Give The Post Office A Break
I come to defend the Post Office, the whipping boy of the Republic, the symbolic repository of all that ails America. Since anyone can remember, problems with mail delivery pepper political conversations more than defense spending and social welfare programs. Opinionated pundits shake their heads when yet another sorry tale is recounted of late delivery, no delivery, mutilated envelopes and lost packages. The poor Post Office never receives a compliment, only criticism.
The abuse is piled on, segueing into the malaise perceived in government. Yet the Post Office has been a semi-private, independent agency as the United States Postal Service for over 30 years. The USPS is the second largest civilian employer in the U.S. (behind Walmart) with 596,000 people and 218,000 vehicles participating in the delivery of 177 billion pieces of mail annually. No matter the size and scope and general success, the Post Office is singled out as the best example of why we have gone to hell in a handcart.
Could it be because we deal with the mail every day in our personal and business lives, while defense spending scandals and boondoggles only pop on the evening news once or twice a year? And social services outrages only affect a small percentage of usually politically impotent people in scattered towns and cities? But the bedraggled mail carrier passes our homes and offices every day. The long lines in Post Office buildings are reinforcing visible reminders that the country is not functioning if mail delivery is less than perfect.
Compare the mail carrier in pith helmets sweating in the summer heat or icy winter in their munchkin matchstick delivery jitneys to the macho dudes or svelte women in their military brown UPS troop carrier-sized trucks. Or Federal Express drivers in their eco-friendly blues, whites and greens cruising around as if they owned the roads. The narrative is apparent: the post office is a declining brand compared to the stock-owned delivery behemoths. The pitiful postal carrier is a coolie among the grandees of private mail companies.
To make matters worse, the USPS is subjected to a national auto da fe if it raises its prices to survive. Americans capitulate to a knee-jerk emotional tirade if the cost of a stamp is raised two cents. It's carried on the evening news in the same breathless hyperbole as a major earthquake or a juicy political sex scandal. Post Office executives are harassed and shamed, commentators are outraged and normal people act as if the end is near.
But if UPS or FedEx or the rest raise prices, no one objects. It makes sense people say: gas prices are high, unions have to be assuaged and companies must make a good profit or, God forbid, their stock price may go down. If the private guys need spending money to finance future growth, they go to the markets and raise a bundle. But the USPS can only borrow from the federal government, pith helmet in hand begging for a handout. But now the feds are broke and the USPS is forced to diminish its presence even more, allowing their competitors to club them into further decline.
But we all know it's not just Big Brown beating up on the Post Office, it's email and interactive online transactions replacing the letter. That leaves the package business, where the private guys win the race. The USPS can offer better prices - which lowers revenues even more - but not better service. Something has to happen, and is: the Post Office is expanding routes for carriers (mail is often delivered after 7 p.m.), closing and consolidating post office buildings and trying to hang on. With government budgets in the toilet, combined with the inability to seek private equity, the bell is tolling. And the usual suspects say so what?
Nostalgic laments that no one writes letters anymore will not increase post office revenue. And paying bills online is here to stay. But the efficacy of the letter delivered by the postal service remains potent. Registered, certified or First Class, a letter remains the sine qua non of serious communication. You may pay online, but if there is a problem a letter is on the way. While many receive their bills online, a hard copy is often needed - via the USPS. In business and legal affairs, the letter often seals the deal; and if emotion is needed to make a point, there is no substitute. Magazines must use the USPS, as well as annoying direct mail campaigns.
The post office is the only agency of government mandated by the Constitution. A first class public mail delivery system is a hallmark of an advanced nation. Are we willing to neglect this responsibility and rely on private carriers subject to corporate upheaval, strikes and management decisions that can endanger delivery? Instead of complaining, citizens should show their support for the USPS by demanding encourage their masters to allow major hikes in postal rates for regular mail and allow the agency to raise capital to compete in the reality of the Internet. Strong letter to follow.