THE BLOG
12/14/2012 10:43 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Confronting Extinction: Lessons From the U.S. Mail

Everyone over the age of 50, but particularly those scattered in small towns across America, has long experienced the routine, even mundane act of going to the post office to send and receive mail. And the romance of the postal service is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, the stuff of Rockwell paintings, valiant tales of "sleet or snow," and the country's famous "frontier spirit." Any idea of closing all such post offices would almost certainly set off a thunderous cacophony of protest. But, given the need to ask what the U.S. Government can cut without harming bone and muscle, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of this prized institution in the 21st century.

Despite a lot of well-conceived and even well-executed modernization efforts, the U.S. Postal Service continues to bleed billions of dollars every year. If the U.S. mail was seriously supporting economic and social needs throughout our society (and especially in small-town America) the money would be at least well-spent, but that is not the case.

It's also obvious to all sentient beings that private-sector developments in the last 20 years have vastly undermined the Postal Service's business, and redefined the very concept of "post" in the modern era: Email has long since supplanted "snail mail" as the primary first-class delivery vehicle. And while we can loudly mourn the death of the handwritten letter, any modern executive would be hard-pressed to build a profitable business around delivering thank-you letters to grandparents and the like. Yes, there are good reasons not to use email for everything (just ask General Petraeus); such reasons are behind only a minuscule fraction of all communications and could be quite easily performed by the private sector. Illicit liaisons and etiquette really don't warrant a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy.

Private delivery services, such as FedEx and UPS, along with their networks of retail offices across the country, have taken over and made extremely efficient what was historically one of the most important functions of the post office -- rail express dedicated to helping citizens receive and send their parcels and mail. When was the last time a package you ordered online showed up via the U.S. Postal Service?

The Internet has become the main platform for the dissemination and solicitation of nearly everything imaginable. Few people call the IRS for tax forms anymore (that would then be mailed to the taxpayer); instead, they download what they need online.

Once you eliminate personal correspondence, parcel service and information dissemination, all that's left are the detritus: catalogs, flyers, the occasional bill, and suspect solicitations destined for "Resident" that have an estimated seven-second lifespan from the time they're plucked from a mailbox or a post office box to the time they meet their demise in the trash bin. Pity the poor treehuggers!

What then, does the USPS do that is essential to the functioning of modern society? While it certainly employs a lot of people who need jobs in post offices and on the street, the basic answer is "nothing." Instead, the U.S. mail provides a diminishing service to an ever-declining number of people who have not yet fully joined the modern world.

Although tempting, the real and psychological issues beneath the surface of this anachronistic service argue against approaching it with a meat hammer and "one strong blow." It should be possible to phase out post offices in a calm and rational way, which would avoid putting too many people out of work at once, and would give the private sector some time to pick up the slack for needed services, and to protect the people who still rely on U.S. mail.

Or maybe we keep the post offices for a good long while, but ditch the costly carriers who deliver each day's detritus to our doors. A return to a "general delivery" system -- prevalent in the first centuries of the service -- would dramatically reduce costs, eliminate the inefficiencies inherent in visiting every household every day, and still allow people ready access to the mail. A "Mail on Wheels" program or private delivery services could address the needs of homebound residents and be available to others who are willing to pay for the convenience of home delivery.

The basic point of this piece is not to single out post offices. The struggles of the U.S. Postal Service hold lessons for a number of government functions that have been, or could/should be, supplanted or enhanced by the private sector and charitable organizations. A coordinated, collaborative approach can perform fairly and efficiently, letting the government focus on its core responsibilities while relying on the private and non-profit sectors for ancillary and special services. The real point is that once businesses move in to cherry pick the lucrative parts of a government operation, it's time to rethink our approach. "Evolve or Perish" must be the mantra of every government bureaucrat, or systems like the U.S. Postal Service will inevitably go the way of the dinosaurs.