The news has been abuzz with reports of the dire economic condition of the United States Postal Service. With the advent of e-mail practically eliminating the mailing of letters and the rise of first UPS and then FedEx for parcels and overnight documents, the USPS has lost volumes of business. Their business is the litany of junk mail we all get, magazines, the parcels people still send with the them, and whatever vestige of personal notes, cards, and letters people still send. The mass mail that they deliver to each address in the United States on a daily basis is mostly less than the First Class or Premium rates. Even at that the USPS rates seem more competitive than their for profit competitors.
While their volumes are down, they have until quite recently maintained the infrastructure of Post Offices in every Zip Code along with the mail carriers and the vehicles used to have the mail carriers make their rounds six days a week. There is a lot of overhead to carry and a lot of real estate and capital equipment to maintain. So, the USPS is saddled with a costly infrastructure, pricing that generates less revenue than their competitors, and a charter that does not allow them to operate as efficiently if they were a for profit business.
This past week, I need to mail two Michigan vs. Western Michigan Football tickets to my sister Ani in Michigan. I had Ani if she could use the tickets with ample time to simply put them in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and mail them. That would have cost 44¢. They were not sure if they could use the tickets until the last minute. When they gave me the thumbs up, I had to use an expedited service. I chose to go to a UPS store across from my client’s office rather than drive another 15 minutes to the closest Post Office. If I had gone to the Post Office, I would have filled out a form and maybe would have had to wait in line to send it Express Mail for overnight to second day for $18.30. At the UPS store, it was painless. I did not have to wait in line. I did not have to fill out any forms; the sales associate typed as I dictated. He put my envelope with the tickets into the mailer and affixed the label. Did I say painless? Well it was up until he took my charge card to collect $26.50 for this service. Ouch.
I could have paid 44¢ but I paid more than $26 more!
It made me think about the incredible value of the 44¢ option. I can hand-write a letter, note, or card to a friend or loved one. For this amazingly low price, a USPS carrier will pick it up from the mailbox at the end of my driveway and, in a few day, another carrier will place intended mailbox anywhere in the United States I wanted it to go. Let’s assume that the process once it gets to the Post Office is highly automated, there is still the personal pick-up and delivery for just 44¢. The break-even point on that has to be a lot more letters and cards than are currently being mailed.
The Postal Service has a long, storied, and important role in this county. On July 26, 1775, the Continental Congress established the United States Post Office. They appointed Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster General of the United States for the salary of $1,000 per year. The US Post Office is the second oldest Department in the US Government (I am presuming either Continental Congress or the Militia being the first). In those days, the Postal Service was crucial to the communication among the loosely federated states. We easily forget in this age of instant communication by text, phone, or email that the post was the only way to communicate over any distance.
When I moved to Connecticut and travelled during our time there from Washington, DC to Maine, we often were on Route 1. It was always Route 1 but in different parts of that geography it was called The Post Road, Boston Post Road, or Washington Post Road. It was the artery, back then, that linked the country. It was the information superhighway of it’s time. Instead of bits and bytes being streaming all over in packets, it was letters, newspapers, and books.
An efficient and effective Post Office certainly has served this country very well until very recently in our history. Until the most recent military actions, it was the US Post Office that kept soldiers serving anywhere in the globe tethered to their families. I remember the volume of Christmas cards and packages was so great in the 1960s that they ran two deliveries per day for the ten days leading up to Christmas.
OK... email is free and even better it is instantaneous. I know and get this but it is not the same as sending or, even better, receiving a hand-written and heartfelt sentiment from someone. Email is great but there is a bit of magic in a letter, card, or even the lowly postcard. There is something special about opening the envelope and taking out the card or letter. Saving a letter is somehow different than archiving an email.
Change is inevitable and what I have just described may well fall by the wayside. No matter what, I think the days 44¢ door-to-door delivery will definitely go away. If it is all privatised or run by publicly traded companies, I am sure the trues cost per volume of mail for daily delivery to every address in the country will be reflected in substantially higher prices.
My love and fascination for the handwritten letter or note will probably start to fade as well when it costs $5 or $10 to get it from my door to yours.