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Saving the Postal Service

At the time of the American Revolution it was difficult to mail a letter to someone in another colony. You could do it, there were couriers, but there was no such thing as a uniform rate, a stamp, or even regular delivery. That’s why in the earliest days of the Republic there was an appreciation for the need to find ways to bind these disparate colonies together. That’s where the Post Office came in. They would carry letters and packages to anywhere in the new nation. And they still do. But, in those early years, when the roads were bad and travel hard the image that carried on for over two centuries was born. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor dark of night, shall deter this courier from his appointed route.”

The U.S. Mail for many of us of a certain age is an icon. Thirty-five years ago I waited on my acceptance letters for college. A few years later, I waited, watching with an ever pounding heart for the mailman, to see if the Navy had accepted me for its direct commissioning program. And, when I was overseas, and this was in the days before inexpensive international telecommunications, I wrote and received letters. I remember how special it was to get a letter from home and how I developed a little ritual around the process. I didn’t rip open the second it was handed to me.   I held onto it for awhile.  And later, in some quiet place, still admiring the American airmail stamps, particularly if they had a flag on them, I opened and read the letter.  
The U.S. Post Office, since 1971, known as the Postal Service, is an almost universal presence in our country. There are, by my best count, five Post Offices in King George County and four in Westmoreland County.  But there is also, much further a field, a Post Office in Bethel, Alaska (located in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres of magnificent permafrost) and another in the high desert of Apache Wells, New Mexico.  Both of these, to put it mildly, are in out of the way locations.  Indeed, there are thousands of Post Offices, of all kinds, all over the United States.

However, the Postal Service in the 21st century, which, I like to point out to anyone who will listen, is still the “only unsubsidized mail carrier” in the world, is in trouble.  But, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe.  It is fixable.  First, there is the reality that it’s got a deficit.  $10 Billion is the frequently cited number.  That’s bad.  However, $5.1 Billion of this is a based on a dubious bit of creative accounting which requires the Postal Service to make pre-payments, to the tune of $5.1 Billion each year, into the Federal Retirement System. No other government agency or government corporation has to do this.  Further, the rationale for making the prepayments has never made sense.   

That, of course, is some comfort, but the Post Office, even making that adjustment, is still $5 Billion in the red.  If they’re to turn the corner, and start edging back out of this steady decline, their costs and overhead need to be trimmed.  This means a lot of small Post Offices, and sadly, this includes the Post Office at Dogue, which is on the watch list, may have to go.  Stafford recently lost its Brooke Post Office which had been open for most of the last century.  Saturday mail will also have to end.  It doesn’t make any sense anymore.  Congress, while anxious to bash the Postal Service at every turn, has, almost irrationally, put a hold on both of these cost cutting actions. That doesn’t help. And finally, while the Postal Service still carries over 168 billion items each year (and of note, commercial services, actually grew 4%), it still has to find ways to do its job much more cheaply. And they can’t afford to wait.  This means cutting alot of staff, now, automating and streamlining more services, and making pay and benefit agreements with the Postal Service Unions that are more in line with the ability of the Postal Service to cover them.

Also, the Postal Service needs to continue to leverage its collaboration with private carriers.  Very few people realize that the Post Office, on its own, before it became fashionable, had developed a number of vigorous and successful private sector partnerships.  This kind of collaboration needs to continue to grow. 

However, at the end of the day, this entire drama, while it may appear to be taking place in Washington, is actually happening at my mailbox and the mailboxes of millions of other Americans.  My mailman, in 22 years, has missed a delivery only three times – once in a blizzard (how he managed to carry the mail, successfully, during days I couldn’t get out of the driveway, I still haven’t figured out), and two days, during Hurricane Isabell.  After any big storm, whenever I see his familiar jeep, I know the worst was over.  That’s why, in my mind, it’s far too early to write an obituary for the Postal Service.  The service it provides, to everyone, no matter where you live, is still part of the glue that holds the nation together.  It’s not an anachronism and I still check the box every morning, waiting for who knows what overseas letter, bill, or long ordered purchase, just to prove it.  And every once in awhile, someone even sends me a letter.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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