The gloomsayers have been predicting the end of the U.S. Postal Service since the advent of the telegraph then the telephone, the computer and the Internet.
From 1940, annual mail volume at the U.S. Postal Service climbed steadily, peaking at 213 billion pieces in 2006. Last year, it dropped to 171 billion pieces (same as 1992). In 10 years, the prognosticators expect mail volume to be 150 billion pieces mid-1980s levels.
While that means the U.S. Postal Service needs to get smaller, it also shows that we still have demand for reliable, affordable delivery of billions of pieces of mail to every American home and business.
A universal federal postal system guarantees delivery (and pickup) to every corner of this expansive land. Not every person has access to the Internet or even to a phone but every person has a right to send a letter and get a letter by U.S. mail. It is a genuinely public good.
Private delivery firms, such as UPS and FedEx, can cherry-pick the most profitable routes. The U.S. Postal Service, however, has an obligation to provide universal service day in, day out to every nook and cranny at uniform rates.
What private firm would deliver to the 300 residents of Anaktuvak in northern Alaska, for example, where there are no roads? Or to Cliff Island, in Maine? Or to the 515-member Havasupai Indian Reservation, 8 miles down the Grand Canyon's south rim?
All at the same affordable rate 45 cents, starting in January as delivering to downtown Manhattan?
The U.S. postal system, from the beginning, helped to create a single nation out of our diverse peoples and states. It plays that role still.
With the recession, the usual drumbeat has begun anew for privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. Yet does anyone really believe the private sector would provide universal mail service at the affordable, uniform rates that we get from the U.S. Postal Service?
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power "to establish Post Offices and Post Roads." Congress should not take that power lightly. But it should give the U.S. Postal Service the tools it needs and is asking for to respond flexibly to the changing marketplace for mail services.
Undoubtedly, the Postal Service needs to downsize perhaps reducing delivery from six days a week to five days a week, closing some post offices, having employees pay the same percentage toward their health premiums and life insurance as other federal workers.
But we should not give up universal service at uniform rates. That is the essence of the communications system that the U.S. Postal Service still provides.
The post office has outlived its usefulness at least in its present form.
It's well past time Congress made the United States Postal Service into a fully independent, totally private entity, and let USPS stand or fall on its own merits.
Instead, lawmakers are entertaining a host of measures, some quite painful, that will at best slow the death spiral.
Among the options currently before Congress to "save" the USPS: Raise the price of first-class stamps (again); end Saturday service; tap a pension surplus; close hundreds of post offices; slash about 220,000 out of some 550,000 full-time positions by 2015.
Do all of those things, postal officials say, and the government-sponsored enterprise should be profitable again. Eventually. They hope.
Don't bet on it.
The Postal Service's express route to insolvency has been driven by a sharp, steady and irreversible decline in first-class mail. According to the Postal Service's own accounting, an "unprecedented" decline in mail volume is the prime factor contributing to a projected shortfall of $238 billion over the next 10 years.
Trouble is, "unprecedented" is the new order of the day.
It isn't just that email killed the letter the Post Service's main revenue source. Now it's the iPad revolutionizing the way publishers deliver content, and eroding the need for periodical delivery. Electronic coupons are even obviating the need for junk mail.
What's more, seven in 10 U.S. households today pay their bills online. You know who still pays his bills by sticking a check in an envelope, affixing a stamp, and driving to the post office every week? My 80-year-old father, that's who. He's the core USPS demographic these days.
A private company wouldn't be on its knees before Congress to save itself from bankruptcy and oblivion. (Well, not unless it was an investment bank or a domestic auto manufacturer. But that's not important right now.) The USPS, however, cannot raise rates, close facilities, or make other essential changes without the consent of Congress.
In fact, Congress need only consent to one thing: Repealing the statute granting the USPS exclusive access to Americans' mailboxes.
Imagine what would happen if the Postal Service had to compete with FedEx and UPS not only for package delivery but also for letters.
It would change, or die. Americans wouldn't lose the mail any more than they lost telephone service when AT&T broke up 30 years ago. They would simply choose another carrier.