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Rundles wrap-up: Snail mail


In the 1947 classic Christmas movie "Miracle on 34th Street," a smart, smitten lawyer proved, in a court of law, that there was a Santa Claus, and that he was the very man portraying St. Nick at Macy's, citing the United States Post Office as a "branch of the Federal Government" that "recognizes this man Kris Kringle as the one and only Santa Claus." Children wrote letters to Santa back then. Today, kids email Santa and follow his sleigh by satellite.

I can't even remember the last time someone actually wrote me a letter and posted it by so-called snail mail, except for a birthday card or a thank-you note. I got my youngest son's last "Dear Santa" letter, cute as ever, via electronic means after I signed up for a convenient service. Santa and I are good friends, and both of us pretty much gave up on the U.S. Postal Service years ago. Sadly, some fairy tales just come to an end in reality.

Of course, I didn't give up on the USPS completely in that I still have a need to post a few First Class letters to pay bills - and mail birthday cards - from time to time, but like most people I now pay many of my invoices via Internet banking, with my cell phone, or by pre-arranged automatic bank draft.
In September the U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe testified to Congress that the USPS would lose $10 billion in the fiscal year that just ended, Sept. 30. He wants to completely restructure by shutting down 3,700 smaller post offices, eliminating Saturday deliveries and changing a labor agreement that would allow the USPS to lay off 120,000 workers over the next four years.

Just before that testimony, the USPS in August released a statement that it could save $1.5 billion annually by relaxing its delivery promises - instead of one to three days for First Class mail and two to three days for Priority mail, they would add about a day to save the money. This could be a metaphor for government as a whole: While the rest of the world is speeding up, the Postal Service thinks it could better serve the public by slowing down.

The Postal Service has had a tough time for nearly 40 years - since about the same time it became a government-owned corporation instead of a department - what with the advent of such competitors as FedEx and UPS, and the appearance and popularity of electronic communications and transactions like email, texting and online bill-paying. But it's not like these are new developments. The Post Office should have been restructuring, repeatedly, over the past 40 years, and not necessarily because of the competition but because of obvious consumer preferences. The American people quite clearly are willing to pay for "absolutely, positively overnight" and they have dropped their pens and picked up keyboards. This isn't rocket science or brain surgery. Four-fifths of the word email is "mail," yet the Post Office has never even hinted at having anything to do with it.

Oddly, the Post Office has had some historical experience with electronic forms of communications delivery. It owned the first public telegraph lines in the country in 1844, which went private in 1847; it had "V" mail during World War II where messages were placed on microfilm and reprinted near the destination for delivery; and for a few years in the early 1980s it had Electronic Computer Originated Mail for bulk mailings, where messages were transmitted electronically and printed locally at the destination.

So what happened? How did the USPS get so backward and so far in debt? Hubris, almost certainly. And being a part of the government bureaucracy it goes without saying.

The Post Office doesn't need to restructure, it needs to reinvent itself, and quickly. A few changes in the law would rapidly allow for certain forms of "legal" email to become First Class mail, even certified mail; privatizing some forms of other deliveries is probably called for, and paring down even more than 3,700 office closures and stopping Saturday deliveries most likely has to occur.

I know I wouldn't miss the junk mail, and everything else will find its way to my door, or my smartphone. Hey, if Santa can move on to a new age, then the Post Office can, too.
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