Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Deconstructing the Deterioration of the USPS

If any of you follow me on Twitter or Google+, you might know that the United States Postal Service is on the verge of default. You can read the details here, but the bottom line is that they've been spending more than they've been earning (mostly on payroll and benefits and keeping tiny, not-often-used offices open) for years and it's built up, so now they need to come up with a cool $5.5 billion. (BILLION! THIS MONTH! I know!) So, they're asking Congress to "take drastic action to stabilize its (the USPS') finances."

In other words, they're asking for a bailout.

(Let's just say, for the record, that I'm not a fan of bailouts. It feels like enabling, in the way than the wife of an alcoholic enables his drinking by buying him more booze.)

How is this possible? I'm not exactly a globe trotter, but I've lived in a few different places, and I've never lived in a place without some sort of national postal service. It's almost synonymous with having a government that can function on its own, in my mind. It's like graduating: you're a grown-up country now, time for your own national postal service. It seems like such a basic thing, like buying your own toothpaste. Why can't America make theirs work anymore?

Of course, this brings up questions of how things got this way, and how it can be fixed. There's the fact that people just don't send good old-fashioned letters anymore. (Well, except for editors at publishing houses. The paper rejection letter is alive and well, and may be the only business the USPS gets these days. Also, children's magazines.) There's the fact that UPS and FedEx compete with the USPS for business. There are all the tiny offices that are visited once a week by Granny Maple and her six cats, but still cost money to keep open and staffed. And of course, there's the "No-Layoffs" clause that was signed recently to placate the Postal Workers' Union, which I think was a mistake. If your employer just doesn't have enough business to employ you, then I don't think you really have any business insisting that you have a right to continue to be employed by them. A good recommendation letter and decent severance package would be more reasonable.

Will the USPS ditch the "No-Layoffs" clause, end Saturday delivery service, close under-used offices, and open counters in Wal-Mart, akin to Canada Post's counters in the 7-Eleven and PharmaPlus? Maybe. All these things are things they implement in Canada, among other places.

But here's the real question: will that even make a difference? Or is this just a sign of things to come in another 5-10 years' time for the rest of the world? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the concept of the National Post Office? Will this be the thing that finally drives publishing house editors to accept emailed queries? What will happen to my kid's Highlights subscription?

What do you think?


  1. I remember growing up in the 80s when our Postman was almost like a friend of the family, who knew our dog, and all us kids' names.

    It's so different now. I don't know how they'll fix it, but it seems like there are too many causes for their problems.

  2. I didn't know they had so much debt. That's crazy. Why haven't they raised their prices, seriously raised them?

  3. I think it is a global problem, or at least will be as soon as the net and mobiles take over. Already, in India, although internet is not so much used, mobile phones are widespread, even in the rural areas, so postal usage has drastically gone down. More is the pity.