There’s an excellent piece in Time.com today entitled “How the U.S. Postal Service Fell Apart,” by Josh Sanburn. Unlike most articles in the mainstream media, this one takes a thoughtfully balanced approach to the story. Postmaster General Donahoe is there to provide the Postal Service’s view, but there are also interviews and a narrative line that tell another side of the story.
Sanburn explains that the Postal Service is not in financial straits simply because of the Internet — the usual line that comes out of L’Enfant Plaza and that gets repeated in every media report — but rather because of the “toxic combination” of several additional factors, like the poor economy and congressional mandates on retirement and health benefit funds. The article also explains how closing thousands of post offices will have virtually no impact on solving the Postal Service’s budget crisis.
What’s best about the article, though, is the way it shows some appreciation for the postal system, something sorely missing in most news articles, which tend to paint the Postal Service as “irrelevant” and “obsolete,” a doomed “dinosaur” headed for extinction, inevitably going the way of the Pony Express.
“It wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that the postal service has been the most important institution in our country’s history,” writes Sanburn. The Founding Fathers thought the post office was important enough to include in the Constitution, the postal system delivered newspapers that helped keep people informed during the early years of the new nation, the Postal Service will do amazing things to get the mail delivered (like using mules, boats, and snowmobiles), and it still gets a letter anywhere you want for just 44 cents. The Postal Service has also provided jobs, thousands and thousands of them, and for a long time, the postal service was the largest public-sector employer in the country.
Sanburn goes back to the wildcat postal workers strike in the late 1960s to explain how the Department of the Post Office got turned into the US Postal Service in 1970. That’s basically when an essential government institution was transformed into a quasi-government entity that has been pushed to act more and more “like a business.”
The desire to see the Postal Service as nothing but a business now threatens the Postal Service itself, and many of its recent actions — like planning to close thousands of post offices — seem downright self-destructive. The Postmaster General is quoted in the article as saying that after it finishes with the 3,650 post offices now under closure study, the Postal Service will look at closing many more — a total of some 15,000 post offices — half the country’s post offices.
If that were to happen, it would basically gut the Postal Service, prepare the way for privatization, and mean the end of one of the country’s most valuable institutions.
It’s an interesting article. Check it out here.
(Photo credit: Mailmen starting their rounds at Christmas time, 1955, in front of the New York City main post office, now sold.)