Why Is the Post Office Still a Thing?
Nostalgia, for one.
There's a great line from one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, where a character says: "I've never been so disrespected in my life, and I've gone to and worked at the post office."
Over the last few years, I've developed such a white-hot hatred of my neighborhood post office that it's now the closest thing I have to a personal nemesis. The word "Kafkaesque" is overused, but it comes to mind every time I try to retrieve a package in the face of staggering indifference. The very building is a monument to apathy and frustration; its bricks are mortared with the anguish of the people it purports to serve.
In general, I like and respect the post office, and I think it provides an important service. But demand for those services is ebbing in the digital age, and delivering paper mail almost daily seems like an excessive waste of fuel and paper. And with advances like the possibility of drone delivery on the horizon, the idea of hand-delivered paper mail is becoming more and more of an anachronism. The US Postal Service seems to have one leg in necessity and one leg in obsolescence, so I was only too happy to investigate why it still exists.
The postal service dates back to the earliest days of the United States, and is one of the few government agencies specifically provided for in the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 explicitly states "The Congress shall have Power...To establish Post Offices and post Roads." And government, both at the federal and local levels, uses the good old USPS for important documents like vehicle registration renewal and jury summons. And don't forget zip codes, which were created for the postal service but have now become a basic part of living in the US, used for things like statistical analysis and credit card verification.
This is probably the simplest explanation for why the postal service still exists:it's been around for so long that it's pretty tightly woven into the fabric of the rest of the US government, as well as citizens' lives. But in 2013, when President Obama proposed cutting Saturday mail delivery to save money, it prompted some surprisingly strong calls to abolish the office altogether.
There are some pretty strong arguments for doing away with the post offices. For one, the USPS has been an unprofitable money pit for years, hitting its legal $15 billion debt cap in 2012. Plus, most things sent through the mail nowadays are junk. The amount of fuel used to transport the catalogs and credit card offers US citizens don't ask for is gargantuan—in 2010, postal service vehicles used 146 million gasoline gallon equivalents, at a cost of $1 billion.
And the amount of mail sent overall is down from about 212 billion pieces per year in 2005 to just over 155 billion in 2014. This number is even including parcels, which have gone up in proportion to paper mail. While the rise of online shopping has seen the number of delivered packages shoot up, those are capable of being delivered by UPS or FedEx in significantly populated parts of the country.
But abolishing the post office completely is more than just a bureaucratic issue. People in rural areas depend on their post offices—UPS and FedEx outsource rural deliveries to the USPS rather than make those out-of-the-way house calls. And the postal service has close to half a million employees who depend on the office for their livelihood. Despite the animus I feel for my particular branch, the last thing I'd want is for so many people to be suddenly unemployed. Rather than kill the establishment wholesale, is there a way we can adjust the workings of the post office to account for the fact that demand for its services is rapidly diminishing?
Kevin Kosar is a senior fellow at the D.C. think tank R Street Institute, but before that he covered postal issues for the Congressional Research Service for over a decade. He said that while the postal service needs reform, the country isn't ready to let go of it completely.
"I'm not sure [the USPS] can be completely privatized or dismantled," he told me. "America is such an immense country that if you want to have paper mail delivery for a very low price...you're not going to find a private company that's going to do that—or at least, it's highly unlikely."
This is why private parcel carriers like UPS or FedEx let post offices deliver packages for them a lot of the time: it reduces their operating costs and cuts down on how much they have to deliver. Driving from ranch to ranch in Montana is less feasible for a private company with far fewer distribution centers than the post office has local branches. And unlike the postal service, they're not federally mandated to deliver mail to the doors of all US citizens. So as long as the USPS infrastructure is already in place, it makes good business sense for them to take advantage of it.
"More than 50 percent of what's carried by the postal service is advertisements, and usually unwanted advertisements."
But Kosar does think the state of the USPS at present is much bigger than it needs to be. And obviously, if you have an institution that's losing money year after year, that suggests that you need to make some changes.
"One way the postal service could save more money is to be given the freedom not to deliver six days a week, every week of the year," Kosar said. "Mail volume goes up and down seasonally...July, August, those are real slow mail months."
I asked Kosar what he thought of the environmental impact of the postal service's near-daily operation, and he said the expenditure of so many natural resources seemed "anachronistic."
"More than 50 percent of what's carried by the postal service is advertisements, and usually unwanted advertisements," he said. "Mail is not a communications medium [anymore], it's a broadcast medium—it's a medium used primarily for very large corporations. Person to person letters, me writing you a postcard or something, that's less than 5 percent of the mail volume."
Needless to say, daily delivery ends up being wasteful when most of the mail is unimportant.
This fault lies, of course, with the businesses creating all this unwanted or redundant mail and not with the postal service, but it does bolster the argument that mail could perhaps be delivered less frequently. And according to Kosar, it makes the post office problem "existential": "A lot of people don't know what the point is, because what they're getting doesn't mean a lot to them."
So why is the post office still a thing?
"It's a habit that has staggered forward, in part due to nostalgia, in part because it's just something we've been doing for a long time," Kosar said. "And even in diminished size, the postal service employs half a million people, most of whom are unionized and most of whom are therefore very politically active."
Kosar himself is not advocating for complete dismantling of the post office, but thinks it should be allowed to shrink down to a more manageable size, since there's decreasing demand. He's also in favor of establishing post office counters in private businesses like Staples (a move that postal worker unions oppose, because these counters would not be staffed by USPS employees). And as distasteful as it is to put people out of work, the postal service itself has already reduced its workforce by 225,000 people over the last several years, mostly by not replacing retiring employees.
For now, at least, we still need the postal service. It's too entrenched in the everyday workings of the country to be disposed of. But maybe we ought to scale back the fervor of the USPS' unofficial motto: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Some reform might keep them from being forever stayed by annual bankruptcy.
Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.