Yes, I know that what used to be called the post office was converted to a quasi-independent corporation and renamed the U.S. Postal Service more than forty years ago.

That’s when things started to go wrong.

I’m not suggesting that by itself, the switch from government agency to quasi-private corporation brought the post office to the pass in which it finds itself: $5 billion in the hole last year, up from $16 billion the year before.  But that change led to a way of thinking about the post office and the service it delivers that hobbles efforts to maintain its viability.

Just talking about a loss points to the heart of the problem.  What was the Army’s operating loss last year?  How much did the State Department lose?  What about the federal highway system?

It’s absurd to ask.  Our national defense, our diplomatic corps, and the road system that ties the country together aren’t businesses selling products or services at prices that cover the cost of producing and providing them and yield a profit.  They are vital activities that are so essential that we do not pay for them by assessing their cost to their beneficiaries but rather by apportioning their cost among us all through our income taxes.  The work these departments do generates some revenue, through the sale of military equipment to other countries or as surplus, for example.  But we wouldn’t dream of downsizing the military or the diplomatic corps or closing a stretch of interstate highways because revenues failed to meet their expenses.

Why, then, do we impose such a burden on the post office?

We do it because, despite the fact that postal rates are set by the government, which makes good its shortfalls, we have come to think about the post office as if it were sort of a private business.  Sen. Tom Carper, the moderate Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the post office, and the sponsor of one of the less destructive post office reform bills, brags on his web site that his plan will allow the post office to “operate more like a business.”

What does that mean?  How do businesses operate?

They all have one thing in common: They provide goods and services to people who pay for them.  You stop paying what they charge, and they stop providing whatever they are selling.

That option, at least, appears not to be on the post office reform table—just ceasing to deliver mail unless it pays the freight.

Instead, would-be reformers propose a smorgasbord of measures like ceasing Saturday delivery, farming out post office functions to lower-paid office-supply companies, or lifting the prohibition on shipping liquor.  Anything other than directly addressing the sweeping changes that have devastated the post office’s—I bet you thought I was going to say “business model”—service model.

The post office’s fundamental problem is not that it delivers on Saturday, that it can’t deliver booze, or that it pays its employees a decent salary and fringe benefits.  Its problem is that it was founded as a system to deliver paper communications in a few weeks, then a few days, and that it has survived into an era when written communications can be delivered in a few seconds.  None of the proposed reforms address that reality in any meaningful way.

If the post office were really a business, we’d let it go the way of other businesses—like Blockbuster or Packard—whose models have been disrupted by technological developments, social or demographic change or mismanagement.

But reformers to the contrary notwithstanding, the post office isn’t a business and we won’t let it go the way of Blockbuster or Packard.  And not because of powerful postal worker unions either.

We won’t let it go because we still need an institution that does for the country what the post office did in the 18th century, when it was important enough to be the only enterprise mandated in both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution: tie a diverse and far-flung country together without raising economic barriers that exclude those who need the service the most; something, to borrow Robert Frost’s phrase, you somehow haven’t to afford.

But saving the post office so it can do what it was created to do does not mean letting it continue on its present course.  In fact it very much means not letting it do that.  The pony express drastically reduced the time it took to send a letter from the east to west coast.  But when the telegraph came into its own, we didn’t keep horses and riders galloping between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento.

To do what it’s supposed to do, the post office needs not just to cut costs, not just to reduce service but to reimagine itself in a way that brings it into the 21st century.

What might that look like?

To start with, it means identifying its most vital service and making sure that that service is supported.  E-mail, text-messaging and other electronic communications have largely supplanted personal communications—largely, but not entirely. 59 percent of all mail is advertising, 22 percent is bills and other financial communications, and 10 percent is “other.”  Nine percent is correspondence.  And while some of that is undoubtedly business-related, the 9 percent may be a good starting point as a measure of people and businesses for which electronic communications are either inaccessible or unaffordable.

What could the post office do for them?  It could help them gain access to electronic communications, for example, perhaps with rows of easy-to-operate terminals at post offices, optimized for email and minor web-browsing and e-commerce but not for gaming or streaming.  That would not only give them the accessibility they now lack but start to develop their e-communication skills.

In the meantime, the post office has to maintain low-cost and tax-supported snail-mail service for first class correspondence until it is no longer needed.  And make sure that bills pay their own way, as third-class advertising already does.

It wouldn’t be painless: Many—maybe most—of the people who staff post offices and deliver mail might find it difficult or impossible to adjust their skill sets to the new way of serving their most needy and deserving customers.  For that matter, the historical timeline of business success and failure is littered with the corpses of smart and hardworking companies that tried and failed to adapt to changing times.

People who really know about this stuff will doubtless come up with better ideas.  But they need to be directed at making a post office that can serve a 21st century country, not at keeping it on life support until it dies the death of a thousand cuts.


  1. Eric Christenson
    February 16th, 2014 | 2:28 pm

    If Edwards Deming were still around, he’d tell us about the buggy whip manufacturer who went out of business because he didn’t know what business he was in: vehicular acceleration.

    And he’d agree, I think, that the P.O. is a service worth paying for and not a for-profit business.

  2. Jay
    February 16th, 2014 | 8:10 pm

    If the retirement funding requirement were relaxed a bit thunsg might not be as bleek for the USPS as it seems.

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