You’ve been hearing for years that e-mail, commercial carriers like FedEx, and the lingering recession are cutting into any potential gains for the U.S. Postal Service. But now the numbers seem dramatically more ominous. The Postal Service estimates that it $8.5 billion last year, despite cutting more than 100,000 jobs. Of course, these days we don’t turn our heads that often when somebody shouts “Lost billions!” in a government agency because it’s kind of like yelling “Whipped cream!” in an IHop. But let’s face it: We’re in danger of losing the U.S. Postal Service.
That might engender a big “So what?”. Digital mail is better in so many ways. You can’t get an invitation to a party in a hard copy snail mail envelope and then immediately respond to the sender with “We are going to drink like Hasselhoff at this mother!” the way you can with an Evite. With old school mail no one can send you a “really funny” video of a cat wearing a sombrero and mewling into a toilet. And with e-mail you have a variety and selection of outlets for obtaining Viagra and vibrators that you never had with U.S. mail. Life is unquestionably richer with e-mail.
Seriously… besides preserving a certain quaint texture in American life, are there any convincing reasons for continuing to sustain the U.S. Postal Service? I think so, so let me take a shot.
The U.S. Postal Service is just now finding its way with integrating into other delivery and mail services. Whether or not those new “If it fits, it ships” boxes are a hit, they seem like the right product for the post office. For the holidays, the Postal Service should introduce some reasonably priced, limited time only “Santa’s Helpers” versions that are bigger and wider. Giving people a selection of box sizes and saying, “What could you ship in here?” puts the creative decision back on consumers. In time, I can’t help but feel that this direction with parcels is going to pay out.
Post offices are getting into the groove with their new computerized gear at the service windows, although your own mileage with waiting in lines may vary. And any day now, we’re finally going to get the stamp honoring Frank Zappa. So maybe there’s a first position argument for sticking it out with the Postal Service, which is that they are just now getting their program together.
Many years ago, when a lot of us were doing crazy things, I was stunned when a FedEx box was opened and a large amount of contraband was removed. It wasn’t the materials, but rather the realization that FedEx was integrating so easily into that kind of transaction. I’m certainly not positing that the U.S. Postal Service will monitor illegal activity better than any other organization; merely that the surrender of every single parcel transaction to commercial shippers at this point in history may not be in our best interest. Would a Postal Service worker at a service window who asked, “What’dya got in here, pal?” have sweated a confession with that just described package? I have no idea, but then I’m someone who is still taken aback at the ease of transmission of digital pornography.
Without the Postal Service, you would never again receive a hand-written letter from a friend or loved one in your mailbox. Okay, how much does that damage your quality of life? If you enjoy the hyper-synthesized textures of e-mail Christmas cards—digital art backed by music played on some kind of child’s keyboard toy—then maybe you are ready to surrender the U.S. Postal Service to technology and economics. But be forewarned: If you thought those letters folded into Christmas cards describing every blessed event in the life of your brother-in-law’s family over the past year were annoying, wait until you get the video version of it attached to an e–Christmas card. And you must watch it, because you know he’s waiting at his computer for your delighted reaction.
Would the end of the post office mean an end to hard copy junk mail, or simply more junk e-mail? What I do know is that behind every catalog of “perfect gifts” received in my mailbox there lives a list of paying jobs —f rom the art designers to the printers — that matters each day. That’s not a “green” view of the situation, or perhaps even a practical one. It’s just a reality. I shudder to think of a world in which toy catalogs no longer exist, their siren song of color photos of Barbie and GI Joe no longer providing hours of rich dream time to children. But that’s me hitting the pure nostalgia pipe for a few hits of Norman Rockwell huggy-time Americana.
All the signals for the U.S. Postal Service are bad. They are in union negotiations, asking to reduce service to five days a week while being required to serve thousands of new addresses created by population growth and new business. Other than a series of stamps honoring 70s Blaxsploitation movies (“Cleopatra Jones” stamp, anybody?), I’m personally out of ideas for saving the post office. But I can’t imagine not having it around. No more postcards on vacation? No more stationery that smells like lilacs from Grandma? What about the five dollars in my birthday card? America was built five birthday dollars at a time, people! Crush the five bucks in a kid’s birthday card, and now hobby stores go away. Don’t think I’m going to stand by and let that happen!