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Saturday, February 13, 2010

General Commentary: Could a Philatelic Lottery Help Save the Postal Service?

The U.S. Postal Service is currently experiencing severe financial difficulties, due to declines in mail volume, increases in fuel costs, and other problems, according to a recent GAO report. The Postmaster General has warned that if the Postal Service continues to operate as it is, it will run a cumulative debt of $238 billion over the next 10 years. Some of the most commonly aired proposals for coping with the crisis include: closing post offices, "streamlining" compensation and benefits for employees (nothing like a bureaucratic euphemism to brighten one's day!), asking Congress for financial relief, dramatically increasing the costs of postage, and delivering mail fewer days each week.

A blog from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S.P.S offers some less conventional remedies, and solicits feedback and innovative input from readers as well. One of the ideas put forward is that of a Post Office Lottery, in which customers would buy tickets at postal outlets for a chance to win cash prizes.

Personally, I like the idea of a lottery, but I'd modify it in two ways.

First, rather than selling lottery tickets, the Postal Service should issue "Lottery Semi-postal stamps." A portion of these stamps would have postal value, and the rest would represent the cost of the lottery ticket, which would, in most cases, be rendered worthless after the drawing. For instance, if a normal lottery ticket were to cost $4, then the stamp would sell for the ticket cost plus the first class rate (currently 44c- a total of $4.44 per stamp). This would benefit the buyer because even after the lottery portion of the ticket became worthless, the stamp would still have some value as as a collectible. Collectors with non-winning stamps could even produce First Day Covers with them, submitting the covers within the 120 day cancellation deadline, thereby saving the Postal Service even more money. Scott Catalogs would probably have to assign a new letter-prefix for these stamps, perhaps "BZ."

Secondly, rather than awarding cash prizes, the Postal Service should produce ultra-limited edition postage stamps, and award them to the lottery winners. For example, the U.S.P.S. could issue an extremely small quantity (perhaps 250 or 500) of a beautifully designed, thematically popular stamp, and award one to each lottery winner. The top winners could each receive a plate block, of which there would be one per sheet. Such stamps would have immediate value in the philatelic market, probably on the order of thousands of dollars each.

Giving a Postal Service lottery philatelic appeal would make headlines, and have the long-term benefit of bolstering interest in stamp collecting in the U.S.. This would further aid the U.S.P.S. because as a consequence, a higher proportion of stamps sold by them would be collected, rather than used as postage.
By the way, should the U.S.P.S. ever need a "philatelic lottery czar" to run the operation, either as a highly paid employee or as a consultant, it need look no further. In a spirit of public service, I'd be willing to take the job, and I'd do it for just a few million dollars a year, a harem of assistants, and an office equipped with a swimming pool, sauna, and plenty of high quality medical marijuana to alleviate the stresses and strains resulting from bravely shouldering my new responsibilities.

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