With Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe beseeching Congress this week to pass legislation to save the foundering mail service — which lost no less than $8.5 billion last year — it looks likely that thousands of post offices around the country will have to be shuttered and mail delivery sharply curtailed, including the possible cancellation of all Saturday service. While unlikely that the Postal Service will be phased out entirely, many Republicans in Congress, most vociferously those on the tea party right, have been baying for the privatization of government agencies. Like Amtrak, another perennial money loser, the Postal Service could be easy prey. But the AP's Randolph Schmid presents us with an important rhetorical question:
Who would carry mail to the Hualapai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon? To islands off the coast of Maine? To rural villages in Alaska? Only the post office goes to those places and thousands of others in the United States, and all for 44 cents. And it's older than the United States itself.
Government mail services have been the norm for over a century now and considered by many a pillar of a democratic and free society, facilitating as they do the delivery of all type of political and religious manifests to people's front stoops. Private companies, were the USPS to close down, might charge rates prohibitive to most of the postal service's lower-income users, restricting, in a way, their speech. (Then again, these same companies have never even been allowed to compete directly with the USPS, which has a monopoly on all letter mail.)
The age-old argument in favor of a national mail service has slowly been eroded away by the advent of e-mail and other online messaging tools that have brought the cost of distributing information way, way down. After all, what is the role of USPS in the Internet Age? True, it still carried almost 4.5 billion postcards last year, which is a hefty figure, but compare that to the over 100 trillion online messages sent in 2010. As the AP found, however, there are still a few Americans out there who would miss having a neighborhood post office or getting their magazine subscriptions, New York perhaps, in the mail.