Postal services: what’s wanted? What’s needed?

Pulp-o-mizer cover: Donovan Beeson, CC some rights reserved

In 2013 and beyond, what’s the purpose of national postal service?

If that is still wanted, what are customers willing to pay, in terms of postage – or taxes – to keep those services viable?

When, where and how should those services be provided?

The recent announcement that the United States Postal Service plans to drop Saturday letter deliveries beginning in August made a big splash.

Some question if the USPS has the authority to make that type of change. Businessweek calls the move a risky gambit that could prompt a backlash. Or it could stand as a savvy tactical shift which might “force Congress to get serious about postal reform”.

Writing in the Atlantic Magazine James Fallows weighs in with what he calls the one article you need to read on the subject. (OK, he really wants you to read at least two!)

Fallows sympathizes with the view that Congress has really made a mess of the USPS, though he has to confess that he once worked for the local post office and the expert/author he references, John Tierney, is his brother-in-law. (While listing disclosures, readers may already recall that Fallows is also a news analyst on NPR.)

Tierney’s article in Salon magazine presents a less-heard view that the USPS  is ”quite well managed and operates as efficiently and effectively as we have any right to expect”. Tierney isn’t fixated on how many days the mail is delivered. His complaint is that Congressional micro-management is killing the postal service.

Here’s an article that argues the USPS could go to three-days-per-week delivery and things would be just fine. And here’s more background on the postal service’s odd status: the modern version is not entirely a government agency, but not just a business either.

NCPR has reported on the issue of closing small post offices, a topic of particular concern in rural areas. Tierney’s article asserts the accumulation of piecemeal protests to ”save our post office” is actually part of the larger problem:

For decades, postal executives, looking ahead at trend lines that portended financial ruin, have tried to take steps that would put the mail system on a more sustainable footing. They’ve tried, for example, to pare down the enormous network of tens of thousands of post offices. But when they try to shut down costly, inefficient little post offices at rural crossroads, the local congressperson rises up in indignation, a defender of the local community’s “heartbeat.”

I have an opinion, you have an opinion. But it seems like there’s some need to look beyond dropping a day, assigning blame, or tinkering with the budget – important as those details are.

The spouse and I were kicking this topic around with a life-long Canadian neighbor the other night: what do nations still need in a postal service? That got sidetracked into a few test questions: When did Canada abandon Saturday mail delivery? That required – what else? – an Internet hunt. Answer: 1969. Maybe Canadians bemoaned the loss at the time. But by now it’s just normal.

And what about postal history in the U.S.? Wasn’t a mail system specified in the Constitution? (More research required!) Well, yes and no. It’s authorized, but not required: Article 1, section 8, clause 7 states Congress has the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”.

That suggests the leading minds of the late 1700′s felt a country-wide system of mail delivery was good (necessary?) for a nation’s health. Is that still true today?

Over time, we’ve seen all sorts of efforts to establish basic infrastructure: mail, canals, railroads, public schools, telegraphs, highways, electricity, telephones, airports. These days it’s Internet access in general followed by high-speed Internet access in particular. (This is not a complete list and it co-mingles “hard” and “soft” infrastructure, but the point is to think about the things that help nations thrive.)

Private courier services have been around for a while now (UPS dates back to 1907). They’ve proven to be nimble, efficient competitors that provide a valuable service. We’ve all heard arguments that email and private enterprise can replace conventional postal services.

Maybe.

The Internet is not available everywhere. The Internet cannot do everything, especially in the physical realm. Not everyone chooses to use it either. There are still plenty of places where nothing would get delivered – if it weren’t for postal services.

There may be efficiencies that should be adopted. Change is often painful. But I would argue that this somewhat unfashionable institution still contributes to national health. 

A minor hobby of mine is ogling mail order nurseries. One such site, the Golden Bough Tree Farm, has this to say about mail systems, which I will quote because I share the sentiment:  

Parcel Post works well: bundles of our trees find their way on time and with equal accuracy to Badger, Nfld. & Horsefly, B.C., real places that courier services won’t serve or can’t find. The Canadian Postal Service is a creation of generations of our people. Its network knits together our tenuous ribbon of a country… and woe, implacable woe on those who dare to unknot it, either from within or without.

Do people have a right to decline new technology and still be served as they were prior to the Internet? Does a physical delivery service provide redundancy we need, should some cyber attack (or who knows what) interrupt the flow of electrons? Should remote areas get a special pass to keep their post office open, even if that is an economic drain?

It’s OK if you only want to look at Saturday delivery. At your own town’s post office. Or how to keep the USPS from going broke.

