Is it time to stamp out the postal service?
When I was a grubby little curtain-climber, the mailbox was a magical place. Birthday cards from Grandma would materialize each year with $15, my monthly issue of Boy's Life magazine would show up, and I'd send away film for processing, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my photos. Seeing the boxy mail Jeep bounce down the road was a highlight of a summer day, and I'd run out to get the mail. But the role of the United States Postal Service has evolved, and as much as I enjoy antiquated communication technology, I can't see much hope for the future.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the United States Postal Service wasn't created just to furnish you with pizza-delivery coupons. Authorized by the United States Constitution and headed up by Postmaster Benjamin Franklin, who really was a goody-good over-achiever, it delivered its first letter in 1775. (Surprisingly, it was a prize-winning notification from Publishers' Clearing House.) The establishment of a reliable postal service was crucial to the growth of the new nation, and the system was lauded as fast and convenient, the last time anybody ever described the post office that way.
The USPS may have a few problems these days, but an inability to lose money isn't one of them. The post office chews through great piles of cash like a fiduciary Kraken, gulping down shiploads of delicious money. From April to June 2014, USPS lost $2 billion, making even the most gluttonous cash-Kraken say, "Whoa, slow down, you're going to make yourself sick." The only way an organization could lose more money faster would be to get an enormous payday loan or host the Olympics.
So how can they flush so much money away so quickly? The volume of first-class mail continues to fall — no surprise in this increasingly digital age. But the biggest payout this quarter was to cover a $1.5 billion increase in expenses related to workers' compensation payments. Plus, there's a federally mandated retiree healthcare fund that's due another $5.7 billion annual payment in September.
USPS and postal unions see the train wreck coming, and have actually been petitioning Congress to allow a modification in business practices, including eliminating Saturday delivery and door-to-door delivery, which could save $6.5 billion a year. But certain lobbyists and legislators refuse to compromise, pointing to the constitutional mandate. And these guys know about legislative responsibility; after all, Congress is the same bunch of clowns who passed the law requiring the postal service to pre-fund the retiree healthcare benefits for 75 years, something no other institution, public or private, does in the entire United States. Finding a way to pay for it isn't exactly Congress' strong suit.
Do we really need the postal service? Imagine that America never abandoned the telegraph because the Constitution required us to have a transcontinental system of communication built on Morse code. Despite the advent of the telephone, television, radio, fax, email, texting and the Internet, lobbyists and legislators insisted on sticking with the telegraph because they don't want to put a lot of telegraphers out of work, and hell, it's in the Constitution that we gotta have it. The American people would continue to fund the stupid thing even though nobody uses it anymore, and it costs 49 cents to send a message. Eventually, the only people who would use the telegraph are commercial interests that send you telegrams you never wanted offering pizza discounts and satellite TV.
Maybe the telegraph lobby wasn't as powerful as the postal lobby. The telegraph never had the romantic appeal of the mailbox. It's hard to beat the appeal of handwritten letters, or getting the news of the world delivered to your door by a human being in a spiffy uniform who took an oath to get this stuff to you regardless of wind or rain or snow or zombie apocalypse.
But it's an antiquated form of communication. As postal customers, we have choices. We can opt to get and pay bills electronically. We can send and receive packages via brown, yellow or white trucks. We can send letters via email or text.
I haven't run to meet the mailman in years. (I stopped when sudden movements were discouraged around postal workers after several unpleasant shootings.) It's got to suck to have a job that's been thoroughly obsolesced, and working for a company that's all but bankrupt. Times change, however, and maybe it's time we relegate the USPS to the Island of Misfit Technologies, right next to the telegraph, eight-track tape and VHS player. It was fun while it lasted.
Henry Lightcap is waiting for his Publishers Clearing House winnings
at his humble abode in Las Cruces.