How the Post Office Made America
By RICHARD R. JOHN
THE Postal Service’s announcement that it plans to end Saturday mail delivery reminds us of its vulnerability to the technological convulsions of the information age. The agency lost nearly $16 billion last year; stopping Saturday delivery, starting in August, would save about $2 billion a year. To preserve the letter of the law, which requires six-day service, the agency would continue Saturday parcel delivery — a shrewd decision, since, thanks to booming e-commerce, the parcel business is one of the few sectors that is actually growing.
Polls suggest that 7 in 10 Americans support the change, but a predictable outcry has emerged from members of Congress, labor unions, periodical publishers and direct-mail marketers. Other critics warn that ceasing Saturday service will be the first step down an irreversible “death spiral.”
The controversy gets at a more fundamental question: Do we want the mail to remain a vital American institution in the digital age?
When Americans reflect on postal history, they almost always start with Benjamin Franklin. But Franklin had nothing to do with the modern institution that the founders established. It was George Washington and James Madison, not Franklin, who supported the key legislation that got the modern post office up and running in 1792.
By then Franklin had been dead for two years; the post office he briefly oversaw in 1775-6 was basically a carbon copy of the British imperial post. The mandate of Franklin’s post office was narrow; its primary rationale was to sustain the fledging revolutionary movement.
In contrast, the Post Office Act of 1792, with a broad civic mandate, vastly expanded the postal network while admitting newspapers into the mail at an extremely low rate. No less impressively, it guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence by protecting letters from the prying eyes of government. In a stroke, the founders provided the entire population with low-cost access to information on public affairs, while establishing a right to personal privacy.
The results were astounding. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the skill with which postal administrators circulated hefty bundles of newspapers from New York and Philadelphia to the wilds of Detroit, then a thinly populated outpost on the western frontier. To his eyes, the post office was the only entity with the organizational capability to circulate the information of public significance that was essential to sustain America’s bold experiment with democracy. The German-born philosopher Francis Lieber called it an “element of civilization” — worthy of comparison with the printing press and the mariner’s compass.
Saturday delivery started in 1863, after the departure from Congress of anti-urban Southern states in rebellion. Northern legislators instituted free city delivery, thereby creating the modern letter carrier. Before then, Americans almost always picked up their mail at the post office — even on Sundays, if they wished — just as they can today if they rent a post office box.
Of course, radio, television and the Internet have irrevocably altered our information-gathering habits, and the post office is no longer the wellspring of democracy it once was. The volume of first-class mail has long been declining as more Americans use e-mail and pay their bills online. Neither junk mail — bizarrely called “standard mail” in postal jargon — nor parcels have been able to pick up the slack.
Though it still delivers millions of periodicals — whose low-cost circulation the founders would have heartily endorsed — and countless direct-mail solicitations for businesses, charities and political campaigns, very few Americans get their newspapers in the mail. Even so, by coordinating the circulation of billions of letters, parcels and even so-called junk mail, it helps sustain the social fabric.
The millions of parcels that the Postal Service delivers reliably and at low cost provide a salutary check on the pricing policies of FedEx and U.P.S. Wonder why the lines at the post office are so long? It’s because it still provides a service at a cost no rival can match. (Moreover, the agency already works with FedEx and U.P.S. to keep mail delivery affordable. In hundreds of cities and towns, it delivers the “last mile” parcels that FedEx and U.P.S. transport through their hub-and-spoke airborne networks.)
Relatively few city dwellers go to the post office to pick up their mail, but in countless hamlets and small towns, the local post office remains a vital community center. For millions of workers, including veterans and African-Americans, a job at the post office has been a ticket to the middle class and has provided a pension and medical care to retirees. The Postal Service is the country’s second largest civilian employer, after Walmart.
Postal correspondence is far more secure than e-mail and far less vulnerable to cyberattack. By capitalizing on its expertise in scheduling and high-volume sorting, the Postal Service has the potential to become a big platform for digital commerce. It helped pioneer optical character recognition, now a widely used technology. But Congress and regulations have frustrated the post office from issuing secure e-mail addresses and expanding by providing same-day service for digital retailers, for example, while obliging it to bankroll money-losing operations like six-day delivery.
Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced in 2011 that the Postal Service would substantially reduce overnight delivery for first-class mail, considering closing up to 252 of 487 mail-processing facilities, make bookkeeping changes involving pensions and shrink the work force. Together with ending Saturday delivery, those steps might restore solvency by 2015.
In 1899, Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith called the post office the “greatest business concern in the world.” He had it wrong. The post office is a public service with a civic mandate central to American business, society and civic culture — not a business. But if it is to survive, Congress must allow it to start acting like one.