But I am very curious if anyone is thinking in terms of re-inventing this wheel so it fits into “now” – and serves future needs. That could mean tossing out a few sacred cows along the way.

Do you think you have a good national postal service today – be that the USPS or Canada Post?

Do we still need one?

What would that look like to you?

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19 Comments on “Postal services: what’s wanted? What’s needed?”

  1. mervel says:

    I think Congress should free them up a little to make decisions to stay in the black. Right now they are caught between a rock and a hard place; they get no direct government funding, but the congress can tell them how to operate and meddle in their affairs.

    In some ways I think they are a connection to our federal government, which is a good thing. A place to get a passport, to mail a package, etc, that essentially looks the same in NYC as it does in Depyster, the same organization, which I think has value a way of holding us together a little as we seem to split apart in so many other ways.

    Physical mail has a place, however they may go to regular mail 3 times a week, packages 6 days a week and increase some of their other non-mail services.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The US Postal service is an amazingly efficient enterprise that performs a necessary service the private market will not perform at anywhere near the same price. I can put a note in my mailbox and for less than 50 cents they will pick it up and deliver it to any address in the country. Will UPS do that? FedEx? No, and no.

    Beyond that the value postal workers provide to a community beyond their official duty is enormous. They know their route and the people on the route. They know when elderly people haven’t picked up the mail, or shoveled the sidewalk and the carrier will often check in on those people or call someone who will. They often are the first to notice fires or break-ins, I’ve even seen stories of postal workers catching small children who fell out of windows.

    But they should have dropped Saturday delivery decades ago – only, Congress wouldnt let them. Nor does Congress ever let them raise the price of a stamp to a nice round number so that they dont have to handle billions of pennies all the time. Just like Amtrak, some in Congress want to make the Post Office look bad.

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  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Interesting radio piece:

    http://backstoryradio.org/youve-got-mail-a-history-of-the-post-office/#commentarea

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  4. Mark says:

    Congress should give the USPS latitude to run more like a business. Shut down Saturdays; no problem. Also shut down the duplicate post offices. 6 post offices in Johnsburg, NY with a population of about 2300 is about 5 offices too many. Even smaller Minerva has two post offices. Add up the cost of rent plus overhead and then the salaries, benefits and retirement. I bet Johnsburg isn’t the only postal boondoggle in the country.

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  5. Lucy Martin says:

    Just saw this opinion piece on a very similar theme in the NYT.
    Richard John makes some excellent points in support of postal service:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/09/opinion/how-the-post-office-made-america.html?hp

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  6. jeff says:

    Without a postal service it would be mandatory to have internet service to receive billing for services. Or to have a checking account and let outsiders reach into one’s account and remove money. Telephone services and electrical servcies were deemed utilities and fees were levied ( and remain) to subsidize providing service everywhere.

    Over its history the postal service has provided excellent service. I am inclined to agree that congress has over-managed and over-regulated it to the point of losing gobs of money. I too know of post offices among a collection of a dozen houses. They mean another point of recognition for the wide spots in the road but most of us are not using horses for transportation any more.

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  7. Rancid Crabtree says:

    I’ve always thought the PO was amazingly efficient when you consider the volume they handle. But a good value for the money? Yes and no. Myself, I’d have no issue with Mon, Wed, Fri delivery if it would save a mess of money. I suppose that would hurt the carriers though. Or maybe we should just bite the bullet and charge what it really costs to deliver those unwanted credit card offers and AARP mailings no one asked for. I do almost everything electronically now, most people I know do the same. Why pay for the check and the envelope and stamp? OTOH I do a lot of online shopping for articles not available in my area, the PO does a fine job of saving me time and gas money there. For much of what I do the PO is as fast or faster than UPS/FedEx, far less expensive too.

    I don’t want to lose the PO, but it’s time we started getting realistic about things. It’s another case of not being able to afford to keep the status quo.

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    No problem with ending Saturday delivery.
    I usually go to the PO on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as it is.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. JDM says:

    I think they should adopt a new motto:

    “Higher costs and lower service – It’s the Government Way!”

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  10. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – right now the problem is costs that are too low and/or service that is too high.

    If you want to blame the government, a good candidate would be congress. As everyone above has pointed out, if congress got out of the way, the post office could probably make the changes needed to adapt to the modern (electronic) world.

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  11. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: “JDM – right now the problem is costs that are too low and/or service that is too high.”

    Right. That’s the liberal equivalent of what I just said.

    That’s like saying, “right now, our taxes are too low and our level of health care is too high”.

    Oh, I’m sure the government will do the equitable thing. i.e. raise taxes, raise costs, lower services, lower expectations, lower standard of living.

