The world changes. Heaven forbid that the U.S. Postal Service should change with it.
The USPS is supposed to operate like a business – which includes adapting to the real world – but the U.S. Senate has again made certain that it operate as a vehicle for patronage and political pandering. It has just pressured the organization into abandoning an emergency cost-cutting plan to close hundreds of money-losing post offices and mail-sorting centers nationwide, including several offices in Pierce County and the processing center on Pine Street in Tacoma.
Result: The postal unions and the nation’s remaining snail mail fans are happy. And the Postal Service – which has been losing $25 million a day – will keep on running immense losses unless Congress permits it to restructure itself for the 21st century.
On hold, too, is the USPS plan to end Saturday mail delivery – another fossil from the age when snail mail was the only game in town. Ending that tradition would have saved the system – and ultimately the taxpayers – royal sums of money. It would also have antagonized the people who don’t want the status quo to change, ever.
The status quo is enforced politically. Communities defend their post offices like Rottweilers, and they terrify members of Congress who otherwise wouldn’t spend a penny bailing out an archaic mail system.
In 2009, for example, the USPS attempted to close six post offices in Washington (including one on the Hilltop and another in South Tacoma); it backed down in the face of backlash from the locals.
The same thing happens when the Postal Service attempts to restrict service to small, remote settlements. Under federal law, it must deliver mail to every nook and cranny of the country for a uniform price. This remains an entitlement, despite the electronic alternatives to the Egyptian-vintage letter-in-an-envelope.
It once made sense for the system to work this way. It doesn’t any longer. The Postal Service is running a multi-billion deficits perpetuating bloated payrolls, obsolete real estate and uncommonly generous employee benefits, such as health coverage for early retirees.
Meanwhile, its business is plummeting. Americans can now pay their bills online and communicate via email and other digital media. Many people barely use traditional mail and get little but ads in their boxes.
The USPS is in a death spiral, with high fixed costs and falling volume. If it charged its customers what it actually spends, they’d migrate to the competition even more quickly. Its only option is to cut costs by cutting service.
But tell that to the Senate; nearly half of its members have “asked” the postmaster general not to implement the planned reforms until Congress passes a bailout bill – which would continue to tie management’s hands, and which might not materialize at all, given the House’s lack of interest in it.
What happens now? The short-term prognosis: Rural Americana keeps its quaint post offices, Tacoma keeps its processing center, and the USPS keeps on losing billions. The long-term prognosis: We all discover what happens when our postal system hits the bottom of a death spiral.