 billion payment for retiree health benefits this summer, is on pace to lose $14.1 billion this year, and legislation that might give it more flexibility on its finances is stuck in Congress. With first-class mail volume cratering by 25 percent since 2006, a new focus on what it calls "regular mail" might seem sensible. According to the post office’s inspector general, Every Door Direct Mail could generate $1.2 billion in new revenue annually.

Don't buy it. Junk mail is far less profitable than first-class letters. Increasing volume is at cross purposes with the vital goal, shared to some extent by Donahoe and Congress, of downsizing the work force and closing processing plants and low-traffic post offices.

And, of course, Americans hate junk mail -- for good reason. It clutters not just our mailboxes but also our landfills: The Times reported in 2009 that less than half of regular mail is recycled, and 44 percent of it is discarded unopened.

Perhaps the Postal Service initiative will have some benefits: It might provide a little fiscal stimulus for services like Stop the Junk Mail and Catalog Choice, which can limit the amount unsolicited mail you receive. Even better would be if legislators passed laws creating anti-junk registries similar to those for unsolicited phone calls. Until then, be careful not to trip on the way out your front door.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Sep/21/2012 17:13 GMT