That’s government for you

WHAT’S THE MOST dysfunctional, disheartening and downright disreputable place on the face of the Earth? Mogadishu? Baghdad? Albany? Nah. Must be Washington, DC. 

Seems like there isn’t anything the federal government gets right. Just take Cash for Clunkers, which, okay, did make money for car dealers, who employ folks around here, and gave some workers their manufacturing jobs back and made a tiny but important contribution to reducing air pollution and global warming. But look at how the government screwed up. 

Just like the auto industry, Washington failed to read the collective public mind, didn’t anticipate how eager consumers were to buy new, more efficient cars. So now the program’s bogged down in paperwork meant to prevent unscrupulous dealers from ripping off taxpayers who are paying to bail out, um, taxpayers who are actually spending their money on private businesses and increasing economic activity, which might just get the country out of this recession. There has to be something wrong with that, doesn’t there?

 

Let’s be honest. This newspaper has a problem with government, except that, well, it’s actually with the United States Postal Service, which is no longer an official government agency. But that’s a quibble, because the service has to win approval from Congress to raise its rates, and part of what it does–the most expensive and least profitable part, which includes home mail delivery–is a government monopoly. 

The Postal Service is the only cost-effective way for this or any other periodical reach your home on a regular basis. Once The Columbia Paper began publishing in April, we sought authorization to mail subscriptions to readers at a discounted rate. Postal authorities have granted us provisional approval to do just that, but we haven’t yet been able to mail a single issue at the authorized rates, because postal officials can’t agree on how we should do it. It sounds like a textbook case of government (or quasi-government) bungling, right? Not exactly. 

Postal officials try hard to explain how our startup newspaper, with only a handful of initial subscribers, has to sort its papers by three different ZIP code methods and how we should calculate the weight of our 24-page newspaper to a ten-thousandth of a pound (never mind that to get so precise a measurement you’d have to stand in line at a nuclear lab operated by–you guessed it–the government). Oh, and make sure you weigh it at the wettest part of the day because paper is heavier when it’s raining…. And only then can you attempt to calculate the cost, a process that feels a little like trying to give each string bean in your garden its own name.  

What government knucklehead thought up this mindless bureaucracy? Actually it wasn’t government at all. It was private industry, say postal officials. For companies that mail millions of copies of a mass circulation magazine like People every week, those scientifically bogus decimal places can add up to real savings. Big publishers get discounts because they program their presses to pre-sort magazines “deep into the system,” so that each copy comes off the press in the order the letter carrier will deliver it. 

Small companies and start-ups pay more. Postal officials said they wanted a rate that would treat everybody the same, but the big firms nixed that idea. That’s free enterprise, not government incompetence. 

But perhaps our biggest problem is that postal employees have no experience setting up subscriptions for a new periodical. That’s no surprise. Who’d be crazy enough to start a newspaper these days? Can’t blame Washington for that. 

As frustrating as this process is, postal officials have taken our concerns seriously and are genuinely trying to set up our subscriptions. It’s a cumbersome system, but every time we receive a check in the mail from someone who wants to subscribe, we’re reminded that there are an enormous number of services provided by government (and quasi-government) agencies like the Postal Service that keep us safe and improve the quality of our lives.  

Government has many flaws, but it is not the source of all our problems. We live in a complex society, and we forget sometimes how much government helps sustain our lifestyle. Insisting that government always makes things worse may be an effective political slogan, but reasonable people know it simply isn’t true.

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