The idea that the U.S. Mail may declare bankruptcy is just another sign of the gradual decline of another American institution, less a victim of the Great Recession than the advent of a world no one could have imagined decades ago.
If you listen to the pundits on the radio and scan the print media, you may have concluded that when Santa arrives at the headquarters of the United States Postal Service in Washington, he will find it sealed up like a tomb with a note affixed to the chimney:
Dear Santa and Helpers:
After 219 years of delivering the U.S. mail to the American people and service personnel and friends and families overseas, this was our last Christmas season. What will become of our 574,000 employees and their grayish-blue woolen uniforms, their saddle leather carrying bags, countless buildings and a fleet of 218,000 vehicles, I cannot say.
All future mail will be stamped “Return to Sender.” After Jan. 1, 2012, please use UPS, Federal Express, email or other modern ways to deliver your mail, packages and gifts. I, as postmaster general and, at one time, the last in line in the Order of Succession, will move to New York City, where I will share an apartment with former postal worker Newman (of “Seinfeld” fame), who now works for Federal Express.
Santa, whose mail service has long been the envy of the USPS, would be the last person to be surprised by the news. After all, the U.S. Mail — as it used to be called — has been in trouble for years. New technologies and private delivery companies have eaten away at its reserves.
The news that USPS is on the verge of bankruptcy — and will try to stave it off by closing half of its sorting centers, raising the price of first-class stamps by a cent and firing 100,000 people — will have little impact on a generation that uses electronic devices to communicate and has never set foot in a post office.
But when post offices are shuttered in rural areas and mail boxes in urban areas are removed, millions of Americans, especially the elderly, will find themselves confronted with a host of problems. Under the new plan, it will take three days for a first-class letter to arrive at its destination, and a week for time-sensitive magazines. Late fees will be the order of the day.
But for all Americans, the very idea that the U.S. Mail will most likely declare bankruptcy is just another sign of the gradual decline of another American institution, less a victim of the Great Recession than the advent of a world no one could have imagined decades ago.
USPS may have to turn to Congress for a bailout, which is the last thing our representatives are inclined to do, all the more so in an election year with the bailouts of the Great Recession still questioned by millions. Technological advances in communication will only accelerate in coming years, and fewer and fewer people will use stamps. In fact, revenue from postage stamps has declined 27 percent in just a few years. While stamps used to be the main source of revenue, today, money is made in the shipping of parcels.
Short of complete privatization, perhaps one solution to the ills of USPS is to use the massive fleets of military planes to carry the mail, since, as a semi-governmental agency, Congress still has a major hand in the future of USPS. Some people have suggested that one way to raise revenues is to permit people to place their images on stamps for a price, but that would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the RMS Titanic. By the way, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) was a lucrative contract in its day.
A small and more efficient postal office may be at hand. We may see a very different institution that has caught up with the 21st century. A year from now, even Santa may be surprised.
Sander A. Diamond is a professor of history at Keuka College in New York.