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  12. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – the “right thing” is to either raise the price of mail to the consumer (us), to reduce the services (to us), or to subsidize the unprofitable services with tax dollars.

    So far congress is doing none of those. More of wanting services but not being willing to pay for them.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There is an interesting convergence of stories here. If you had followed the link I provided above ( http://backstoryradio.org/youve-got-mail-a-history-of-the-post-office/#commentarea ) and listened to the first third or so of the story you would have found that much antagonism toward the Postal Service stems from Southerners angry about Abolitionist’s use of the mail to send Abolitionist newspapers to the South attempting to persuade them to give up slavery. In 1835:
    ” On July 29, the steamer “Columbia” arrived at the Charleston, SC harbor, bringing mail sacks full of abolitionist tracts addressed to city leaders. Charleston postmaster Alfred Huger, torn between his federally-mandated responsibility to deliver the mail and his allegiance to the southern cause, set the abolitionist mail aside. That night a group called the “Lynch Men” broke into the post office and stole those mail bags. The next night, the group led a “celebration” of almost 2,000 spectators in cheering the burning that mail, along with effigies of northern abolitionists.”

    http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2010/07/americas-first-direct-mail-campaign.html

    In a story on NPR tonight it was asserted that the Republicans lost the Black vote in the ’50′s & ’60′s when the National Review and William F Buckley, Jr became the visionary locus of the Conservative movement with ideology harking back to the States Rights ideas of John C Calhoun.

    http://www.npr.org/2013/02/11/171737572/why-does-gop-continue-to-be-the-party-of-white-people

    Calhoun was from where else? South Carolina:

    Calhoun died 11 years before the start of the American Civil War, but he was an inspiration to the secessionists of 1860–61. Nicknamed the “cast-iron man” for his ideological rigidity [2][3] as well as for his determination to defend the causes he believed in, Calhoun supported states’ rights and nullification, under which states could declare null and void federal laws which they viewed as unconstitutional. He was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a “positive good” rather than as a “necessary evil”.[4] His rhetorical defense of slavery was partially responsible for escalating Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting abolitionist sentiment in the North.”


    In 1832, states’ rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis, after South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified federal tariffs. The tariffs favored northern manufacturing interests over southern agricultural concerns. The South Carolina legislature declared them unconstitutional. Calhoun had formed a political party in South Carolina explicitly known as the Nullifier Party.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Calhoun

    This whole connection explains a lot about the anachronistic ideas of the modern conservative movement and why it has a weird racist tinge to it. Modern conservatives can rightly say that they aren’t racists, while at the same time espousing views that ring like a racist bell.

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  14. dbw says:

    As recently as 2006 the Postal Service was in the black. There are those in Congress who would like to see mail service privatized. Right now the Postal service is at a competitive disadvantage, required to pre-fund their pensions several decades into the future. You can bet Fedex and UPS face no such mandate. Give the Postal Service a level playing field and see how they do.

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  15. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Knuckle, you just can’t accept the fact that race has nothing to do with conservatism, can you? I can’t say I’m aware of anyone on the right today that was a slave owner pre-Civil War, supports John C Calhouns views on slavery or wants to shut down the post office so they don’t give the slaves, who mostly couldn’t read anyway, crazy ideas of freedom. The only ringing bell is the ones in your head and Chris Mahtews.

    Strawman.

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Can you understand English?

    “Modern conservatives can rightly say that they aren’t racists…”

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  17. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Sure can. I can read entire paragraphs too. “This whole connection explains a lot about the anachronistic ideas of the modern conservative movement and why it has a weird racist tinge to it. Modern conservatives can rightly say that they aren’t racists, while at the same time espousing views that ring like a racist bell.”

    They aren’t racists, but boy do they say racist things! Kinda makes you think they might just be racists!

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  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    No, the implication is that most modern conservatives might not understand the genesis of some of their ideas and that is why they are surprised that others see racist tinge there.

    Just as many people fly the Confederate flag without any thought that a passerby might think they could be racists, but in fact they think the image is cool or they feel like they are a rebel in general not a Rebel in specific.

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  19. Lucy Martin says:

    Postal woes afflict USPS and Canada Post as seen in this CTV report of Feb 13

    “Sweeping cuts may be ahead for Canada Post as the Crown corporation faces a $327 million operating loss, CTV News has learned.

    In order to stay afloat, Canada Post is considering:

    reducing home delivery from five to four, or even three, days

    closing some of the 6,500 retail outlets across the country

    consolidating its 21 sorting centres to just major cities.”

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