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Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

When an advocate for free enterprise (and the superiority of the private sector) wants to convey why it is a bad idea to have the government run something that the private sector could (or sometimes, already does) run better, a reference to the Department of Motor Vehicle is usually employed. The inferior overall service that one receives at the DMV as opposed to, say, Home Depot or one’s favorite restaurant, is an easy and accessible way for the average person to instantly comprehend an obvious, but subtle, point regarding the deep flaws inherent to incentive-free bureaucracy. AEI’s own Newt Gingrich has a similar simile on YouTube, comparing and contrasting the ingenuity and customer care of FedEx to the United States Postal Service: I was reminded of Newt’s clip above (which some 1.6 million people have viewed in the past 4 years) in an unexpected way the other day. While flipping through the channels during a Jeopardy commercial break (“nerd alert”), I came across a scene in the Kevin James’ sit-com King of Queens in which James, who in the show plays a driver for a FedEx-type delivery service, was hustling and bustling to make all his deliveries on time. James’ boss had hinted at a promotion should he perform at a high level the next few weeks, and so everywhere James went there was a spring in his step as he high-stepped over dogs and plowed his way through clogged-up groups of women at the entrance of a store he needed to drop something off at. It was a fairly humorous scene, although not as funny as Trebek’s banter with the ever-awkward contestants on Jeopardy that occurs every episode after the first commercial break, but more importantly it brought to mind another subtle example of the differences between government bureaucracy and private sector companies. You never see government-paid postal workers run, jog, or even cantor on-the-job. Perhaps it is a “union thing” that permits USPS employees from using too many of their fast-twitch muscles at one time. All I know is that the lasting image in my mind of a UPS or FedEx driver is that of an athletic-looking dude in (sometimes uncomfortably) short shorts, scurrying out of his truck to get me my package in a timely fashion so that he can move on to his next delivery. Even at the FedEx brick-and-mortar locations in a strip-mall near you, the employees are lively, talkative, and on top of whatever it is you need (and when you need it). Add to that the fact that I’m cut-off by a speeding UPS truck a few times a week, but have yet to see in my two-and-a-half decades on this planet one single United States Postal Service vehicle traveling faster than the speed limit of a gated community in Old People, Florida. I’ve also yet to see a USPS employee at the Post Office physically move quicker than one of the residents of that hypothetical gated community in Old People, FL. Now, of course I may be cherry-picking my examples, and to be fair the USPS services everyone while FedEx and UPS only service customers who pay to render their services, but I decided to do a little investigative journalism and see if my “A Bureaucracy in motion is actually a private sector business in motion” theory had any legs to it. This past Monday I spent the entire day monitoring the comings, goings, and overall mobility of any delivery agent (public or private) I came across. 8:48AM – On-coming FedEx truck swerves to cut in front of me as we both attempt to pull into Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru. Guy takes the last Blueberry Cake donut. I’m left with Plain Cake donut. (Insert angry-faced emoticon here). 9:14AM – Same FedEx guy sprints up to my front door and before sprinting back to his truck (which he left running and in drive so he wouldn’t have to waste any time shifting) delivers copy of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society that I purchased a second copy of to give to my not-yet-existent conservative girlfriend some day. Turned that earlier sour-faced emoticon up-side-down. 10:50AM – Went to post office and asked if I could send a book overnight that would arrive next-day before 5:ooPM. Government employee said “Yes, we have an overnight, but it’s not guaranteed until Wednesday at noon.” I respond with “That’s two days from now.” Government employee: “I know.” I exit premises. 11:03AM – Employee at local UPS Store very speedy and efficient in helping me send off used text book from last semester to some sucker who bought it from me on Half.com for more than I bought it for in the fall. Ensures me that book will arrive on the day after the current day’s night. 11:04:AM – Watched as UPS driver pulled up in the parking lot and hurriedly unloaded dozens of packages from his truck and re-loaded dozens of pick-up packages from the store in less time than it takes guy at post office to “take a look” for the package your mailman left a delivery notice for late last week. 1:23PM – Waiting for my pay-check in the mail. See mailwoman leisurely meandering through neighborhood and stopping to chat with at least four different soccer moms (presumably discussing the most effective ways to keep other people waiting). 3:38PM – Mailwoman finishes neighborhood deliveries and heads back to home-base at a horse-and-buggy-neck speed Okay, so no one ought to be making policy decisions in congress based on the data I gathered, but that doesn’t change the immutable fact: when there is an incentive, people work harder. FedEx and UPS drivers are paid based on the volume they deliver. There is upward mobility in the company. Employees of such companies are members of an exciting team that is on the cutting-edge of the delivery service industry. Postal employees are union workers who get paid the same no matter how quickly they work or how satisfied the customer may be. Their incentive is simply to keep their job. Their union’s incentive is to get more for less. In no way, shape, or form am I denigrating the individuals who work for public sector entities like the USPS. The problem isn’t the people, it is the system itself. Some bureaucracy is necessary, but too much (like we have now) is wasteful, cumbersome, and detrimental to wealth creation and innovation going forward. Don’t out-think yourself: incentives are good things.