Editorial: Is the mailman’s next stop a museum?
As everyone now pretty much knows, Saturday mail delivery is about to be history, unless Congress intervenes in some way between now and August. The U.S. Postal Service is hemorrhaging dollars, and it must cut its losses.
This was all but inevitable, with technological advancements and changing consumer habits putting the hurt on the U.S. Postal Service. Few Americans send letters signed, sealed and delivered anymore. Email beats snail mail to the finish line. Tens of millions pay their bills online. The Pony Express died out, too.
That said, the Postal Service’s “urgent” fiscal condition, in the words of Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, also is something of a manufactured crisis. To be sure, America’s mail system took it on the chin to the tune of $15.9 billion in losses this last fiscal year. But the vast majority of that was the result of a 2006 law that forces the Postal Service to prepay anticipated retiree health care costs in an accelerated fashion — even for employees who may never be hired — in a way Congress requires of no other federal agency. Subtract that payment and a few other unusual costs and the Postal Service reportedly would have been $2.4 billion in the red last year. Of course there is a danger to not socking away funds for employee retirement obligations, but it is possible to go overboard, and there seems to be a consensus among accountants who pay attention to such things that Congress has here.
The elimination of Saturday service would save about $2 billion annually.
In some ways the Postal Service is in better shape than it was even a year ago. The volume of package mail is actually up, due to online retail purchases. Its work force has been trimmed by some 225,000 people over the last dozen years. Hundreds of post offices have been closed. The price of a postage stamp has gone up and up and up. Its management has tried to respond to its challenges. That’s not to suggest they’re faultless. The Postal Service does have very high labor costs relative to its private sector competitors. Some would suggest it has refrained from pursuing efficiencies it would have had no choice but to implement if it operated in an environment where its competition wasn’t artificially constrained.
Alas, to some degree it would seem the Postal Service’s demise is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for those free market purists for whom government can do nothing right and the private sector nothing wrong. Those were the same folks who wanted to privatize Social Security a few years back, too. Since the 2008 recession of a lifetime, you don’t hear much talk about that anymore.
Americans ought not to get caught up in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Perhaps the Postal Service’s days are numbered, because like everything, eventually, it has just run its course. Nonetheless, for almost 240 storied years, it has proven a reliable service. While it is a creature of the federal government, subject to the whims of Congress, it does not receive much in the way of tax dollars (though it has been known to borrow from Uncle Sam).
There is a fear, and perhaps a warranted one — among seniors who don’t feel comfortable with computers, among Americans who live in rural areas — that they will be bypassed, their needs unaddressed. Mail security is an issue that doesn’t get much attention, but just this past week there were reports of the Bush family, including both former presidents, having their emails and other private information hacked. It is not paranoia to have concerns about the erosion of privacy and the potential for identity theft regarding Internet correspondence and transactions.
Everything changes. There will likely be even more mail service reductions down the road. But if the U.S. Postal Service is headed for extinction, it should be allowed to die a natural death, not be euthanized by Congress or outside others with a self-serving agenda.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.