Disclaimer: I won’t pretend that I can write in an entirely impartial manner about the United States Postal Service or hide my fond feelings for the P.O.
After returning from World War II, my high-school-educated dad found a way off the farm and into the middle class by working as a letter carrier for 44 years. Before ZIP codes and motorized routes, he walked a city route of up to 12 miles daily, often carrying the legal limit of 35 pounds of mail in his tan leather satchel.
His shift always began early, in the gloom of night. In South Texas, he was spared from the snow, but the heat was staggering, and my earliest associations with the Postal Service include the indelible, hearty stench of starch and sweat as my dad reached the end of his appointed rounds.
Furthermore, I grew up near the close of an era – not that long ago – when the average American home had neither a telephone nor a TV, and the Postal Service served as a dependable physical and psychological connection to the outside world.
Imagine! A 250-year-old system that is still able to deliver within a few days an envelope with a hastily scribbled address from any location in the nation to any other, from downtown New York City to the wilds of Montana, for only 46 cents. And the Postal Service does this at the rate of around 175 billion – that’s “billion,” with a “b” – pieces of mail per year, six days per week.
Or maybe five. This month, the Postal Service announced plans to discontinue Saturday delivery, beginning in August. The postmaster general says this move will save the service about $2 billion per year.
For all I know, this is a sound business decision, although when it was proposed in 1957, I remember my dad shrugging his shoulders and pointing out that you still have to take the extra mail out on Monday. Still, for citizens who maintain a nostalgic affection for the post office – or who depend on it for the regular, efficient and economical delivery of letters, packages and prescriptions drugs – it’s an ominous sign.
In the face of reduced mail volume brought on by email, the Internet and competition from private delivery services that naturally focus on the most profitable low-hanging fruit, is it possible that the post office has begun the diminished-services death spiral that will result in its elimination?
Before we write it off completely, take a look at Jesse Lichtenstein’s “Do We Really Want to Live Without the Post Office?” in the February issue of Esquire. In more detail than I can manage here, Lichtenstein argues that even though the Postal Service doesn’t receive taxpayer money, many of its problems are the result of mandates by Congress that prevent it from operating more efficiently. But even if it could be run entirely like a business, would we want it to?
The fact is, as electronic as our world has become, we’re still very fond of stuff, physical artifacts that can be held and handled, birthday presents and Valentine’s Day cards with real notes and signatures. Online shopping makes a lot of sense, but the actual, physical stuff has to get to you somehow.
Of course, there are other ways to get it there. But free-market solutions will never be able to do what the Postal Service does – and, no doubt, what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they set it up as a “service,” rather than a profit center – which is to connect every citizen, rich and poor, to every other, no matter how remote, for the same egalitarian price.
We have to be practical. But it’s hard to think of an institution that has done more to create and perfect our union or that serves as a better symbol for our finest democratic aspirations. It’s a mistake to assume that its demise is inevitable or desirable.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email [email protected]