Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why no-mail Saturdays should be a dead letter--March 4, 2010 column


I’m surprised how easily people embraced the idea of no-mail Saturdays.

In news reports since the U.S. Postal Service announced March 2 it would try – again – to stop Saturday delivery, the consensus among customers around the country has been, sure, why not? Who needs it?

It’s as though everybody’s afraid of being called a Luddite. But wait a minute. This isn’t about the joys of e-mail.

Stopping Saturday delivery may be a good way for the Postal Service to save money, but it’s a bad civic idea. The last thing we need in the 21st century is a new disconnect between Americans and the federal government.

Since the Continental Congress named Benjamin Franklin postmaster general in 1775, the government has been helping us keep in touch. For many people, mail delivery is the only tangible sign the government is working for them.

OK, the Postal Service isn’t, strictly speaking, the federal government. It’s an independent agency of the executive branch. Its operating budget comes from the sale of stamps and other products, not tax dollars, but this is a quibble.

E-mail, while ubiquitous, is not yet universal. Snail mail remains the shared American experience. No matter how rich or poor people are or where they live, the government brings us our mail. Senior citizens especially rely on it.

It’s no news flash that many people don’t trust Washington. What may surprise is that they do trust the Postal Service. In surveys over the last five years, the Postal Service has ranked as the most trusted government agency for protecting personal information.

Unfortunately, the Postal Service has been losing money since 2007. The volume of mail processed has dropped 17 percent decline in three years. The Postal Service is projected to lose $238 billion over the next decade. It has cut costs by $43 billion since 2002, causing long lines and frustration at post offices.

The next proposal will ask Congress to approve cutting Saturday delivery for everybody, everywhere. Eliminating delivery on the lightest day would save $40 billion over 10 years, officials say. Besides workforce reductions, the Postal Service’s financial plan involves raising stamp prices and mailing fees and closing more post offices.

For some rural communities, though, the post office is the federal government’s stamp of approval. When the post office closes, the Zip code goes, and the community’s identity is lost.

Life’s hard, you say, so what’s new? This is a slippery slope. If we don’t need mail on Saturday, do we need it on Wednesday? Maybe we could do with delivery three days a week, or two.

When Congress began a national mail system in the early 1800s, mail was delivered seven days a week. That continued until 1912, when religious leaders complained, according to author Garry Wills. Until the early 1950s, postmen, as they all were then, delivered mail twice a day.

What will be up for discussion next – the quaint notion of free delivery to every address?

People who live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon get free mail service, same as people in a high-rise apartment building in New York. And yet, because some mail going into the canyon is perishable, the Postal Service keeps freezers to store packages at the Peach Springs, Ariz., post office.

Members of Congress have enough trouble with angry voters without taking on mail delivery issues. There are other ways for the Postal Service to save money besides lopping off letter carrier jobs in a recession.

Congress should first stop requiring the Postal Service to pre-pay retiree health benefits. That alone will cost the Postal Service $5 billion a year through 2016, the postmaster general says, and it’s something no other federal agency or business does.

Congress also needs to look at compensation at the top.

Postmaster General John E. Potter received 40 percent in pay raises between 2006 and 2008 for a total compensation package of more than $800,000, the Washington Times reported last year. That’s more than twice President Barack Obama’s salary of $400,000.

To be fair, if the Postal Service were a business, it would be the sixth largest in the country. We know what CEOs make.

But this is not any big business. This is our business. This is our mail.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the Postal Service is about to price itself out of the market. Reducing service and increasing the price of stamps may force its customers, even seniors, to abandon snail mail and embrace email. Couldn't something be done to improve service so the USPS could be more competitive.