It's not as if the Information Age suddenly jumped up and bit the U.S. Postal Service. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, we contemplated the writing just about anyone could see on the wall.
"One has to believe the U.S. Postal Service, sitting on the brink of an electronic information explosion as it is, may be reaching the point of diminishing returns," we wrote at the time.
That explosion has hit, and shrapnel is ripping through every concern that deals with information, from this newspaper to your neighborhood postal carrier. Last week, the Postmaster General told Congress he wants to eliminate an entire day, preferably Tuesday, of mail delivery. This is because the agency ran a deficit of $2.8 billion last year and is facing one much larger this year. Eliminating Tuesdays would save an estimated $3.5 billion a year. Combine that with changes in postal worker health benefits, the loss of some employees through attrition, early retirements and layoffs, and the Postal Service still might run a $6 billion deficit in 2010.
Stop! Wait a minute, Mr. Postman.
A private business couldn't sustain losses like that very long. But then, no other such private business (or even quasi-private, as is the Postal Service) exists because the Constitution specifically provides for it. "Congress shall have power ... to establish post offices," it says. Reliable and quick mail service is essential to any nation. Without it, commerce would cease and payments would be in doubt. And without a government-established postal service, the nation's far-flung rural residents especially would be vulnerable.
But in the modern world, those requirements have run headlong into technology and private competition, both of which have been beneficial to the public. Private carriers have pushed the Postal Service to next-day delivery of parcels. E-mail, instant messaging and texting have allowed people to communicate instantly and almost effortlessly worldwide, and that includes sending photos, videos, legal documents and presentations, and paying bills.
And yet many Americans still wait anxiously each day for the postal carrier to deliver. Elderly Americans, in particular, rely on the service.
It's not as if the Postal Service hasn't tried. The past 15 years have seen one reform attempt after another. And yet the returns keep diminishing.
The recession may be exaggerating losses for the moment, but that writing on the wall is becoming clearer each year. The Postal Service has to get smaller. It has to concentrate mostly on the important stuff and on the people who have few alternatives. It may have to eliminate Tuesdays, or even another day as time goes by.
America still needs reliable mail delivery to remain strong, but it has to learn how to guarantee this more intelligently before too many more billions of dollars slip through the cracks.